Customer Reviews: Critical Play: Radical Game Design
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on February 24, 2010
"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. Whether you're into art history, social change, media theory, or a range of other topics, "Critical Play" offers a unique lens through which you can view historical events and trends and imagine future possibilities. It provides a plethora of ideas to play with, and the understanding that play can be quite serious. I can't recommend it enough.
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on August 9, 2012
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. Games can be viewed not only as an expression of altered recreational behaviour and technical progress, but also as the transformed self-image of the political function of games. Based on such political and socio-cultural contextualisation, Flanagan ventures to apply her instruments, which results in the concretisation of her game design model named Critical Play. It is interesting to note here that the author only deals with the question of where games start to become critical relatively late i.e. in her last chapter.

In this context, Flanagan is impressed by the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, whom she believes was far ahead of his time in rating the ability of art and games to place human associations into different relationships, including opposing positions. Essentially, Critical Play is thus a normative two-way approach to development. A model, which, based on cultural influences that manifested themselves in the games, pretends that innovative approaches of a "new, critical" game design would be able to challenge established norms and thus create a wider spectrum of the games experience. Peering at the social significance of virtual worlds (Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc.), Flanagan remarks (not without justification) that it is precisely for this reason that video games today are given high significance, as starting points and positions of social interaction and the cultural realm can be seen within them.

Conclusion: Critical Play: Radical Game Design takes some highly interesting games theory approaches and develops them - based on a historically well-founded contextualisation substantiated by plenty of solid and graphic examples - into an innovative methodology of game design. Although peppered with scientific citation (which can, however, be looked up in the appendix for greater reader-friendliness), the paper is clearly structured; the writing style proves simple and comprehensible for the most part. As the work is currently only available in its original version from MIT Press.
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on August 16, 2011
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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on February 3, 2013
Todo a sido perfecto. Ha llegado antes de lo previsto y en perfectas condiciones. No tengo ninguna queja, muy al contrario.
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on August 10, 2014
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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