Ragnhild Tronstad

Ragnhild Tronstad is a researcher of games and new media art at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Oslo. She is currently working on the project ”Play, Performativity, and Presence”, financed by The Research Council of Norway.


The Productive Paradox of Critical Play

by Ragnhild Tronstad

I was looking forward to reading Mary Flanagan’s book on critical play since I am acquainted with some of Flanagan’s previous work in the field, and know her ideas to be both interesting and well founded. And as my current research project is focused on the aesthetics of play, exploring the intersections between art, play and gaming, the topic of the book appeared to be right up my alley. I was quite disappointed, therefore, to realise that I’m not really in the target group this time - it’s not for me this book has been written. Rather, its aim is to inspire game designers and students of game design to think differently about the function of play and games beyond mere entertainment: to open their eyes for the critical potential that lies inherent in its various forms. To do this, Flanagan guides her readers through an impressive number of historical examples, mostly from the history of art, in which play and gaming appear in less conventional forms. To try to do justice to this curiosity cabinet of a book, acknowledging that it is written for a different audience than I represent, I will give an overview of its many merits before I proceed to a discussion of more theoretical issues that I think the book could have benefited from treating more thoroughly.

In the introductory chapter, seminal definitions of play (Huizinga, Sutton-Smith) are presented along with an explanation of what it may mean to “play critically”: 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 “is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces. […] Thus the goal in theorizing a critical game-design paradigm is as much about the creative person’s interest in critiquing the status quo as it is about using play for such a phase change” (p. 6). While also presenting some influential attempts to define what games are (Crawford, Costikyan, Salen and Zimmerman), Flanagan herself prefers a less strict definition, finding it more productive to think of them as “situations with guidelines and procedures” (p. 7) and as “social technologies” (p. 9).

Chapters 2-7 give an impressive historical account of various forms of critical play and games. The first, “Playing House,” focuses on domestic play from 17th century doll houses to today’s computer game equivalent, The Sims, with the eerie uncanniness inherent in children’s deviant doll play as a recurring motif. Flanagan divides her analysis into three types of critical play: Unplaying, re-dressing or re-skinning, and rewriting (p. 33). In re-dressing / re-skinning, characteristics of the object of play are adjusted, while rewriting changes the narrative context, in order to make way for critical or subversive play. Unplaying describes a form of play counter to the game itself: subverting the original game mechanics by playing against the rules, or performing acts that are “forbidden” in the game. The subversive potential of unplay becomes most radically apparent later in the book, when Flanagan describes the work of avant-garde artists as systems that unplay the conventions of traditional art (p. 165), or when she envisions future games that make visible “the hidden transcripts” that lie among the “official transcripts” in a society (p. 260). It is truly a fascinating concept that Flanagan identifies here. However, since playing subversively in other contexts - that is, bending the rules and creating new games to replace the old - appears to be the very essence of play, why call it “unplay”?

In the following chapters, the games presented are organised according to media. Flanagan guides us through history examining “Board Games,” “Language Games,” “Performative Games and Objects,” and “Artists’ Locative Games” before we end up at today’s “Critical Computer Games.” We are given a (primarily art) historical overview of examples of critical play and gaming, with a particular focus on the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde movements. Such a compilation does not, to my knowledge, exist already, and Flanagan has done a great job in collecting and systematizing this data. Extra credit should be given for her inclusion of the works of marginalised groups, those of women in particular. The collection is by no means exhaustive - for instance, language games and performance are areas that remain partly unexplored - but serves to demonstrate the myriad of techniques at use in critical play as it appears at various times and in different media. For students and others who are not already familiar with the experiments and works of the avant-garde, this part of the book will surely serve as a wellspring of inspiration.

This brings me to the last chapter of the book, the instructive “Designing for Critical Play” in which Flanagan sums up years of experience within the field of avant-garde game design by presenting us with a practical method on how to include critical thinking and subversion in designing games. Somehow I wish I had read this chapter first, because this is where the book reveals its true purpose and potential - to inspire and facilitate the creation of good games that aim to make a difference in the world. Values and gameplay are equally important in this model: They are the two criteria for success (p. 258). This was not necessarily the case, however, with the avant-garde art-games described previously in the book, many of which were virtually unplayable. In fact, Flanagan’s intimate understanding of the structural reality of games and gameplay, apparent for instance in her advice that one should “design for subversion of the system and other means by which play can emerge,” makes me expect the future of avant-garde game design will be a lot more exciting than the past. If the book can inspire talented game designers to demand more of their games than entertainment and profit, then the future of game studies will be interesting indeed!

