Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Interactive is Your Game?

As a roleplayer, I have played in a number of different situations. Most people have played home games - at your place, or the home of a friend, in a closed environment. Some people have played at local events, or even large cons like GenCon. With larping, people play in all types of environments - small house events, large outdoor weekend events, convention hall rooms, and so on. Our environments often shape our play - how loud we talk, whether we move around, and our props or costumes.

Today I'm thinking very deeply about interactivity. This is not just "does your game involve you and do you do a thing," but instead "how much does the player emotionally and physically interact with a game?" I wasn't able to find a lot about interactivity in relation to tabletop and live-action roleplaying games. If I'm missing something, obviously feel free to share them in comments, but please avoid diluting my points.

I'm proposing some concepts on how to evaluate interactivity in tabletop and larp, and these are key for accessibility and player choice

Ask these questions:

  • Will players sit at the table, stand, or move around, or a combination of those?
  • Will players speak in character, use distancing (third-person), or alternate as comfortable?
  • Will players "perform" their character - changing from sitting at the table to standing, entering into other players' personal space, raising their voice, moving hands more than just standard "talky" movement?
  • Will players be required to do these things, encouraged to do them, or have the option to do them?
  • Is there an opt out option for any of these things, or is the only option not to play?(1) 
  • Will players be in separate spaces, or in one space?
  • Will players need to move from space to space?
  • Will players have assistance moving from space to space if needed?
  • Will players have character sheets, index cards, name tags, props, or other materials to represent characters, powers, abilities, or resources?
  • Will these materials be available in alternate formats, or is there a standard?
  • Is it possible for players to have access to materials in advance?

There are probably more questions to be asked! This is a really complex subject, and it's come to me from a very specific place: my own fears. Most people who know me are aware that I operate with pretty clear awareness of my fears because without that I can't make it past them. This comes through in games! I ask for use of X-cards or Script Change or pre-game discussion on boundaries because I can decide then what I'm really comfortable with, and with who. However, the one thing that none of these cover by default or even in some extrapolation is interactivity. 

We rarely discuss at the table "Hey, are we going to talk in-character for this session?" or "Can I stand up if my character wants me to?" or "Can I sit while others are standing in this session?" or "Can I just write these character stats on an index card for while we move around?" However, these questions are incredibly important! Not just from an accommodations point of view for mental or physical disabilities, but also from the perspective of safety and comfort. I'll give a brief example.

I was playing a local home game with some people I was mostly familiar with. It was an emotional game, for sure, and the situations were pretty intense at times, but after a few sessions, we had still only used descriptions of raised voices or physical action, and that had been okay. However, the GM at this point brought forth a very (for me) scary and intense situation. In playing the NPC character, they stood up, walked over to me, and screamed at me. Repeatedly. As someone with some history involving abuse and raised voices, the combination of the yelling and interference with my personal space completely terrified me. At that point my mental options were to 1) react violently (which I didn't), or 2) freeze up. I haven't spoken to the person about it,(2) but that's partially because I still feel anxious around them.

I can't be the only person who has experienced this. If I had known that these kind of actions would have occurred in game, I might not have ever played. Did I have good times? Yes. Was it worth that panicked experience? No.

Upon hearing recently that some people at Games on Demand were playing with more intense interactivity (characters were arguing, so players raised their voices and were physically acting), it brought this idea to the forefront. I'm really frustrated that I haven't seen a lot of discussion about this, actually, because yes, we're all playing games and having fun. But, not everyone has fun in the same way, and not setting these expectations can ruin someone's time.

This is normally when people come in with the "if they don't like it, they don't have to play!" or "we aren't writing/running games for people who won't do improv/aren't willing to be physical/can't handle intense situations!" and you know what? Fuck you. I'm actually really tired of it. Games are not just for one specific class and type of people. You can design games and run games in any way you want to, but if you aren't willing to tell people up front what to expect, you are doing it wrong.

There is no reason I should be unable to play games because I am afraid someone will shout at me at the table. There is no reason I should be unable to play games because I can't stand for four hours. I might not be able to play all games, but I should be able to play some games, and if someone tells me the situation and expectations, I can determine whether I can meet those expectations of that game. 

