Unplaying an Unreview of Critical Playby Cynthia Haynes
One tell-tale sign of a scholarly codex book is the presence of an index. It is not necessarily indicative of the quality (or quantity) of research contained within, so much as a reflection of the Burkean terministic screens of the person tasked with creating the index. Usually someone is hired by the publisher to decide how a book should be indexed, what categories are the most salient, and what the readers need in order to find their self-same-saliency quickly. In 1975, for example, Alex Bellamy created the index for the first edition of Paul Feyerabend’s book, Against Method. Ironically, Bellamy was working at the time for/with Imre Lakatos, to whom Feyerabend had ‘playfully’ dedicated his book (although the two scholars were locked in an infamous and protracted debate about the philosophy of science and research methodologies). Lakatos’ assistant, Bellamy, was not amused and decided to play an “anti-Paul” joke on Feyerabend in the index entry for ‘rhetoric,’ which directs readers to pages 1-309. Subsequent editions of the book contained a completely different index, sans ‘rhetoric 1-309.’ A few years ago, I wrote to Bellamy to ask for the backstory on this entry in the index to Against Method. He was surprised that a rhetoric professor would be interested in this so many years after the fact, but generously explained it as follows:
When I slipped this 'anti-Paul' joke index entry in (pp1-309 are of course the whole of the book apart from the indices (-:), I never imagined I would seriously be asked why some 30 years later by a Professor of Rhetoric . . . . I was concerned to leave some indication that I did not personally agree with the whole book's philosophy, so using rhetoric in the pejorative sense.
However, I also thought the book was a serious effort at rhetoric at least worthy of criticism. Lakatos and Feyerabend themselves were consciously vying as to who was the superior rhetorician when they did such as joint lectures at University College London. I think both regarded the entertaining art of rhetoric as seriously important in advancing one's ideas, in marked contrast with orthodox academic philosophers of science.
Of course one could argue on Lakatosian fallibilist grounds that all argument is ultimately rhetoric and the traditional distinction between Logic and Rhetoric, in which the former is concerned with establishing the truth rather than with persuading people of something, ultimately fails because truth cannot be established by argument because the truth of the initial premises cannot be established, thus we end up using 'persuasive' premises i.e. ones that we are persuaded are true or that the audience are. So the entry was trivially true on this analysis.
At LSE [London School of Economics] Alan Musgrave had set an example of making humorous 'analytical' index entries, such as his 'Marxism refuted' and 'Marxism made irrefutable' entries in his index to Popper's Conjectures & Refutations, as mentioned by Lakatos in his 1973 LSE Scientific Method Lectures published in Motterlini's 1999 'For and Against Method', see its index entry for Musgrave. (personal email)
I begin my review of Flanagan’s book, Critical Play, with this anecdote solely in order to make the observation that I would not have been surprised to see the index entry for ‘play’ as pages 1-317. The fact that the entry for play contains the standard sub-entries (e.g., ‘agency and,’ ‘importance of,’ ‘children and,’ ‘defining,’ and so forth) is perhaps the surest sign that the demise of print literacy (gripped as it is in the stranglehold of scientific method) has been prematurely lamented. That said, let us assume an altogether different index - one that, perhaps, contains only one entry: replay 1-317.
To suggest that Flanagan’s book is all ‘replay’ is, of course, taking casuistic freedom in stretching the connection between rhetoric and play. That is to say, taken together these terms ‘put into play’ one of the most dynamic (and conductive) links in the book between ‘unplaying’ and ‘critical play’ - and this is a welcome rhetorical move in game studies. Flanagan’s discussions of unplaying are not extensive; however, it is evidence of her rhetorical flexibility that this reader found her own ‘fallibilist grounds’ for forging this connection. I would also venture to say that most readers of Critical Play will find altogether different, and yet equally, personal re-cognitions with which to play.
