A Perfectly Normal Panel About Awkwardness in Games

This winter, two friends and I decided to submit a panel about awkward game design to some conferences. We thought it would be a great idea to experiment with awkwardness in form as well as content, so we settled on a “powerpoint karaoke” format wherein we all wrote our own talks/slides, and then, during the panel itself, we switched identities (complete with costume changes) and performed, completely unrehearsed, the presentation of the panelist we were pretending to be.

We presented this panel at Different Games (livestreamed here), and most recently, at the Canadian Game Studies Association conference this week. Two conferences, because there were two unique permutations for identity-switching — had we had more participants, we would have submitted to others.

For my talk, I decided to write a Twine game — surprise, surprise — which I called “Being Dietrich Squinkifer”. It was a really interesting design challenge to create a playable experience that involved awkwardly giving a prototypical Squinky talk (complete with the requisite dance break) in front of a real audience. It was also unusual for me to design a game intended only to be played by two specific people, but I quite enjoyed being able to do so. In particular, I managed to create a situation in which Allison, playing as me, got to wish herself a happy birthday (Allison’s birthday did in fact fall on the day of our CGSA talk) and Jess, playing as Allison, reacted accordingly.

Performing the talks themselves was a fascinating play experience in its own right — I found myself adopting some of the mannerisms of my friends as I tried to emulate them. It felt like I was primarily performing for the specific person I was pretending to be, as well as any of our mutual friends in attendance, and that the rest of the audience played more of a spectator role. We also had some technical difficulties at points, and having to keep going and work around them, especially since we had never seen the talks before performing them, was extra challenging, but added to the general feeling of awkwardness we were going for.

So, were our talks successful? If you came in expecting an informative panel about game design, you might have been disappointed; it is, after all, very difficult to properly communicate your thoughts in detail when they are, in fact, someone else’s thoughts, and you’ve also never rehearsed them before. That said, as a self-demonstrating spectacle of somewhat intentional failure, I think we did pretty well, and that we had a lot of fun, and the audience seemed to get a few insights, if not awkward laughs, out of it as well. A++++++ would panel again!

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