Can Video Games Save the World? Critical Play: Radical Game Design

Saving the world one game at a time

Hey everybody! I hope you all are staying healthy and safe wherever you are! Here is a quick reminder to wash your hands, and instead of going out to see your friends stay at home and play the Sims. After I post this that’s what I’ll be doing for a couple of hours lol, so in the words of the most famous plumber in history Mario, “lets-a go” and talk about games!

Jumping into the material!

Though I am not much of a video game player (the closest I’ve gotten to a video game in my adult life is watching way too much Sword Art Online) I was really excited about this week’s reading, and it did not disappoint. This week my post is going to be about Mary Flanagan’s phenomenal book Critical Play: Radical Game Design, a book that much like Rihanna is a triple threat. It is one part of a historical study about gaming and play, another part methodological study about game creation, and finally a call to action. This book is pretty much the total opposite of all the times when politicians on the news say that video games are destroying society. In Critical Play, Flanagan argues that video games can do more than simply entertain people but can be used as a tool to make the world a little bit better. Honestly, that kind of message was really nice to read, because it is dreary out here. If you are a video game enthusiast, you would be curious too . If you are curious to know more , read about any game at GameMite.

Flanagan begins her book by discussing the act of play, an act that is most associated with leisure time and entertainment. Flanagan argues that play can be and is used, by both children and adults, as a critical thinking method. There are many different ways to define what play is but I am partial to one of the first definitions Flanagan gives which is from anthropologist (woooo anthropology) Brian Sutton-Smith. To Smith play is “an activity that is fun, voluntary, intrinsically motivated, incorporates free will, offers escape, and is fundamentally exciting.” Despite the argument of the exact definition, most scholars who study play agree that play is a fundamental aspect of human life.


So, what is “critical play?” And how does it differ from general play? Critical play according to Flanagan is to play or create games that reflect a small aspect of human life. This kind of game tends to be one that usually contains social, cultural, and political themes that encourage the player to think more critically about aspects of human society. Flannagan traces the importance of games throughout history, showcasing how they have represented more than just entertainment since the early days of human history. From the religious connotations of the ancient Egyptian game Senet to the use of paper dolls in the early 20th century as a way to represent domestic ideals, games reflect the society that they are created in.

I am literally so happy that I have an actual reason to put this here

Through games, people work through different aspects of there society and occasionally participate in critical play which encourages others to challenge the status quo. Critical play is accomplished when players and creators do these three things in:
Unplaying- the act of subverting or ignoring the original script of play (like when little girls “kill” their dolls and have a funeral for them)
Redressing- recreating the game to represent the changed script (dressing the dolls up for the funeral)
Rewriting- when game creators (this includes game designers and the people who play the game) revise and rewrite the narratives around the game

Throughout the book, Flanagan uses this system of subversion to discuss the way that artists, players, and activists use games to interrogate social issues. Flanagan gives a myriad of examples of this method at work but I will only mention a couple.

This is fine

One method of critical play is in the small ways that people go against the main goals of the game that they are playing. Such as when gamers who play the Sims disregard the normal rules of the game. The main way to measure success within the Sims is to maintain your sims happiness by giving them nice things (a new house, nice furniture etc). But instead of doing that some players (occasionally me included) do everything they can to torture there sim, this is so prolific that they even have a game extension (as of 2009) that can be used for this sole purpose. This goes against the main goals of the Sim but it also questions the sort of consumerist ideas that are intrinsic within the game.

Another way people can practice critical play is by creating an entirely new game that ignores the standard rules of game creation, a system such as a “no-win game.” Flanagan mentioned many games that activists and artists created to reflect societal issues one of those games was “Darfur is Dying.” In this game players play as refugees living in a refugee camp, the goal of the game is to survive within the camp. The first major challenge of the game is to go out into the desert to fetch water, this task turns out to be very difficult because of raiders emerging throughout the area. The player is supposed to avoid these raiders by hiding, and if the player survives their new task is to help maintain the upkeep of the camp. However, when the player succeeds in making the camp more prosperous the camp is attacked by raiders destroying the player’s progress and forcing them to continue the cycle of repairs. This game is supposed to represent the hardships of the refugee life and the futility that is intrinsic within the system of violence that creates refugees in the first place.

Realizing that the video game industry is filled with racism and sexism

Today the creators of games do not reflect the multiple types of people who play games. Even over 10 years after the books release the people who are the target audience for most video games are straight, cis, white men. However, Flannagan believes that games can still be an invaluable tool in combating major societal issues, she writes that to create major social change you must input certain values into popular culture. Flanagan’s methodology for this is to consciously input Critical play into games and create a gaming environment that encourages critical thinking with a wide range of options that can be used by a diverse gaming community. These two steps sound simple but are a powerful call to action, to encourage game creators to more consciously develop games that can do more than entertain people. There are games where you can buy 5.56 ammo online and have a lot more fun as these games are action and adventure oriented.

I just really liked this gif

Video games play an important role in modern society and create a platform that can be used to encourage activism and highlight social issues without boring people. Critical Play is an interesting and engaging read cross-disciplinary read (anthropological, game design, historical and more!). Because it is chock full of everything you need to know about games, interesting examples and excellent historical analysis you can occasionally get kind of lost in the woods. But in the end, it left me with a pretty simple question, do you think that games have the power to make the world a better place? How can games be used to create a dialogue about more difficult aspects of human history and life? Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay inside!

Love you guys!

9 Replies to “Can Video Games Save the World? Critical Play: Radical Game Design”

  1. Hi Jamie, thanks for a great post! Flanagan’s book made me think of a lot of games I used to play that had to do with history on the computer. I think there is a lot of promise in video games being used for digital humanities and history itself. Play is such a critical form of interaction for humans, and think back to the Oregon Trail game that haunted our childhood. Most of us remember it for the likelihood that you would die on the trail, something that as historians we can understand reflects the time period pretty well but provided entertainment to us as children. I think video games have the propensity to create environments that call attention to issues in similar ways, and I would argue that even if the full intent is not absorbed by young children it won’t take away from their value. At the very least they can start a dialogue with their parents about why a game is so hard to beat and what about society is informing that.

    1. Hey Jess! I’m glad that you brought up Oregon Trail because I feel like that’s an excellent example of a mainstream game that uses history well in its gameplay. The ability for the gamer to actually die within the game assigns some very important stakes within the game that mirrors reality, much like some of the games that Flanagan mentions. Clearly from what you and Jenna said Oregon Trail sparked an interest in history that led many people into learning more, which means that Flanagan’s idea for using video games as a tool is can really produce results.

  2. Jamie,
    This was a great overview of the reading! To jump off of the points that you and Jess made– I also think that historical video games are a useful way to get young people interested in history as a field. I’ve noticed the way that museums have implemented games (for example, White House Historical Association has video game apps) that can introduced young people to history and museums early enough that they learn to love them! So often, people hate history because of the way that they are first introduced. If it comes in an entertaining but meaningful way, maybe history or museums will become more popular in the long run?

    1. Jumping off of Jess and Sarah’s points, I think my own interest in history was sparked by playing historical computer games when I was younger — which itself speaks to the power of these games! Almost 20 years later, I still remember playing computer games like Oregon Trail and ones related to American Girl and Liberty’s Kids. I thus absolutely agree with Flanagan that games can be used for good and can be really powerful as educational tools. As historians, it will be important to carry forward that knowledge as we go on to work in cultural institutions where we can use games to educate future history lovers!

    2. Sarah that is so interesting, I had no idea that the WHHA was using video games to connect with a younger audience. I wonder if this means that more museums will utilize games as a learning tool. I feel like historical video games are definitely increasing interest in history especially with games such as Assasins Creed, I am not much of a gamer but most of my undergrad friends who played the game said it was really accurate and that through playing they ended up learning a lot. Even people who hate history play that game and really enjoy it.

  3. Hi Jamie, thanks for an excellent post and synthesis of Flanagan’s text! I love that you focused your post on how video games can be used as a form of sociopolitical critique or activism, especially because I found myself thinking a lot about how these games, especially those created for educational purposes, are often intended to convey very specific information about what makes a good “citizen” in a way that could indoctrinate nationalism from an early age. It is encouraging, I think, to consider how many people now have the access and skills to develop video games as a vehicle for change or challenge to systemic structures.

  4. Jamie, thanks for this great post! I hear your voice in my head when I read your writing, which is nice since we haven’t seen each other for a bit now 🙂

    I really appreciate how you were able to draw out that triple threat aspect of Flanagan’s work. We get a critical read on the history of games and play, we learn about how games can be deployed as ways to do history/humanities learning, and we get the call to action to engage with games and play as ways to work on problems in our world.

    It’s great to get everyone’s reflections on the aspects of games from childhood that drew us out into interest in history. I think that is particularly important for us given that so many folks in the class are interested in public history and public engagement with the past. In that vein, games have become a huge part of how people connect with forms of historical storytelling.

  5. Hey Jamie great analysis of Flanagan’s text! This was definitely a very interesting read to see the importance of games and play to society throughout history. I agree with the point you made in the post and in the comments above that games are a great way to introduce people to historical topics in a way that won’t make them immediately hate history. I also like that you highlighted Flanagan’s point that access to and representation in games remains a major problem, but that by addressing it these games could be a medium for introducing important topics to a larger audience and starting important conversations.

  6. Thanks for your post Jamie! Like many others commenting here I also definitely spent many hours trying to beat that Oregon Trail game. Your question about the potential for video games to start conversations about difficult topics is a great one, and I think true in part because these games create a kind of ‘safe space’ for experimentation. They form a reality that mirrors present or historical circumstances closely enough that it is recognizable, but because it is its own reality the stakes are low enough to encourage players to take risks – to perform those subversive actions you mentioned without really risking anything. That certainly leaves the door open for games to, as you pointed out, encourage activism and be a force for change.

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