One of the reasons that Johan Huzinga’s book Homo Ludens has such an important place in gaming culture is that it writes a blank check for game studies. If the play element can potentially be found in any part of culture, then any part of culture can be discussed from a gaming perspective. Mary Flanagan’s book Critical Play is an examination of that concept from the perspective of social activism. Often involving artists and poets, it outlines the play element of several cultural movements and how they used games to raise awareness and accelerate social change. Like many games today, a lot of the games that Flanagan discusses are difficult to understand unless you’re playing them. I picked out examples that I thought I could communicate effectively, but it is a massive topic that can’t be fully accommodated on a blog. So, bear with me here.
Flanagan proposes several overarching guidelines for critical play and how it works. She writes, “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life . . . . Criticality in play can be fostered in order to question an aspect of a game’s ‘content,’ or an aspect of a play scenario’s function that might otherwise be considered a given or necessary” (6). A basic example of this process occurring naturally is playing with dolls. Often used to enforce gender roles and stereotypes, many young girls today and in the early days of the doll industry would use dolls to subvert social roles. Violent fantasies, macabre funerals, and other forms of changing the way play worked with dolls provides a striking example of critical play in its natural form. Flanagan writes, “The enactment of critical play exhibits at least three kinds of action: unplaying, re-dressing or reskinning, and rewriting” (32). “Unplaying” is acting out forbidden scenes with the doll. “Re-dressing” is changing the doll’s appearance or items for darker play, like making funeral items and caskets. “Rewriting” is fan fiction and the proliferation of people writing stories about the doll funerals.