America is Black America

Content warning and a note: I am going to talk about race and US/American identity in this post. I will not talk about or show images reflecting the systematic oppression or violence against people of colour, but if you find themes around racism uncomfortable right now, this is not the post for you. Also, I’m largely ignoring other cultural and racial historical influences in this post to focus on Black histories, but of course folks from Eastern/ Middle Eastern/ Pacific Island/ Latinx cultures and regions and Indigenous people all also shaped the culture of the USA that we love so much.

I spent a good chunk of my life (~8 years) living in the United Kingdom. Rest assured, this post is not a humble brag and this exposition has a payoff. Eventually. Anyway, during that time I met a lot of amazing people who, upon first meeting me, would notice my accent and hopefully ask, “Canadian?” After disappointing them that I’m in fact from the USA, they would give me a consolation-prize comment of, ” Oh! American! Fun. I love [insert media/food/ sciencey thing here]” as a conversation starter. And as an aside, I am no way making fun of the folks who were kind enough to chat me up. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable icebreaker and not at all the point of this story. The point of the story is that I quickly realised that 99% of what British/European people would say they loved about America wasn’t White America. It was either created by, influenced by, or heavily participated in by Black America.

Now, history has been whitewashed to hell and back, but let’s take some common examples of things I would hear and trace their origins.

“Oh! American! Fun. I love BBQ!”

BBQ cuisine (as we would know it today- although roasting meat over wood chips has been a style of cooking for a very long time) is a fusion born in the West Indies. As history tells it, a group of West African slaves marooned from a sinking Spaniard slave ship mixed cooking styles and spices with the Indigenous island people to create ‘jerking’ and the ancestor of the saucy BBQ we know and love today.

“Oh! American! Fun. I love NASA!”

Before you accuse me of lying, remember that I run in some pretty nerdy circles and so, yes, this phrase WAS actually uttered.

As the film Hidden Figures chronicled, Katherine Johnson was a mathematician and Black woman who’s orbital mechanics calculations enabled the first American space flight and Apollo 11. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have the moon. (That’s right, our flag is up there. We own it.) Not only was she a brilliant mathematician that enabled the USA to win the space race, she also did all of this while being a mum and a teacher. Amazing.

“Oh! American! Fun. I love rock and roll!”

Okay, I am 99% certain no one has ever actually said “I love rock and roll” other than in that one song, but the point is, the USA is known for killer rock music. I would hope that it is common knowledge now that rock and roll was birthed from a blending of African and European musical traditions in the Southern USA. (Let’s not forget that jazz, swing, rhythm and blues were all classed as “race music” and only played on special radio stations in the 1940s and 50s but anyway, I digress…) Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black gospel singer, is credited as being the Godmother of rock and roll because of her uniquely ‘spirited’ method of playing guitar. Some have attributed the term ‘rock and roll’ to her because of her 1938 hit ‘Rock Me’, but of course that is contested.

And last but not least…

“Oh! American! Fun. I love videogames!”

Of course the history of games extends to countries outside of the USA (Japan and Great Britain come to mind) but Black engineers and designers had a heavy hand in making videogames popular in the USA. Gerald “Jerry” Lawson was team lead on the design of the 1976 Fairchild Channel F console. This was the first console that allowed you to remove game cartridges (instead of needing to buy a new console every time you wanted a new game). Mr. Lawson would go on to found Video Soft, a company which pioneered the first ever 3D videogames by using 3D glasses. So yeah, the next time you pop CoD in the PS4 remember, the idea of being able to change games and not consoles came from a Black man.

I know, I know. By now you’re probably thinking, “the hell does this have to do with police brutality and the Black lives lost because of an unjust justice system?” That is a fair question.

I want to be very careful here. My takeaway point from this post should NOT be, “Black Lives Matter is a good movement because Black people have done a lot of nice stuff for White America.” Black Lives Matter is a good movement because it is helping hold the American justice system accountable for the loss of human life due to racism and the systematic abuse of power. The point of this post is to recognize that the culture of the United States of America, the culture we associate with folks from White European ancestry, is actually not so White.

My time in England afforded me the opportunity to see the USA through the eyes of someone not born here. It helped me realise that the parts of the United States of America I love so much come from or are deeply intertwined with Black African and Black Caribbean histories, traditions, and culture. If I want to be blunt, Black America is what makes America great in my book. I, personally, owe so much of my happiness and what makes me excited to get out of bed every morning to Black America.

And again, I am no way trying to argue that it is because of my own selfish interest in BBQ or rock and roll that Black lives matter. Rather I am trying to say that the apathy I see from some corners of White America right now is particularly heartbreaking because of this whitewashing of American history. I am sure many a racist enjoyed some electric guitar music and BBQ this past Memorial Day whilst being completely unaware those gifts came from Black cultures and traditions. This unawareness is about more than just giving credit where credit is due, it is about the ability to cognitively disassociate yourself from someone else’s plight because of the perception that it does not effect you. Hopefully this post has, perhaps hamfistedly, made the argument that the loss of Black lives does effect you regardless of your skin colour or cultural background. It effects the entire United States as a country (and also the world, but hey… let’s scope this post down a little, huh?)

Not only is the loss of any life a time for mourning, this goes much deeper. This is about the intentional loss and oppression of a side of history that has made the United States the kick-ass-we-landed-on-the-moon-first country it is today. To try to argue that Black lives don’t matter or that -ugh- “all lives matter” is to stomp down our own history as a country and replace it with fascist, whitewashed nonsense. To ignore this history is to actively partake in the othering of Black culture as outside of or different to American culture. This allows for, among other things, Black folks to be painted as thugs and criminals deserving of violence instead of acknowledging Black lives as being human lives spanning all the weird and wonderful things that make humans cool. Like science, music, videogames and really, really good food.

