Module 8: Critical Play and Crip Game Design

8.5 Critical Play in Action

So far, we have looked at some game narratives and how they can be harmful by reflecting and participating in legitimating social norms and oppression. We have also thought about how games for change subvert and challenge these norms. Now, let’s think about how we play games, or what players are expected to do when playing games.

Games are designed for certain people with certain abilities, certain sensibilities, and certain values/politics. When playing any game (computer games, board games, a sport), players are expected to be able to overcome challenges – set by either designers or other players – and be able to physically and mentally complete the game while playing by the rules. As previously mentioned, videogames and their content are often designed by and for straight, white, neurotypical young men with money to purchase these games (Chess, Evans, & Baines, 2016). Rarely are games universally accessible unless they are designed to be so. Video game players often need to design their own controllers or ways of playing to make these games more accessible (See Liu, 2017: However, accessibility in game design/play is certainly not limited to physical barriers and more accessible controller design. As we will explore later in this module, accessibility barriers can come from game design elements that go unquestioned – game difficulty, controls that can’t be adjusted, who the player controls in the game, and more can all present barriers. All these design choices and elements appeal to certain players, while excluding others.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

This is what Adan Jerreat-Poole (2018) reflects on when they recall playing Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), saying,

I didn’t get to play Ivy. I had to play Batman. And Batman punished Ivy for being a Mad queer femme. He played the role of the legal system, and the legal system punishes people like her, like me. The logic of the game was patriarchal, sanist, ableist.

In order to function as a game, the game forces the player to control a certain character – in this case, Batman. This choice, made by developers with no say or influence from players, carries certain values, beliefs, and meanings for different people. While games are often praised for being filled with player freedom and choice and openness, this assertion is often far from true. 

To continue this example, and as an example of what Flanagan (2009) describes as players unplaying, , and rewriting popular game worlds to offer “their own interpretations of play” (p. 48), some players have a later game in the Arkham Asylum series to allow players to play as Poison Ivy. The video below shows Catowman/Selina into Poison Ivy, in the original Poison Ivy’s lair. The video will start just before a scripted scene. If you continue to watch, please note the gameplay is violent.

See this article for more information on the mod:

While we may not know why these players decide to make this modification to the game, it breaks a restrictive part of the game’s design – forcing the player to play as Batman. These players rewrote and reskinned the structure of play in this videogame to offer their own interpretation of how they want to play the game. They aren’t just playing the game – they are playing and designing their mods critically, offering a way to play which goes against the expected way of playing, allowing us to think critically about what it means to control a certain character in a game over another; to be forced to play in a particular way.

Pokémon Go

To take this concept one step further, we can look at the pushback from some game developers against players who attempt to make their games more accessible. The popular mobile game Pokémon Go requires players to walk around outside in order to find and catch in-game Pokémon. Certain Pokémon are assigned to specific locations and so you must physically be able to move around in order to catch them. This gameplay has limitations – players who can run or move more quickly will be able to find and catch more Pokémon. Players who have mobility aids may not be able to move around certain areas or on certain terrain – again blocking off part of the game. One way players decided to make the game more accessible was by taking automated transportation as a way of moving around to catch Pokémon. However, as Jerreat-Poole (2018) writes in their article, this was met with new design elements – ones even more restrictive and less accessible than before.

“Since Pokémon Go has been out, Niantic has banned disabled players from the game for using third-party software to mimic physical travel and placed restrictions on speed, making it more difficult for disabled players to catch Pokémon using automated transportation.”

The quote above includes a link to this article about barriers in Pokémon Go for disabled players:

A hand holding a cell phone displaying the Pokemon GO app on map view. They are outside in a place with trees, cement and dappled sunlight.
Pokemon GO. Image source: (Paintimpact). pokemon go, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Games are often not made with a critical play design in mind and as a result players are forced to play within that restrictive, harmful and discriminatory framework (see this article for information on more of the access barriers present in Pokémon Go: In these instances, we can turn our attention to the action of players who may reskin or rewrite these games to make them function as spaces for critical play. However, as seen with Pokémon Go, sometimes developers will choose to put limitations on these actions, again making design choices that exclude certain people.


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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