Critical Play: Radical Game Design & STEM

Mary Flanagan.

Mary Flanagan. “giantJoystick,” 2009.

In Critical Play, artist and game designer Mary Flanagan examines alternative games—games that challenge the accepted norms embedded within the gaming industry—and argues that games designed by artists and activists are reshaping everyday game culture.


Flanagan argues that the practice of critical play can inspire new working methods for designers. When I first started researching cognition and culture (for class) reviewed the interviews of different artists from historically or culturally marginalized (ethnic) groups. Doze Green, a member of the Rock Steady Crew, linked b-boying and lettering in graffiti to physics and mathematics.

During a lecture at Emory University, interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers presented Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II that formed the centerpiece of Emory’s visual art gallery, providing a dynamic space for performance:

This project directly linked b-boying (performance) to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), especially through the use of the mandala as a design motif. The mandala is found in many cultures (ex. the Kongo cosmogram) and used math principles such as rotation, symmetry, and reflection. My first experience watching the creation of a mandala was with the Venerable Tenzin Yignyen at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (Boston). With Biggers’ floor piece I pondered the contingency and ephemerality of performance and its relationship to art/design, culture, STEM and space. The latter element (space) was something I explored through the use of mobile devices and Augmented Reality (AR) technology and games.

Re+Public "How-To" manual.

Re+Public “How-To” manual.

Sanford’s Codex and The Cartographer’s Conundrum presented many of the artists re-purposed quilts and the latter exhibition presented the late John Bigger’s The Quilting Party (see below). Doze Green and both Biggers explore science and math concepts that, for me, illuminate the notion of the critical aspect of play. These artists (as performers) are subverting space, so what about game space? Mary Flanagan was in town when I first demoed a game that explored these ideas (she played it with me). Flanagan writes about Fluxus and Dada but what about the complex world in proto-afrofuturist John Biggers’ The Quilting Party?

For all its delights and wonders, twentieth-century art includes very few documented examples from women and people of color and despite the age of global communication it remains difficult to survey trends particular to marginalized artists. -Mary Flanagan (187)

Although artists like Doze Green and Sanford Biggers are far from marginalized in the mainstream art world they do come from communities or cultures that have been marginalized. When new technologies are developed designers often lack the cultural knowledge about these cultures/groups. This includes games/game design. Flanagan notes how cultural subversion has expanded into locative games, which turn public areas into game spaces. Mapscotch is a game where you draw random cards that outline themes of “displacement, translation, cultural negotiation, language, class, food, and power . . . . [Mapscotch] translates the experiences of the city into playable maps, with the goal of instigating some kind of social change, or at least conversation about social change.” Flanagan compared my game to Mapscotch but instead of a public area the game space in my project is the mural, itself. My game is about encouraging players to look at complex artwork to observe, relate, and discuss the things that they encounter. Flanagan comments, “The phenomenon of play is local: that is, while the phenomenon of play is universal, the experience of play is intrinsically tied to location and culture” (192).

John Biggers. The Quilting Party, 1980-1981.

John Biggers. The Quilting Party, 1980-1981.

Sanford Biggers. “The Cartographer’s Conundrum,” 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Sanford Biggers. “The Cartographer’s Conundrum,” 2012. Courtesy the artist and Mass MoCA.

Four out of five platonic solids on top of a John Biggers reproduction.

Four out of five platonic solids as tangible game objects on top of Biggers’ mural reproduction.

Players and my game at the Digital Media Demo Day.

Players and my game at the Digital Media Demo Day.

Whether an artist is presenting work in physical space or within virtual space, visitor/player interaction or immersion in the space can have an effect on issues as they frame the way that those issues are discussed. Sanford Biggers, inspired by John Biggers’ mural, explores how creative syncretism, or as the artist describes, the ”study of ethnological objects, popular icons, and the Dadaist tradition,” intersects with Afrofuturism, a parallel cultural practice that brings together disparate technologies, new rituals of communication, and communities that remain open to the incorporation of older knowledge contexts. The Quilting Party informs The Cartographer’s Conundrum and demonstrates the elder Biggers’ personal aesthetic and complex symbology that imparts layered meanings both as immediately recognizable symbols of daily life in the American south and spiritual connections to African heritage. These meanings are brought forward through interactivity or game play. Although game design isn’t a specific focus of my current research it was helpful for me to create one to understand how to show teachers and students how to look at artworks and identify STEM concepts.

The 8th grade math teachers board.

The 8th grade math teachers board.

I presented 4th and 8th grade math teachers with a guide to link math with art and culture, through customized software and the re-purposed quilts by Sanford Biggers who will show/talk about his work at GT next spring. Before I gave one teacher the packet she told me about introducing her students to design through tessellation, MC Escher and quilts and this was on her dry erase board (see above). In other words, the teacher was already looking for ways to tie in the math she was teaching using quilts, art and design. Her students came up with games as one of the options for a class project. The software allows students to experience critical play.

End screen for math simulation software based on Sanford’s “Lotus” motif.

End screen for math simulation software based on Sanford’s “Lotus” motif.

I talked to my Computational Media undergrad students about Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play and the culturally situated arts-based learning board game I created based on art, science and math concepts. I  shared my experience of designing a serious game with the undergrads who are working on designing their own games using Unity 3D.

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