Knowing my reader base, I am sure I am preaching to the choir here, but please don’t let that happen. Don’t let history be rewritten to exclude Black lives as an integral part of what makes America great. Black lives matter so much.

Until next time,


Dealing with Negative Feedback: A How-To Guide from a Professional Reject

Dear reader, it is that time of year. While we all hope for ‘accept, minor revision’ the reality is this time of year brings with it a lot of disappointment: Conference rejections, journal revises and resubmits, grant application abject failures, and, what I have most recently been coping with, scathing student evaluation feedback. Yes, the January blues for academics are a bitter, frustrating, and utterly depressing time of year… if you don’t know how to take feedback.

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about how bad reviews exist because no one teaches academics how to review. I’d like to think of this post as a companion piece about how no one really teaches academics how to read reviews of their work either. Most of the advice I was given in grad school amounted to “Well, if the journal says to revise your article, revise it. Or don’t, and fight them on why the suggested change is nonsense.” While well intentioned, this advice doesn’t work. It doesn’t work not only because it takes a combative- rather-than-collaborative stance and assumes your reviewers are your opponents and not your assistants, but also because not all feedback you get as an academic is revise-and-resubmit. Grants, for example, give you a huge REJECTION and very little feedback about what you could’ve done better. And deal with it, they say. In a similar vein, student end of semester evaluations have left me scratching my head on more than one occasion. I’ve gotten feedback so out of left field it made me question whether or not the student and I were ever in the same room! (We were, I take attendance.) 

Feedback on research and teaching is often perplexing, frustrating, and hard to not take personally. So what can we do about it? I’ve developed some sanity-preserving strategies to process even the most beastly feedback and listed them here. Now obviously I am no psychologist, so these strategies should not be taken as therapy, medical advice, or anything of the sort. Think of the advice listed here as if you and I were out for coffee and you asked about how I take bad reviews and I happened to have a list prepared of the following 5 easy steps:

1. Check your perspective

2. Take the good with the bad

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend

1. Check your perspective 

I tend to focus on the negative. Not just in feedback, but also in life. (Goth4eva!!) But I think that’s relatable, no? We all know that we can have 10 people compliment our new jeans and one person say it makes our booty look flat and that’s a day ruiner. Not only a day ruiner, but we also might think about putting those trousers in the bin when we get home. 

Since I know I tend to focus on the negative, I know that I need to pull back and look at the big picture of the review as a whole. Rather than think, “It only takes one apple to spoil a whole bunch,” I focus less on the spoilage and more on the whole barrel of fruit. In the above example, the new jeans were a smash hit! If a product had 10 five star reviews on Amazon and only 1 one star review, would I still buy the product? Probably. I would probably disregard that one star review as a salty outlier- and rightly so.

But how do you gain perspective with journal article reviews, teaching evals, peer evals, comments from well-meaning-but-pushy relatives over Christmas? Well, my own personal answer is a spreadsheet because, ya know, data… No, seriously, I really do put all comments into a spreadsheet with the total positive, neutral, and negative comments at the top (I’ve included an example screenshot below). Why talk about the positives first? Well, I am glad you asked because that’s pro-tip #2! But we will get to that in a minute.

What do I do if the feedback isn’t written down? Like, what if I am in a verbal meeting and being given feedback? Well, I take notes. Taking notes in feedback meetings is vitally important- especially if it is a performance review- and generally considered to be good professional practice. You can type up the notes, any goals/guidelines and expectations and send them to whomever was giving you feedback to check for clarity and ensure no miscommunication has transpired. Plus, if you get feedback which you feel is unfair, unkind, or unprofessional, having a record of what was said and why it made you feel that way is very important if you go to file a formal complaint (but hopefully that will never happen).

2. Take the good with the bad.

I’m sure my very bright psychology colleagues and games user researcher friends (pinging Rachel Kowert, Ben Taels, Elizabeth Zelle) would have a fancy way of saying this, but I’ll be blunt: It is easier to hear a Nice Thing™ first and then a Bad Thing™. If I hear a Bad Thing™ first, then I focus on the bad thing while the Good Things™ are (hopefully) being said. If I hear a Good Thing™ first, then it colours the Bad Things™ as less Bad™. Make sense? No? Oooookay. Here’s a chart:

Actual feedback has been blurred to protect the innocent, but yes, this is an actual snippet of a course review.

Put another way, putting the positive feedback first in my chart (example above) not only helps me keep a balanced perspective (like we talked about in #1 above), but also helps me get through the stuff that’s less pleasant to hear. 

It is also just good practice. If you want to revise or revamp a course you are teaching, it is as important to keep the parts that are working as it is to change the parts that are broken. If you only listen to what’s bad, you may be at risk of messing up, changing, or removing the parts of the class that were very effective for learning.

3. Remember that all criticism is valid- to varying degrees.

This is the point I personally struggle with the most. Getting criticism on your work that comes out of nowhere, from a different paradigm, or feels completely irrelevant is frustrating and irritating. But we all know that you should never outright disagree with a review or be anything less than grateful for the feedback. Publicly. (We will get to what to do with bad feedback privately in #5).

Just last year I received a negative review of a paper I had submitted to an Unnamed-but-Well-Known conference. This Strongly Reject review claimed my paper should be, well, strongly rejected for a litany of sins. And although I do enjoy a good sin, I did not feel that the feedback in this specific case was warranted. In particular, the review claimed the paper lacked clear methodology. This review comes despite the fact I had a subheading entitled “Methods” where I detailed the methodology I used to collect the data for the study. If you cannot tell, dear reader, I am still salty about this review. 

Going back to my own points #1 and #2, I had to read through the other two ‘Accept’ reviews of the paper to gain adequate perspective. Yes, someone probably did piss in Strongly Reject’s cereal the morning they decided to tell me my paper is bad and I am a bad academic, but they had a point buried under all their unprofessional rhetoric. My paper did have a methods section that was very clearly written for anyone coming from a background in qualitative methods or pedagogical studies, but maybe it wasn’t clear to folks coming from a comp sci or a quantitative background. 

Now I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have identified themselves as lacking expertise in the research method and asked for a paper reassignment. Or I can sit here and make the argument that Strongly Reject should have just Googled the #!@*$ing method. Or I can sit here and say Strongly Reject could have given me the benefit of the doubt that the method was appropriate considering it was well cited within top tier education journals. But I won’t. Nope, I won’t sit here and say any of that because the point still stands: if Strongly Reject was confused by how I described my methods then surely some of the conference audience would be too. I took this into consideration when I revised my paper and presentation for the conference and, honestly? My paper was much stronger thanks to Strongly Reject.

As an aside, I did complain about the review to the conference committee because it was worded in a genuinely negative way that bordered on abusive. The committee assured me they would speak to the reviewer. Hopefully they directed them to my blog post, but who knows. If you’re out there reading this Strongly Reject, it is okay. I forgive you. 😛

4. Summarise the takeaways- leave the rest.

Sometimes a review contains a phrase or sentence that’s a real dagger to the heart. Like, it is so inflammatory either because it is a straight-up personal attack or because it is the antithesis of what you tried to achieve with your work and it gets stuck playing in your head on repeat. For me, a particular phrase will join the chorus of other voices in my head telling me that I am trash, a fraud, and that I don’t belong in academia OR videogames. Oh, that’s right grad students and juniors, the self-doubt and imposter syndrome never goes away. It gets less frequent, sure, but it will never go away. You gotta learn how to manage it.

One of the ways in which I manage my imposter syndrome is by not giving it fuel. I summarise down my feedback to just a few short points (actually, not unlike how I teach my games user research students to summarise feedback for a videogame after a playtest). I use my own words to highlight the key takeaways and then prioritise them according the frequency in the feedback so that when I go to make changes I know how to prioritise. The image below is actual, genuine, bonafide key takeaways which came from a post mortem I did after Fall 2019 student course evals.

Putting the feedback in my own words might seem like an interesting choice. Grounded theory purists would say that using my own words instead of the students’, in the above example, runs the risk of polluting the data set by abstracting the takeaways too far from their original meaning. I counter this critique by saying “yeah, probably, but for my own sanity I can’t stare too long at the blackhole sun of disparaging comments so it is either this or I wont change my classes.” At the end of the day, data is meaningless unless it is actionable so ya gotta do whatcha gotta do.

5. Drink a beer, pet a dog, commiserate with a trusted friend.

On the note of putting feedback into an easier to swallow pill, let’s not forget the social/psychological effects of getting harsh critique. It sucks. It powerful sucks. If you don’t acknowledge that it sucks, you probably aren’t taking the feedback adequately on board. It is important to first emotionally deal with all the bad feels that come from having your work critiqued before you can gain the perspective necessary to make actionable changes. 

In fact, in terms of order of operations, I should probably put this pro-tip first in this blog post. I have chosen to put it last because I didn’t want students or colleagues reading this post to skim it and go, “Oh, Ashley is encouraging alcoholism as a way to deal with feedback. Cool.” 

I know much has been made about alcohol addiction amongst academics so I cautiously claim a pint as part of my coping strategy. From my years in The Shire (England) I learned that after a rough day there is really nothing better to lift the spirits than an ale, a packet of crisps, and a shoulder to whinge on. Sometimes that shoulder is a dog (or a cat for all you cat people out there) and sometimes it is a trusted friend or colleague. 

I highlight the word trusted here because I want to make a clear distinction. If you have a hard day kvetching to a partner, family member, or friend might make you feel better. I’ve found that if I complain about a conference rejection or unfair teaching evaluation to compadres not in academia or games I am met with total bewilderment or well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful advice. 

“Who does that journal think they are to tell you your paper was anything less than amazing?” -My Nan.

Great. Thanks Nana. The sentiment is appreciated, but helpful you are not.

In these cases having a wonderful work buddy to QQ at is one of the most beautiful things in the world. In my case this is the amazingly supportive Dr. Kelly Boudreau, former co-lecturer and current bestie. Kelly and I worked together for a couple years back in 2014. She is a games academic with industry experience so she’s seen both sides of the coin and has also seen me at my best and worst. She is the perfect person to talk to about a shitty review because she understands, can relate, and (MOST IMPORTANT) is discrete. 

Here’s the part of this blog post that makes me hesitate pushing that post button. Look, let’s be real. We all complain from time-to-time about all sorts of stuff. Even if you have your absolute dream job and are happy 99.9% of the time, there is still going to be that .01% of yuck that you have to deal with and having friends you can talk to about it makes life more bearable. Especially if you are an extrovert like me that needs to process things with other people. 

So it seems like everyone complains about their job from time-to-time but everyone also agrees that complaining about work is unprofessional. Here’s my argument: there is a professional way to complain about your profession. To be professional about your unprofessional behavior consider the following components to a successful whinge session: time, place and people. Make sure you are complaining at the right time (AFTER you have had time to process the good and bad parts of the feedback); at the right place (NOT at a venue where concerned parties might overhear); and with the right people (NOT those that might fuel the gossip engine or look down on you/your work/school/journal/conference as a result).

Here’s a handy list (because I love lists!) of dos and don’ts to make your complaining profesh:

Don’t make yourself (or your company, family, friends, teachers, etc) look bad by complaining about something in public. If you are at a restaurant, assume the table next to you knows the editor of the journal you want to complain about. If you are on public transit, assume the person next to you is on the institutional review board for your university and will take offense if they overhear you calling their colleagues fools for rejecting your study. This includes the internet! Please, for all of us, think twice before tweeting.

