Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Five or So Questions with Jason Cox

I interviewed Jason Cox about his PhD!

Tell me a little about what you are doing. What has you excited about it?
I am working on my PhD in Arts Education at The Ohio State University, where I am just about to finish my second year. During my time here I have begun to realize the potential to unite a lot of areas I feel very passionately about, namely art, education, and role-playing games. Currently I am designing the proposal I am going to submit for my dissertation, which focuses on using American freeform as the Media of Inquiry for collaborative arts-based research. The general idea is to use the media with arts educators to consider alternative viewpoints within an educational community, such as those held by administrators, students, parents, and other teachers, and to consider how they believe the discourse of power operates in such a setting. Leading up to that I have built several pilot studies into my coursework to experiment with techniques and concepts that might be of particular use to me. My research is a bit of an odd duck, which is slightly terrifying as well as exciting, but I believe it has the potential to do real good in the world and could open up some tools to academia that many artist-researchers have not yet become aware of.

Why American freeform?
The short version is that American Freeform is remarkably accessible, is typically structured in a format that feels in alignment with that of arts-education, and has an assortment of different meta-techniques that can be used to explore conceptual and emotional states. Let me go into a bit more detail though...

By access I mean a few things. Firstly that the narratives American Freeform games normally use as settings are within the realm of understanding of most players, either in terms of emotions experienced or contexts explored, as opposed to the more epic flavor of fantasy larps. The generally minimal rule systems mean that players do not have to be heavily invested in learning complex systems, and because costumes and props are de-emphasized a game can be played with relatively little in the way of expenses or additional planning. All these traits also mean that anyone within the community of play could alter the form with ease, which is important to me because of the the goals I have regarding collaboration.
The format of most American Freeform is to begin a game with workshops that teach techniques that players might use, encourage familiarity between players, and establish an atmosphere that feels safe enough for the players to take a few risks. The games themselves are often intense for individuals, though it is impossible to know what is going on inside and between every character, and the collaborative nature of the media comes back into play. After the game is a period of reflection, often in a form of group discussion, that allows players to discuss their interactions during the game, make meaning of the event, and remind each other that whoever they were in the game they are once again themselves. This parallels a common format for education which goes along the lines of having a pre-assessment, introducing a new concept, working with the concept through a media, and reflecting on the experience. The reflection is where we believe a lot of the education really occurs, because it is the analysis of the experience that allows a student to look for what their next steps might be.
The meta-techniques get past the straight diegetic layer of any given game and explore things like inter-relationships, interior states, and the nature of time. To me they really open up larp as an art form and allow players access to unique states of exploration that are difficult to find in any other art form. They can affect the tone of the game, or create affordances for how different states are shared or explored, or offer opportunities to enrich the collaborative effort that just do not exist otherwise. Because they are so contextually specific they have a fluid nature that is dependent not only on the framework of the game, but on the players who are playing it... returning again to the collaborative focus I am trying to maintain.

Can you tell me about your pilot studies?
Sure! The first one I did was a game meant to examine the works of Michel Foucault I called "What to do About Michael?" Foucault's ideas focus on the relations between power, knowledge, and authority, and I found that while most people (including myself) could understand that the systems he identified existed they had a harder time admitting to the idea that they themselves might be a part of such a system. So for this game I had players take on the role of different teachers and administrators at an imaginary school where a young male student was running into some difficulties. Each player selected whatever contextual details they wished in terms of age, gender, subject they taught, and their attitude about the school. Leading up to the game they were sent readings by Foucault as well as short narratives I had written about different events "Michael" was involved in. Each event was actually based on events that had really happened to Foucault, including the last one wherein another student was attacked. The actual game took place as a faculty meeting that was specifically discussing the student's actions and what an appropriate response may be. In the reflection after the game players realized the positions they had taken to defend the institution, interpret Michael's actions, or interact with one another were all bound up in the systems of power they operated within.
The second and third studies I actually did concurrently. I used the experience of gathering players to play J. Tuomas Haarvianen's The Tribunal as an exploration for Action Research and to explore different narrative theories, specifically those of David Herman which are tied to cognitive science. Action Research is communally based research wherein problems, methods, and solutions are all identified and explored by the community itself, and I wanted to see if my goals for creating a community of play that was also a community of inquiry were viable. The narrative theory aspect was an examination of how players created and used their characters to support the rhetorical, synthetic, or thematic aspects of the game. In general my conclusion was that for the systems to work as I wanted them to it requires several different games, both in terms of forging a community through shared experience and so they players get to know and trust the people behind the characters. I also realized my own tendency to make assumptions about what players do or do not need, which I suspect is a bad habit I carried over from my time as a classroom teacher.
Most recently I have been doing an independent study and interviewing different people who work with a lot of ideas about role-playing. This is very much a reaction to the realization that there were things about the form that I simply did not know as well as a way to round out my ideas for what I want from the work I will be doing in my dissertation. The very fact that I can talk about any of this with any confidence is due to the kind people who have helped me out with this.

I'd like to hear a little more about the meta-techniques. Which ones do you find most valuable, and why?
My two favorite are probably monologuing and bird-in-the-ear, both of which give a view of a co-created reality that is concurrent with the one the characters are portraying. The general idea behind monologuing is that when a player is either asked to or chooses to monologue (depending on the game) they give a description of thoughts or events that inform on their current experience. I saw a beautiful example of this at a workshop in the Living Games conference where the other players took on roles described in the monologue, which in that case was a grieving parent discussing an experience that might have happened had they not lost their child. Bird-in-the-ear is kind of like having another player act as a "Jiminy Cricket" and whisper thoughts your character is having to you during a scene. It can color your perceptions and inform your actions, though it doesn't really control them. In a game of Previous Occupants I was in this was used very effectively to keep the tension high and the story moving. In both cases the techniques employ a lot of (surprise!) collaboration, but they also give a peek at the non-diegetic world I referenced earlier and tap into some very strong emotions.

Finally, what do you expect to see going forward from your research? Do you want to continue on with more game research?

In the near term I would like to work with a wider range of people. Right now I am really just planning on working with art educators, but I would like to open it up to other stakeholders (such as parents or administrators) in educational communities fairly soon. I also would like to apply the techniques in other sorts of institutional communities like hospitals, because I think there is a value in the multiple lenses of role-playing that really has not been explored outside of creating simulations. It's my hope that eventually other people in arts-education will take the media and run with it, do things I have not even begun to imagine yet, and then work with me to create yet more new things.
My answer probably makes my interest in continuing games-based research pretty clear, though when I started my program I never imagined that this is what I would be doing. I am absolutely thrilled by it because it is a place where so many of my interests come together and it is a place where I feel like I can make a real difference. The only thing I find more amazing than being a researcher into what that difference might be is how many people have supported me in my efforts trying to find out.

Thanks Jason! 

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