Videogames, Interactivity & Action

This week’s readings all have to with how things like play, video-games such as 텐텐벳, and the Internet are mediums that can be used by historians, archivists, librarians, etc. to communicate about the past. These readings explore different types of interactive transmedia, exploring their unique features that can make them great tools for introducing larger audiences to the past while also discussing the challenges that come with using these mediums.

Critical Play: Radical Game Design by Mary Flanagan

Flanagan’s book, rather than being about video games as I first suspected, is actually a rather complex deep dive into play. In the first chapter of this book, Flanagan nicely lays out what the book is about, defines important terms, and poses questions for the reader to think about whilst reading. These things help prepare the reader to sift through a lot of fairly complex information, theory, and discussion on play and critical play. Not only will you get a good commission when you play spin oasis, but you will also get a lot of entertainment.

On the very first page of the book, Flanagan poses this question: “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?” (pg. 1) This question immediately provokes the reader to think about what Flanagan is trying to discuss and explore throughout the book. As Flanagan states in chapter one, Critical Play “investigates games designed for artistic, political, and social critique or intervention, in order to propose ways of understanding larger cultural issues as well as the games themselves” and it explores “historic instances of artists using play in their work.” (pg. 1-3) Flanagan makes clear that the ultimate goal of Critical Play is to “examine the ways in which individuals and groups involved in creating and playing games have worked, and are working within, social, political, and cultural systems. Their critical radical play can be considered the avant-garde of the game as a medium.” (pg. 15)

The important terms that Flanagan provides and defines in this chapter are: 

  • Artist: Flanagan defines artist as someone who is “creating outside commercial establishment, and, often, those who are ‘making’ for ‘making’s sake.’” (pg. 3-4)
  • Play: Although Flanagan discusses the various scholarship that has evolved from the attempt to define play, she ultimately seems to settle on the definition that most anthropologists and historians agree upon which states that “play is central to human and animal life; is generally a voluntary act; offers pleasure in its own right (and by its own rules); is mentally or physically challenging; and is separated from reality, either through a sanctioned play space or through an agreed upon fantasy or rule set.” (pg. 5)
  • Critical Play: According to Flanagan, critical play “means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life,” and it is “characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces.” (pg. 6)
  • Games: Flanagan defines games as “instances of more-or-less constructed play scenarios” and as “situations with guidelines and procedures.” (pg. 6-7)
  • Technology: Flanagan believes that games could serve as a kind of technology themselves, and that games and play “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.” (pg. 8) 
  • Subversion: For Flanagan, a subversion is “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, event, or object.” (pg. 1o)
  • Activist Game: Flanagan defines activist games as “characterized by their emphasis on social issues, education, and, occasionally, intervention.” (pg. 13)

Chapters two through seven cover the “historic instances” of artists using play and provide historical context for critical play. Flanagan explores playing house, board games, language games, performative games and objects, artists’ locative games, and critical computer games like those available at delhi satta king. Throughout each chapter, Flanagan explores how “art and social movements” have engaged with each genre of game that she discusses. 

The book culminates in chapter eight, in which Flanagan provides a critical play method that she believes should be included in the traditional game design process. Her critical play method can be seen laid out in the chart below, you can see it compared to the traditional model. With this critical play method, Flanagan hopes ”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.” (pg. 252) Ultimately, Flanagan’s critical play method stresses human concerns and “a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive.” (pg. 261)

Mir & Owens, Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization

In this article, Rebecca Mir of the New-York Historical Society and Trevor Owens of the United States Library of Congress (anyone ever heard of this guy before? he seems familiar) look at the 2008 game Civilization IV: Colonization. Simply put, the game allows players to colonize the Americas. Colonization sparked controversy from the beginning. On one hand, there were many people who believed that it was fundamentally wrong to develop a game in which players engaged with the act of colonization; on the other hand, the president of the company that developed the game maintained the stance that the game did not endorse any strategy or action and that the players made their own moral decisions. The authors argue that neither position is entirely correct.

The authors analyze “how design decisions shape players’ interpretations of Native American cultures and the history of colonial encounters” thus revealing that, despite what the game company’s president said, the game’s model does, indeed, inherently suggest “certain strategies and positions and thus shapes player agency and action.” (pgs. 91-92) Colonization presents its players with an ideological model of the world and interpretation of history, and this particular model “restricts potential readings to a limited and Americanized colonialist ideology.” (pg. 92) Colonization allows players to see the world from the ideological perspective of a colonist power, and as the players engage in the disturbing views and horrific acts of colonization, it can provoke feelings of guilt. The authors claim that that provocation of guilt “suggests a potential for games that portray disturbing points of view as potent vehicles for exploring the past and understanding a more nuanced history.” (pg. 93). 