Don’t complain to the first person you see immediately after getting feedback. I’m very guilty of walking into a co-worker’s office and blowing up about some turd of a review that’s just plopped into my inbox. Learn from my fails and just don’t. Please? Give yourself time to gain perspective and take the good with the bad before you start complaining. 

Don’t exaggerate the situation for extra sympathy. “The reviewer actually said you are worse at writing than an untrained monkey?! What journal was this again? I never want to submit there!” Bad reviews are bad enough. Exaggerations and embellishments often drift into accusations about wrong-doings and abusive behaviour. Abusive or unprofessional behaviour should be taken extremely seriously. If the feedback was abusive- which while rare does unfortunately happen from time-to-time- then the appropriate authorities need to be made aware. 

Do call a trusted friend on the phone from the privacy of your own home/room/office. You should trust this friend to not be a gossip or explicitly ask them not to share the information contained in your rant.

Do pat a doggo or a kitty. You can also rant to them all ya want. They are great listeners. 

Do report reviews/reviewers who are abusive. As a counter to the above point about not exaggerating feedback, it is very important to accurately report abusive reviews to the appropriate authorities. If it is a journal, look up the editor’s contact information and send them an email with the offending review attached. If it is a conference, contact the content chair and inform them. If it is a supervisor/manager giving inappropriate feedback in a verbal performance review take your notes (hooray for writing stuff down!) to their direct supervisor or human resources manager and file a formal complaint.

There. That’s how I cope with bad reviews of my work. If you have anything to add to the list or if you’d like to give me a bad review on my review of bad reviews, then please do! I love getting conversations started and talking about the stuff in academia which is oh so rarely written down. 

Until next time (I have a soap box to stand on),


Teaching Genre and Paper Prototyping

This blog post is a postmortem for a class I ran on videogame genres in my masters level Game Design class. The main problem I was trying to solve with this lesson plan is that previous attempts to teach genre had been unsuccessful. The reasons previous attempts were unsuccessful are because:

  1. Academic literature (e.g. Apperley 2006; Arsenault 2009) problematises the idea of genre. And rightly so. Videogame genres occupy an extremely messy space between classic film genres (e.g. horror, westerns, dramas) and mechanical genres (e.g. FPS, RTS, RPG). The question students walk away from the readings with is “If genres are meaningless, then who cares?” But we still do care about genre because Metacritic cares, and because as designers we need genres to mean something in elevator pitches to save time. So then, how do I teach that?
  2. Activities which create and then critique generic boundaries only engaged a narrow selection of students who are interested in pedantics. How could I increase student buy-in on a topic most seem happy to check out of?
  3. This is a little off the topic of how to teach genre, but was still an issue I was facing at the time I designed this lecture. The students wanted more opportunities to design bad games. They asked for more chances to fail at being a game designer (without failing the class!) So how could I deliver an opportunity to design a bad game in only a 3 hour class?

The solution I came up with was to have the students create paper prototypes using core design elements which represent various genres. I, of course, did not come up with this idea alone. A huge shoutout to my Teaching Assistants Noelle Johnston and Utkarsh Rao who helped with the ideation process and another huge shoutout to my co-workers Matt Anderson, Jose Zagal and Corrinne Lewis who graciously gave their time to listen to my crackpot lesson plan and offer critique and encouragement. It takes a village, people…

A little background for context:

This activity was for a Game Design class for first year masters students. The class is mandatory for all masters students coming through the EAE program and occasionally we get interested students from other departments taking the class for fun. Class enrollment fluctuates between 60 and 70 students with a total of 63 this year. The total class time is 3 hours.

My desired learning goals/objectives for the 3 hours were as follows:

  • Have a critical discussion about genre.
  • Reflect on why genre is sometimes useful.
  • Teach students the basics of paper prototyping.
  • Get students comfortable with failing and making bad designs.

Anyway, this is how the lesson plan ran. I have used all images and videos with the permission of the folks who are in them/created them. We are happy for you to use this lesson plan in your class for educational purposes as long as you credit the designers. 

Paper Prototyping Genres: A lesson plan

By Ashley ML Brown, Noelle Johnston and Utkarsh Rao 2018

Step 1: Select the genres.

The TAs and I spent a while brainstorming which genres are amenable to being prototyped in only 2 hours. Spoiler alert: Not many are. We came up with the following list anyway:

  • Survival Horror
  • Dating Sim
  • Rhythm
  • Rogue-Like
  • Farm Sim
  • Turn-Based Strategy
  • Puzzle Platformer
  • Match 3
  • Pet Simulator
  • Endless Runner

Step 2: Gather materials

This ended up being quite material intensive. Most of the materials I ended up buying for this activity were super useful to have on hand for later activities as well though. The doubling-up of supplies drives down the average cost per activity, so its fairly easy to justify the expense to department budgeteers. It is worth noting that most of these items had to be purchased online so I had to order a couple weeks in advance. I linked my online purchases below:

Step 3: Discuss genre in class.

I opened the class with a discussion of what genre is and what it is most useful for. The students had already read the Apperley and Arsenault readings (listed above) as their homework, which allowed me to operate under the assumption students would understand critiques of genre. As I’ve run a similar lecture in the past, I came in with the expectation that getting students to be critical of genre would be easy. The hard part would be getting them to understand why we should still give a crap.

In light of this, I steered the conversation toward recognizing the importance of genre to sharing a common vocabulary, ease of pitching concepts, and being able to market your game effectively.

