Mary Flanagan’s ‘Critical Play’

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.

The connection that this process has with social activism is that the games that people play and how they play those games change in response to culture. The very notion of playing games for pleasure came about in the early 1900s as a result of the middle and the upper classes having more free time (24). Often games will reflect the values of the era, such as in The Mansion of Happiness game, in which the player gets stalled if they land on a vice like “pride”. They could not continue in the game until they went back to the “humility” space (80). They could also be used to reinforce racial stereotypes as well like The Wandering Jew, a game based on a series of books where players would randomly draw events associated with the book. During war, numerous games about demonizing the opposing side arise. A game originally about hunting wildlife, resembling those air rifle games that you see at carnivals, was repainted to allow the hunting of Japanese soldiers. (94) Monopoly sales increased dramatically during the Great Depression. Pre-existing games will often change in response to culture change as well. In Chess, the was originally Queen a fairly useless piece that could only move one space. A string of powerful queens in Europe influenced the game so that Queens became the most powerful piece on the board (108).

If games adjust to and become popular based on the issues of the day, then they can have an effect on those issues as they frame the way that those issues are discussed. As Flanagan suggests when commenting on the Rococo movement, “a group’s preference for specific activities is one important way values emerge in a culture. The leisure habits of the rich are framed as activities to see and to be seen at. They prove exercise, but no exertion; they are a courtly site of sociality and pleasure” (21). As noted above, more sophisticated forms of critical play are hard to put into words because you’re meant to play them. So an interactive doll house exhibit by Van Sowerwine, for example, involves you looking into a replica doll house while indicating what you want a doll in the house to do with a computer. If you tell the doll to play with a tea cup instead of ordering it to play “tea”, it will use the opportunity to kill itself by breaking the cup and slitting its wrists. The point is to imply that the doll is a prisoner, which implies larger ramifications of how doll play is used to reinforce gender stereotypes. The doll’s desire for death emphasizes how much of a prisoner it is, which becomes tangible because you’re the one enforcing its cage status (45). Whatever your reaction to an exhibit like that, it certainly gets one talking.

Where the book really hits its stride is when it starts describing the myriad of different types of games that people produced to facilitate social change. A lot of Surrealist works are commentaries on social values. Alberto Giacometti’s Circuit pokes at the notion of capitalism by placing a ball stuck in a circular track. To win, you have to roll it into a hole that is impossible to get to. The Surrealist definition of a game was much broader than the ones floating around today, seeing them instead as “cultural methods that brought meaning to the everyday by altering participant relationship to the world through rule-based systems” (156).

Another example is Gutai, a Japanese art movement in 1955 that was a response to the atomic bomb and the promises of a utopian future facilitated by technology. Saburo Murakami, for example, “took a ball, dipped it in ink, and tossed it against a wall repeatedly, trying to invent a ‘new painting’ using the ‘feel’ of velocity through chance operations and random play” (165). Gabrial Orozco’s Ping Pong Table asks the question, “if the space of the ping pong net were to be re-explored, opened up, made multi-dimensional, would the shape of the board wind up being different?” Would players not use the widened space, would they move in a circular pattern, what happens?” (104). Play was also introduced into more rigid art forms like writing. Automatic writing was practiced by Helene Smith, who thought she was communicating with the dead and went on to evolve the concept of automatic writing into Surrealist word games. (135)

An alternative approach was the Fluxus movement, which took a lot of inspiration from The Dadaists while narrowing the scope into art that was much more recognizable as a game. Flanagan writes, “For many of the Fluxus artists, play and ‘the joke’ evolved as a methodology, moving interaction and audience participation away from galleries and traditional theater environments and creating for the first time a kind of muiltiplayer artistic play space and environment” (139). Fluxus exhibits can be even more abstract than Surrealist ones, often involving simply a box full of items and instructions like “arrange the beads in such a way that the word CUAL never occurs”. Others would just be filled with random items and would involve shuffling item and action cards to create a random scene to perform.

Alison Knowles, one of the founding artists of the Fluxus movement, would create event games. One example: “Find something you like in the street and give it away. Or find a variety of things, make something of them, and give it away” (101). Flanagan explains that “most fluxkits are impossible play in any predictable way”. David Tudor’s 4 minutes, 33 seconds consisted of him sitting at a piano and doing nothing. Flanagan writes, “In the act of depriving the audience of ‘music,’ the works asks the audience to listen, transforming the listening experience to one I which listeners actively create their own composition through the live sounds and noises around them. This work, like other Cage compositions, involves chance operations and redirects the authority of the creative process to the participant, completely altering the social roles of composer and listener” (173).

An example of Gutai Art

The common element of all these works of art is player participation; they require an audience to not only observe but to take part in the creation of the work. This is also one of the most difficult issues to grapple with because as a pasttime of leisure, they are inherently divisive activities because not everyone can play. Flanagan comments, “In the final analysis, a critique of performance practices must ask: Who gets to play? For all its delights and wonders, twentieth-century art includes very few documented examples from women and people of color and despite the age of global communication it remains difficult to survey trends particular to marginalized artists” (187). The subject of exclusion has often been the work of subversive art, and such artwork takes on game-like properties by hiding or placing these elements in everyday life. My personal favorite was the Guerrilla Girls movement and the piece, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, which features a nude with a fierce gorilla head and the sad statistics of a museum claiming to be modern (146).

This type of cultural subversion is expanded into locative games, which turn public areas into game spaces. Mapscotch is a game where you draw random cards that outline themes of “displacement, translation, cultural negotiation, language, class, food, and power . . . . [Mapscotch] translates the experiences of the city into playable maps, with the goal of instigating some kind of social change, or at least conversation about social change” (201). From a literal perspective, the game is about encouraging players to go into parts of a city that they normally never would and observe, relate, and discuss the things that they encounter. Another variation is Ariana Souzis’s Cell Phone-Free Temporary Autonomous Zone. People wear badges marking that they’re playing and follow careful instructions while moving around a prescribed area. The instructions often consisted of following someone holding a lead object, like a Starbucks cup, then following someone else when you see another object. This would be stuff like “street musicians”, “Gap bag”, “independent book store”, and so on to see where you would end up. Many locative games remove technology for the purpose of getting people to focus on “the lived experience of those spaces, and the mediated experienced of such spaces as a secondary issue” (214-216).

The issue of player participation is again present here since many of the players are exploring spaces and activities that to many are not games at all. As interesting as running about a city and “reclaiming” space sounds, many of these games cause conflicts for people not involved. Custodians having to clean up the graffiti from a game, or a community protest to an intrusive game highlights the issue of remembering that playing these games is a privilege. Many urban games and locative media are problematic because the work “actually manifests as an entertainment spectacle for an advantaged audience. While individual freedom and rights can construct subjectivity from looking and experience, some participants still emerge more empowered than others” (206). Flanagan describes it as a conflict of cultures where language and space changes meaning dramatically based on context. She comments, “The phenomenon of play is local: that is, while the phenomenon of play is universal, the experience of play is intrinsically tied to location and culture” (192).

The final sections of the book chronicle critical games in their digital forms. Some of these games are built around a “you never win” scenario to drive a sense of futility and frustration into the player, others build on more traditional themes of conflict in order to give the player a way to engage with difficult subject matter. Something like Darfur is Dying is a very tense resource game of dodging troops and collecting water for a village only to have it raided. Peter Packet, on the other hand, is about stopping hackers and helping characters spread awareness of international conflicts (247).

Natali Bookchin’s work with digital games particularly stood out as an exploration of much darker narratives. The game The Intruder is about the player trying to trap a female character, advancing the narrative as she flees from them in a linear manner. Flanagan explains, “Bookchin not only unplays game conventions – for example, the narrative advances when Juliana falls into the hole, which, in other games, would represent failure or restarting – she also rewrites question of authority, identity, and representation in games through the confusion of narrative voice…player, the once-‘innocent’ (perhaps) readers of text, no find themselves actually participating in the abuse of Juliana in the interactive format of the game” (229-30).

The book goes into much greater detail on all of these subjects and also covers a much wider range of art games than the few I’ve mentioned. The text raises awareness of the fact that video games, when seen in the context of the wider cultural history of games, are very rigid and formal compared to their more loose artistic cousins. There is a long history of games engaging with larger cultural issues in a wide variety of ways and the very definition of game changes with each of those approaches. While video games, due to their expense and origins, are still predominately the activity of the wealthy, that statistic continues to change as more people find games that meaningfully address issues relevant to them. Where society goes, so does the meaning of play. Or as Flanagan elegantly puts it, “What is distinctive about play is that one cannot always easily see that a clear boundary exists between it and social reality, or rather, see that play uses the tools of everyday reality in its construction” (254).

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