This week we are looking at Videogames, Interactivity, and Action. Like many of you, I saw the title for this week’s book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design, and thought, “woohoo! A fun book about games and playing? This is going to be a breeze!” However, this book is highly complex and discusses some complicated concepts. Let’s dive in!
Key Terms & Concepts
Some key terms and concepts Flanagan provides in the introduction to help facilitate easier reading:
A straightforward definition of an artist provided by Flanagan is someone “creating outside commercial establishments, and often those who are ‘making’ for ‘making’s sake.’” (3-4) Flanagan makes it a point to feature games and projects that come from outside the popular software, board-game, or theme park industries. She wants to focus on independent game developers and artists as she believes that “ideas about politics, play, and games” are most interesting in these settings. (4)
Flanagan discusses multiple scholarly perspectives on play, including theories from Brian Sutton-Smith and Johan Huizinga. But ultimately, she agrees with most anthropologists and historians who define play as, “central to human and animal life; is generally a voluntary act; offers pleasure in its own right (and by its own rules); is mentally and psychically challenging; and is separated from reality, either through a sanctioned play space or through an agreed upon fantasy or rule set.” (5)
There are two quotes from Flanagan that I think best capture how she defines critical play: “to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life,” and critical play “is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces.” (6)
Flanagan defines games as, “instances of more-or-less constructed play scenarios,” and “situations with guidelines and procedures.” (6-7)
Flanagan has a complex definition of technology as it applies to games and play. She asserts that games themselves act as technologies, even if they don’t involve gadgets or devices. According to Flanagan, “games and play activities themselves, with their emphasis on order and conventions, act as technologies that produce sets of relationships, governed by time and rules, played out in behavioral patterns.” (8)
Subversion is defined as “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, event, or object.” (10) In regards to games and play, subversion can be a player who is pushing the boundaries, the rules, or expectations of the game. This could look like using cheat codes to maneuver through the game more quickly.
Activist games typically engage in a social issue in order to achieve a certain outcome, and go beyond simply entertaining players. The most common ways that activist games encounter social issues are through themes, narratives, roles, settings, goals, and characters. (13)
Games & Play – More Than Just Entertainment?
Flanagan begins by posing a question to get us thinking about games, and reimagining their traditional function:
“What if some games, and the more general concept of ‘play,’ not only provide outlets for entertainment but also function as means for creative expression, as instruments for conceptual thinking, or as tools to help examine or work through social issues?” (1)
Flanagan’s overall goal, is to analyze various types of games and play, and use her analysis to propose a theory of radical game design. As shown from the excerpt above, she believes that games and play are more than just for thoughtless entertainment, they can serve a deeper purpose and be used to incite critical thinking about larger social, cultural, and political issues in our society.
Historical Context for Critical Play
Chapters two through seven explore the histories and development of various forms of play such as: domestic play (playing house or with dolls) board games, language games such as word puzzles, performative games such as make-believe, locative games such as mass games played in the public sphere, and computer games such as World of Warcraft. In addition to accounting for each game genre’s historical context, Flanagan also details how artists and social movements engaged with these concepts of play. (14)
Radical Game Design
In chapter eight, Designing for Critical Play, Flanagan proposes a critical play method for future game designers and artists based on traditional game design plus the various approaches to play she discusses throughout the book. This quote from Flanagan really summarizes what she hopes to accomplish with her critical play game design methodology;
“By proposing this design model and creating games with this set of strategies, it is hoped that other practitioners, artists, designers, scientists, and researchers will be able to question and elucidate many of the so-called ‘norms’ embedded in our current play frameworks and technology practices, ultimately including a more diverse set of voices in the game design community and a wider spectrum of game experiences.”
The major difference in the traditional game design model and Flanagan’s critical play design model is introducing the concept of human concerns. An example of how she incorporates human concerns into her design model is the “playtest with diverse audiences” step. This step ensures that throughout the development of the game, the feedback and perspective of a diverse population will be incorporated, thus creating a meaningful gaming experience that encapsulates more than just entertainment and leisure.
- Initial thoughts on the book? What chapters felt the most significant and why?
- Did you feel like this book was accessible to a general audience? Who is Flanagan’s intended audience?
- What do you think of Flanagan’s discussion of art and artists throughout the book? Did you find it was helpful in forming her argument?
- This book was published in 2009, computer/video games have obviously evolved immensely since Flanagan proposed her Critical Play game design model. Do you think contemporary game designers have been influenced by any aspects of Flanagan’s work? If so, which games and how?
- What are some examples of activist games? In your opinion, do they effectively address social issues? What are some examples of how computer games can serve as forms of activism?
- What are some of the strategies/tools for game designers and innovators Flanagan pulls from the various methods of play and games that she analyzes throughout the book?
- Critiques of the book?