I ended the discussion by switching gears and talking about what paper prototyping is, what it is used for, and showing some examples of what they look like. A huge thank you to Matt Anderson for giving me fantastic resources to use for this portion. 

Step 4: Split into groups.

As this class was run in the second half of the semester, students had already formed friendship groups and cliques. In order to encourage working with people they’ve not yet had an opportunity to, the TAs split up the groups via the counting method (where you point at people and assign them a number counting up and then all the 1s group up, all the 2s, etc). As we had 10 genres, we used numbers 1-10. 

The first of each number (e.g. the first assigned number 1, the first assigned number 2, etc) became team captains. This was their reward for sitting near the front of the room. 🙂 Team captains then came to the front and drew a slip of paper with one of the above 10 genres printed on it. Once they pulled out their paper, they read the result outloud. This was done at the front of the classroom for added excitement and drama. 

Step 5: Create 5 elements (but not the Fifth Element- dohohoho)

Once in their groups of about 6 students, they were tasked with creating a recipe for their assigned genres in about 20 minutes. They had plain chart paper and scented markers to help brainstorm. The overall goal of this segment of the activity was to boil down the genre into the ‘must haves’. 

They were encouraged to think up examples of games which break the rules or lack the elements they listed. My hope was that their conversations would result in critical thought and discussion about design elements in genre and why they matter.

After the 5 elements were created, they were presented to the class and critiqued in a large group. In the above image, you can see annotations to the original list in green marker. 

Step 6: Shake things up

When I introduced the concept of making 5 generic elements, I called it a recipe. I think calling it a recipe is a useful metaphor to get students to think about what are the eggs and flour that go into an Endless Runner cake. I also, however, think that recipes are inherently inflexible. Or maybe that’s just my bias from watching too much of the Great British Bakeoff? Anyway, I was aware of the fact that the activity could leave students with this idea that in order to be a successful Pet Sim, you MUST have a digital avatar, needs to fulfill, etc… And this was not my intent.

To offset this fear of being too formulaic in the paper prototyping phase, I had the students re-draw their genres and switch after they had presented their lists. So, for example, the team that had initially created 5 elements for Pet Sims, ended up paper prototyping a survival horror game. They were instructed to take the 5 element list with them when they went into the prototyping phase, but they were not told that they had to follow the list to the letter. More on this later.

It was a little chaotic, but the good kind of chaotic. Some students were relieved they didn’t have to do design work on a genre they didn’t like or hadn’t played, others were upset that their favorite got taken away, and others just seemed excited to make something.

Step 7: Paper prototype

The students had about an hour to design and create their prototypes with the materials I provided. As this was the first time I had ever run this activity, I wasn’t sure whether or not it would be successful. An hour isn’t a lot of time to talk about design, let alone create any sort of assets.

My nervousness about students’ ability to design and create with strict time constraints was ultimately unfounded. Using teamwork and efficiently delegating tasks, students were able to create functional (and even fun!) prototypes. Examples of the prototypes can be seen above.

Step 8: Playtesting

We spent the rest of the class playtesting each other’s paper protoypes

Survival Horror:

Puzzle Platformer:


Thoughts, conclusions

Overall, I think the activity was very successful at tackling common teaching meta-problems. By meta problems, I mean problems experienced by all teachers and not just professors of game design- for example engaging students who normally check out. 

Here’s what I was hoping would happen: I hoped students would take the element list from the team that created it and tear it up. Or reorganise it. Add to it, subtract from it. A few teams did this, but unfortunately many teams decided they would ‘fail’ the assignment if they didn’t include every element on the list. I write ‘fail’ because the activity wasn’t graded, but I feel like in this case I failed the students a bit. The activity wasn’t as successful in pushing their critical thinking as I would have liked because the act of creating genre recipes seemed to have boxed in their thinking. To remedy this in future, I will be more proactive and literal in telling students to push against their inherited design elements.

If you decide to run this activity, or a modified version of it in one of your classes, do let me know! I’m eager to see how different professors and students react to this lesson plan.

EAE’s 10 Year Anniversary

Okay, so I work at Entertainment Arts and Engineering at the University of Utah. The content of this post might be a tad biased, but I promise no one bribed me into writing it! I sincerely felt inspired after our 10 year anniversary talks and events and spent time thinking critically about what makes a good university games program- for both the people who work there and the students. Ultimately what I discovered was the core of EAE’s success is getting the right people together at a place that feels like home.

Salt Lake is a beautiful place to make games.

EAE‘s 10 year anniversary celebration took place on Monday, 30 April. It was a day full of talks about the local games industry in Salt Lake, the role of university education in creating the next generation of game makers, and, most importantly, about how people are at the core of success.

Namely, these people.

People-as-drivers-of-success was the theme of the day. The idea that EAE functions and succeeds because of the people involved in it was echoed by faculty, staff, students and industry guests. And it was sincere. Too often in universities people diffuse their own achievements by acknowledging that success is a collective effort (well duh, of course it is!), but that wasn’t the spirit of yesterday. The spirit of yesterday was that we, the people that make up EAE’s faculty, staff, students, and industry friends, are family.

I think the family metaphor for workplaces is usually dangerous. In fact, when I was on the job market, it became a sort of red flag for unhealthy workplace practices (e.g. we are going to keep you here such long hours you will see your co-workers more often than your blood relatives). So I want to be clear that I’m not using the family metaphor in that sense here. I’m using it in the sense that I trust every one of my coworkers fully and completely as much as I’d trust my own blood. I know they have my back and I have theirs, but also I trust them to help me grow and become a better teacher… and a better human.

So many students, alumni and industry friends in one place!

So how do you make a group of people from 15+ countries, 10+ racial backgrounds, different economic and social statuses who are members of different faith groups come together as one big, happy family? Well, you don’t really have to do anything. There’s another demographic variable at play: we are all nerds.

