20 Critical Play: The Productive Paradox

Mary Flanagan

We live in a world filled with marvelous, dreadful, funny, exhilarating, monotonous, and curious games. On laptops, monitors, phones, and beyond, digital technology is enabling play to emerge in new and unexpected ways. Games exist for entertainment, for passing the time, for fun—and they are older than human written language. Created with rules and bound in a particular time, space, or context, games display some of the most fundamental aspects of human life: collaboration, competition, and strategy. Games are indeed a form of creative and artistic expression, just like filmmaking is an art form, for example. What happens when games emerge as something more than mere entertainment and take on themes that elevate them to involve larger human questions, as art typically does? Just as there are many different types of films—some being “art films” that pose critical questions of the medium—games too emerge as having an edgy art segment in their field of creation. This chapter concerns games like that, games that require a type of “criticality” to play.

Computer games are more popular than ever before and have become a major cultural medium across a wide demographic range. From apps played on mobile devices to “Triple A” games featuring realistic graphics and played on a console box, games have indeed solidly entered everyday life and are interwoven with financial, social, and personal meaning. Games have been recognized ...

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