Glory Story: Peter Zahradnik’s Bachelor Thesis

I had the pleasure of supervising Peter‘s bachelor’s thesis

Design of a female character that actively opposes the sexist stereotypes in League of Legends

and I am unbelievably proud of his written and practical work, which reflects the unfaltering dedication for justice in design that has shaped his path as a fledgling game designer. The analysis of sexist stereotypes and the careful consideration in designing contradiction has led to Hio, a human-bat chimera (Vastaya): grandmother, environment protection activist, and badass tattooed battle mage.

Her design is based on the knowledge gained in analysing the toxic context of player base and industry, and dissecting the stereotypes of female character in the game League of Legends. Thus, to oppose the almost identical faces of other female characters, Hio’s face is visibly wrinkled and doesn’t have childlike traits. Her hairline has receded. Her gaunt arms are long and spindly and her legs are short, unlike the disproportionately long legs of her female co-champions. The bat traits aren’t cute wings, but rather an overall batlikeness of her entire visual language wild mane, claws and tattered clothes, which are comfortable, protective and not gendered.

Protoype of a character sheet for Hio. Displayed here with permission of the author (Zahradnik 2021)

This was my first thesis supervision, and quite a ride Peter and I are both new to schools of thought like feminist theory or game culture studies. Knowing that sexualisation of female characters is often harmful, and knowing when we perceive it as misogynistic or oppressive, or having a vague feeling about the effects it might have, is one thing, but putting our finger on why and how exactly it’s harmful and then putting that into words is a different battle entirely. Further, in order to develop his characters based on analysis rather than intuition, he had to find concepts with which to dissect the character design, such as cuteness, and define visual stereotypes. Design knowledge is learned practically and developed through experience, thus, it is mostly intuitive and extremely hard to verbalise. But he pulled through, and created a coherent examination of framework and documentation of his process. I imagine the actual character design, although time-consuming, was a cakewalk after that.

The best parts for me were, of course, that I was allowed to participate in this. We spent a couple of very fun meetings image-searching stuff like “bat nose“, “issey miyake origami dress” and “tasuki” (the latter of which raised a highly insecure discussion about Japonisme and cultural appropriation). Being allowed to look at his sketches and command him to “try this” and “do that” was an incredibly exciting experience for me, and I learned a lot. Most importantly, for the first time I have consciously observed that constructive criticism is love: I had to force Peter to throw out an unbelievable amount of LoL lore he had written into his thesis, and listen to his laments of what his beloved game could be if it was better those long rants are what makes this thesis special to me, and I believe the outcome reflects how much he cares.

As I write this, I am sipping Malzkaffee because I already had three troughs of real coffee and my hands are shaky.

Knowledge Management: Zotero is Bae

Good news: I have found a good system of managing and archiving my knowledge. My remembrance structure has improved insanely these last couple of months. Unexpectedly, the more my flow improved, the less I took notes – these days, I directly write everything into the working file, and only open my notebook when I take meeting notes (I forget everything immediately if I don’t do that) or when I add to my Glossary. I’ve also recently taken the long-time-coming leap to declutter and reboot my Zotero for the literature and citations part of it all – I am in love with the browser extension and I can’t believe I haven’t been using it all this time.

I think everything is going great because I’ve stopped reading what’s not in my focus, and have developed a clearer aim (for now). Since the best way for me to remember is to integrate things into a work in progess, I find myself having fallen into a wave-like rhythm that works, as far as I can tell at this point:

I write, and as I write, I find myself getting stuck, I find gaps and missing knowledge, or stumble across new words in a meeting. I then go on excessive multiple-tab literature/article/discussion searching frenzies, until I get the feeling that I’ve gotten an overview and I’m just coming back to the same stuff. I then open the Download Folder Of Doom, and scan all the abstracts, and then put some in a folder called unread unused and proceed to print the others.

