Saturday, January 6, 2018

Five or So Questions on Let Me Take a Selfie

This interview turns Five Or So Questions upside-down, with the usual interviewer as the guest! Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit Games talks to Daedalum Analog Productions' Brie Sheldon about their new collection of games, Let Me Take a Selfie.

Cover by John W. Sheldon, 2017
Can you tell me about the genesis of this collection? What prompted you to make a series of games focused around this particular tool, and what was your process for discovery and creation?

I take a lot of selfies, like a really lot. They mean a lot to me! Cell cameras are a vital advance in modern communication and our ability to share our identities and emotions with people around the world, even if we don't speak the same language. Part of it is also just that I like trying new ways of telling stories and exploring game experiences.

I love dice but it's fun to take different mechanics from weird things we do. In Literally, I Can't, one of the games in the collection, you use the MASH (mansion, apartment, shack, house) game that I played as a kid to build characters. That is the kind of thing I want to explore in games!

I also design in response to things. I saw a few games using phone cameras that I felt didn't do what I wanted. I have had to learn a lot about selfies and myself to use this technology, and needed to apply it to games to get the experiences I wanted.

To make games, I honestly just took selfies. A lot. And I remembered how selfies have been relevant to my life. They are instrumental in my long distance relationships, and a part of how I feel connected to others, but also are ways that I know I can appear to not measure up to expectations or fade into the background if I'm not interesting enough. All of that came through in the collection! Every game has my heart in it, somehow, just with some "how to break it" instructions included!

Using mobile technology as a play aid and intermediary is such an interesting area to explore. Obviously this offered enormous design inspiration, but I'm wondering what challenges it also presented. Does it complicate aspects of design or play?

It certainly does! There are a lot of elements that are challenging. The first, one I'm very aware of, is that not everyone can afford a cell phone with a camera. I hated this, because it's a reality I wish I could fight, but to make games with this element I had to accept that loss. I am trying to figure out a way to make up for it, but my own financial status isn't awesome either.

Second, not everyone likes to take selfies, and not everyone even really knows how to take them (there's not really a wrong way, though, honestly). When I playtested Who Made Me Smile? at Big Bad Con this year, most of my table was people who either didn't take selfies, or didn't take them often, and most people approached it with some anxiety. Thankfully, we talked about it and I encouraged them and it went great! I don't know how it'll go with others, though.

Third and final so I don't write ten paragraphs, privacy and safety are huge concerns. For some of the games you'll pass your phone to other players or share your phone number, for others you're alone outside, and for some games you're dealing with emotionally trying things. All of these have their own measures. For sharing contact information and phones I tried to give strong reminders about respecting safety and deleting the other players' numbers unless they permit otherwise, and I also require that people hide NSFW pictures and content to avoid any consent violation. Being alone during game is risky, so I ask that people have an emergency check-in contact - and I also ask that for the emotionally intense games to help people get support. I also recommend Script Change for all of the games.

It's all complicated, I think, but it is worth it, I think.

I love the way this collection blends analog and digital and subverts expectations. The four group games imply that the participants will be together physically rather than distributed, and I wonder if you could talk about this choice.

One of the most troubling things I've seen with selfies, and one of my secret goals to target with the games, is the negative perception of taking selfies in front of other people. People regularly shame young people for taking selfies in public, and mock tourists who get selfie sticks to take pictures in front of huge landmarks. We don't mock people who have strangers take their pictures, or people who take pictures of other things or other people. Only people who dare recognize their own existence in public. I struggle, personally, with embarrassment over this - and I wanted to poke at it and prod it to see if I could fix that a little. In the games, you have to take selfies in front of people - sometimes making weird expressions or while feeling complicated feelings. I want to normalize that.

I want to normalize being in an airport crying before you head home after leaving a loved one and taking a selfie to say goodbye to them, or to let the person you're coming home to see that you're struggling, but okay. I want to normalize sharing your joy publicly by taking a picture of your smiling face to send to faraway friends. And I want to let that start with an environment that pretends you're far away from each other, which is where the games make it possible. In Literally, I Can't you have to take "competent"-looking selfies while all together for play - it's a challenge against the anxiety and stigma.

