Category Archives: Reading Responses

Reskinning Barbie

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:

Fig. 1 - Serial Killer Barbie. Artist's statement: “Because I hate Barbie. You can’t get to be Barbie without an ocean’s worth of peroxide, 27 plastic surgeries and a complete lack of intelligence, so it irritates me immensely that this is the toy of choice women give to their daughters to emulate” (Adams). Click image to see more.

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.

"Dada artists responded to the shock of the twentieth century with a diverse range of writing, painting, performance, photo-collage, object making, and sound recording, all of which reflected the collapse of the rationality so beloved to Enlightenment thinkers... Dada embodied the irony of an antilaw antiwar antiart that was created by those who were to become central figures in the move toward modernism." (Flanagan 38)

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:

  • Reskinning
    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;
  • Unplaying
    Working or inventing scenarios to trap the characters, set them on fire, or otherwise abuse them;
  • Rewriting
    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.

Works Cited

Adams, Diana. “Behind the Smiles: Serial Killer Barbie.” BitRebels. 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Jun. 2011. <;.

Crecente, Brian. “Modern Warfare 2 Features Skippable Scene of Atrocities.” Kotaku. 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 1 Jul. 2011. <;.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2009.

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Posted by on July 2, 2011 in Reading Responses


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Philosophical Gaming

In 1989, Maxis Software, with the help of now-legendary video game designer Will Wright, released SimCity. It was a game developed for the Commodore 64, but found widespread success on other early PC platforms (I myself first played it on Windows 95).


A god's-eye view of the original SimCity

SimCity allowed users to design their own city, complete with roads, houses, factories, shops, parks, stadiums, airports and anything else you’d find in a typical city. The idea was to have users create a functioning city that made money, attracted residents and dealt with traffic problems efficiently. As you can see in the screenshot to the left, the game contained a lot of complexities that made the game extremely interesting and—dare I say it—educational. For users (especially young users), realizing things like the necessity to connect the sections of their cities with hydro lines and roads, or the desire of residents to have recreational facilities and parks, makes the user appreciate the challenges city planners of your real-life city or town face everyday.

SimCity seems to interest Lars Konzack a great deal in terms of its philosophy. In his article “Philosophical Game Design,” he explains the philosophy of SimCity in the following way:

SimCity is an example of philosophical game design, not so much because it creates a sandbox in which the player is able to act, or whether the player chooses to play the application either as a game accomplishing a goal or performing a free-play, but because the underlying rules of the game presents a vision of the world. The philosophy of SimCity is that of the complexity of modern cities and how social behavior and environmental issues influence city planning… With SimCity, Wright was presenting a cybernetic philosophy of urban construction in an aesthetic way, making these feedback relations and game theoretical mechanisms into an experience.” (33-4)

Konzack says that “games that go beyond mere entertainment” need to have an overarching philosophy in which “each element of gameplay and each mechanical feature” fits coherently (33).  First-person shooters like America’s Army, Call of Duty and Ace Combat (though the latter technically fits under the “flight simulator” genre) possess an underlying military propaganda that argues problems can be solved honourably through violence. These games are obvious examples of games that can subtly (or not-so subtly) coerce their users, but not all games flaunt their philosophies so noticeably.

Is this the face of philosophical influence?

BioShock, an adventure game from 2K Boston (now Irrational Games), “is a genuinely philosophical game,” says Konzack. “The Game is a criticism of Ayn Rand’s aesthetic vision of a libertarian utopia based on her so-called objectivist thoughts, which in essence may be interpreted as the decree greed is goodBioShock investigates the ethics of greed is good” (40).

Konzack makes a distinction between what he considers “philosophical” and “educational” games, although his definitions (like most in this young discipline) are open to criticism. From Konzack’s perspective, games like SimCity and even BioShock can possess educational value, but they are not designed to teach their users anything directly like games like Mavis Beacon, JumpStart or WolfQuest. Philosophical games do their teaching by “confront[ing] us with ideas and how they work in consequential systems” (33). While BioShock has foundations in Ayn Rand’s economic theories, I would guess that most players of the game have a very limited knowledge of those theories, or Ayn Rand herself. However, the philosophies that surrounded such theories (greed and egoism) become apparent as the user progresses through BioShock, and the user likely comes away from their playing experience feeling just a tad more socialist.