Then I do only reading for a while, and highlight bits and scribble notes on the side (sometimes a couple go to the unread unused after a first scan). I half-forget this enormous wave of information and let the subconscious do its work. After a day or two, I sit down and Zotero it all with my bae browser extension, and write a very rough summary of the main points/notes/commentary directly into my overleaf file, which I also copy into the respective Zotero notes. Finally, I insert all the bibtex snippets into my overleaf project.

Then, it’s back to writing – figuring out where the snippets go, polishing, splitting up, deleting. And then, back to writing freely until I get stuck once more… I find this chunking into different waves of doing only 1 thing works very well for me. I previously tried to do it all at the same time but found that interrupting one thing with another really messed up my concentration, and I’m very happy I’ve finally found something that works. I am still unable to write if I have other tasks or imminent holes in the day, but I’ll figure that one out in time, I hope.

The learnings so far:

  • Putting in prep work and creating a good strucure to work in is so insanely important and the later I do it, the more time I waste
  • I have to try my share of tips from other people to find out what works for me and what doesn’t, not every established workflow is my style
  • I need a goal/aim/outcome plan for everything I do, otherwise it’s wasted time (even if this outcome is just to summarize for future use)

As I write these lines, I enjoy a coffee with a piece of banana bread with chocolate chunks that I made yesterday but which already has gone stale due to being fridged.

Knowledge Management: Twitter Notes

Right now, I’m obsessed with finding a way to better archive and manage all the stuff I learn on account of having a sieve for brains. I use Evernote at the moment, where my thoughts are gathered in a wild flurry of digital notes (interspersed with links, sketches, and so on) not too different from their physical pendant (I’m thinking of switching to Bear for beauty reasons (because you absolutely should make things beautiful) and maybe also because I secretly want a fresh start). Then there’s this blog for chronicles and meta-thoughts, my horribly disorganized Zotero for references, and finally, the polished write-up temple Overleaf. So much about the structural set-up.

The notes themselves are a caliber of their own. I’m still figuring out how best to take them. It’s getting better, but I still find myself making the same old useless notes mistakes that effected the creation of this blog in the first place. There are two types of notes: purposeful notes and general notes. For me, the latter are the great challenge.

The only notes I’m really happy with are my glossary, and those that are loosely snippeted into Overleaf projects I’m working on write now = being written up purposefully. Project-based teaching, I scream!

Summarising + synthesising is not enough for me, it takes purposeful output to remember it, and for it to be in a form that is useful later on. I’m happy with the way I read and the notes on the side of the paper, but if I don’t immediately incorporate them in something I’m writing at the moment, the transferred version in a notebook is, to a certain extent, doomed.

Enter Sabine Harrer‘s introductory Twitter notes on whiteness in games. I found them after listening to a talk on the topic, and I thought the idea of “telling a friend” in an easy accessible manner is a brilliant way of non-contextual notekeeping, especially for one-off content. I have since processed some Phd-unrelated content I’ve absorbed on the side in the format of slide-based mini-presentations as if intended for social media sharing, and become a believer: the little bit of extra effort that goes into sorting it out, making it as short as possible, and creating a message for an imaginary public makes me not just better at understanding what’s relevant and interesting, but (in contrast to my usual processing practice of verbally telling long-suffering friends and family all the details) also leaves me with a handy little presentation for the future, complete with links and references. Feynman would be proud of me.

Speaking of which, this is also food for thought on another level: My eternal annoyance with online misinformation, especially harmful health advice from self-proclaimed gurus, ties into this loosely: I have to be careful to make sure I provide evidence, I state my own limitations and context, and invite criticism.

The takeaway:

  • “Telling a friend”: putting learnings into easily consumable little mini-presentations or mini-summaries helps me internalise and then re-visit the content even when forgotten.
  • Organising knowledge (e.g. into different topics, formats or for different purposes) helps me remember by fixing the context that the knowledge was gained in or for

As I write these lines, I find myself eating shitty soft bread with rancid peanut butter and some half-priced sour cherry jam from the institute fridge.

Teaching Reflections: Our twisted perception of creative work

As I skim the more than 250 student feedbacks about a condensed speculative design assignment they did (described more closely in this post), I find many, many answers along the lines of “I’m not good at drawing” “I’m not very creative” “I was so happy we were allowed to do something free and imaginary, even though it was scary” – alongside answers like “I had no idea of how design actually works” and “this has really opened my eyes”.

While I neither expect first-year informatics students (except for those with prior experience or interest) to know anything about …. design in the broadest sense (here I am again wishing there were Better Words for Things), I have already given (and heard) many a rant on the for some reason established phenomenon of parents, teachers and peers shaming the bulk of children into insecurity about creative output like drawing or singing. Even while I knew this, and therefore explicitly remarked in the assignment prompts that skill was not of import, I must have still assumed there also just wasn’t that much interest, so I was genuinely surprised at the high interest most students seemed to show in speculative design and critical and visual creative work.

And then I went off on a whole other thought tangent I keep coming back to: transdisciplinary literacy.

Skilled workers tend to develop a sort of arrogance about their own field and profession, and disdain towards other perspectives and non-experts, when in truth every single engineer who dabbles in graphic design and every artist who starts coding should be commended for their enthusiasm, even if it’s misplaced, misinformed or poorly executed. It shouldn’t be ridiculed or hindered. Of course, we shouldn’t pretend to do what we’re not qualified to, but insights into other fields are essential for cooperation and better understanding of context of the own field. Sounds like a given, but in (educational) practice, it’s often not.

Reading the student feedback, I thought back on my time at art uni, about how trapped I felt in the art bubble, wanting to but not really knowing how to cooperate with students from, say, the university of natural resources and life sciences, or, well, the TU department of informatics. Yes, it’s necessary to learn how to reach out to experts and on your own and all that, but I’m talking about something else here. There was no time or way to, in our impossibly full schedule with assignments and deadlines suffocating us, cooperate with other students. There should be so much more institutional facilitation of transdisciplinary courses and exchanges. Why isn’t there? P—- tells me over lunch, “we tried, but the one time it actually took place, TU students realized mid-semester that for [a ridiculous reason], they wouldn’t be able to get credits for it. you can imagine the rest”.

As I write these lines, I furiously devour a piece of toast.

Teaching Reflections: Good Calls by Mistake

The semester is over, and I haven’t updated my research blog this entire time – because I haven’t done any research. Turns out co-organising a course with ~600 students is a full-time job, so I was unable to get much of anything else done during the winter semester. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to recall the great Ron Swanson’s words:

Now the semester is over, and after taking off a much-needed weekend to go into the mountains (where I belong), I’m back on track, with a huge amount of data from the assignments I made, which I’m not sure how, if at all, I can use. So far, in an act of shameless Selbstbeweihräucherung (one of the greatest words the German language has come up with), I’ve read only the feedback, which was largely positive. This is of course very soothing: if nothing else, the students had fun. Here’s the assignments:

Assignment 1: Mindquest

Students analyse the mental health services offered at the TU Wien, and critically examine how realistic and accessible they are. They then create a – possibly digitally – improved concept.

Assignment 2: Good Social Media

Students explore the “good” and “bad” aspects of social media as well as what these values mean for them. They survey or interview other students about their positive and negative experiences with social media, and based on this, create guidelines for a positive social media platform.

Assignment 3: Speculative Design – A not Entirely Normal Semester

In this more design-focused assignment, students analyse the social aspects of distance learning during a pandemic, and engage their personal challenges with this by designing a fictional solution to enhance closeness to other persons from afar.

Update 1 Year later (March 2022):

The three assignments I came up with were only loosely connected to my research, and in hindsight (I am editing this post almost exactly one year later), I wasn’t able to use anything for my PhD research. I am very happy that, for no particular reason, I decided to focus more on what the students might gain from these assignments, rather than how they might help me in my research (which has since changed).

