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"Critical Play" and a Ghost Tour

tomahawk's picture

Last week when I went into the city, I was not thinking about “critical play” because I had not read Flanagan’s Critical Play: Radical Game Design. However, when I ventured into Philadelphia this week, I was consciously looking at my experience through the lens of “critical play.” Before and after I went on the ghost tour, I was critically thinking, and while I was on the ghost tour, I felt as if I were playing. Writing about the experience now, I feel as if I have answered the question I asked in my last paper: “If people do not write essays about ‘critical play,’ do they ever really understand the importance of it?” “Yes,” it seems like I could say; I did not have to write an essay to think critically about the ghost tour. Still, I am unsure if I were critically playing while on the ghost tour and if “critical play” is possible.

In “Performative Games and Objects” Flanagan argues both that play is “the aim of play itself” (5) and that “critical play” occurs when a person “critiqu[es] the status quo” (6). My most recent trip into the city leads me to argue that a person cannot play and be critical at the same time, but that a person can facilitate critical thinking before and after “play” if she has the intention of both playing and being critical.

I was critical before and after the ghost tour in two ways. First, before I went on the ghost tour, I was wondering why people go on ghost tours. Are people attracted to ghost tours because ghost tours are sensational or because they are somewhat reassuring? Ghost tours often operate on the premise that ghosts exist and in order for ghosts to exist, souls and some form of afterlife would have to as well. Perhaps people go on ghost tours to be frightened and yet assured that there is something beyond this reality and that we don’t merely die. Although this is not an example of me “critiqu[ing] the status quo,” I would argue that I was thinking critically; I was thinking about the implications of a ghost tour. Second, I was being critical after the ghost tour when I worried about society’s reliance on technology. When Hanna asked for her tickets, the man behind the counter became flustered because he could not find a record of her purchasing them on his iPad. In the moment, I paid little attention to this, but after, I was concerned. He relied on technology for his business to run, and on a greater scale, society depends on technology to function. When his wasn’t working, he was anxious and had us wait for ten minutes. This led me to question how society would react to a major shutdown of technology. If we had to wait much longer than ten minutes for our computers and our phones to reboot, we would be much more than anxious. Although I was critical while I was thinking about people’s interest in ghost tours and was critical about our status quo when I thought about society’s reliance on technology, I was not playing in either of these moments. 

In fact, when I was on the ghost tour, I failed to engage in “critical play.” I tried to think about both of these things, but could not. When I thought about my mortality or my dependence on technology, I was not only distracted (by my own thoughts) from the tour, my mood was completely ruined. The experience was no longer fun. As a result, I decided, consciously chose, to push critical thoughts aside and just play.

When I was in the city, I found that I could not be critical and play at the same time. Furthermore, I do not think anyone can, including the exquisite corpse artists. If while making “She Could Hardly Wait,” Gianakos had the aim of addressing the human subconscious, then he is no longer playing. He has a further aim than play itself. Perhaps he played while painting it and critically thought about the human subconscious before and after he made “She Could Hardly Wait.” However, he could not be doing both at the same time.

Although Flanagan’s argument for “critical play” does not make much sense, it still holds some promise; instead of play being critical, can play facilitate critical thinking? All of my experiences would argue yes. But I still must ask myself, does play enable critical thinking more than other activities do? To this, I would argue no. Personally, I do not feel that the ghost tour pushed me to be more critical than the times in which I read Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, or BBC News. I am critical then because I read the articles in order to know more about the world and think about different perspectives. In my opinion, I am most critical when I have the intention of being critical. Similarly, I found that I had the most fun on the ghost tour when I had the sole intention of having fun. Overall, the ghost tour led me to think critically. But, it only did so because I went into Philadelphia with the lens of “critical play.”  Flanagan argues that the goal of play should be play. However, I find that goal of “critical play” cannot merely be play. However, if the goal of “critical play” is both to play and to later be critical, “critical play” is effective. Although play does not enable me to think more critically about the status quo than reading the news would, my intent to be critical (while playing) led me to think critically before and after I played in the city.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Mary. "Introduction to Critical Play." In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, 1-15. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.


tflurry's picture

On Critical Play

In her first paragraph, Tomahawk considers her previous essay and experiences in the city, and compares them to her most recent trip, coming to the conclusion that one can think critically about and through play without needing to read an essay about it; that said, she was doubtful that critical play was itself possible, or if she partook in it. The essay made me think; I had not actively considered critical play to be an oxymoron as I played, simply because I enjoy taking a critical approach to works, but her argument is valid and interesting. She made a good counterargument for the idea of critical play, zooming in on distinct moments within her ghost tour to illustrate her story. I had a great deal of fun playing around with her ideas, weighing their pros and cons against my own concepts of critical play.