Critical Play, Mary Flanagan

Awareness, Social Change, and ‘Critical Play’

In Critical Play, games scholar Mary Flanagan details the long history of games engaging with larger cultural issues and subverting exclusion

Critical Play: Radical Game Design
Mary Flanagan
MIT Press
August 2009

Cultural theorist Johan Huzinga’s Homo Ludens (1938) has such an important place in gaming culture 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 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 use games to raise awareness and accelerate social change. Like many games today, many games that Flanagan discusses are difficult to understand unless you’re playing them. I picked out examples I thought I could communicate effectively, but a massive topic can’t be fully accommodated in a single article.

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”. 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 how we play with dolls provide striking examples 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.” “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 doll funerals.

This process has a connection with social activism because the games 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 upper classes having more free time. Often games will reflect the values of the era, such as in The Mansion of Happiness, in which the player is stalled if they land on a vice, like “pride”. They can’t continue in the game until they returned to the “humility” space. Games can also be used to reinforce racial stereotypes, like The Wandering Jew, based on a series of books where players randomly draw events associated with the book.

Indeed, during war time numerous games about demonizing the opposing side arises. A game originally about hunting wildlife, resembling those air rifle games you see at carnivals, was repainted to allow the hunting of Japanese soldiers. Monopoly sales increased dramatically during the Great Depression. Pre-existing games will often change in response to culture change as well. In Chess, the Queen was originally a fairly useless piece that could only move one space. A string of powerful queens in Europe influenced the game, so Queens became the board’s most powerful piece.

If games adjust to and become popular based on the issues of the day, then they can affect those issues as they frame how 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. They prove exercise, but no exertion; they are a courtly site of sociality and pleasure.”

As noted, more sophisticated forms of critical play are difficult 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 teacup 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.

Critical Play really hits its stride when it starts describing the myriad games 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 every day by altering participant relationship to the world through rule-based systems”.

Another example is Gutai, a Japanese art movement in 1955 that responded to America’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 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”. Gabriel Orozco’s Ping Pong Table asks, “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?” Play was also introduced into more rigid art forms like writing. Automatic writing was practiced by Hélène Smith, who thought she was communicating with the dead and went on to evolve the concept of automatic writing into Surrealist word games.

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.” 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 items 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.” Flanagan explains that “most fluxkits are impossible play in any predictable way”. John Cage’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 in which listeners actively create their own composition through the live sounds and noises around them. Like other Cage compositions, this work involves chance operations and redirects the authority of the creative process to the participant, completely altering the social roles of composer and listener.”

The common element in these works of art is player participation; they require an audience to observe and take part in creating the work. This is also one of the most difficult issues to grapple with because, as a past-time 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.”

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.

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.” From a literal perspective, Mapscotch is about encouraging players to go into parts of a city they normally never would and observe, relate, and discuss the things they encounter.

Another variation is Ariana Souzis’ 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”.

The issue of player participation is again present here since many 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”. 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.”

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, while others build on more traditional themes of conflict in order to give the player a way to engage with difficult subject matter. Darfur is Dying, for example is a very tense resource game of dodging troops and collecting water for a village only to have it raided. On the other hand, Peter Packet is about stopping hackers and helping characters spread awareness of international conflicts.

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.”

Critical Play goes into much greater detail on all these subjects and 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 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.”