Mary Flanagan, in her text Critical Play: Radical Game Design, suggests that with critical play, one or more of the following actions is always present:
In this play action, players specifically enact “forbidden” or secret scenes, unfortunate scenarios, or other unanticipated conclusions often in opposition to an acceptable or expected adult-play script. In doll play, unplaying manifests in children abusing their dolls, “killing” them, or some other revision of the “care giving” framework of expected play. This critical kind of play reverses traditional expectations regarding care-giving behaviors and allows players to rethink the conventions involved in these social roles. While at first the gruesome act of killing dolls was seen as subversive, parents eventually encouraged doll death ceremonies in order to instruct girls on family funeral etiquette.
Re-dressing or Reskinning
Players make alternative arrangements and disguise their dolls for subversive roles, altering the appearance or the presentation of dolls in a way that allows dolls to enter the forbidden scene. Dolls could merely change costumes, or they could be reskinned with makeup or masks to literally efface the surface of the body. For instance, girls who enacted doll funerals might construct clothing ensembles appropriate for death scenes. Parents eventually addressed these preferences by providing girls with doll caskets and doll manufacturers began packaging their fashion dolls to appeal to such subversion by creating new doll products that catered to critical types of play. Some dolls, for example, were sold together with elaborate black mourning outfits.
While many scenarios document “normal” kinds of play, in American fiction publications for children in the later half of the nineteenth century, short stories about death, dying dolls, and mourning proliferated in books and magazines. In fact, many books and essays were marketed to the dolls themselves, with titles such as The Dolls’ Own Book or Playday Stories; both had narratives purportedly written by doll authors. In this way, those involved in the manufacture of dolls and doll culture… could constantly revise or rewrite the narratives surrounding dolls… As Formanek-Brunell notes, “It was the fictional literature of ‘doll culture’ that broached the more powerful feelings of love and violence.” These “rewrittten” texts helped expand parental approval over the various ways children were allowed to play. Participant narratives were important, then, on a number of levels, from merchandising to defining playculture itself.
Perhaps an illustrated example would help make sense of this. I offer the following:
Flanagan’s theory of “critical play” may best be explained as an ironic critique of social norms. While her aforementioned examples of Victorian children (presumably girls) unplaying with their dolls provides historical background for her theory, I find the “Dada dolls” that she mentions and Mariel Clayton’s series of Barbie art more compelling.
Dada dolls are just one artifact from the Dada school of art, a movement that questioned political and artistic establishments and worried about the industrialization of humanity. Dolls like the two shown in Fig. 2 (below) were made of household items—often garbage—and generally offered a dark, though comical, twist (sweet rosemary tobacco, anyone?).
Clayton’s motives are more transparent in her series of Barbie photos (Fig. 1). Her critique of the continued commodification of women and the oft-hushed domestic problems that plague many western homes are presented in a brutal, shocking manner. But by placing the popular children’s toy in the middle of murder, sexual abuse, abortion and the like, problems that are otherwise brushed aside by today’s society as banal or commonplace are finally noticed for being the atrocities they truly are.
So it’s clear that dolls can be used for critical play, but what about other playtime items? Polly Pocket? Lego? Teddy bears? Monopoly? What about video games—is it possible to play subversively in these highly structured virtual environments? Can we learn anything from doing so?
Flanagan sees The Sims as a way to play with virtual dolls, and argues that The Sims can provide an interesting critique of western consumerism and the perceived utopian lifestyle of typical suburbia in the same way that Clayton’s Barbies do:
Doll play, and computer games that take on characteristics of doll play, encourage critical play by providing environments for context perversion and emergent community formation, altering subjective lived experiences, the ‘hypocrisies of adult life,’ as noted by Sutton-Smith, who has argued that children’s play offers narratives that negotiate the risks of the real world. (Flanagan 61, emphasis added)
By playing the game “critically” (through actions like those listed below), users can challenge social constructs surrounding western society (like “the hypocrisies of adult life”) and come to terms with realities individually determined:
Altering characters or objects. In The Sims, replacing the graphics of household objects with other images, which could manifest different values or make no sense in the game;
Working or inventing scenarios to trap the characters, set them on fire, or otherwise abuse them;
Participation of a player to redefine play from within the writings of fan culture. (Flanagan 60)
Flanagan may have a doll fixation, but she does seem to pull ideas about dollhouses and suburban simulations together pretty well. The above examples show that users who play The Sims can manipulate virtual people in the same way Clayton manipulates her dolls. With both mediums, people who interact with these perverse manipulations are able to experience and deal with—or at the very least contemplate—the issues that affect society in real life every day.
Does video gaming get any more subversive than it can get in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series? Many would say no. The ability to exercise free will by shooting innocent bystanders in the streets (and looting their bodies afterward) is an ability many teenagers enjoy virtually from the basements of their parents’ homes. The maker of Grand Theft Auto—Rockstar Games—has been criticized for “corrupting the youth” (so to speak) by parents, educators, critics—even prostitutes.
But can GTA teach people anything? I think it can. Most obviously, the dangers of wandering around city streets alone (particularly after dark) and the less glamourous side of the drug trade are made obvious (drugs are bad, kids). And there seem to be more viable and enjoyable business opportunities out there than prostitution. But more critically, the GTA series of video games calls to attention problems like these by showing gamers that they exist. Gang violence (and other, less sensible violence), drugs, prostitution, racism, corruption, extortion and poverty are real problems that people face all over the world, every day. GTA games are bad because they expose this? Because they tell the truth? Sensible gamers who play these games are (in my opinion) more likely to spot the immorality of such actions, and more likely to take notice of them (and oppose them) when they occur in reality because of the ability they have to explore the virtual worlds within GTA games and virtually perform the sorts of devious acts that are too common in today’s society.
My final example of perverse, subversive video game play can be found in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s notorious “terrorist mission” (see video below). This mission, which is entirely optional for gamers who want to complete the game’s campaign, is “designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism” according to Activision, the game’s publisher (Crecente). The scene is indeed evocative, and, as illustrated by the comments attached to the article, many have considered it offensive and tasteless.
What bothers me most about the scene is not that it’s terribly violent and asks gamers to partake in despicable actions, but rather how one-sided the message that this instance of unplaying is. (Despite the fact that gamers play the game according to pre-determined expectations, I still consider this scene an example of unplaying, because the virtual bystanders in the game are just as doll-like and as representative of real people as the avatars in The Sims, or Clayton’s Barbies.) Rational gamers who play through the “level,” or scene, must feel “dirty” or experience a pang of moral self-consciousness after shooting innocent travelers en masse. It’s true—terrorism isn’t very nice. But Modern Warfare 2 does not take us very deep into the motives of the kind of terrorists North Americans (of the United States, specifically) hate and fear. The main terrorist in the game, “Makarov,” is the type of guy you might see in a James Bond movie—a psychotic villain looking for global domination. He is not coerced by influential and charismatic religious leaders like the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center, or living in poverty due to the western world’s gluttonous rape of world resources. He’s just a madman, and who can sympathize with a madman?
Nevertheless, the gameplay experience in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 allows gamers to participate in a perverse and unorthodox instance of play—like the experiences people have had with Clayton’s Barbies, Dada dolls, The Sims and Grand Theft Auto—and confront aspects of life with which they may not otherwise have familiarity. Such critical play can be an effective learning experience, albeit one that may not at first appear healthy or constructive.
Adams, Diana. “Behind the Smiles: Serial Killer Barbie.” BitRebels. 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Jun. 2011. <http://www.bitrebels.com/design/behind-the-smiles-serial-killer-barbie/>.
Crecente, Brian. “Modern Warfare 2 Features Skippable Scene of Atrocities.” Kotaku. 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 Jul. 2011. <http://kotaku.com/5392161/modern-warfare-2-features-skippable-scene-of-atrocities>.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2009.