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Critical Play: Radical Game Design

by Mary Flanagan
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2009
336 pp., 116 illus. Trade, $29.95/£22.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-06268-8.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Mary Flanagan is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College, in the small snowy town of Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.  Dartmouth is distinguished by its Kiewit Computation Center, having been one of the first universities to implement broad access to its computers for students; the Math professor who co-developed the Basic language was later its President.  Also by a magnificent, immersive mural cycle from the 1930s by José Clemente Orozco, that stretches the length of its Baker Library.  These environmental conditions make it a good place to contemplate, and contribute to, digital culture.

Flanagan has constructed this book in a way that might be called "What I really want to write about", preceded by several chapters "Interesting historical stuff discovered along the way".  The industrial revolution separated leisure and the social realm from the occupational grind, helping to codify play (though what of that Breugel painting of children's games?).  Her survey chapters mention dolls, paper dolls and dollhouses, seasonal and calendrical games, the swing.  She particularly relishes moments of hacking or "re-skinning", user modification of prescribed play.  She notes when artists have built dolls, from Alfred Jarry's 1896 Pere Ubu puppets, to Hannah Hoch's 1916 Dada Dolls, to Hans Bellmer's creepy and carnal assemblies.  Flanagan leaps from the dollhouse to computer game The Sims, those onscreen virtual puppets programmed to strain to escape their master's control.  Online avatar environments like Second Life afford further opportunities of self-expression through dollplay.

Chapter three is a museum of board games, that evolve into the purely aesthetic ones of Albert Giacometti and later, games of the Fluxus pranksters.  Yet games, with their military metaphors of advance and capture, have often been applied to social agendas, whether wartime propaganda ("Hit the Dirty Jap") or Lillian Ball's more benign GO ECO (2007), with its earth-consciousness theme.

Language games and punning spin––like a Marcel Duchamp Rotorelief!––into reflections on theater and poetry, and Flanagan draws parallels between the text publications of Djuna Barnes, Unica Zurn, Claud Cahun and later enviro-conceptual works by Yoko Ono, and with Jenny Holzer's signage.  Linking creatives in diverse or divergent media is a strength of Flanagan's, for in her 2002 book Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture (reviewed on this site), she and Austin Booth juxtaposed science fiction writers with contemporary digital artists. Natalie Bookchin has created gamelike narratives; because of her sociological interest in global connectivity, one wonders if she’s kin to the late political philosopher Murray Bookchin.   Flanagan cites Chris Crawford's 1984 The Art of Computer Game Design, though few later cultural studies books on games like The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto by Nate Garrelts.

Both the New Games movement, where competition and winning were no longer the games raisons d'etre, and Paper Tiger TV's alternative television distribution of unconventional video artworks, are given as instances of rethinking participatory social interventions.  The locative media game Cruel 2B Kind was played at Eyebeam's 2006 Come Out and Play festival of street games, where instructions for acts of kindness, lethal in their accumulation, were issued as text messages on cell phones.  Games like this, or Suyin Looui's "Transition Algorithm" (also 2006), carry on the Paris Situationists' traditions of radical urban "psychogeography" to re-inscribe the mental map of the city.  University of Southern California students created a simulation game “Darfur is Dying”, while another West Coast project circulated a karaoke-rigged ice cream truck through the streets of San José and Santa Monica, creating an impromptu stage for children and others to perform.  Another hybrid game, Ricardo Miranda Zuniga's “Vagamundo: a Migrant's Tale", is an ice cream hand cart that contains a cartoonish video game where a Mexican migrant to the US battles urban hoodlums, the border patrol and giant cockroach in order to survive in the nortamericano city.

In 1946, Marcel Duchamp lamented both the United States' and France's paucity of a "spirit of revolt" among young artists.  Flanagan sees this spirit alive in games that broadly include activism, street theater and other interventionist moments, by Jennier Gonzalez and Lisa Nakamura.  The artist-author calls for "Critical Play", and—like a good software manager—offers her schematic, iterative model for its development.  In further examples she provides, Paul Vanouse created a "Relative Velocity Inscription Device" which analyzes DNA from members of his own multiracial Jamaican family.  The Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal commented upon the Iraq war's disruption of daily life with the 2007 gallery installation Domestic Tension, a setup that incessantly menaced the cowering artist with a paintball gun.  He later reworked a jingoistic game Quest for Saddam into a The Night of Bush Capturing.  She mentions the Army recruitment-through-simulation game America’s Army, but not Nevada artist Joseph DeLappe’s critical hack of it, where virtual soldiers stayed dead and the name of a real US Army fatality of the Iraq war appeared onscreen.

There are a few sloppy parts of Critical Play that should've been caught by an astute editor, such as in the introduction (which was probably written in haste, last of all).  Doesn't Steve Jobs' Apple deserve more credit than Michael Dell's eponymous company for selling individual songs online?  To say that "even respected cultural critic Henry Jenkins" conceded in Hop on Pop that game development was a largely male domain" sounds like it's meant to be read as a swipe at alleged sexism on Jenkins' part.  Jenkins did write appreciatively in his book of Annalee Newitz, and the site she co-founded, Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life (which this reviewer helps edit), so I suspect that tone is inadvertent.

The scholarship in this volume is all well and good, a useful compendium of information on games, game theory and contemporary artists.  But upon completion, Critical Play most of all makes this reader curious to learn more about the games that Mary Flanagan herself has developed, her own Tiltfactor studio projects as an artist leading a development team.


“Review of Reload.”  http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/mar2003/RELOAD_mosher.html.
"Bad Subjects.”  http://bad.eserver.org/.
“Tiltfactor.”  http://www.tiltfactor.org/.

Last Updated 4 January, 2010

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