Hack #2: Critical Play


Whereas our first hack dealt simply with play, this hack focuses on what Mary Flanagan calls “critical play.” Or, as she defines it, “careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” (6). Flanagan identifies several loose categories of critical play:

  • subversion – “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, event, or object” (Flanagan 10)
  • intervention – “a ‘stepping in’, or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue” (Flanagan 11)

Flanagan later goes on to identify subversive and interventionist strategies within the domain of dolls and dollhouses:

  • unplaying – where players “enact ‘forbidden’ or secret scenes, unfortunate scenarios, or other unanticipated conclusions” (33)
  • redressing/reskinning – where players “disguise their dolls for subversive roles” (33)
  • rewriting – revising or rewriting “the narratives surrounding dolls” and other toys (33)

These are not the only forms of critical play. As Alex Layne and Samantha Blackmon argue in Ada, “post-play narrative modding” can rewrite videogames from a feminist perspective. ROM modding is another kind of interventionist form of critical play, discussed in Ada by Jaime Lee Kirtz.

Your mission with this next hack is to transform a toy or children’s game into an object that evokes or provokes critical play. You might want to look at the “Board Games” chapter of Critical Play (chapter 3) for inspiration, as well as consider Miguel Sicart’s theory that wicked problems can generate ethical play—itself a type of critical play. What would it mean, for example, to transform a toy or game from an object that mostly exists in binary states (on/off, win/lose, etc.) to an artifact that engages in what we might call, following Sicart, “wicked play”? As Sicart explains, the designer Horst Rittel coined the term wicked problem to describe a poorly defined problem with no clear measure of what success looks like. There’s no way to “test” a solution to a wicked problem (99).

Another design concept that might inform your work is cognitive friction, or the way a nonoptimal design that generates tension between our emotional and functional response to something, a kind of “dissonance,” as Sicart puts it, between the representational and procedural layers of game (95).


You can work alone or with a partner for this hack. Regardless of whether you work alone or with a partner, each person must submit their own artist statement of about 1,000 words. In this statement you’ll delve into the more philosophical elements of your hack, drawing out your meditation on critical play. It might help to think of your hack as an answer to a “What if” speculative question. I encourage you to take advantage of resources in Studio M as you work on this project.

In addition to the artifact itself and the artist statement, you should also document the development of your hack. Post still images, short videos, sketches, etc. onto your domain. The material related to this hack will make up the first exhibit for your end-of-the-semester portfolio.


I’ll approach your hack using the following criteria:

  • Unexpectedness (the extent to which the project defies expectations or produces surprising results or reactions)
  • Craft (the degree of mastery of the mode of physical composition and digital representation)
  • Intention (the sense of intentionality and deliberateness of the work)
  • Theme (the level of engagement with the concepts of critical play, the trickster figure, and wicked problems)
  • Argument (the degree to which your project acts as an intervention or subversion)

Works Cited