Critical Play: Radical Game Design

Cambridge: MIT Press

ISBN: 9780262518659

About the Book

For many players, games are entertainment, diversion, relaxation, fantasy. But what if certain games were something more than this, providing not only outlets for entertainment but a means for creative expression, instruments for conceptual thinking, or tools for social change? In Critical Play, artist and game designer Mary Flanagan examines alternative games—games that challenge the accepted norms embedded within the gaming industry—and argues that games designed by artists and activists are reshaping everyday game culture.

Flanagan provides a lively historical context for critical play through twentieth-century art movements, connecting subversive game design to subversive art: her examples of “playing house” include Dadaist puppet shows and The Sims; her discussion of language play includes puns, palindromes, Yoko Ono’s Instruction Paintings, and Jenny Holzer’s messages in LED. Flanagan also looks at artists’ alternative computer-based games, examining projects from Persuasive Games and Gonzalo Frasca and other games created through the use of interventionist strategies in the design process. And she explores games for change, considering the way activist concerns—among them Darfur, worldwide poverty, and AIDS—can be incorporated into game design.

Arguing that this kind of conscious practice—which now constitutes the avant-garde of the computer game medium—can inspire new working methods for designers, Flanagan offers a model for designing that will encourage the subversion of popular gaming tropes through new styles of game making, and proposes a theory of alternate game design that focuses on the reworking of contemporary popular game practices.

Critical Praise

“In Critical Play, Flanagan uncovers a secret history of games buried deep inside folk culture, experimental media, and the world of art. Critical Play should be required reading for anyone who cares about the cultural importance and future potential of games.”
– Eric Zimmerman, game designer and co-author of Rules of Play

“Mary Flanagan has written a marvelous book in Critical Play. As an artist and scholar, Flanagan examines play through sources that range from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and Johan Huizinga to Marcel Duchamp and the often-overlooked Roger Caillois. Flanagan examines games and play from dollhouses to board games, from Alberto Giacometti to Fluxus, enabling us to see what it is that makes play critical. The core issue of the book is creating forms of play that ask important questions about human life. After a grand romp through the territory and history of play, Flanagan provides a crisp practical theory in her game design model. What a book! I’m ready to shake the dice and start again.”
– Ken Friedman, Professor, Dean, Faculty of Design Swinburne University of Technology, Australia


García, Ruth. “Critical Play: Radical Game Design, de Mary Flanagan.” Start: Videojuegos en perspectiva, 10 Mayo 2017.


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