Mir and Owens pose the question of whether Colonization players are given enough agency to make decisions about “reenacting the history of colonial encounter.” (pg. 93) While Colonization players can explore certain alternative histories, the game has a strict win condition in that a war of independence must take place. The authors question if players can, instead, if players can avoid the traditional historical interactions with Native Americans; therefore, the authors explored the rules through which Colonization defines what players and Native units can (and cannot) do. In many ways, it can be argued that the ideology of colonialism is written into the game’s code. Colonization was not a result of a program made from scratch, rather the engine/code from Civilization IV was built upon to create Colonization. Another interesting aspect of the game’s code is that the source code delineates “normal peoples” which are the units that players can control, Native peoples, and Europeans–both of which are controlled by the computer. Native peoples, therefore, are–at code level–othered in the game. The game also–at code level–“systematically and explicitly restricts things like civic development from Native cultures.” (pg. 96) Overall, Colonization presents cultural transmission as only going one direction from the Europeans to the Natives. 

 Mir and Owens believe that the game does have redeemable qualities such as the feelings of guilt that the game evokes over both the evil that is wrought by the player throughout the game as well as thoughts of how history has been whitewashed. However, the authors conclude this article by stating that, ultimately, the problem with Colonization is that it is not offensive enough, it does not, for example, include the devastating effects and realities of either disease or slavery in the Americas.

Nakamaura, “Gender and Race Online”

This chapter evaluates the state of race and gender within the world of console gaming, and it identifies many of the reasons for the pervasiveness of both sexism and racism within the gaming world. Another major element of this chapter is the discussion of how racism and sexism have not only flourished on the Internet but have, in many ways, defined it. Nakamaura, through the use of many different studies into the subjects of racism and sexism, reveals some of the biggest issues in the gaming community in regards to sexism and racism. Adrienne Shaw’s 2011 ethnographic study revealed that women and girls tend to identify less as gamers and underestimate or under report the amount of time that they spend playing video games. On the other hand, men and boys will more easily identity as gamers even if they do not frequently play video games because it allows them an avenue to connect with masculinity. Gaming culture has produced a “new type of male identity, that of ‘geek masculinity.’” (pg. 82) Various studies showed both that non-white men are “better-represented” in the gaming world and that non-white youths play more video games at home than white youths. Despite those two statistics, the majority of black and brown representations in video games, for example, continues to be in the forms of criminals, gangsters, and athletes, and there has been a distinct lack of non-white avatars or playable characters. (pg. 83)

Nakamaura details the two understandings of racism that were detailed by sociologist Ashley Doane: one, that racism  is made up of personal, individuals instances of prejudice, hatred, stereotyping, etc. and two, that racism is systematic and that racism is persistent and pervasive in social practices such as housing and education. The gaming world is certainly filled with individual examples of harassment, but there are also “systematic practices such as the exclusion of non-stereotyped characters of color and women from the game texts and storylines themselves are part of a harmful racial discourse as well.” (pg. 84) 

This chapter also looks at abusive language that is racist, sexist, and/or homophobic in nature and which is dismissed by many (mostly white men) as being “trash talk” that is an inherent part of gaming culture. Many blogs and forums have been created in order to discuss and catalog this kind of harassment due to a systemic ineffectiveness from the gaming industry to regulate hate speech and abusive language. 

WNET, Mission America Online Games about American History + the NEH Digital Programs for the Public Grant Guidelines 

Grant Guidelines:

  • NEH’s Digital Projects for the Public is meant to support those projects that are interpreting/analyzing humanities content via digital platforms and formats. Here are the shoulds each project needed:
    • To demonstrate the potential to attract a broad, general audience (online or in-person)
    • present analysis that deepens public understanding of significant humanities ideas; 
    • incorporate sound humanities scholarship; 
    • involve humanities scholars in all phases of development and production; 
    • include appropriate digital media professionals; 
    • reach a broad public through a realistic plan for development, marketing, and distribution; 
    • create appealing digital formats for the general public; and 
    • demonstrate the capacity to sustain themselves.

