Module 8: Critical Play and Crip Game Design
8.3 Critical Play
Today’s module will be largely guided by Mary Flanagan’s (2009) concept of “.” Before moving on to this module’s activities, it is important to understand what critical play means for both players and designers, as well as for accessibility and inclusion in game design.
In the introduction to her book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (2009), Flanagan writes,
“[Critical play] means to create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life.” (p. 6)
In other words, designing games that in some way address and interrogate our lives or society. These games could address any number of things but often focus on issues of social justice. Flanagan also argues that
playculture…is one in which participants find a space for permission, experimentation, and subversion” (p. 13).
Through critical play we can subvert and challenge harmful and unjust social structures or beliefs.
The critical play method is intended as a tool for future game makers, play designers, and scholars. The desired results are new games that innovate due to their critical approach, games that instill the ability to think critically during and after play (Flanagan, 2009).
Play provides both designers and players an opportunity for subversion, creativity, and resistance. Games teach us about the world around us and can intervene, disrupt, or critique culture and society. Games can act critically and function as activist tools. Play has the power to transform!
Games Are Not Neutral
An important aspect of critical play is that technology is not apolitical; it is not free of biases or discrimination. Flanagan (2009) and many other people who study the intersection of technology and social justice, take up this idea. It is particularly important today when these injustices are becoming more and more visible because of advancing and ubiquitous technology usage. As Flanagan argues,
“games carry embedded beliefs within their systems of representation and their structures, whether game designers intend these ideologies or not.” (p.223)
If there is one crucial piece of information to take away from this module, it is: games are not neutral.
A game’s narrative may present a story or characters which challenge social norms or injustices. Mary Flanagan (2009) calls these “serious games, games for change, or social impact games” (p. 243). She gives an example of the game Darfur is Dying, described as “an online game designed to raise awareness of the three million people in refugee camps” (p. 245). You can read about the game here: https://www.gamesforchange.org/game/darfur-is-dying/.
The game, according to the Games for Change website, was designed to bring more widespread attention “[to] the genocide taking place in Darfur and empower college students to help stop the crisis” (gamesforchange.org, n.d.). However, the game was not developed by people who experienced or were directly connected to the crisis. Instead, the game was “developed in cooperation with humanitarian aid workers” (gamesforchange.org, n.d.). Although we may classify Darfur is Dying as a serious game, it is also important to address who games are made by, as the developer’s worldview and positionality will inevitably affect the message and narrative of the game. As we will discuss later in this module, this is crucial when considering accessibility in gaming — for instance, like when disabled people are actively involved in creating accessible spaces.
Because video games have been historically advertised to, developed by, and made most accessible for able-bodied, affluent, straight, young white men, games that have content or characters which don’t follow this norm or are made by more diverse creators could also be considered activist games. An example of this is Depression Quest. We will look at Depression Quest in-depth in the next module when we discuss Twine; it is a text-based choose-your-own adventure game about living with depression. In this game, critical play comes form the narrative/setting of the game as well as the style of play, which forces the player to think engage with and think critically about societal norms and forms of discrimination. Before continuing on, take a few moments to ask yourself:
- What games for change have you played (if any)?
- If you have, how were they games for change? What did they portray?
- What worldview were these games designed through?
- Did they confirm, reject, or transform the status quo?
It is important to note that while these games are activist tools (or games for change), that does not mean that traditional games are apolitical. Games that do not have a clear political message or meaning can be — and often are — political in their own way, in that they exclude or stereotype many of the groups that games for change often fight to represent (women, people of colour, LGBTQIA+ and Two-Spirit people, disabled people). Think about how games normally portray women, disabled people, and other historically marginalized groups. Nadine Dornieden’s article for this week, “Leveling Up Representation: Depictions of People of Color in Video Games” (https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/leveling-up-representation-depictions-of-people-of-color-in-video-games/), highlights the very clear and problematic nature of many of these depictions and why it is important to consider them when designing a game – to design critically.
To design games that in some way address and interrogate our lives or society.