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Ghosts and Critical Play

lksmith's picture

            What does it mean to play critically? Does that level of seriousness in play take away all of the things that make it play? According to Mary Flanagan in her book “Critical Play: Radical Game Design,” the term critical play is difficult to define and therefore can be described in many ways. Throughout the introduction of the book, Flanagan presents a few different definitions of this idea of critical play and how it differs from traditional play. In my most recent trip into the city of Philadelphia, I attempted to understand more about this idea of critical play by incorporating some of Flanagan’s ideas into my own actions.

            One of Flanagan’s many definitions of critical play is that “Critical play means to create or occupy play environments or activities that represent one or more questions about aspect of human life.” (Flanagan 6) This definition gives the idea that play can be created and used to address essential questions of the human condition. It also begs the question “How is a play environment or activity created?” To know this, one would need to have some form of a definition of play itself. Despite the endless list of potential definitions for play, something which many would argue cannot be defined, Flanagan offers this definition from anthropologist Brian Sutton-Smith: play is “an activity that is fun, voluntary, intrinsically motivated, incorporates free choices/free will, offers escape, and is fundamentally exciting.” (Flanagan 4) Therefore, in order to create a play environment or activity under this definition, on would need to produce a situation that operated by those guidelines.

            In my journey into the Philadelphia this weekend, I went on a ghost tour of Old City. On the surface this does not appear to be a playful activity. However, it does fit into the definition provided by Sutton-Smith, at least for all those that found the tour to be fun. In this situation, I did not create the play environment, that task was left entirely in the hands of the tour guide who lead the group masterfully though the dark haunted streets of Philadelphia. Many of the aspects of a play environment though this definition of play are very subjective and will be different depending on the person perceiving the activity. The only three pieces of the definition that do not rely entirely on the participant are the ideas that the activity must be voluntary, offer escape, and involve some level of free choices/free will. There is no requirement for anyone to go on a ghost tour, therefore it must be a voluntary act. Once one has joined a ghost tour, the stories of times long past provide an opportunity for that person to be freed from the normal concerns of their everyday life. As for free choices/free will, there are many different ghost tours that go throughout the city each one with its unique focus and personality. One can feel free to decide between those many options once they have decided to go on a ghost tour.

            As previously mentioned, the final three factors that determine whether or not a ghost tour qualifies as play under this definition are entirely dependent on one’s perception of the activity. What is fun, intrinsically motivating, and fundamentally exciting for one person may not be for someone else. From my perspective, the ghost tour that I participated filled all of these requirements. Therefore, under this definition, the tour was a form of play.

            In order for the ghost tour to count as critical play rather than just play it need to answer some sort of question relating to human life. My goal in this exploration of the city was to look at the intersection of past and present in an urban environment that is filled with both. On this tour I was able learn some of the historical context of the area around Old City as I experiences firsthand the current state of the area. For the most part the old and the new flowed seamlessly together into an intriguing hybrid form. However, in other place it was clear that the intent of the owners is to maintain as much of the original integrity of the area as possible. As we walked past old, traditional homes I could glace inside the windows and see beautiful old fashion chandeliers, furniture, and mirrors with ornate frames. However, given that this is the twenty first century, all of this was accented with things that did not exist in the time these homes were built, namely electricity. This exploration of old and new that I was able to go through on the tour is what qualified the experience as critical play rather than traditional play.

            Critical play both in Flanagan’s view and through my own experience, is a more developed form of play, combining normal life with the carefree spirit of play. It takes the pure simplicity of play and puts the actions and activities in context with life and civilization.    


Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. "Introduction to Critical Play." Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. 1-16. Print.



playcity23's picture

In lksmith's opening

In lksmith's opening paragraph, she frames the "big questions" that the essay will try to answer. She introduces the aspects of Flanagan's work she is going to argue with but leaves the reader guessing what the title means until she launches into the body. The reader experiences a TL;DR in the introduction; TL;DR is reddit-speak for Too Lazy; Didn't Read. This means if the reader were to stop reading past the introduction, she would be able to answer/bs her way through basic questions about her essay. 

She does not try to be all mysterious and employ a "stream of consciousness" like Zadie Smith; lk merely is getting the reader's feet wet in the well-organized pond of her ideas. She does an excellent job of summarizing while making the reader want to stay a while and read the whole thing. 

Grace Zhou's picture

play in book and trip

At the very beginning of the essay, Lksmith asks some questions and them gives the answer provided by Flanagan’s work. So she connects Flanagan’s book closely with her own experience at the introduction. Then she explicates and analyzes one definition of play in the book and connects each of her experience with the definition. When I read this essay, I was easily get attracted by the questions. It makes me to think about what is critical playing. Also, because I have read the book from Flanagan, I become curious about the reason she chooses the specific definition of playing. I involve in the thinking process in this essay and follow the idea clearly. When Smith analyzes the voluntary aspect in her tour, I started to imagine other three playing factors in her trip. The book and the true experience are tightly connected in this essay, which makes me to think back and force about the context in the book and the trip.I am convinced by the last paragraph- I nod my head when reading it!