The replay meme is also consistent with several of Flanagan’s earlier works that deploy the rhetorical ‘re’-whatever: re:skin (2006), reload (2002). That I intend to ‘unplay’ this re-view of her book is not coincidental. In other words, it would seem rhetorically foolish to re-view a re-play. What would I say! Simply RE! This I cannot do in such a short span of words, and thus I will work to undo a pedestrian genre by playing hopscotch through her text. I found myself doing this a lot while reading Critical Play, in fact. And the first image re-printed in the book (Figure 1.1) is of an artistic re-working of hopscotch Flanagan created in 2007 called ‘mapscotch’ (9). It illustrates her point throughout the book that games function as “social technologies” (9). I have vivid memories of playing this game on the sidewalks and school playgrounds I inhabited in the late 50s and early 60s. I took great pleasure in drawing the squares with different colored chalk, in organizing the players, explaining the rules, and in hopping perfectly inside the squares without touching the lines. I kissed my first boy, whose name was Andy, after successfully maneuvering up the squares. Andy had red hair. He was mildly shocked at having been kissed. I was 6 years old. I hovered a long time on page 9 of Flanagan’s book with a smile on my face, her discussion and illustration having reconnected me with this long-suppressed joyful memory. Yes, I thought, games function as social technologies, but also as instruments that unleash our individual fantasy machines…on the Andy’s of the world.
‘Replay 1-317’ is an index entry I will have (future perfectly) inserted into the book re-view, and hopscotchingly I am now going to land inside the ‘activist’ square that Flanagan paints with captivating critical colors. But let me dispense first with the evaluative move - Flanagan has not only done her homework in game studies, she earns an “A” for her avant-garde artistic activism. It is the focus of her life and suffuses the language and conceptual force of Critical Play. Whether she is honing in on “subversion, disruption, and intervention” (10), or tracing the histories of “location-based games” that “unplay the dominant systems of control” (189), Flanagan keeps our critical eye on the rhetorical ball of activism. In “Playing House” (Chapter 2), we learn how children of Victorian England “ ‘hacked’ the household norms” by “unplaying” house (17, 33). As Flanagan explains: “In doll play, unplaying manifests in children abusing their dolls, ‘killing’ them, or some other revision of the ‘care giving’ framework of expected play” (33). Herein she cites other forms of activist game playing in the form of “re-dressing or reskinning” dolls, but also provides examples of children’s literature authors “rewriting” stories that critically “[push] the boundaries of the permissible . . . in domestic space” (34-35). The chapter culminates in discussions of various subversive means of exploring autonomy, subjectivity, and identity in The Sims and Second Life, the upshot of which is that Flanagan begins her serious dialogue with game designers: “Game makers, like any media makers, cannot simply step outside current contemporary social systems to write and think in ways completely ‘free of the rules.’ Rather, behavior, language, and discourse are themselves inscribed with those rules” (61).
The chapters that follow, on Board Games and Language Games, offer exhaustive and fascinating glimpses into ancient and contemporary means of weaving play, aesthetics, and activism into a rich tapestry of historical evidence that play experience is the human experience. Among the many examples of interventionist art and critical play, Flanagan inserts a discussion of Surrealist parlor games (156-160). One example is a game called “Would You Open the Door,” which essentially involves this question: “If there were a knock at the door, and you saw . . . a famous historical figure - an artist, for example, or politician - would you let him or her in?” (158). This prompted another lengthy reverie during which I imagined I actually heard a knock on my front door. I was a bit startled, the dog started barking, and just as quickly went back to sleep at my feet. So, I tried the game - I imagined that the designer of the World of Warcraft dungeon instance, the Culling of Stratholme, was knocking at my door. I go to the door and yell, “What the hell were you thinking! And NO, you cannot come in!” Interruption: my husband and I watch Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and there is a bar scene during which they play a parlor game with cards on which they have written the names of famous figures. They pass the cards to their right, lick the back and stick it on their forehead for all to see (except themselves), and begin to ask the group questions about the identity of the personage. The Nazi is wearing a card bearing the words “King Kong” on his forehead. Would I open the door to Hitler? Would I play with history by making a film in which the doors to the cinema are locked with Hitler inside…and a black man sets the nitrate film on fire with all inside? Art and play are intimately connected to history and tragedy. The culling of ‘insert-genocide-here’ can prompt a radical rethinking of the power of artistic intervention and the re-play of history.