I use the term nerd in an affectionate way, but it has a particular connotation to it. Nerds are the outcrowd- a sub-subculture of self-selected or otherwise rejected people who band together over peculiar interests. Whilst the flavour of nerd varies (e.g. comic book nerds, computer science nerds, data nerds, videogame nerds…) what we all have in common is that we have all experienced what it is like to be an outsider, although in different ways and to varying degrees. We have all felt awkward, uncomfortable and left out. I imagine every single person in the world has felt those feelings, of course, but maybe us nerds are more sensitive to them. In any case, when we get together we tend to cling to each other as a result.

Or we cling to dogs, you know, whatevs. And yes, Link the Doggo came to our party.

I say cling to be hyperbolic, but I think the general metaphor holds true. When you’ve never really connected to a group of people before, or if you have always felt a little odd or out of place and suddenly you find a place that feels comfortable, you cling to it. You call it home. You call the other people there family. And that’s what makes EAE so awesome. We are a home and family for a network of hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and staff from all over the world who have bonded together over their nerdy interests.

And so allow me to end this long-winded, glorified thank you note by cheering all the wonderful people I work with. Thank you for everything you’ve done to make EAE feel like home for so many. Myself included.

Here’s to another 10 years!


SpoOOoky Podcasts

My favourite time of the year is upon us- goth Christmas (aka Halloween). But it is barely even October you say? Doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. Halloween is a month-long celebration in my house. In fact, I actually start putting up autumnal decorations in September. I truly enjoy it that much.

I listen to podcasts a lot when walking Isabelle or taking roadtrips, but I am fairly new to the listening scene. I’ve complied a list of my favourite Halloween-themed podcasts, but there’s only three!

  1. Savage Love’s 2012 Special– Use headphones if the kids are around for this one as it is intended only for those 18 and older. As past readers of this blog will know, I’m a Dan Savage fan, even if I don’t agree with every point he makes. This gem from 2012 is probably my all time favourite Lovecast episode. It is gruesome, hilarious, and sexy all at once. Enjoy.
  2. Lore– I can’t actually pick a single episode from Aaron Mahnke’s podcast because they are all so good. So my second entry is all of this podcast. If you like your historical nonfiction and myths creepy with a side of the macabre, then just listen to the whole thing. It is brilliant. And it is launching as an Amazon series! Gasp!
  3. Limetown– Whilst the other two podcasts I linked are non-fiction, this one is pure imagination. Fictional people from a fictional town disappear, but it is written and voiced so well that it seems real.
  4. All Killa No Filla– Recommended by Andy Hill- Comedians talk about serial killers. What could go wrong?
  5. Welcome to Night Vale– Recommended by Utkarsh Rao- Small desert town, mysterious lights in the sky… It is a classic for a reason.
  6.  The Black Tapes– Recommended by Matthew Jones- Horror fiction-presented-as-fact at its finest.
  7. Tanis– Recommended by Matthew Jones- Lovecraftian horror.
  8. Alice Isn’t Dead– Recommended by Matthew Jones- From the makers of Welcome to Night Vale, but a bit more plot heavy?
  9. Darkest Night– Recommended by Matthew Jones.
  10. Rabbits– Recommended by Matthew Jones.

I need your help to grow my list and have something fun to listen to on my fall break. Share your favourites in the comments or via social media pretty please.

I will update this list as recommendations rolls in, so if you too are looking for some creepy audio files, check back in.

Until next time,



Play Therapy and My Doggo

When I first saw Isabelle she was in kennel D20 of the Utah Humane Society. She critically hit my heart and I knew it was fate. This scrappy yellow dog was going to become my companion and best friend.

This photo was taken as the ink on the adoption papers was drying. Notice how my car is dog hair-free? Those were the days…

Of course I adopted her for more reasons than just the sweet D&D reference, but I have to admit that she came with quite a few warning labels which made me have doubts about my ability to care for her. Not only was I warned that she is a mix of aggressive breeds, but she also was potentially a fear-biter. When she was found roaming the streets, Humane Society staff couldn’t approach her. Then they had to board her for several days before anyone could get close enough to vaccinate her- even with specialist equipment.


Knowing all her problems, I adopted her anyway because I like a good challenge. And a good challenge she was. My animal handling skills were put to the test almost instantly.

Initially, Isabelle was afraid of everything. Her tail was between her legs during every walk and she would jump out of her fur at any loud noise. She would frequently wake me up in the middle of the night whining and crying and for a while I regretted my decision to ever get a dog.

Plus, she had a cold. I had adopted a sick dog. Things weren’t looking great. I mean, I had a feverish pup who sneezed on everything and tried to bite people. The weirdest part of all? She wouldn’t play. She wouldn’t chase balls, or frisbees nor would she tug-o-war with me and her rope. If you threw something, she would at best chase it and at worst look terrified. Even after she finished her antibiotics and was healthy! The irony was thick. I, a game scholar, adopted a dog who didn’t know how to play.

I asked my vet how to fix this problem. She said to socialise her with other dogs at a daycare. This helped immensely.

Learning how to play was a big deal for Isabelle.

Within a few weeks of being introduced to her new daycare pack she became more social. The first difference I noticed was that her tail was less frequently between her legs and more often up, if not wagging. Then she would occasionally play-bow (front legs sprawled out, butt up in the air) in the backyard. I’m told this is how dogs signal to each other, and their humans, that they want to play. We started playing tug-o-war with her rope (pictured above) and then moved onto fetch. Things were looking up!

After learning to play, Isabelle became more animated generally, but also more confident. Instead of hiding behind me on walks she started growling, howling and crying at the approach of other dogs. Not only was this embarrassing as people would stare at my out-of-control pup having a temper tantrum because there was another dog 10 metres away, but it was also baffling. She was doing great with her pack at daycare, so why would she freak out in the park?

