Retrospective: Tinderbox PlayAway Festival

Guest post from Lauren Watson.

From the 22nd of February to the 2nd of March 2021, the Tinderbox Collective ran a collaborative games festival called PlayAway, which the UofG Games and Gaming Lab were delighted to participate in and contribute to. The festival’s mission statement was to look “to the games sector for inspiration in an online world”, examining the impact of the pandemic on the video games industry and how the industry, in its turn, was adapting and responding to it. To do so, it highlighted research from a variety of participants involved in games studies, alongside a myriad of interactive events such as a Zine-making workshop, Let’s Play stream, careers advice and much more. Today, I will be taking you through a retrospective look at my contribution, and how it impacted upon my writing and presentation skills, as part of the fantastic panel hosted by our fellow researchers from the Games and Gaming Lab. Both this panel, and the other events mentioned for PlayAway, are archived and easily accessible on YouTube here:

Postgraduate Research Panel

With Dr Matthew Barr, Lauren Watson, Francis Butterworth-Parr, William Kavanagh, Kirsty Dunlop, Monica Vazquez

The purpose of this panel was to demonstrate the range of activities, topics and applications of study that one can find within the field of Games Studies as a relatively novel and still-emerging field of Humanities research, distinct from more practical courses such as games development. Presentations ranged from Francis Butterworth-Parr’s exploration of his concept of “Machphrasis”, merging games and literature studies, to William Kavanagh’s “Balancing Games” concerning the mechanics and strategies of gameplay. I was asked to deliver a 5-minute presentation that summarised an aspect of my thesis work, which concerns how fans practice games preservation and archival work in rogue, or legally grey, online spaces.

While doing research for my MPhil thesis up until that point, I had found that I was relatively inexperienced at writing to such a significant word count, and that it was becoming difficult to navigate the amount of information I was dealing with. When given the opportunity to show my work for PlayAway, I was still doing my preliminary research, structuring my thesis as well as my initial Literature Review. There is something about those planning stages where you can very easily struggle to navigate the sea of information you have built up across your research notes. Mine were spread across a myriad of Google Documents, the number of which will remain classified! In essence, for my first chapter I was trying to pin down what kind of case study I could use to demonstrate the complexities of games archiving and preservation, including the equally complex fan responses to the problem.

The opportunity to present my work in the way that PlayAway demanded convinced me to take a step back, and try to think of an interesting topic of discussion from my thesis that I could both keep below 5 minutes, and accessible to a larger audience who may not be significantly invested in games studies. It was these two factors of time and accessibility that enabled me to avoid focusing on what may appear complex or impressive for the purposes of a thesis, and instead concentrate on a genuinely small and simple problem that fans often grappled with in their games preservation efforts. As such, I decided on a small case study of how fans deal with the graphical processing feature on the PS1 known as “dithering”, and how CRT monitors show the ways in which digital porting can change archived games. Furthermore, how these changes can manifest in more explicitly visual ways, as opposed to tiny glitches or bugs, that directly contrast with players’ lived memories of the games.

As it turned out, this small case study for the presentation aided me in focusing on what I wanted to describe in this chapter which was, in fact, introducing cultural memory as an approach to understanding what is occurring in these spaces. Furthermore, it reminded me that the utility of keeping one’s audience in mind, trying to ensure your arguments and subject matter are conveyed clearly and simply, cannot be underestimated. When you have to convey your work within 5 minutes, you simply haven’t got enough space to become jumbled up in all your notes!

This was further reinforced upon witnessing the presentations by my co-panellists, some of whom were drawing on even larger bodies of work with their PhD theses. They similarly took only a small example of something they had explored within their work as opposed to trying to squash together every point they desired to make in their thesis. The format of presentations, even if they are five minutes, entails a kind of narrative-making of your work. I find that good presentations have a suitable beginning, middle and end not conveyed as a list, but as some kind of story you guide your audience through. Even if it does not contain every point you desire to make, it’s imperative to give people an easy footing to start on when you want to make your work enticing or show that it’s valuable.

Furthermore, if you worry about not including all the information you want to convey, you can take advantage of the Q&A section. For myself and my fellow panellists I am sure, they are a good litmus test to see what your audience responds to most when navigating your work and what aspects of it they are drawn to. For example, I was asked about whether there was a conflict between the preservation of the code of an archived game, and the culture of gameplay. While I have too little space here to convey my answer again, I was able to take that question and understand it as a concern for wider cultures of ‘gameplay’, because my presentation was concerned with the act of preserving the code for the most part. I discussed the code and emulation side of preservation as a basis to show how these rogue archives functionally operate and introduce people to the culture of archival fan practices which they may not be aware of. While I had encountered the importance of gameplay cultures before in my literature research with the works of excellent scholars such as James Newman, it was a useful reinforcement of where I was going next with my argument— expanding these archives outwards into metadata, documentation of gameplay, and so forth.

This is where the value in communicating your thesis work to others lies, as fundamentally your written work is a communication to a potential reader just the same. Having to summarise it audibly and visually in a presentation, even if short, shifts your work into the plane of a more explicit conversation. You become aware of how your research is understood in a live environment with people responding to it more immediately, and it becomes easier to understand and imagine the reception when the paper itself is seen by a potential reader. I had received multiple questions concerning the legality of fan-preservation, the challenges they face, and the wider “culture” of games as mentioned. Thus, in stripping an aspect of my thesis down to a skeleton, I had a glimpse into what the most immediate gaps in knowledge or questions were— what the potential reader’s attention is most drawn to. When faced with a significant amount of information that you are navigating for the first time, as I was with my thesis, having feedback from a large group of people at a friendly presentation panel like PlayAway was of significant aid in helping me navigate where to go next.

To finish, I am grateful to PlayAway for providing such an opportunity which is invaluable to us researchers. The ability to platform our research through such collaborative events creates an overall far more informative panel, with both the presenter and audience mutually benefiting. In the end, it enables us researchers and enthusiasts to approach video game theory in a multitude of interesting and diverse ways, both theoretical and practical.

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