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Critical Play: Radical Game Design Hardcover – August 7, 2009

5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0262062688 ISBN-10: 0262062682

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Editorial Reviews


"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

"…Flanagan has equipped students and practitioners of game design with a generous multi-functional tool, to instruct and inspire." -- Ragnhild Tronstad, Game Studies

About the Author

Mary Flanagan, artist and game designer, is Founder and Director of Tiltfactor Laboratory and Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College. She is the coeditor (with Austin Booth) of Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture (2002) and re:skin (2002), both published by the MIT Press.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (August 7, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262062682
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262062688
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,733 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mary Flanagan is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and leads the game design research laboratory She has won numerous awards for her games, and her research and creative work has been covered by the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Gamasutra, and Kotaku. Flanagan's latest book is Values at Play in Digital Games with Helen Nissenbaum (MIT Press). She has published more than 20 critical essays and chapters on games, empathy, gender and digital representation, art and technology, and responsible design. Flanagan's writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Gamasutra, The Daily Beast, Ozy, and other news venues. As an artist, her internationally exhibited work ranges from game-inspired systems to computer viruses, embodied interfaces to interactive texts shown at The Whitney Museum, The Guggenheim, Tate Britain, and other venues. See more at

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Ron Carter on February 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
"Critical Play" is one of those rare books that uncovers a world you never knew existed yet has always lain right before your eyes. I'm a pretty avid gamer, but despite my years spent with mainstream commercial games, it's only recently that I've discovered the serious games movement and designers trying to use games to express big ideas. What I thought was a recent trend, however, Flanagan shows is actually a longstanding, vital tradition. Artists and activists have been using games to communicate social commentary and subvert accepted norms for hundreds of years in an amazing number of ways. "Critical Play" does this incredible job of weaving together games, game theory, art, and activism to show how play can be a vital tool for cultural development.

The book is broken into eight chapters starting with a look at domestic play ranging from subversive dollhouses to players modding the Sims. Other chapters examine board games (apparently artists love chess, I had no idea) language games, and what I was most interested in, computer games. Because I'm somewhat familiar with serious games now, I recognized a number of the examples from the video games chapter. What I didn't know was that there are a number of contemporary artists working with games or making game-inspired pieces. The book concludes with a brief chapter that I wish were longer exploring methods of designing for critical play. While I won't be making a game any time soon, the final chapter helped me understand the game design process better, and I think has allowed me to better read the games I play now.

I picked up this book because I wanted to deepen my understanding of serious games, but I think it can be appreciated by people from all different backgrounds.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Karl H. Stingeder on August 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
At first glance, games and video games are seen merely as entertainment and/or distraction. Mary Flanagan takes a cultural-historical as well as artistically-tinted look behind the scenes of an otherwise largely one-sided exploration of games and the increasingly popular virtual, electronic forms.

The author approaches the idea of games in a remarkably unconventional manner; in her eyes, games - from the board games, dolls to electronic virtual games of the 20th and 21st centuries - are an expression of cultural norms as well as a reflection of societal unrest. Flanagan even goes so far as to suggest that games can also be interpreted as narrative tools in the sense of social "reflectors". Consequently, games also serve as a means to process social problems, based on the restructuring of the games culture through new games and game styles.

First of all, the book tries to capture the socio-cultural significance of games by means of a well-founded contextualisation exemplified by a few historical milestones of different types and forms of games. There is also an attempt to record the cultural ambivalence of games. For the most part, Flanagan here follows anthropologist Brian Sutton-Smith, who has interpreted games as a narrative form with a catalyst function. According to this, players are able to channel real-world risks, and observe and evaluate these at a safe distance. Games may therefore highlight real problems in their "downplayed" form and can almost be held up as a mirror to the willing "players" showing their own cultural involvement and participation.

Flanagan provides plausible evidence for her theories, from the Dadaist-influenced puppet show of the 20th century to the popular PC series The Sims.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By JB on August 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There are two things the book does exceptionally well. First, it provides an extraordinarily thorough and very entertaining history of how play has been used throughout history to critique, subvert, explore alternatives to dominant paradigms, etc. My favorite example of this is Flanagan's discussion of girls' play with dolls in the Victorian era. I had read before that doll play functions to socialize girls into the domestic roles they are expected to occupy as adults. What was entirely new to me is that girls would often use these dolls to play in ways that challenged conventions. On this topic and on others, Flanagan's research is excellent and her insights are revelatory.

Flanagan also provides practical guidelines for designing play experiences that encourage critique and subversion. Without going into to detail, I will say that I found this part of the book particularly useful re: the practice of designing "serious" or issues-focused games.

Highly recommended for game designers who are interested in working beyond the entertainment-focused mainstream, and also highly recommended for anyone with interest in the history of play.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Pedro Demo on August 10, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
A quite inspired book about “critical play”, showing connections between play and art, and stressing the eternal belief on disrupting routine and repetition in life. Reality isn’t enough for people who wish something more interesting and compelling, or alternative. Flanagan masters history of art profoundly, so she can select exemplars of disrupting projects, where play and art go together. She analyses videogames and similar simulations with great expertise, our most recent incursion in art and play. Very informative, analytically very well elaborated, epistemologically provocative.
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