Our training involved a lot of placing Isabelle on things.

When running 5-6k a day with her didn’t calm her nervous energy, I decided it was time for behavioural training and asked the daycare for a recommendation. The behaviourist Mike was confident that general obedience training would help her trust me more and listen better. He was right. Within a six weeks of regular training and exercise, Isabelle became easier to walk and more confident in the park.


By Halloween she no longer howled and had temper tantrums, but was still a bit shaky. It wasn’t until Christmas she was sniffing-butts and comfortable greeting strange dogs in the park. This is the first time I let her off-leash.

Because everyone needs Christmas jammies, right?

I took her on holiday with me to visit family in Mexico. I was able to ride a bike along the beach with her trotting leashless next to me. Despite plenty of distractions (birds, washed up dead dolphins) she never left my side.

From the shelter to having a Christmas beach holiday… Lucky dog.

Although Isabelle’s good behaviour is a product of a lot of time, money, and energy, I think the turning point in our relationship was when she learned from other dogs how to play. I’m sure animal behaviourists have a much more professional way of putting this, but essentially once she loosened up enough to play, she was free enough to learn her role in my ‘pack’ (okay, pack might be an over statement since its just me, but hey, I’m the alpha!) and in her daycare pack. As a result, she is a much happier dog and I’m a much happier human.


Looking back on our journey together over the past year it seems like more than coincidence that the dog who was too scared to play lived in kennel D20 and was adopted by a game academic. She has taught me so much about why play is important to her and my psycho-social well being. I only hope I can continue to give her a happy, healthy life in return. Here’s to playing many more years together.

Until next time,



I’m back. And I’m a homeowner.

So as it turns out, moving across the Atlantic and buying a house was a bit more than I had bargained for. Something had to give and that something was updating my website… And my blog!

Welp, I’m back up and running now and here to post my first blog since last Christmas (crikey!). If you were curious what I’ve been up to, let me demystify: I spend almost every weekend at home improvement stores now.

This was on my birthday. I went to Lowe’s to buy air filters on my birthday because I had a 20% off coupon. Just let that sink in…

Between DIY repairs and upgrades, homeownership thus far has been a never-ending drama. Don’t get me wrong, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a home, let alone own one, but something I’ve always taken for granted is how much work goes into maintaining a house. I guess I had always thought as long as you swept it and mopped it the walls would take care of themselves. Oh what a sweet, summer child I was.

Problem number 1: a leaky window well.

Upon moving in, I immediately discovered a flooded basement courtesy of an improperly sealed basement window. Sigh. At least that was an easy fix.

Then I didn’t have a washer or a dryer. An expensive problem, but not an insurmountable one. I bought a flashy Samsung model that sings to you when your clothes are done. Slight problem though…


I swear I measured the counter and the washer multiple times, and yet there we were. Couldn’t open the detergent drawer because the crummy plastic and press-board counter was too deep.

Okay, again, not a difficult fix. Just gotta saw the countertop to fit, but dusty business…

… and I could go on. Like how long it took to hang all my retro Star Trek posters- which by the way are nicely framed because I am a grown up. (That’s the rule: It’s okay to have posters on your walls if you’re over 30 years old, as long as you frame them.)


Or how incredibly satisfying (and simple!) it was to replace a gross, old shower head with something shiny and new.


But I’ll spare you all the gory details. The important thing is I am back and ready to blog. In between home projects, of course.

Until next time,


Happy Nerdy Holidays

If there’s one thing that can get me into the holiday mood, it is geeky holiday specials and nerdy spins on classic carols. I’ve complied a listicle of my favourite YouTube hits here, but by no means is it exclusive. Feel free to comment and add your favourites.

Angry Video Game Nerd Bible Games (Episodes 1-3)

Remember all those great religious games for the NES? No? Well that’s because they weren’t officially released by Nintendo (except for 1 odd Konami title which had almost nothing actually religious in it). The Angry Video Game Nerd plays Bible-related skins, bootlegs and ports of classic games in these 3 holiday specials. It is hilarious and informative of the wild west of early games’ enforcement of intellectual property rights.

“Christmas Raid Carol”- The Guild

You gotta love any carol that starts off with the line: “Dead orcs roasting in a lava pit…” A classic from the early days of Felicia Day and co’s The Guild.

“Make it So”- Captain Picard

Some genius cut TNG to make this fantastic carol.

12 Days of Starcraft

This is an animated version of the old internet classic. Enjoy.


A Call to Hugs

I, like most of you, am still reeling from the implications of last night’s election. Not only because of the rather bleak financial outlook and how that will impact my personal life, but also because I am witnessing history repeat and it is devastating. 2222618062_a4a451ea1f

More important than how I feel, however, are how marginalised groups are doing. The fact that we now have a Republican controlled House, Senate and President isn’t the key issue here. The key issue is that we have elected someone who was endorsed by the KKK– who are now celebrating a very white victory. If this is anything like what happened with Brexit, which it is looking very similar indeed, then many of our friends and loved ones might be fearful over the repercussions of this election. lutracanadensis_fullres

This is not a message of sensationalism or over-reaction, this is a message of love, compassion and preparedness. I sincerely hope that hatecrimes do not rise 58% this week, like they did the week after Brexit, but something in my gut tells me they might.

We need to be prepared to deal with the fallout of this election by helping others. Think of this blog post as a call to hugs*.