WNET, Mission America Online Games about American History Grant Application

This grant consists of the WNET requesting funding from the NEH for Mission America, which is a “ground-breaking multi-media initiative to help young people ages 9-13 learn American history. Chosen as the launch project for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American History and Civics Initiative, Mission America centers on five free online games set in different eras in U.S. history” (pg. 1) The five missions are Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820), Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement (1801-1861), Development of the Industrial United States (1869-1900), Emergence of Modern America (1890-1919), Emergence of Modern America (1890-1919), The Inter-War Years (1919-1940). Each mission is a character-driven narrative that is meant to supplement “the social history approach of middle school history.” (pg. 7)

The ultimate goal of this project is to “advance humanities education by a sophisticated use of interactive media to engage students in learning and analyzing U.S. history.” It wants to use gaming, the most popular medium amongst students–to immerse children in history. (pg. 1) Mission America aimed to provide students with new kinds of experiences and avenues through which to “grapple with a multiplicity of perspectives on historical issues.” The project offers: an innovative format, a curricular basis, a proven model, and wide distribution. (pg. 2) The main proposed audience for this project are fifth to eighth graders both in schools and outside of them as well as teachers, libraries, and PBS outreach stuff who wish to use the materials to engage students and young learners. (pg. 10) 

Mission America was designed with theories in history education and technology and “teacher input about the skills and concepts important for students to learn history” in mind. Moving beyond the concept that games can be a great supplementary tool for learning, Mission America is based on theory that gaming itself creates “new and richer contexts for learning.” (pg. 5). This game has three main learning goals: “learn the story of America and the ways Americans struggle to realize the ideals of liberty and equality, understand the role of ordinary men and women, including young people, in history, develop historical thinking skills that increase historical understanding and critical perception.” (pg. 5-6) Key design choices to promote the chosen learning objectives are: Authentic content, Narrative engagement, Avatar, Vocabulary support, Social context, Flexibility (pg. 9)

Initial testing of the game in classrooms revealed two significant findings: “first, players liked Mission America regardless of their gender or gaming experience” and “second, students regularly asked for more missions to play, not just at school but at home.” WNET’s game-based learning theory was also supported by this initial testing. (pg. 11) The distribution plan for Mission America is for it to take place over four years with outreach being done through PBS stations, the Mission America website, and partnerships with national organizations in school and after-school programs, libraries, etc. (pg. 12) The production and roll-out of Missions 1-4 “will take place over three years, beginning August 2009. NEH funds would support activities from April 2010 through March 2012.” (pg. 19) The second half of the document is a fairly extensive design document that goes into greater detail about what Mission America will look like, what it will do, and how it will function. 

2 Replies to “Videogames, Interactivity & Action”

  1. I appreciated this blog post for its in-depth details and critical analysis of the texts. In your analysis of “Critical Play: Radical Game Design” by Mary Flanagan, your inclusion of important terms was highly helpful in understanding the concepts and making sense of Flanagan’s arguments. Additionally, the inclusion of the charts helped me visualize what Flanagan was trying to say. Your breaking down of the article was useful in my own reading of the text.

    Your summary and analysis of the Mir & Owens article was also well done. I think you correctly noted the article’s main points in regard to the “Colonization” game. Having played “Civilization” games in the past, I think it is quite correct to question the agency of players in making decisions. Although the game should be historically-grounded, it also should allow for multiple contigent factors that show how history could have gone differently. The point about cultural transmission only moving in one-direction is also well founded as there was movements in other direction. As history has shown, Europe was able to obtain from the America new plants, such as sugar, tobacco, chocolate, and potatoes, as well as new animals. Thus, the cultural transmission went both ways. Finally, on the point about the game not being offensive enough, I think that it does a disservice to history when games glorify or exclude aspects of history in order simplify or smooth out problematic features. It is important to show history in its entirety, including the worst parts, so that people can fully understand and learn from it.

  2. I would also like to comment on your Civilization section even though Patrick beat me to it. Your analysis of the article seems spot-on: the company president and the game’s detractors both make important points, but neither are entirely correct according to the article’s esteemed authors.
    The game tackles a hot button issue and it does it in a way that tries to thread the needle of public opinion. Instead, it probably does a poor job because it does not give either side what they want. The very fact it was created under any semblance of historical accuracy will anger some who want to see that history erased. On the other side, the fact that the game creators programmed in certain win-conditions with the point of appeasing the people upset about colonization will anger the folks who would rather glorify the colonization, or the people who do not want modern political lenses to view the historical period of the game.
    The article provides a good solution in their criticism: the game is not offensive enough. The answer to the problem that most rational actors in this debate is right there: just make the game as historically accurate as possible, while ensuring that players have the agency to actively change the course of events if they feel morally obligated. This should satisfy most camps: The people who want historical accuracy are obviously content, but the people who want the atrocities of the colonial period noted should also be satisfied if the game properly shows how those atrocities happened in the historical record. Whitewashing the history is not actually a good response to bad things done in the past.
    History is controversial enough without it being adulterated by a company juggling PR priorities and trying to avoid cancelation. If Civ just presented the history, and all of the history, good and bad, it would better serve the players and itself.
    Thank you for the good summary!

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