Mashable recently gave Farmerama its Best Online Game award... You be the judge.

With Konzack’s notion of philosophical gaming in mind, the question I have is where to draw lines between philosophical games, educational games, and games like Tetris, Checkers or other games that do not really offer any kind of immediate knowledge gain (although I admit that the latter can develop reflexes, a competitive spirit, logical thinking, etc.).

Recently, I was asked to play the online farming game Farmerama, which should be familiar if you’ve played Farmville on Facebook (or Farm Town, which Zynga apparently plagiarized to develop Farmville). The good thing about Farmerama (at least in my opinion) is that the game is not on Facebook, which means it is not sucking personal information out of its users any chance it gets. That said, this game is still a money-maker. The game progresses very slowly, and users are prompted to buy additional features (with real-world money) to help them get things moving. Users are also given glimpses of what lies ahead, or what they will be able to do once they get enough “barnyard bills” (game money), which makes the game very addictive. It’s an easy game to play, after all. It’s just a matter of spending the time required to plant fields, harvest them (20min-8hrs later) and sell them. While the game was well put together in terms of its visual aesthetics, ease of play, variety of challenges and seemingly endless growth, I lost the patience to continually wait for things to happen, and having to click on every single square of land to seed/harvest was extremely tedious. After only a few days of playing, I forgot to check back on my farm and I haven’t felt the urge to return.

An overhead view of the farm, suffering from a nasty case of weeds & neglect

But does Farmerama offer any kind of meaningful philosophy? It follows a consistent overarching  theme (farming) and asks users to work through the situation in which they are placed (a budding farm with great potential) and I suppose that people (particularly children) could come away with something meaningful in terms of what it might be like to operate a farm, or at least what you might be able to do if you owned a farm. But in my opinion, Farmerama exhibits an ignorant, urbanized view, or philosophy, of farming, which fails to acknowledge the true origins of food and its production. None of the animals in Farmerama are slaughtered, no chemicals are used on the crops and users are able to grow any type of crop they choose, regardless of geographical location (wherever Farmerama may be supposedly located). It seems to me that Farmerama portrays farming exactly how the average citizen from an industrialized, urban world envisions farming.

The interface of SimFarm can become overwhelming at times

In contrast, SimFarm (1993) offers a philosophy of farming realism much like its predecessor SimCity—realism that involves the use of chemicals like herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, raising of animals that grow in value, die of hunger and escape from their pen, and natural disasters like tornadoes, hail, floods and locusts. Users begin the game by choosing one of nine possible regions of the United States to farm in, each of which allows different crops to flourish and presents the possibility of different natural disasters. Once crops are planted, users are able to keep track of weather, take out loans from the bank, borrow equipment from neighbouring farmers, dig irrigation ditches, plant wind-breaking trees, buy more land, etc. Unlinke Farmerama, SimFarm moves quickly and requires a great deal of attention, foresight and on-the-spot decision-making.

I was never able to get the crop sprayer to work properly

Overall, SimFarm illustrates to its users how difficult it is to be a farmer. Farming requires a tonne of money, constant vigilance, luck and a deep understanding of the crops and animals you farm. Its philosophy, much like that of SimCity, is to show users that there is an awful lot that goes into the building of a successful farm, and that ultimately, we are all subject to the forces of nature and luck.

It’s clear that Farmerama and SimFarm share similarities in terms of their layout and click-and-point controls, while they remain worlds apart in terms of their graphics, complexity, realism and the amount of time they demand to play. I also argue that their philosophies differ greatly. While you may not agree with my analysis of what I consider to be an urbanized Farmerama or a harsh, even cynical SimFarm, it is clear that each game has been editorialized somewhat to fit the philosophy of its developers.

When playing your next shooter or adventure or RPG game, think about how the structure and progression of the game impacts your way of thinking. Is the game speaking to you in subtle ways about war, ethics, economics, race, gender—even life? It just may be.

Play Farmerama:

Download and Play SimFarm:

Watch the Video Demo of SimFarm:

Works Cited
Konzack, Lars. “Philosophical Game Design.” The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Ed. Bernard Perron & Mark J.P. Wolf. New York: Routledge, 2009. 33-44.


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