Flanagan’s Critical Play: A Deep Dive into Gameplay History

How should we critically analyze games? Are computer games like The Sims, or doll houses, or chess worthy of historical analysis? In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan argues that “there is a need for a critical approach not only in examining such games but also in creating them” (1). Flanagan works to fill in this gap in scholarship in the book as she claims it is the first book to “examine alternative games and use such games as models to propose a theory” about radical game design (1-2). Critical Play studies “games designed for artistic, political, and social critique […] in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues” (2). In this blog post, I lead you through the first six chapters of the book (chapters 7 and 8 will be discussed in Shaan’s blog post!) as Flanagan explores the idea of critical play relative to different types of gameplay. 

Anyone else play way too much Sims in high school? No?

First, in her first chapter “Introduction to Critical Play”, Flanagan conceptualizes the terms most important to her research and explains her intervention in research on this topic. She offers the various definitions of “play” and “games” yet it is perhaps most significant to understand what she means by “critical play”. Flanagan describes it as the processes related to “play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life” (6). The “critical” part of the term refers to the “careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” (6). Flanagan is perhaps most interested in the “radical” gameplay that “can be considered the avant-garde of the game as a medium” (16). 

The second chapter focuses on games where you “play house”, which ranges from computer games like The Sims, to dollplay, to the puppet shows of the Dada movement. Flanagan explains that playing house has a long history in gameplay and this reworks “paradigms of the status quo by experimenting with artificial identities, self-expressive environments, and humorous scenarios” (18). Flanagan argues that the ways Victorian girls played with dolls carries over into modern computer gameplay in terms of the ways players create subversive play scenarios (such as “killing” your dolls or your Sim family!), among other types of play (48). 

Next, the third chapter delves into the history of board games, from ancient burial grounds, to pinball as a “popular past time for military men” (94), to the evolution of chess. When you play a board game, you might not consider the deeper historical or cultural significance to the gameplay you are engaging in, but Flanagan argues “board games embody fundamental differences in philosophy” (64). For example, in her study of American gameplay from the 1840s to the 1920s, historian Margaret Hofer states that these games “offer a fascinating window on the values, beliefs, and aspirations of a nation undergoing tremendous change” (78).

In chapter four, Flanagan jumps into the world of language games and how wordplay, including puns, codes, Surrealist writing, and other art forms, is a “fundamentally expressive and rich” example of critical play (117). Language games span “across global linguistic systems, geographies, and cultures”, which allows for a distinctive study of language and how it can be used in play (117). This type of critical play is seen on the stage, in poetry, and in various art forms. One example is the Dada art movement, which is featured extensively throughout the book. Flanagan argues that “Dada’s subversive practices in its reworking of authority and authorship were one way social norms were pushed and literally ‘at play’” (139). This can be seen in their unique art style, including photo collages, paintings, and performances, among other examples. 

Chapter five focuses on performative games and objects, which Flanagan describes as “games that achieve critical play through a significant sense of performance in their attempt to influence society, or to provide utopian and playful visions and revisions of the world” (149). The Dada and Surrealist art movements are both featured in this chapter as prime examples of this type of gameplay. Flanagan clarifies that “the Surrealist definition of a game, and the route to the discovery of a game, differs significantly from the rigorous frameworks put forth by recent game scholars” (157). The Surrealists challenged the common conceptions of game play in their experiments and their emphasis on the process rather than just the outcome (157). In this chapter, Flanagan goes much further into the history of performative games and art, from postwar innovation to the new rules and experiments that served as a subversion of classic understandings of gameplay. 