While endlessly sympathetic to the project, and grateful for what it may accomplish in terms of future game design, I am still compelled to discuss some of the questions that I find are left largely unresolved in the book. Considering that its intended audience might not be scholars and games researchers, it is understandable that Flanagan has chosen to leave out the hair-splitting theoretical discussions on how to understand key terms such as play, games, critical and serious throughout the book. However, since I am a games researcher, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the intricacies of these terms and how their relative significance seems to be in a constant flux throughout the book. Flanagan does provide loose definitions of “play” and “games” in the introductory chapter, leaving both terms rather open for associated meanings. However, she doesn’t address the apparent paradox in the concept “critical play,” or how these two terms, put together like this, must necessarily influence each other. What happens to play when it becomes critical? And how might critical content be influenced by play? By not discussing these issues, and by not clarifying how and to what extent (she thinks) the various examples are “playful,” or how they are “critical,” Flanagan risks the accusation of uncritically recycling art historical clichés. For example, such a critique could point out that many of the works she chooses as examples of “play” already come with such a label. However, as the history of art represents a quite different context than contemporary play culture, this could be an apt opportunity to re-evaluate their alleged “playfulness”.

Operating with a wide definition of play allows Flanagan to include works that are playful and/or critical in a great variety of senses. In terms of creating a varied repository of inspirational examples of critical play, this is of course a strength. However, works that appear to be either critical or playful seem to be a lot more prevalent among the examples than successful combinations. I don’t think this dearth of hybrid examples is Flanagan’s choice, but rather that there are simply more either/or-works available, since I suspect that nothing would be more inspirational in this context than examples of works that manage to establish a subversive or otherwise critical perspective through amazing gameplay. Successfully designing for critical play, in other words, seems to be something of a challenge. As she readily admits, games created for serious purposes, commenting for instance on problematic issues in society, easily fall in the trap of becoming either “dull and didactic, or entertaining but hollow. In the worst case, the results are both dull and hollow” (p. 249).

One reason for this could be that designers and artists often choose the path of least resistance when designing for critical play. That is, they choose to re-skin or rewrite an already existing game, instead of subversively addressing the game’s rules and mechanics, that is, unplaying the game. Only a very few of the examples in the book participate in such subversion: One is Ruth Catlow’s 2003 Rethinking Wargames: A Chance to Remaster Conflict:

    A version of chess designed for three players representing white royalty, black royalty, and the united force of pawn. Players take turns in making moves. White’s goal is to eliminate the black royalty, black’s goal is to eliminate white royalty, and the pawns place themselves as barriers to the aggression, trying to “slow down” the violence like virtual protestors, so that negotiation between the violent warring factions might possibly take place. […] The pawns act as “blocks,” and after five turns, if neither royal side has taken a piece, a period of non-violence is counted and a piece of metaphoric “grass” grows on the game board. After five turns of non-violence, grass will have taken over the fighting field. By staving off the aggression and overcoming the “hotheaded” part of the conflict, the pawns win (p. 114-115).)

To me there is a great difference between re-skinning or rewriting a game on the one hand, and unplaying it, on the other. Catlow’s unplaying of chess in Rethinking Wargames does not, in my opinion, result in a “version of chess” (p. 114), but in an entirely new game. In contrast to, for instance, Fluxus artist Takako Saito’s numerous re-skinnings of chess in which the tokens are substituted with jewels and other items, but where the game mechanics remain the same (p. 112). Flanagan does not explicitly address this difference, or emphasise the one as potentially more innovative or radical than the other. However, the method presented in the final chapter “Designing for Critical Play” reflects a process that is closer to unplaying than to (mere) re-skinning or rewriting. Here she writes: “The disruption of contemporary games, whether through play, or preferably, through original designs that eschew the embedded interaction styles of current computer games may offer models for other emerging practices in playculture” (p. 256). Reassuring in this respect is also her assertion earlier in the book that “a game’s mechanics is its message” (p. 185).

The book is published by the well-respected MIT Press. Considering the solid reputation of this publishing house, I would have expected the published manuscript to be more polished. For instance, certain passages are repeated, and there are several instances of unclear or entirely missing references. In some cases Flanagan provides elliptical paraphrasing of complex theory in single sentences, as if the implied reader were suddenly a scholar familiar with the theories of Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, rather than a student of game design (not that these are mutually exclusive.)

Despite these minor flaws, it is an impressive piece of work. With her book, Flanagan has equipped students and practitioners of game design with a generous multi-functional tool, to instruct and inspire. Hopefully, it may instigate a creative revolution among game designers, and result in a productive new era of critical play promoting values and change through engrossing and playable experiences.

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