Wait… so you’re telling me playing games facilitates interdisciplinary discourse?
This preliminary exposure to games as icebreakers helped form lasting bonds with the other co-op students after only an hour of playing Werewolf. Throughout the term, I watched many other groups bond over play. However, what is “play” and how does it help to 1) sustain the environment; and 2) encourage discourse.
What is “critical play” and how does it invite interdisciplinary discourse?
Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play is considered one of the key seminal texts for understanding how play functions in games to insight critical discussion. However, even she admits that “play” is difficult to define. A Ragnhild Tronstad points out in “The Productive Paradox of Critical Play,” Flanagan kept her definitions of “play” and “game” fairly abstract, failing to link “critical” and “play” together as an epistemology. Some of her questions include “What happens to play when it becomes critical? And how might critical content by influenced by play?” (“The Productive Paradox”). It is through my observations during my 8-month work term that the answer lies with the GI’s methodology: facilitating a fully interdisciplinary environment by sustaining the ecosystem with play. Here’s how it’s done.
As a research institution that specializes in games and interactive technologies, play as learning may seem like the obvious category that the GI facilitates. However, I believe that thinking of play-as-learning as the only avenue for critical thinking minimizes its power. Taking on the challenge of nailing down the epistemology of “play” and “gaming”, Bo Kampmann Walther in “Play and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications” notes that “play is an open-ended territory” that oscillates between actual “play” and “non-play.” What Kampmann Walther means is that in any form of play, there is both performativity and feedback. Although you may not want to fall back into reality when you are playing, it might be necessary in order to receive feedback and re-define the rules. Although Kampamnn Walther also defines “play [as] meta-communication that refers exclusively to itself” the reality is that the “magic circle” of play is often disrupted, and feedback is just as important as performance. In fact, these moments of returning to reality are where I would argue true “critical play” comes into fruition and interdisciplinary discourse happens.
Play creates a common language where everyone is equal.
During rounds of Werewolf, the game mechanics gave us a common language to communicate with. Although we learned a lot about each other, our discussion was a by-product created by the feedback process that Kampamnn Walther references. For instance, I had been upset with the rules of play in which “Team Village” lost when I had been accused of being a Werewolf, despite embodying the plain villager card that doesn’t even grant special abilities. I had also been marked for metaphorical death by every other player. Being frustrated with the fantasy of the game made me break into the real world and give feedback on my experience (false accusations), relating it to other experiences (the Salem Witch Trials), which lead to discussion (the Bystander effect).
Therefore, when looking at critical play we should look at play itself as a kind of exploration or investigation. Werewolf is just a single example of a game that utilizes the 4 core categories of play: learning, power, fantasy, and self to create an interactive experience (Sutton-Smith, qtd. Flanagan 4). Although there is a contextual feedback loop within the liminal boundaries of play, it connects to an external one that allows for real-world knowledge to pour over and allow conversations to happen—regardless of whether this is informal or academic, a common tongue is given by the act of playing that breaks down this barriers.
Creating Opportunities for Critical Play Experiences to Sustain our Interdisciplinary Ecosystem
The GI as a space creates an interdisciplinary ecosystem by encouraging play in all capacities. Whether it is a round of Werewolf between staff, play-testing GI member projects, or a session of Dungeons & Dragons, the GI not only facilitates an environment where play is normalized but an environment where feedback is just as important as performance. This feedback is where critical thinking elopes with play to make “critical play”—a place where scholars of all disciplines find a common language to work collaboratively. The GI does not assert itself as trying to force all categories to fit together. Rather, it realizes the potential of all playstyles and therefore, all types of discourse that can evolve from those experience. In a way, play functions much like interdisciplinarity: It lies on a spectrum and can be fully encompassing (transdisciplinary) or base level (multidisciplinary). Where collaboration falls on the interdisciplinary spectrum is itself a methodology that is dependent on individuals, their playstyles, and what the collaboration calls for.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press, 2009.
Walther, Bo Kampmann. “Playing and Gaming Reflections and Classifications.” Game Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, May 2003. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/0301/walther/#top.
Jump to the next instalment, The Pam Report part 4: Building interdisciplinary, boundary-breaking environments
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing excerpts from Pamela Maria Schmidt's award-winning Co-op Report. Currently Research Projects Facilitator at the Games Institute, Pam received the English Co-op Report Award in recognition of her significant contribution to our community during her co-op terms as Operations Assistant (S'19) and Assistant Project Manager (F'19).
Stay tuned; Not only does the report showcase the brilliance of one of our researchers and staff members, it offers spectacular insight into the Games Institute culture. Pam discusses how and why we use games to facilitate interdisciplinary crossovers, and this springboards into a fantastic discussion on how we articulate interdisciplinarity in the fibres of what we do.
Go back to the beginning: The Pam Report part 1: Team Bonding through “One Night Ultimate Werewolf”