Look out for your LGBTQ friends, your friends of colour, your friends from non-dominant faith groups, your immigrant friends, your friends from lower socio-economic backgrounds, your mothers, sisters, aunts, and other ladies in your life.european_hedgehog_erinaceus_europaeus

Regardless of who you voted for, check in on your friends and see how they are doing. See how they are coping with the fact their marriages might become invalid, they might lose their healthcare plan, or they might feel unsafe. Of course I am speaking in hyperbole here. Don’t actually ask these rather personal questions. Don’t ask anything at all. Offer a shoulder, an ear, or a cuppa. Listen and provide love and comfort.

This is a moment in which we can all show how much we care for each other. We can show our humanity and that will make all the difference. It could change history.

Until next time,


PS- Pix in this post aren’t relevant, but much needed.


*But also not hugs if some folks** don’t wanna be touched.

** I mean engineers.  Clearly.


There’s a thing I like to do twice a year. I like to temporarily pause my vices in the name of charity. Its like Stoptober, with a twist. (Shout out to my design peeps who love the term ‘with a twist’).

The premise is simple. Rather than doing something for charity, do less. Give something up. Quit smoking, quit drinking, quit eating sweets, quit PSLs and then take all the money you’d ordinarily spend on cigarettes/beer/cupcakes/coffee/whatever and sling it to a charity of your choice. Not only does it help those in need, it also shows your concerned family members that your vice of choice is not a problem and you really can quit whenever you want.

So why am I blogging about this? To waft my smugness in your faces, of course. I’m a Good Person™ and look at all the Good™ I am doing.

Just kidding. I’m a terrible person and we all know that.

I’m actually blogging about my yearly sobriety sprints because I’m frustrated that there isn’t an app for this already. I was sitting down with a pen and paper trying to calculate how much money I have ‘saved’ from not drinking thus far and I got annoyed at the inefficiency. I ended up calculating a rough estimate of $4 a day out of pure laziness. Don’t get me wrong, $4 x 31 days= $124 which is a sizable chunk of change to donate, but now that I figured out the sum I find myself a) frustrated at the inaccuracy (type A people of the world unite!) and b) if the dollar outcome is predetermined, why not just donate the cash and call it a day?

I naturally turned to technology for help, but my app store searches came up with nada. So what did I do? I made some wireframe mock ups of what I envision such an app to be. I’m uploading my sketches here in the hopes some brilliant engineers will want to collaborate on making this app a reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no pretense of greatness here. I know that ideas are like assholes, everyone has 4, but I think an app like this could be successful. It’s got a lusory, competitive, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic which could make donating to charity fun. High horses not included.

Without further blathering, here are my sketches with annotations. The sketches are funny and convey the form/feel/aesthetic of the app. The annotations are dry and very ‘Ashley’.  I’m sorry.

Note that CharityLOL is a working title.

Also note scrollbars appear on screen to indicate extra content. As this is developed for mobile, actual scrollbars will not be needed.

Image 1: Sign up screen.


The sign up screen allows the user to: set a location (to access local charities/ food and drink databases); set a start and end date for their ‘marathon’; and choose what they are giving up.

Scrolling down, the user is invited to either input average consumption and price (alcohol is used here as an example, but it could be cigarettes, sweets, etc…) or use the app’s database and barcode scanner. Like apps such as Fitbit, CharityLOL will have access to a user-generated database of consumer products. The idea behind this is to give users motivation to stay the course during high-pressure moments. For example, when at a restaurant with friends the user might be tempted to order a beer, but with the app they can opt instead to document the drink they turned down. This rewards the user for saying no, and gains more money for the charity in question.

The application will be tied to the user’s bank account/credit card for daily donations in much the same way many mobile games require a card on file for in-app purchases. Think of the daily donation as an in-app purchase which goes right to the charities they support. This is designed so that if the user terminates the application or stops using it charities will still receive the funds earned up until that point.

Image 2: Choosing charities/ daily log-in screens.



Integral to this app’s functionality are partnerships with local charities, which is shown on the left screen above. This is so the user is able to see the impact their donations have firsthand, and also this is how CharityLOL will be monetised- but not for profit. Following JustGiving’s 5% model, a charge is applied to charities who sign up to receive donations which is then re-invested into running and maintaining the application.

Whenever a user logs in to check how much they have given or make an entry, they will be greeted with a progression screen. The progression screen will show how much they have given, the charities they have helped, and the number of days they have gone without their favourite vice. Options to share progression on social media are offered to encourage the user to reach their goal.

Image 3: End screen.


Upon the completion of the user-identified time period, a congratulatory screen will appear which summarises the user’s experience and awards them with an achievement. The user then has the option of sharing their success on social media, which will allow congratulations and additionally spread word of the app’s existence.

Image 4: Fail state.


As this is not a game, there is no real fail state, but there is negative feedback to the user. Providing negative user feedback is important to encourage completion of the set timeline. It is also important to ensure there is value to the app’s badges. In the above example, the user would become ineligible for the October alcohol-free badge until next year, but they would still be eligible for other, smaller milestones such as Two Weeks without a Drink badge.

And that’s it. That’s the mock up I have. Who wants to make it?

Until next time,


Sidenote 1: Students (who I assume are the bulk of my readership, lol) might be wondering why I didn’t use a game design document to illustrate the app’s functionality. Good question.  The short answer is: because its a UI wireframe. The long answer is: I wanted a clean, easy to read, direct depiction of the app’s UI without much detail about what the user does. There is no game design verb here. Mostly the user clicks boxes. Thus, I need to show which boxes the user clicks- not the experience of clicking. Make sense? If not, email me.

Sidenote 2: Thanks to Roger Altizer for introducing me to Basalmiq. And generally mentoring me.

Sidenote 2: The feature photo of this post has nothing to do with the content. Also, it came from The Best and Worst Photo Blog and even though it was labelled for re-use on Google images, I thought I should give them a shoutout.

Sidenote 3: This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit