Apologies to everyone for this going up late, I’ve been in Georgia for a cousin’s wedding, and the internet there was worse than anticipated.
Critical Play is an attempt to more deeply understand games as artistic critiques of society, and to help bridge the gap between academic understandings of video games and academic studies of more traditional recreational activities. Each of the book’s chapters is really more of an essay on this theme, investigating a different type of play throughout history, showing how it was used to reinforce societal norms and subverted to attack them, and then linking them to modern gaming.
The first of these chapters regards playing house, and doll play. While initially, these forms of play parents to reinforce social expectations for their children by encouraging them to enact scenes in keeping with social norms, children were quick to subvert this by using them to act out more taboo scenes and confront new anxieties. Recreating murders and police investigations allowed children to engage with larger societal problems, while recreations of parental disputes allowed them to engage with more immediate ones. These themes have been carried forward into modern gaming by games such as The Sims.
The next chapter investigates one of the oldest categories of game, the board game. From ancient games such as Mancala to more modern ones like Monopoly, these games have served as ways to reinforce dominant forms of resource distribution, but much like dolls, they could easily be re-contextualized to criticize just as easily as they could be used to support society, as shown by games like Anti-Monopoly. These games could also be used to disseminate controversial opinions, using the excuse that “they’re just games” to avoid scrutiny, and this has been done for both positive and negative reasons; the former can also be seen in Anti-Monopoly while the latter can be seen in various racist games. Flanagan also shows how the often violent focus of board games would later transfer to video games.
The next chapter investigates language games, and shows how word play can be considered a type of play, and used by artists to bring attention to the absurdities of society. Secret languages are also discussed, as a tool for the dis-empowered to achieve their own goals and protect themselves while doing so.
The next chapter is entitled “Performative Games and Objects” and is perhaps the book’s least straightforward; it seems a better title might be performative art. It begins by informing the reader that all games have performative components, and moves to the discussion of artistic creations which require some input from the art viewer, and take on a game-like aspect in that fashion.
The next chapter explores “Artists’ Locative Games” which are games played in public places not only for the benefit of the players, but also for the edification of their audience. This moves into a discussion of mixed reality games which have been made possible by modern technology, as well as a discussion of recent games commissioned by artistic groups.
The next chapter moves to focus specifically on video games, and the industry which makes them. Flanagan harshly criticizes the industry by comparison to the artists involved in the creation of older games, particularly in terms of a lack of diversity and the promulgation of harmful ideologies. The chapter ends by discussing a handful of activist games which are in keeping with the socially transformative games of the past.
The final chapter is focused on encouraging more of these activist games, and provides instructions for future developers to enable this.
Flanagan’s definition of “game” includes many things which one would not normally anticipate in a study of games. Is this definition convincing or would a narrower (or even broader) one have produced a better argument?
If you are a gamer, do you feel that you often see activist messages in the games you play? How do these messages differ from those in other forms of media? Are there differences between the messages of different genres of games?
Many of Flanagan’s sources come from an art history background. As historians, how does this impact your reading of her argument?