It's also important with Don't Look at Me, a two-player selfie game in the collection about my personal experiences in a long-term relationship with my husband while he was deployed in Iraq. The purpose of being together, but not facing each other and only able to see each other through selfies, is to create the emotional tension of knowing the person is there, feeling them just out of touch, and not being able to see them except through these constrained circumstances. John and I were, and are, very close, and I always felt like he was with me, but I couldn't touch him, I couldn't look at him face to face - everything was through lenses and bytes. I cry every time I think about the game because I know that tension, and it was important to me to make sure that the people playing it could experience it too. In Now You Don't, it's important to be around other people to create that experience of physical closeness and emotional ignorance. Surrounded by a crowd, but invisible - almost palpable.

Your games push back against a popular narrative that selfies are trivial narcissism. I feel like these games make selfies tools of meaningful expression, communication, and inquiry. What would you say to someone hostile to, or uncomfortable with, selfies?

Well, honestly, first I'd ask them how they feel about Van Gogh's self portraits. Maybe those are narcissistic, too, I guess, but I don't think that would be the majority opinion. I could direct them to the interview I did alongside a professional fine artist where I talk about the use of selfies as a grounding element in life, and where the artist (Robert Daley) says that selfies are simply modern portraiture. 

Video by John W. Sheldon

For me, there's the first aspect of selfies as being about identity and recognizing your own existence, validating who you are, making you feel whole. Then, there's the second part: it's just art. Photography is art, most people agree, and so are the oil painting portraits of people throughout history, including those like Van Gogh's that are self-portraits. 

I don't see what is different about using a modern camera to take a self portrait, aside from it being more accessible to people of all backgrounds (excepting those of very low income who have trouble accessing this tech). It removes the boundary of needing an extensive education in technique to paint yourself! Instead you take pictures in a moment, and learn with every photo how to change the angle, how to adjust lighting, how to open your eyes wider or raise your eyebrow to convey emotion, and how to show you, who you are or even who you want to be. It's magical, to me. I would just have to tell them that much: selfies are about showing who you are to whoever you want, and they are an artistic expression that's more easily accessible than many of those before.

You write in your introduction how important selfies are to you as a way to present yourself to the world in images you control. Do you see ways to incorporate either selfies as artifacts or mobile phones and their liberating ability to document a person's personal vision more generally in other games, old or new?

I would love to see some larger scale larps use selfies for storytelling - specifically, in larps where there are mystery elements or similar things that they could use a selfie to identify a character not in a scene, and distribute it to players. This would be excellent for games where there's reason to be suspicious of specific individuals. Using selfies that you either take in costume or alter to represent your character in game would, I think, bring a level of personal identification with the character that isn't often had. It also lets you record the experience of a game from the viewpoint you choose - you frame the moment, not anyone else. 

Doing selfie diaries for very emotional or intense games could be exciting - much like The Story of My Face in the collection, combining your words with a visual representation can make experiences feel more vivid. When I did test plays of The Story of My Face for the photos in the book, I really had fun in part because when I looked back at the pictures, I could remember the spooky story I was telling myself. Mid-game selfie logging, much like taking pictures of character sheets or game materials, can help keep memories rich and more easily recoverable. And that latter part, with taking pictures of game material - using phones to document game materials is really awesome because you can refer back to it easily. I also like using texting for "secret" communication in game or for sharing codes - the day someone makes an Unknown Armies-style horror game that uses text messages, selfies, and cell pictures to tell the story and guide players is the day I am pretty sure we win at games.
(by Brie)

Thanks for your time, Brie!

I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll share this interview and the DriveThruRPG link with all your friends!

[From Brie: Thank you to Jason so much for this, it was a really fun experience and I'm so glad to talk more about LMTAS!]

Note: All images except the cover are by Brie Sheldon and excerpted from the collection used to write and layout LMTAS, and the cover is a compilation of Brie's photos with a super nice layout by John W. Sheldon.

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