Lastly, in chapter six, Flanagan studies locative games and more contemporary game interventions. These types of critical play differ from past forms: “physical movement […] and the active use of space are frequently used as interventionist tactics as well, and location-based games are also often designed to unplay the dominant systems of control” (189). This includes public game projects using mapping technologies, mobile media, and other forms of “media-rich experiences” (202). The broader category of “locative media” centers the space and location of the gameplay: “play’s ability to empower, build community, and foster collaboration and cultural change has been cited as a significant motivating factor in many location-based media projects” (197). Because a lot of this type of gameplay is meant to be interventionist or activist work, Flanagan does emphasize that players are “agents of action and change” in play (206). Because of this, it is important to recognize that “while art must indeed break borders, there are many instances where the borders broken are misguided and actually reinforce existing class, ethnic, and other power structures” (207).

To conclude, you may be able to tell that Flanagan covers a great deal of the history of gameplay, the different types of critical play, and the evolution of subversive and interventionist play. From all of this, there is much to consider when thinking about the social and cultural relevance and importance of all of these types of games. While I am less familiar with some of the more conceptual examples of play, I am more knowledgeable about board games and computer games. I was particularly interested in her analysis of The Sims because I used to play it a lot, and I had not thought much about the game being a little world of capitalism and how the types of play might match Victorian era dollplay. Ultimately, it is fascinating that Flanagan explores these games through the lens of critical and radical play. 

I am so interested to hear your thoughts on the book and to discuss Flanagan’s approach to studying gameplay! Why was it important for her to study games from ancient times all the way to modern day? What did you think of her intervention in the study of gameplay and how she applied her argument in this history? If you are a fan of computer games, board games, or another type of play, how do you see the deeper implications of these games play out in your own experience? How does the study of gameplay relate to the work of historians and public historians? What can we learn from Flanagan’s conceptualization of critical gameplay?

6 Replies to “Flanagan’s Critical Play: A Deep Dive into Gameplay History”

  1. Hi Claudia! I really enjoyed this reading, and I appreciate this summary you provided. While I’ve only dappled in video games, my fiance plays a variety of games and also watches video game streamers play, so I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of different types of games. I think Flanagan does a fantastic job explaining critical game play and pointing it out in places it may not be obvious, like you mentioned Sims and it’s relationship to Capitalism. I think that the study of gameplay is historically significant and I think analysis of critical gameplay can tell us a lot about societal and cultural phenomenons of the time. I think this may become even more clear when looking at smaller indie games. For example, I visited the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle in 2019 and they had an exhibit all about Indie game design. I hadn’t realized at the time, but after reading Flanagan, analysis of those games not only speaks to the technology of the time but also to what was going on in the context those games were created, just like any other form of art.

    1. Thanks Rosie! That museum sounds fascinating, I would love to go to a museum like that! I like your comment about the technology and context of the games, which are both important things to consider, especially within this lens of critical play.

  2. Hi Claudia, great post! I think examining game play is a really interesting way to understand history. Games are a great technique to incorporate into education. Students respond really well to them. Even if games are not in the traditional classroom, students are learning from them if they play at home. Therefore, public and digital historians should be analyzing these games. They are a way the public consumes history and Flanagan’s critical play is an important to understand this piece of public history. I also think this brings up interesting questions about historical accuracy in games. I do not think that games have to be historically accurate, but historians should be aware of the messages from games and the historical themes they present.

    1. Thanks Amanda! I like your comment about how students can learn from games because while some types of gameplay are incorporated and celebrated in learning spaces, I also think that educational programs could adapt even more to other types of gameplay into their projects.

  3. Claudia–thanks for breaking down these chapters so succinctly! I thought Flanagan’s Critical Play was really creative and intriguing. I was particularly interested in the chapter on board games. Like you stated in your post, board games are certainly historically significant because they reflect the values and beliefs of that time. The section on Anti-Monopoly was so intriguing as someone who loves the game Monopoly. I never really thought about games as documents or sources, so this reading was eye -opening for me. I also think her discussion of “activist games” and the imbalances in media culture–especially the problematic representation of gender in video games–was so important.

  4. Hey all! This is a great summary of the book! Thanks Claudia for the careful read. I’m happy it was a souce of provocative thinking for you all!!

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