Critical Play: Radical Game Design

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2009. Print. (Access Flanagan’s introduction online here.)

9780262062688Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play is a call to develop a new methodology that will allow activist games to be created in greater numbers, and for games in general to be designed with increased diversity. “Critical play” refers to games and other types of play that involve the examination of social, cultural, political, and personal themes and issues, wherein the goal is not to win, but to think and discuss the issues within the safe space created by play. In these types of play, critical thinking, education, intervention, and humanistic themes are emphasized. The book surveys alternative games in order to “propose a theory of avant-garde game design” that moves toward a non-hierarchical structure of creation and participation (1). Her central idea is that art and aesthetics should more strongly inform current game design as they have done in the past. Such connections between art and games are established through discussions of the history of play, in relation to different art and activist movements, such as Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus, whose games often enacted subversion of cultural norms both through their design process and their play experience. The possibilities of play for enacting subversion are further explored through chapters that focus on performative games, and the re-appropriation of one’s environment as a play-scape.

By examining issues around games in relation to gender, race, and wealth, Flanagan also consistently problematizes the question of who actually gets to play these games. Further, she points to links between technology, consumerism and capitalism as major causes of concern. Game design and representation mirror the society which produces them, and, as such, more often than not, re-enact traditional power structures, particularly if the game is intended as a consumer product. In order for a game to achieve the goal of critical play, it must challenge the power structures from the very beginning of its design process. In her suggestion of a new methodology for critical game design, as well as in her definitions of key terms, Flanagan offers a framework for both creation and discussion. Flanagan’s definition of terms (such as critical play, games, technology, and subversion) provides a clear lexicon, useful to researchers and game-developers, as well as anyone generally interested in the field of play and game studies. This establishes a common language with which to discuss game design and play. Moreover, by taking an art-based approach to the history of play and development of games, Flanagan makes it possible for readers to ground new information about the concept of critical play within their prior experiences of games. The focus on art and aesthetics also places current digital games solidly within the realm of subversive creation and activism, which is quite different from the typically technological approach, thus offering a fresh perspective on the topic. Her outline of the new methodology for the design of ‘critical play’ games will be of particular interest to people active in the field of game creation, as she instigates a challenge to all creators to begin enacting a more radical design practices.

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