If you are designing games and/or running/facilitating games, please take these things into consideration. It may take time! It may even take effort! But if we want people to enjoy our games, why wouldn't we take time and effort? People have spent decades designing entire adventures with the minutiae of what potions are available in a chest in the sixteenth room of a 25 room dungeon, so I think we could take a half hour to ask ourselves how interactive our games will be, regardless of their type, to ensure that everyone involved has a good time and can contribute to the game comfortably.

Thank you for reading!

(1) The second is not condemnation, it's just important to note.
(2) If you see yourself here, this is not the time to talk about it. If I ever want to talk to you about it, I'll come to you.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

We Need to Talk About Disabilities and Gaming

Talking with John (husband) about disability literacy for the able, how literacy is a weird term, & how to handle being unable to write at a game table.

Virtually every RPG requires the ability to read and write. This is an issue for bringing games to illiterate individuals (who exist!), which is another huge thing that I don't even know how to address. However, something I can address is my own situation.

I have hand tremors that have grown relatively significant and some minor muscle spasms. I can't handwrite really at all anymore. I risk tearing paper or very far stray lines, and it's also really stressful to try to write because it's embarrassing and difficult (and sometimes painful because of the muscle strain to avoid shaking). The issue here is that almost every single game involves writing at least something on a character sheet and I have no real objection to that. I like customizing characters. However, these days I need a second set of hands to do those things.

When I go to a table and have to ask someone to fill out my sheet, it's awkward and embarrassing. Most of the time it is eased because I'll go to tables with friends (this is part of why I seek out friendly, familiar tables). However, I sometimes want to game with new people! I can't always rely on people I know to help me write down my stats and stuff, and I want to emphasize that having friends at a table will always make this easier, but it is not enough.

There is a huge lack of literacy in regards to disability in the world in general, but I'm surprised at how significant it can be in the gaming world. I realize that it's hard to achieve this, as schools don't really address it, workplaces do their best to avoid it, and honestly, disabled individuals can easily be alienated socially too. But it's really not okay.

If I ask for help at a strange table, I get stared at, awkward mumbles, and eventually someone will help but it's very hard to feel comfortable at that point. I've outed myself. I have to give an explanation. It takes time away from the game, I delay the other players, and I know it's an inconvenience, and it also puts me in a weird place socially. Now I'm kind of the invalid, I'm a weight on other players. They treat me differently, and it makes me feel really sad.

The issue, in reality, is not that I can't get help. Most people will (even if begrudgingly) help me. Some are even happy to do it. At friendly tables, it's awesome because my friends are so supportive. At a stranger's table, it's harder. People don't know enough about disabled people to know how to react when a disabled person needs help. They don't know that it's just a simple need, so sometimes they treat me like a child. They don't know how extensive it is, so sometimes they get annoyed.

I'm writing this massive blargh of text to say this: We need to talk about disabilities and gaming. There are some great people talking about it already (Elsa S. Henry and Shoshana Kessock to name a couple, and I think Matt Weber as well, and I know there are more of you out there!!), which is awesome, but more than a few people need to be talking. We need to ask for accommodation at conventions and events. We need to talk to players and GMs about how to help disabled players at their tables. We need to be willing to help, and to not judge people for needing help.

I'm asking now, as a gamer and designer and player and everything else, for your help in teaching others how to be an ally for disabled gamers, in working with businesses and organizations in gaming to make things approachable for disabled gamers, and in making spaces more accessible.

Here's the thing. I'm here to support you in this effort, but in part because I _have_ disabilities, I need more legwork from those who have the energy. Speak to disabled gamers to get their feedback, do research online, and be aware of situations that might put disabled gamers at a disadvantage or keep them from participating. This week, I spoke to John Ward at GAMA about Origins, and we discussed some work they're doing to improve registration next year to make it more accessible. All it took was a polite and well-worded email and a willingness to discuss options, and I think that next year's registration might be a lot easier for me and players like me. It's worth the effort.

I hope you'll join me in this. I know we have a lot of causes and inclusivity movements to keep up with, but if you can take just a little time - even if it just means helping a player out at a con table you share and treating them like a person when you do it - it can really make a difference.

Thank you to my friends who have supported me while I've dealt with my illnesses. You're the best!

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Women with Initiative: Kira Magrann

Today's Women with Initiative feature is with Kira Magrann. I met Kira years ago through Gaming as Women, where we both were bloggers. She is well-known for her involvement in Indie Games on Demand as an organizer, as well as for her own design work, art, and her work to create a more inclusive, diverse gaming community. Her games have a lot of feminist and queer concepts in action, and she also has a knack for creating sexy, intimate games that really engage players. I asked her a few questions about her work, and she provided some great answers!

How did you get your start in gaming, and how does it intertwine with your other hobbies and interests, such as art?

I got started in gaming when I bought my first Vampire the Masquerade book at a hobby shop. I took it home and tried to run it for four of my girlfriends and it was a hilarious disaster. BUT my mom then encouraged me to go to Origins (back when it was in Philly) 'cause she thought it would get me off those darn computer games. It worked! I fell in love with vampire larps and all the ridiculous people I met there, who were also spearheading the goth music and club scene in the late 90s in Philly. So that lead to me going to goth clubs and playing Vampire on the dance floor and, well, now I'm the ridiculous human I am now. So I guess to answer your question, there was a lot of crossover with Vampire larps, goth clubs, and kink culture when I was a teen getting into roleplaying. There definitely still is, but, less in the goth arena since Vampire larps aren't such a cultural sensation anymore.

I think the place where art intersects with my gaming is that it makes me want to make stuff for games! I'm a maker, so creating and designing games has become a thing I really enjoy. I can't really be a passive game player, I need to get involved and get everyone else involved too. Designing games is so much more complex than a lot of art making (and metalwork and jewelry ain't simple, lost wax casting involves so much math I can't even sometimes!). There are a lot of moving pieces in games, and its interactive. I think that challenge really gets my creative artistic side going. I also really like creating interactive art, which is why I enjoy making jewelry more than gallery work or illustration. The ability to make something that someone will wear and interact with is very personal and embodied in a way that is much more satisfying to me than other mediums.

[Interviewer note: I actually own multiple pieces of jewelry created by Kira, specifically my octopus earrings and necklace that I wear constantly. It's beautiful, and very meaningful, and it really is something that gives me a special connection.]

Your games all have an underlayer of intimacy, whether between individuals or with oneself. What helps you determine the right mechanic to use, or instructions to give, to encourage players to live out this intimacy in game?

Oh, hey, that's an interesting observation I hadn't thought of before! Intimacy in all my games!

For mechanics, I usually think about what I would like to do if I were playing this game I'm writing. What actions would I like to take as a player? Additionally, I think its really really important to edit mechanics to the most important ones, like maybe the top two or three, that people might be using. I want to highlight the things that are most important to the themes and characters in the game and create mechanics that support those. So I guess I think of theme and character first, then think of game mechanics that already exist in the tabletop or larp worlds, and then I try to piece them together until something works!

Specifically designing for intimacy though, I kinda cheat and use my sex ed, kink salesperson, kink community, queer community, and feminist theory expertise! I have a huge interest in how humans relate intimately in different settings, and like, how we communicate these things. For my game Strict Machine, which is a kinky power dynamic game where people play tanks that have to describe their body parts in sexy ways, the mechanic is based off of Dan Savage's rules to talking dirty: say what you're going to do, say what you're doing, say what you just did. So I get a lot of inspiration from things like that in creating intimacy mechanics for my games.

I think the best way to get players to interact with intimate mechanics is to get them over their initial discomfort or awkwardness. That first time might be a little silly or uncomfortable, because culture tells us intimacy and sex are that way, but keep pushing through that bias and see where it gets you. Consensually, of course!

You probably saw this coming, but I would really love to know: What did you use for inspiration for Selfie, and what prompted you to make a game about selfies in the first place?

Hahaha! Yes you love selfies! Geez, I do too.

Selfies are like this giant intersection of: new media, new technology, the female gaze, self care, and art making. So like, in the art world, there's been selfie exhibits and photographers I know haaaaaaaaaaaate them because they don't consider them art. And in the social media world, selfies skew very feminine and young in our cultural consciousness, but in reality they're actually very diverse in gender and race! What I love about selfies is that people have control over their own image, and especially feminine presenting people. Often the camera is controlled by cis men! It's like the first time I looked at a Frida Kahlo painting, or an Annie Liebovitz photograph, and thought YES THAT THAT'S HOW I SEE LADIES. So it's powerful to create your own image of yourself, right. It's like the first time I drew a self portrait and was like, oh wow, I'm kind of uncomfortable with analyzing myself that much, but whoa, that's how I look, and there's an intimacy in drawing every curve of my nostril and shadow of my cheekbone and line around my eyes. I actually used to be really shy about being in front of the camera, looking at myself, I had very low self esteem because I had bad acne when I was younger and thought I was ugly. Art and photography kinda helped me with that, and I feel like the Selfie self care phenomenon is really similar to that experience except more mainstream, and that everyone should experience it.

The technology aspect is super cool. Basically, our smartphones make us cyborgs, we carry around this technology that is an extension of our bodies and personalities and relationships. So talking about that in a game, and how we are using this tech to examine ourselves and our emotions, is really, really neat. Some ladies in Spain got together and played the game, and then posted their selfies to their blog, and I feel like that's the perfect example of how cool our level of global technological interactivity is.

Thank you so much to Kira for allowing me to interview and feature her here on Thoughty! It is awesome to share her work with my readers. Below is Kira's brief bio and some links to her contact information and work. Thank you for reading!


Kira Magrann creates jewelry at Anima Metals, organizes Indie Games on Demand, and creates sexy, feminist, queer and cyberpunk games. Some games she's recently designed are Strict Machine, Mobilize, RESISTOR, and Game of Thrones: Play the Cards. Follow her on G+ or twitter @kiranansi. Also on Tumblr as @kiramagrann.

Selfie is a part of the #Feminism nanogame collection currently featured at Indiecade.

Click here to buy RESISTOR, a cyberwitchy social justice zine.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Con Tips!


(See the links at the bottom, too! updated 8/1/2016)

I can almost guarantee these things are happening already and I'm late on a bunch of cons, but here's some stuff to remember:

  • Cosplay isn't consent. Don't grope or harass cosplayers, and photograph them only with their permission.
  • Don't put anything on anyone else without their permission. This includes fairy dust, perfume, any of your body, and social pressure.
  • Have a buddy! Do check-ins! Cons can be great, but safe spaces are hard to find. Have at least one person's contact information (at or away from the con) readily available to check in with once or twice a day, even just a "yep, I'm alive!" text. It can help you feel grounded and_ is a good risk-prevention measure.
  • Sleep. I know as well as anyone that staying up all night at cons can be super fun! It can also be really bad for you. Make sure to get at least 4 hours (this sounds like so few, but it's better than nothing!) and take breaks when you're able to. Even lying down for a half hour can rejuvenate you and ease any anxiety you have built up from the crowds.
  • Eat as healthy as you can, but even if you can't, make sure to drink water! Lots of it. Try to stay hydrated as much as possible, even if it interrupts your activity - healthiness comes first.
  • Make sure you have bathroom breaks, no matter what you're doing. If you're running an event, for every 1.5-2 hours, have a 5+ minute break, and let attendees or players know they can step away from the game if needed.
  • Take your medications correctly. If you take medicine, or end up needing it while you're traveling or at the con, take it according to the instructions and with the appropriate food or drink. If you are worried about missing it, set alarms. It's also good to make sure that someone has a copy of your medications in a list including dosage, whether with you at the con or at home, in case of emergency.
  • Pack wisely. Make sure you have all necessary medications, toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, soap or body wash, shampoo, deodorant, hair products, hygiene products, etc.), clothes (multiples of everything - having clean underpants and socks at the end of the day (or to change into midday!) can make a world of difference in comfort), and any assistive devices you might need.
  • Take care of yourself physically. Take breaks when walking the floor. Don't overload your bags or kit, and pause to set them down regularly. Stretch in the morning if you can. Get a shower or bath as often as you can, every day if you're able. If you are able, take breaks from sitting or standing. If not, just make sure to try relaxing your muscles a little bit when you can. Take deep breaths every so often to help keep you alert. Know that you can step away from any activity that is too physically challenging, beyond your abilities, or is just too much for you at that moment.
  • Take care of yourself mentally. Make sure to step away from the busy con floors to get some quiet every so often, and if you have a tendency towards anxiety and panic, try to have a break away from the action entirely occasionally if it's possible. Have a social contact you can keep in touch with at the con or otherwise to talk to if you are overwhelmed and need a break. Know that you can step away from any activity if it is overwhelming you or if you are uncomfortable.
  • Don't put anyone else at risk. If you do things that are dangerous, you put others at risk. If you're drinking? Take measures to prevent risk - have a buddy, drink water, set a shut off point. If you're out in the city? Have a buddy, take your phone, make sure you have a map. Put your safety first, and it will help protect others.
  • Be respectful. Don't talk over other people. Don't yell or steamroll people at the table. Don't harass people or threaten them. Don't interfere with other people's personal space. Let people have room to enjoy themselves, and you can do the same.
  • Be kind. Don't make people feel unwelcome! Don't be racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, or any other kind of -ist, -phobic, or -ism. Treat people with kindness and decency.
  • Make space for those who need it. If you see someone with a wheelchair, cane, or white cane, make sure to give them space to get around. If someone needs to sit instead of stand - in lines for tickets, in the middle of events, etc. - let them do so, regardless of how you perceive their ability. Let people who aren't the majority at the event speak first, try games or gadgets first, and/or have first access to guests. You will get your turn.
  • Be friendly, but don't pressure people. Try to be friendly towards others you're gaming with or spending time with at the con. You aren't obligated to be happy or cheerful, but you can still be polite (this is obviously only in the case that people are polite and respectful towards you). If the person you reach out to seems uninterested, leave them alone. If a person is reading, has headphones on, etc., give them their space. Don't ever tell someone to smile.
  • Report problems to con staff. When you arrive at the con, make sure to get the information for security and/or other con staff who help during emergencies or difficult situations. If something happens that makes you uncomfortable or that hurts you (harassment, bad behavior at the table or elsewhere, fighting, etc.), contact the con staff as soon as possible to report it. Make sure to take photos wherever is appropriate (damaged products, injuries, screenshots of messages) as well. If it is appropriate, also contact the police.
  • If you see something wrong, take the right action. It is not always the right action to interfere, but here are some suggestions. 
    • If you see someone being physically assaulted and you are physically capable of helping, step in with caution. 
    • If you see someone being assaulted and you aren't sure you can help, call for help, and if possible, snap photos of the offender. 
    • If you see someone being verbally harassed, don't interfere threateningly - try to catch the eye of the person being harassed and see if they seem to want help, or casually go over and greet them (if you don't know them, it can be helpful to say "Wow, I haven't seen you in a while! How are you doing?" to open dialogue and distract the person bothering them). 
    • If you stumble across a situation that seems unethical (someone seems to be stealing, etc.), alert con staff. 
    • When in doubt? Get the attention of someone nearby and notify con staff as soon as possible.
  • Have fun! There are a lot of great things to do at cons, but the biggest part is that you never have to take part in anything that isn't fun for you. If you aren't having fun, opt out. If someone gives you grief over it, that's their problem - you should only be doing things that you feel safe doing and that you enjoy. Make sure that you have a good time by being honest with yourself about your capabilities and what you want. 

Stay safe, drink water, and have fun!

ETA: Adding some useful stuff!

Rob Donoghue posted some great Origins tips, plenty of which carry over to other cons!

This article on Handicap Awareness on Dr. StrangeRoll is great!

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