In keeping with her/our unplaying, Flanagan’s chapter on Language Games (Ch 4), contains a fascinating cross-section of play designed “not as a comprehensive analysis of all language games,” rather a “survey . . . meant to uncover techniques of language play invoked by artists” (117). Readers expecting to see in depth philosophical treatments of language games such as proposed by Wittgenstein or Lyotard will be somewhat disappointed, though Flanagan certainly points to a bit of scholarship about Wittgenstein. Instead, we are whisked onto a magical carpet of wordplaying that begins with Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss, and propels itself along on the currents of classical and contemporary literature, ‘theater of the absurd,’ fables, puns, riddles, allegories, Dadaist poetry, surrealist writing, fluxus interventions, and material/visual language play. Flanagan hones in on artistic wordplay that aims to critique cultural and social conditions, paying special attention to shocking abstractions and rude “buffoonery” (119). And although we may not hear much about Wittgenstein, Flanagan insists on revealing (and re-tooling) theoretical questions of power and subjectivity that language games enact. The upshot of her survey in this chapter is to foreground how artists’ “language games are thus frameworks for an opening up of subject positions, a liberation of what it means to make rules, share them, and play” (148).
The following chapter on Performative Games and Objects (Ch 5) could easily be paired with Language Games in a microcosmic scrutiny of how play performs artistic and critical strategies. Indeed many of the examples rendered up in Language Games perforce deal with performative play. But in Chapter 5 Flanagan returns to Huizinga’s description of performative games 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; emphasis mine). As she notes, “[i]n some sense, all games are performative” (149), but she is careful to expand her inspection of performance into the historical practices that “automatically infer play” (149). This necessitates careful inclusion of, again, Dadaist, surrealist, and avant-garde movements of the 20th century, such as “spontaneous writing or drawing,” “cut-up” techniques, “exquisite corpse” projects, and even “fumage” (where “impressions are made by the smoke of a lamp or candle on paper or canvas” for the purpose of “fortune-telling”) (157-58). This dazzling array of historical performative play-forms not only situates critical play within Flanagan’s ‘critical play’ sandbox, it serves to inspire game studies scholars and designers to appreciate their work in multiple contexts and tested enactments of the most fulfilling human experience - play.
At the risk of underplaying the significance of the final three chapters, I want to focus on how these chapters situate play as crucial to social and political change. Throughout the book, Flanagan poses perennial questions that serve to generate thought and introspection, but in the remaining chapters of the book she cranks up the volume such that we cannot unhear the human question itself. “Who is really able to wander and drift?” (Chapter 6 on Artists’ Locative Games, 196). “What happens when game makers and players begin to blend spaces such as public urban space and online game space?” (216). “Are artist-produced computer games, as systems, reinventing how these practices and their artifacts, how the culture, are constituted?” (Chapter 7 on Critical Computer Games, 226). “If games are supposed to be a source of entertainment, should they also attempt to enhance critical thinking as well as address social and political issues?” (247). Finally, in Chapter 8 on Designing for Critical Play, Flanagan raises the possibility of designing possibility itself into games. She writes: “If, as according to Bennett and Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Play is grounded in the concept of possibility,’ then critical play is the avant-garde of games as a medium. But where is play critical?” (251). According to Flanagan’s incisive analysis, it is in the practice of “unplaying” (260). The challenge, she insists, is “to make interesting, complex play environments using the intricacies of critical thinking and to encourage designers to offer many possibilities in games, for a wide range of players, with a wide range of interests and social roles. We can manifest a different future. It is not enough to simply call for change and then hope for the best; we need interventions at the level of popular culture” (261). I would add, by way of concluding this ‘unreview,’ that Flanagan’s book calls us to answer the question, “Would You Open the Door” to unplay?
Works CitedBellamy, Alex. Personal emails. October 5, 2004 and November 2, 2004.
Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. 1st ed. London: Verso, 1975.