I used student feedback to improve and update the assignments for the 21/22 iteration of the course, and they remained popular choices. It was a lot less work than coming up with them from scratch, which was all the better as we made a lot of changes to the course format to improve and evolve the digital flipped-classroom approach, and there was a lot of extra work to be done.

But all was not “for naught” for me, either. I’ve foisted the Good Social Media assignment on a Bachelor Student, who is doing some thematic analysis magic, and I’m excited to find out what’s going to come of that. And – to procrastinate struggling with my actual PhD – I ended up writing a paper on all the things we learned about teaching design from the Speculative Design: A not Entirely Normal Semester… assignment.

I’ll link it here when it’s published!

As I update this post, I am treating myself to some pureed frozen strawberries with banana, lime juice and coconut water. I can only recomment it.

Criticism is Care: The “Science” of Well-being

I completed half the course in a day in an onset of curiosity and impatience (my worst but most fruitful personality traits) – it’s a great overview, providing what it should: a gateway, guidance and a thorough overview of the field. I did recommend it to many of my friends, as a solid crash course on self-improvement and well-being, but I do have some issues with it.

For one thing, not acknowledging the US-based cultural approach, which I feel is obligatory in an international course. As an example, random acts of kindness are presented are a good way to hone compassion, or chatting with a stranger as a way to feel any social connection. For my cultural environment (and yes this is just anecdotal but it is my lived experience), this is untrue – we are fulfilled by solid and healthy in-depth close relationships with friends and the like, while superficial connection makes us feel more isolated. Purposeful help in the immediate community is regarded as important, while random acts of kindness may be seen as ultimately self-serving. Both are known cultural divergence between Europe and the US (and other places as well, I bet). But no studies or research about this are presented (maybe I will look some up and add them if I find the time).

Plus, many young people (target group of the course) these days suffer from social anxiety, which makes both recommendations impossibly stressful.

And: how much of our social interactions can we really ‘force’, and why do we want to control and gamify them? I was frustrated with the book “Reality is Broken” when I read it ages ago for the same reasons (the message was “enable social connection by giving people gamified frameworks” rather than “empower people to develop better social skills and give them some credit“) because in my experience – and this may also be a cultural difference – a real emotional connection cannot be gamified, and maybe it shouldn’t. I’m not sure that chatting up strangers on a subway or doing random acts of kindness, especially if not heartfelt, is the right way to go when trying to achieve long-term, quality well-being.

I noticed many aspects of the “best practice” presented in this course, such as gratitude, meditation, taking breaks etc. are a core part of many religions – which added onto that uneasy feeling: I disagree with the approach of this-science-is-absolute-and-universal in the course – or in any case, the way certain things are presented as absolutes. Well-being is inherently subjective, socially and culturally situated, and it’s already strange to present anything as factual, when all should be presented as a tendency subject to individual differences. For instance, it was stressed that cosmetic surgery or weight loss have no impact on overall happiness, but from personal experience I can say it does, greatly, on many counts – this is simply a very dogmatic and overly simplified way to talk about a complex and, again, subjective aspect of our well-being. For instance, I was overweight when I was unhappy, depressed, and living to a routine I couldn’t control, and I hated my body – and I lost weight in connection with the privilege of a more self-determined lifestyle, and it made me happier in the long term. Years on, I am still happy with my slimmer body and I love it. People get cosmetic surgery or lose weight for different reasons, and it’s not the weight loss or the surgery, but the reasons for them that impact happiness, and those reasons are as diverse as the individual experiences that led to them (I know I should also look up research to prove this too but come on).

Anyway, the learning from this for me is, if you’re going to try making a course for *everyone*, especially about well-being and personal health concerns, you absolutely have to acknowledge not only cultural, but also personal differences and needs, and stay with the murkiness of it all. Just presenting things critically would have been enough to make things right – even though the rest of the lectures later address some of these topics (hedonic adaptation, miswanting, poor self-assestment, resilience), I still think these things must be pointed out at all times, and you should never just claim something is absolute, even if you then dissect it later.

Status: drinking coffee that has gone cold.