Notes on “Critical Play: Radical Game Design” by Mary Flanagan

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:

Artist

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)

Play

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)

Critical Play

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)

Games

Flanagan defines games as, “instances of more-or-less constructed play scenarios,” and “situations with guidelines and procedures.” (6-7)

Technology

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

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

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.”

Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play Game Design Model

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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Initial thoughts on the book? What chapters felt the most significant and why?
  2. Did you feel like this book was accessible to a general audience? Who is Flanagan’s intended audience?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. Critiques of the book?

10 Replies to “Notes on “Critical Play: Radical Game Design” by Mary Flanagan”

  1. Hey Katie! You did a great job dissecting this book. I also saw the title and was extremely excited before getting into the technical weeds of Flanagan’s argument. I want to take a stab at your 4th question. Personally, I do not believe game developers have been influenced by this at all. Gaming has grown exponentially since 2009 making major corporations greedier than ever. I would argue that most gaming studios are struggling with value goals and keeping up with initial goals shared with the public. A lot of games in the last 4 years or so have been rushed and unfinished products. Game development is so secretive that community based playtesting usually happens months before launch. And there are embargos and you usually can’t see full reviews until games are launched. This is a longwinded way of me saying that Flanagan’s model has not been taken up by big corporations/publishers.

    1. Thanks Joshua! I totally, agree. I think Flanagan’s concept of creating games the incorporate human concerns and focus on social issues is a compelling and important idea, but I haven’t seen any games even come close to doing this.

  2. Hello! Great dissection of the book. I had similar thoughts when I first saw the title as well!

    To start with your fourth question, I think that video/computer games have definitely changed for a variety of reasons, both pros and cons. However, with this, I wondered how Finnigan actually would respond to the movement toward Virtual Reality. I also agree with Joshua that clearly Finnigan’s model hasn’t been adopted by the industry.

    This made me think about the social justice question as well. In some ways I agree that the mixture of the two could push “norms” and make people question. I just don’t know if the general public will want to play these type of games as they can be quite intense and sometimes games can put distance between oneself and the narrative.

    I’m not sure if Finnigan’s model is quite based in reality, but it’s something to hope for and strive for certainly.

    1. Thanks Jane! I agree that Flanagan’s model is not based in reality in the sense that many people use games to escape reality and take a break from thinking about the issues that plague our society. Maybe educational games could adopt her model, but I also don’t think big gaming corporations would get much out of Flanagan’s work.

  3. Hi Katie!

    Thank you for all the definitions and organization on this post. I was really struck by her definition of Critical Play that you included: “to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life.” As a former early childhood educator, this is something my school aimed to provide and encourage in our students so it was interesting to apply this mindset to digital games. I haven’t encountered any activist video games but it made me think of how you can buy certain clothing in games and represent the causes you support via your online character. After a little googling, I found a story about a Black Lives Matter protest that was organzied inside SIMS becasue people couldn’t go to the actual protests due to COVID. (https://www.theguardian.com/games/2020/aug/07/black-lives-matter-meets-animal-crossing-how-protesters-take-their-activism-into-video-games)
    Interesting stuff!!

    -Caroline Morales

    1. Thank you Caroline! I definitely felt the need to include the key terms and concepts Flanagan discusses because without them I felt like the book would have been more difficult to understand. But wow, I totally hadn’t even thought of how a person’s gaming avatar could address social issues. That’s such an interesting point, same with the concept of protesting in games. I think I saw something similar in a Fortnite clip. Either way, that is such an interesting concept and definitely seems like the type of thing Flanagan is addressing in her book.

  4. Hi Katie! Really great summary/review of a fascinating book.

    Addressing your fourth and fifth questions, I definitely think that modern game designers have been influenced by Flanagan, or at least have been having parallel conversations. You can see this in some more recent games that have an activist approach.

    An activist game that non-gamers might enjoy is called “Unpacking.” It tells the story of a girl as she grows from childhood to adulthood by having the player unpack her belongings as she moves from house to house. It deals with girlhood, sexuality, relationships, and disability in really subtle and unique ways.

    One of the most successful activist games out there is called “This War of Mine.” You play as a group of civilian refugees navigating a city under siege – an entirely new take on war games that forces the player to confront the reality of war. It’s actually fairly old – published in 2014 – but still conforms to a lot of what Flanagan advocates.

    The game “Disco Elysium” also came to mind. I just finished playing it, which is maybe why it’s easier to compare to Flanagan’s model. The game includes commentary on race, gender, sexuality, mental and physical disability, addiction, politics and economics, etc. The player character’s main companion guides the player towards making moral decisions, and making immoral decisions damages your relationship with him in tangible ways. The game also supports multiple play styles, as the player can choose whether to prioritize brains, empathy, physicality, etc. And it allows for subversion by allowing players to make illogical choices and reap the consequences. It’s problematic in some ways – doesn’t really address white privilege, for instance, and I don’t know if they play-tested it with diverse audiences – but generally it checks a lot of the boxes that Flanagan highlighted.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Wow, thank you for bringing all of those games to our attention! As someone with little to no gaming experience, whenever I think of the gaming industry I think of big corporations and games that are universally well known, which I felt like did not align with Flannagan’s model. But it is definitely important to keep in mind smaller/indie type games and recognize how they may be influenced by Flannagan’s work. Thank you so much for sharing these activist games!

  5. Great post Katie! I really appreciate the way you drew out how broadly Flanagan defines play and games. While we focused on games and interactives alongside the book, I think your post helps us unpack the much broader implications of what understanding games and play can do for thinking about public history work. So, I think you’ve done a great job of drawing out some key issues for all of us to be thinking about. I also really appreciate the way that Flanagan historicizes play itself. I think when we understand things like historical doll play as part of a broad definition of games and play it draws in the way that all kinds of pretend, like historical reenactment, can also function within a framework of critical play.

  6. Hey Katie, this is a great post! Thank you for including the cycle chart from the book. In answer to question number four, I do not know if games were influenced directly by this book, but I do think that the games I did my practicum on, “You are the Historian” and “iCivics,” employed a version of this model. “You are the Historian” in particular consulted diverse audiences in the creation of the game. I think if I had one critique of her model, it would be that all games should consult diverse audiences in the CREATION of the game and not just in its testing. As public historians, we already know the value of working with a diverse audience in the development process, so I think changing this model to reflect that would improve the model.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *