In the landscape of media studies and digital humanities, games have become a popular subject
of study for both their creative forms and the social practices they instigate. Because they
create cognitive and epistemological environments that position the player-participant with
a given collection of game elements, representations, and rules (Flanagan 2009: 10), and
because they offer choices and a sense of agency that is empoweringâ€”and potentially psy –
cho logically manipulativeâ€”digital games are influential, exciting media forms worthy of
critical attention. Described in this chapter, Critical Play is both a discursive method and a
practical, instrumental approach toward the development of games that enrich communication,
encourage in-depth reflection, and generate new conversations among game players and game
Key to this discussion is an understanding of the role of media, design, and criticality in
social change and overall societal improvement, as well as the notion of social responsibility.
Alongside their positive elements, games have faced harsh critique; key challenges in the
conversation about games arise about who makes games to begin with and for whom they
are created. In pop culture, videogames are still largely described as a domain for men, even
though adult women constitute half of all digital game players (ESA 2014). Hispanic players
currently outnumber non-Hispanic players in the U.S. as well (Mintel 2014). Yet, while player
demographics appear more inclusive than ever across the player base, equity in terms of gender
in the creation of games is still slow to come. While the percentage of women working in
the U.S. game industry has doubled, it remains at around 22 percent, and people of color
are marginalized in the current American game industry climate (IGDA 2014). A lack of
diversity in game creation spheres helps create a vicious cycle of reinforcing biased, stereo –
typical depictions of characters, cultures, and world rules in games and larger gaming cultures.
Limited, simplistic conceptions of games proliferate from mainstream media. Unfortunately,
they miss the complexity of gamesâ€™ messages and, moreover, their potential for personal and
social benefit. Games are a part of (and some would say they are at the heart of) a massive
set of societal debates about media consumption, social ills, and equity.
But things are changing. Unlike film and linear media, games sway more toward being a
systemic art form, and such an understanding sets the stage for us to engage with the complexity
games offer. For example, while studies link violent and subversive behavior to videogames
(Hull et al. 2014), they simultaneously are seen to have potential for massive, prosocial impact
on culture (McGonigal 2011). These contradictory claims reveal how very little we know
about the complex ways that games engage our beliefs, feelings of agency, and desires for
rewards. As researchers learn more every day, games increase their influence as an artform.
There is great interest in how games promote prosocial values, due to the impact other
media forms have had toward a more progressive society. For example, much has been dis –
cussed about televisionâ€™s role in improving gay equity in the United States; in terms of
increased representation over the last 20 years, the depiction of gay couples and â€œoutâ€ tele –
vision celebrities is associated with more positive societal attitudes (Ayoub & Garretson 2015;
Craig et al. 2015). Anecdotally, the former Vice President of the U.S., Joe Biden, noted in
2012, â€œI think â€˜Will and Graceâ€™ probably did more to educate the American public than
almost anything anybodyâ€™s ever done so farâ€ (Little 2012). This is not to say that the repre –
sentations avoid stereotypes, or that they are always positive and multidimensional. However,
media ecology provides at least some opportunity for escapism, strength, proactive action,
and finding community (Craig et al. 2015). For those interested in the social impact of media,
the challenge remains to push for ways toward responsible media culture that intentionally
shapes culture for good.
Similarly, the norms depicted in digital games significantly influence culture. To give a
sense of the scope of this influence, consider the fact that an estimated 33,000 people per day
were downloading and playing the Kim Kardashian: Hollywood game a year after its release,
and that it made nearly 100K USD per day (Think Gaming 2015). In 2014, there were more
people playing Candy Crush Saga at any given moment than there were people living in
Australia, Germany, or France (93 million daily active users), and the year following, it still
attracted over three million active users per day (King 2014). With record sales, record numbers
of players, and some gamesâ€™ ambitious development costs (e.g., the development of Grand
Theft Auto V reportedly cost 266 million USD; McLaughlin 2013), games are a significant
financial player in the media landscape, bringing in revenues to rival or surpass film and music
industries on a global scale. Games are a key cultural force and twenty-first-century art formâ€”
their high sales figures, dominance in pop culture discourse, and sheer popularity point
to their impact.
In light of the financial and cultural sway of games, designing and playing critically is an
indispensable approach in the domain of applied media studies research and for engaging the
social and cultural dimensions of digital games. Key here is the notion that media makers and
game designers can do something about how they might alternate depictions, rewards, and so
on from mere thought experiment to design studio. In an age of theory meeting practice,
and a push toward experiential learning and â€œmaking,â€ design itself operates as a mode of
in quiry that can intentionally encompass a philosophical and social focus. Designing criti cally
embodies such an intentional practice; it means being mindful of the potentially positive and
negative effects of games as well as the positive and negative influences of oneâ€™s own design
and play processes or experiences.
Critical Play takes a historical look at how games and play can be analytical and experiential
systems reflective of, but also entangled among, social and cultural norms. It incorporates past
radical moves by arts and activist communities to understand games as components or
counterpoints in critical theory. This is why Critical Play is an important and fundamentally
unique approach: the experiential aspect of playâ€”for all games must be playtested by actual
playersâ€”moves the critique beyond a speculative conversation and creates an enactment of
the imagined world. In exploring the historical foundations of games as their own form of
creative expression distinct from story, image, or performance, I have argued that â€œcritical
CRITICAL PLAY AND RESPONSIBLE DESIGN
play means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more
questions about aspects of human lifeâ€ (2009: 6). In past writing, I outlined approaches such
as â€œunplaying,â€ where players enact forbidden or secret scenes or play out unexpected scenarios
(2009: 33). A Critical Play approach is one in which games are not mere thought experiments
but rather actual embodied experiences that not only have the potential for social impact;
they are also likely to change usâ€”our perspectives, our knowledge, our biases.
Contextualizing Critical Play
Across theory and practice, what might people consider as they develop games, study them,
play them, and discuss them in relationship to notions of social engagement and responsible
design? Further, why is this important work for the humanities? Significant trends emerged
in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to advance the social responsibility of
designers. In the 1990s, my longtime collaborator, Helen Nissenbaum, began publishing with
Batya Friedman about values in the design of software systems (Friedman & Nissenbaum 1996).
The idea here is that any software system reflects the people and culture from which it is
made. As Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt famously reminded us in 1972, â€œNew
technological environments are commonly cast in the molds of the preceding technology out
of the sheer unawareness of their designersâ€ (47). Critical production therefore must rely on
new methods to ensure critical making is happening. For example, it is quite easy to replicate
the biases inherent in popular media forms. With other collaborators, Nissenbaum and I picked
up the torch to bring values and critical introspection to digital games in 2005, while I was
Figure 17.1 Chart of possible sources of values in games, a list intended to inspire
possibilities rather than be constricting in nature.
Source: From Values at Play in Digital Games (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014), used with permission.
developing the book Critical Play (2009). In Values at Play in Digital Games (2014; see Figure
17.1), we urge critics to consider how games produce values as often as they reflect values, and
we demonstrate that values emerge across many game elements. Intentional interventions in
games can focus on these elements, and the impact of using them can be measured empirically,
if one so desires.
In effect, our approach takes a values-centric methodology to instrumentalizing the tenets
of Critical Play. Verifying the impact of this approach will likely lead designers and humanists
alike to social science methods for empirical validation of the lofty ideals to which they aspire.
Dunne and Raby meanwhile brought the idea of responsible design to the fore from the
practical discipline of architecture (2001). Sengers et al. (2005), Agre (1997), Bardzell and
Bardzell (2013), Bardzell et al. (2012), and others continue the discourse on criticality and
reflection in human-computer interaction to move beyond the functionality of software to
its social roles and responsibilities.
The idea behind these critical-technical perspectives is that, by getting beyond the per –
ceived â€œapoliticalâ€ and obvious needs of design (such as usability, reliability, and so on), we
might create challenging, reflective systems instead. Designers could, for example, â€œforce a
decision onto the user, revealing how limited choices are usually hard-wired into products
for usâ€ (Dunne & Raby 2001: 45â€“6). Design-centric critical projects might take the form of
hypothetical, high-tech innovations or even interactive fictional science laboratories that
ultimately raise questions about data collection, for example. Or they might craft imaginary
objects that provoke critique. These types of projects, by artists such as Natalie Jeremijenko
or Critical Art Ensemble, are called â€œDesignArtâ€ (Leither et al. 2013; see also Associated Press
2008). While these hybrid design-art objects are valuable, they only go so far, and as provo –
cations often stay within the confines of the gallery. For instance, most do not make their
way to the mass-produced world for which industrial design, product design, and engineering
fields pave the way, and thus they may stay bound within communities where the con ver –
sations provoked already exist. They do, however, elevate the conversation about the role
of design and perhaps spark systemic change at the level of industrial design. This holds less
true thus far for experiments in games, especially digital games, which reach more people
but have been less likely to deeply trouble the industry against which they operate, even if
they raise theoretical and critical implications for the medium.
Ultimately, notions of scale relate to notions of impact, and criticality and empiricism are
both essential and underutilized aspects of the creation process, with empirical verification as
an ideal to which it is important to aspire. By their nature, games are ripe for criticality, but
it remains up to oneâ€™s strategies as a designer and player to actualize their critical potential.
Recent Examples of Critical Play
While there are many useful examples of critical games, I would like to focus here on three
that showcase diverse aspects of Critical Play. Such play can utilize the mechanics in a game
to convey its message or critique. The questions can be abstract, such as rethinking cooper –
ation, winning, or losing; or they can be more concrete, involved with particular content
issues (Flanagan 2009: 10). They could also focus on reshaping societal biases through game
mechanics. I chose the three games for this chapter to span a range of media, which may
con found traditional media studies as a discipline. The first, a card game, uses a dynamic social
mechanic to counteract biases. The second game is a large collaborative event and online
public art space using community participation and voice to form a relational aesthetic and
prompt change through expression, representation, voice, and authorship. The final game is
CRITICAL PLAY AND RESPONSIBLE DESIGN
a computer game: a single-player experience that investigates border crossing, immigration,
and the various systems that govern behavior and the body. Each has its own strategy in
approaching issues critically.
Buffalo: The Name Dropping Game (2012; see Figure 17.2) is a fun, party card game where
players work quickly against other players to be the first to name someone who matches the
cards on the table. Sometimes the game offers wildly diverse combinations of adjective and
noun, such as â€œtattooed grandmotherâ€ or â€œkind bully.â€ The first player to name an accurate
match keeps the cards as points and moves on to the next fast-paced round.
Developed at the game research laboratory I lead, Tiltfactor, Buffalo serves as a great ice –
breaker or party game for groups small and large. It uses a randomizing mechanic to create
unusual combinations of criteria, which, from a psychological perspective, expand a playerâ€™s
social categories and undermine stereotypes on conscious and unconscious levels (Kaufman
& Flanagan 2015). The game positions players to overcome their own biases and prejudices
as they encounter and â€œbreak upâ€ easy mental pathways created by stereotypes. This approach
corresponds with empirical work done at Harvard via Implicit Association Tests, which measure
unconscious biases we might hold about race, proper jobs, language, and so on. As it turns
out, countering unconscious biases is quite challenging; teaching people about the injustice
of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others is often ineffective. Mahzarin
Banaji notes that what works, at least temporarily, is providing â€œcounterstereo typicalâ€ images
or messages (Banaji & Greenwald 2013: 151). Games are systems of rules leading to experiences
that help shape the way we think and rhetorically and psychologically persuade us; games like
Buffalo: The Name Dropping Game are in effect micro-solutions that address the psychological
factors of social inequity and the microaggressions that permeate culture.
Whose criticality is the focus here? The playerâ€™s? The designerâ€™s? The observerâ€™s? The
scholarâ€™s? The answer is all of the above, but the designer plays a key role in framing a game
and setting the stage for both conscious reflection (e.g., engaging in reflection and discussion
during play) and a less conscious mindset common during design or play experiences.
Figure 17.2 Unexpected combinations appear while playing Buffalo: The Name Dropping
Game. These combinations disrupt the thinking that perpetuates stereotypes.
Source: Courtesy of Resonym.com.
Criticality in play can be fostered to bring a gameâ€™s content into focus or to highlight or
uncover an aspect of the content. Thus a critical attention to both playing and making pro –
vides an essential viewpoint or an analytical framework for responsible design. Through many
avenues, games can represent anything from concrete incidents to abstract ideas (such as equity
and cooperation), and they can do so in a wide variety of forms.
Those using Critical Play as an approach might create a platform of rules by which to
examine a specific issueâ€”rules that would somehow reflect core elements of the issue itself.
As an example, Play Your Place (see Figure 17.3) is a series of ongoing game artworks that
use drawing and play to catalyze and translate local, imaginative visions of place into games
that not only exemplify community values but also contribute to real world urban planning.
Crucially, every element in the gameâ€”setting, characters, and challengesâ€”is entirely created
by community members. People create their own game level by drawing a place in the town.
Then they think about how their â€œplaceâ€ could be changed for the better. They devise their
own rules, drawing obstacles and rewards and building and sharing game level after level for
an epic play session. The game makers also incorporate fantasy elements into their vision
of everyday life. The games take the familiar format of Little Big Planet or Donkey Kong; they
can be played online, on mobile phones, in schools and homes, as well as at public venues.
Players take on challenges, such as obstacles, leaps, drops, prizes, and enemies, as they would
in a typical 2-D platform game.
Figure 17.3 Play Your Place game engine and event series 2012â€“14, by Ruth Catlow and
Mary Flanagan (LOCALLY). Here, players â€œPlay Southendâ€ (in Essex UK).
Source: Courtesy of the artists.
I created the platform with U.K. artist Ruth Catlow, as LOCALPLAY, to bridge the
gap between urban planners and the public. The urban planners we met with at the start of
the project noted that the most interesting challenge of public consultation and deliberation
about a placeâ€™s future is encouraging people to imagine beyond their own wants and needs
toward a common good. Play Your Place helps people develop collective visions of place
that can then be entered and played by people all over the world. Players create over time,
in game instances specific to their location, and the world grows through the addition of
endless drawings. Community members have created entirely fictional calamities, but often
these calamities correspond with existing social and environmental challenges, such as climate
change, regeneration, transit issues, and more. For example, one original game featured mon –
sters emerging from the waters of the Thames Estuary, reflecting the dangers of rising sea
levels on coastal towns. The maker used a Critical Play approach to match the social issue
to the rules and various game elements they create, including available actions, points of view,
player choices, and rewards. Note that, without a somewhat structured practice, making alone
will not necessarily bring about criticality, at least not immediately. People have played a lot
of games and have a sense of common game tropes. Criticality can be fostered by thinking
through the systemic issues the maker faces with the structure of a game, and thinking about
what values the rewards and choices represent for the player.
Some indie game developers have developed and distributed highly stylized fictional worlds
for critical expression. Papers, Please (2013; see Figure 17.4) begins as a rather simple-looking,
8-bit style game. As an officer at an immigration booth, players admit people across the border
of the nation of Arstotzka, a fictional former communist state that is intentionally reminiscent
of former Soviet bloc nations such as Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. This â€œformer Sovietâ€ feel
is set up not only in the game FAQ but also through the game soundtrack, the national logo
and art style, and the grimness of the bureaucracy in which players must work. In the game,
players spend their time as immigration inspectors to control entry into Arstotzka and its
recently recaptured half of the border town, Grestin. Players must sort among travelers,
smugglers, spies, terrorists, and those looking for work, either admitting or denying entry to
these individuals, who are waiting in a lengthy queue outside the border control booth. Some –
times documentation just does not add up, such as when a photo in a passport does not match
a character representation. Players work over a month (31 in-game days) to follow the Ministry
of Admissionâ€™s Rules and Regulations guide in the admission of people across the border.
Tension mounts as the player detects discrepancies and materials given at the border are expired
or invalid. Accidentally allowing certain immigrants into the country comes at price. Players
will likely make mistakes and receive citations from the Ministry. Their income may be
impacted by any mistakes, and their family will suffer economically and spir ituallyâ€”as the
rent goes up, food prices and other costs remain high. The in-game newspaper keeps players
up to date on particularly controversial characters and suspicious activities. As the game
progresses, players are given notes about human traffickers and others who impact the play
progression. Players may also receive large gifts from rebel parties. If players game the system
without empathy and play to only benefit themselves and their family, then they might be
reported by the neighbors for having too much wealth. Alternatively, their savings may be
confiscated, or they may be forced to downgrade the quality of their apartments. A playerâ€™s
son may become sick and need medication, or a player may run out of funds entirely. Players
may end the game under arrest for colluding with the rebel organization. There are several
By forcing the player to conform to the rules of screening processes, and by allowing some
power yet limited agency within a larger system of oppression, the game sets the stage for
CRITICAL PLAY AND RESPONSIBLE DESIGN
the player to be cast as an actor in moral and ethical dilemmas. For example, female characters
come through, clearly as part of human trafficking campaigns, and ask for help. As the player
in a position of power, do you try to help? Your supervisor tells you to detain more people
as part of increased security. If you do not, will you jeopardize your family with your decisions?
Papers, Please offers an excellent example of roleplay as a character with painfully limited
agency; such limitations may encourage the player to adopt a critical stance to the unfairness
in which they participate. The effect is to serve as a critical witness and, perhaps on a larger
level, encourage empathy toward workers as well as people in the throes of refuge-seeking
In each of these three games, different strategies for criticality emerge. In Buffalo, the game
relies less on conscious reflection and more on unconscious psychological associationsâ€”a design
mechanism that is deliberately less overt than other media intent on societal change. In Play
Your Place, the act of creation within a grounded location and context helps engage a dia –
logue about community through authorship, creativity, and spectacle. While the making itself
may not be critical, the reflection and practice about the rules and rewards of a real life issue
do lead to deeper thought on social ills. In Papers, Please, a stark environment combined with
a system of rules and narrative-driven tasks foster a rich sense of limited agency and in equity.
The player is likely to be frustrated at their lack of agency, and their limited point of view
may lead them to see the whole phenomenon of migration and border crossing in a new
light. These three examples represent distinct, yet equally useful, manifestations of criticality.
Critical Play is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even
personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces. The challenge, then, is to
find ways to make compelling, complex play environments using the intricacies of critical
thinking to offer novel possibilities in games, and for a wide range of players. As new forms
of play emerge, each element of a game may foster a different sense of critical thinking,
Figure 17.4 Lucas Popeâ€™s game Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller (2013)
positions players as immigration officers who decide which immigrants can or
cannot enter the fictional country of Arstotzka.
reflection, and dialogue on the part of the player. To get to this point, designers must be
highly conscientious of the materials they put into play and mitigate as much as they can
against the possibilities of negative associations of players with their games. (For example,
some studies find associations between certain games and binge drinking, smoking, un –
protected sex, and dangerous driving. For one study, see Hull et al. 2014.) Thus, the goal in
theorizing a critical game design paradigm is as much about the creative personâ€™s interest in
critiquing the status quo as it is about using play as a phase-changing cultural artifact.
A Practical Turn for Media Studies and
Increasingly, media practice and theory are intertwined in a theory-practice dialogue that
moves to praxis, and media studies and digital humanities are legitimately focusing on
practice-oriented forms of critical production. If, as Latour argues, â€œtechnology is society made
durableâ€ (1991), then we must carefully examine what we craft and invent. This is a positive
direction, for informed making leads to criticality outside of traditional academic texts. But
the details count in the creation of new media artifacts. As noted earlier in this chapter, the
impact of games and their capacity for criticality are not merely about representation. Games
are a peculiar form of art that involve many other elements at play. These elements exceed
those of representation and story, and games can set the stage for criticality across any media
and within any story.
The fact that games are their own art formâ€”and not mere delivery mechanisms or mediaâ€”
is an essential concept to grasp when understanding the role they play in criticality and social
impact. Although digital games are the most popular emerging media today, games them –
selves can be constituted from myriad media and performance-based forms, from immersive
3-D worlds to mobile street games to 8-bit vintage arcade boxes. Games embody hybrid
media forms as well, easily synthesizing elements of digital games, board games, and sports,
for example. The medium itself is important but not essential to the â€œgamenessâ€ of a game.
This makes a game a unique object for media study and one not often understood deeply by
those who have researched other media.
Critical Play started in the arts, and art has helped indicate a way forward. As demonstrated
in Values at Play (2014), we have a repeatable, scalable process involving an essential human
activityâ€”playâ€”to create new futures. These futures, however, are real. Unlike discursive
approaches to design, Critical Play actualizes and takes responsibility for the outcomes from
particular games. For example, while those writing about speculative design might see a game
as an avenue for discussion and possibilityâ€”a thought experimentâ€”Critical Play assumes that
games are themselves universes of actions. As experiences, they are dynamic, and their
dynamics impact our thinking, minds, and lived experience. At their best, games are inspired
models for social change.
As we move forward in playing and designing critically, the possibilities offered through other
disciplines, traditions, and methods can play a key role in the practical and useful application
of these ideas. At Tiltfactor, my team and I invented a new technique called â€œEmbedded
Designâ€ to infuse some of the key ideas from social psychology into the game design process
(Kaufman et al. 2015). For example, it is strategic to address psychological challenges inherent
CRITICAL PLAY AND RESPONSIBLE DESIGN
in social inequity, such as implicit biases that can limit certain groups from excelling. The
psychology literature shows us that repeated exposure to stereotypes or existing prejudicial
attitudes in both broader culture and media can significantly curtail even the most wellintentioned social impact design projects. A truly hybrid approach between art and science
lies in the future of playing critically, as does real impact through changed psychologies and
the systems such changed minds produce. The techniques of social science provide both
concepts and measurement tools for validation that, if used well, can benefit this hybrid
approach. â€œPsychology cannot tell people how they ought to live their lives. It can, however,
provide them with the means for effecting personal and social changeâ€ (Bandura 1977: 213).
In psychological terms, there are consequences in every game that we are only beginning to
understand. The next wave of Critical Play would indicate that a deeper knowledge of social
science must infuse the art of play to ameliorate, retrain, or reinvent how we approach playful
Indeed, the key challenge in any critical design space is the question of impact. The arts
already serve as provocative sites for criticality, and have done so for centuries. This is valuable,
and criticality needs to evolve with highly interactive art forms that are revisited on a daily
basis as sites for community and lived realities. Those engaged with praxis must also con front
the task to ground criticism in practical objects and systems that can be deeply experienced
and are transformative in natureâ€”phenomena that move idealistic and introspective con ver –
sations to collective, imagined realities. Games are art forms that can provide such a transitional
We know, too, that sheer amounts of capital sent to rectify social injustices are not the
solution to societal crises: â€œIf money could have changed the world, money would have
changed the world,â€ claims prosocial entrepreneur Sharad Vivek Sagar (2014). Media and
designed objects, processes, and strategies have a much greater potential to improve society
than capital alone. Yet, while there is a growing community creating â€œgames for change,â€
we are only beginning to understand their impact. Sherry Turkle has noted that, â€œ[t]echnology
challenges us to assert our human values, which means that first of all, we have to figure out
what they areâ€ (2010). The values of the designers and artists making games need to emerge
for the next phase of Critical Play. However, many questions remain that we shall have to
pursue. For instance, does Critical Play have to stay at the margins of mainstream media, or
will it successfully enter a center arena? Is scaleâ€”for example, a high number of players or
monumental commercial successâ€”a logical and necessary next step for Critical Play as a
practice? Will the increasing number of independently created games help create a diverse
world of possibility in games and also help their positive potential flourish?
From this chapter, I hope readers get the sense that all games change us: it is just a question
of understanding how and why, and taking responsibility so that change can be beneficial.
Games are a rehearsal space of imagined actions and their consequences. They are themselves
conversations. But they are also sites for actual decisions, actions, and feedback systems that
reinforce or change biases, empathy, and more. They provide us with models for problem
solving and, as I have pointed out, can limit or expand the ways we frame conflict,
collaboration, resources, and competition (Flanagan 2014). Those interested in humanistic
thought and the speculative nature of media do well to play critically. Games are the artwork
of agency, of action, and of ritual. They are formal and relational, but mirrorâ€”and indeed
may causeâ€”progress and change. They are critical operations where transformation is
triggered, new relationships are formed, and the systems of everyday life meet the randomness
of the universe.
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