Exploits of Play: Frontiers of Play

Episode 4 with guest Mary Flanagan

Episode notes and references:

“Game of the Goose”, first board game in the western world, Italy, 14th-15th century

Mary Flanagan, bio

Tiltfactor Lab, Experimental Play lab, Dartmouth College

List of Flanagan’s books, MIT Press

Max Haiven: Hello and welcome to the “Exploits of Play”. This is a podcast about the strange and unexpected roles of games and play in our stage of capitalism that keeps getting weirder and weirder and weirder. My name is Max Haiven and I am Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination. 

Halle Frost: And I’m Halle Frost. I’m from the platform Weird Economies, and we’re presenting this podcast.

Today, our interview is with Mary Flanagan, who’s an artist, author, educator, and designer who pioneered the field of game research with her ideas on critical play. She’s the founding director of the research laboratory and design studio Tilt Factor Lab, and a professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College, and the CEO of the board game company Risenim, which publishes original games and goods for social innovation.

Max, can you tell me how you came across Mary’s work, and do a little preface for this interview? 

Max Haiven: I mean, it’s hard not to come across Mary’s work if you’re interested in the radical and critical potential of games. Mary’s been working for decades now, as you mentioned, as an incredible scholar who’s contributed amazing academic work to the field.

As a game designer, as an artist and a poet and as a business person who has created a kind of games company that brings experimental and critical games to the market. So really a legend and it’s a real honor to get to interview her this time. It should be stressed just how influential Mary’s work has been and I think it’s been especially important in the field of game studies which since its origins has struggled to make a space.

for feminist perspectives. And that goes well beyond just the critique that has been made and should continue to be made, that many of the graphics and even themes within both video games and board games are sexist. You know, I think that’s an important, vital critique to make. But also, I think what I appreciate about Mary’s work so much is that she’s interested in tracing how This kind of inherent sexism, it gets organized around masculinized values, values of competition, of exploitation, of capturing territory.

And that these, even though they could be projected onto a female character or a character of other genders, these sort of masculinist values which have historically been associated with men, still have kind of been baked in to the way that games are imagined. And developed and played. What I really appreciate about Mary’s work as a scholar is the way that she’s able to, in clear language that can really be understood not only by fellow scholars, but also by game designers.

Make this clear, but then also the way that she is ex. She’s experimenting very actively with other kinds of values and paradigms and subjectivities and ways of playing in the games that she designs. And she uses the games that she designs as a kind of laboratory for how we might create games differently in a much more expansive and exciting sense.

And as a result, I think she can be credited with really raising a whole new generation of very diverse game designers both within her academic lab, but also who have played her games or seen her artwork or read her work who are now beginning to think very differently about how games could liberate us in different sorts of ways.

It’s really great to be here interviewing you, Mary, and I want to begin by asking what we start by asking all of our guests, which is if you can cast your mind back to a moment in childhood when you played a game that somehow changed you or changed your consciousness and maybe link that to what you’re doing now.


Mary Flanagan: Thanks so much, Max. I’m thrilled to be here. And it’s a big question for someone who’s played games as much as I have for my whole life. I think about them pretty much every day. But you know, I, the first image that came was actually a playground game, which was a war game between boys and girls in my Catholic high school, or Catholic grade school.

And there was this boys versus girls, it’s war. And basically each group chased each other and the rules were very vague, but it was all about power and all about kind of like one side has to win the other side has to win. And I remember getting trapped in this corner with a bunch of boy students, you know, and they were like cornering me in this and I said, you know, I didn’t agree to play this game.

And I think. And I didn’t, I hadn’t read any kind of game studies because I was seven, you know, but I, but I felt like there was something really wrong about this. And of course, you know, being a feminist game designer now I know why, but I thought there was something really wrong about being put in that position.

And I think that I still investigate those same questions. So I’m really glad you asked that because I’ve had a week of kind of thinking about things like something that’s come up from, from childhood that I’ve been working on my whole life. It’s a theme this week. It’s like, Connecting the dots in a really big way.

So I don’t know, maybe it’s the solstice. 

Max Haiven: Yeah, it’s a good time for casting our minds back and casting our minds forward, I suppose. I mean, that’s a game that you described that I think many of our listeners would imagine would be timeless. That sort of like boys versus girls. 

Mary Flanagan: Oh, it’s wrong in so many ways.


Max Haiven: How is it wrong? And also, I think people would imagine that a war game is also a timeless game. A timeless game and a harmless game. 

Mary Flanagan: That is another faulty assumption. Games are often about conflict, but conflict doesn’t have to be war, right? So, there’s often some kind of tension or conflict or challenge in a game. There’s often a risk and there’s often a reward. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to the kind of models that we, we instinctively find, not only just in classic games like chess or checkers, you know, where you have two sides trying to do a winner take all scenario, but this kind of battle Royale shows up in all the, just pretty much every, every, you know, massively multiplayer online digital game as well, right?

You have this, it’s a recurring motif. And unfortunately, I have some thoughts about this. I’m not convinced that the problems of our age. Can be modeled using binary war gaming scenario, right? And and I think it’s probably the least effective way of thinking about resolving conflict and imagining future.

So for me, it’s really important that we move away from that kind of thinking about binaries about genders versus each other. About, you know, one side gets to win, and what does that mean and I’m not trying to rain on everybody’s game parade, but I do think that complexity is interesting, and making complex games that model more complex situations actually is a really, really important thing.

Speculative and interesting path to follow towards imagining new futures. 

Max Haiven: Mm hmm. What was the first game you designed and why did you do it? 


Mary Flanagan: You know, it depends on how you define the game. You know, as an artist, I actually made the first interactive CD ROM experience at my university and I taught myself how to program interactive things.

This is the 90s, right? So I made this interactive portfolio where you enter an abandoned house and you find my video artworks in like abandoned televisions and you go around and collect. So that, you know, it was an interactive experience. Was it a good experience? It was game like, but I worked commercially as a game designer in the 90s as well, and I did commercial games for the Discovery Channel, for ABC, and big, big companies who were branching out into the game design space, and then the first com wave…

So my first game in that space was called “Nile Passage to Egypt”, and you get in a felucca and you go around in the Nile and you’re learning all about you know, creatures and, and things like this that live along the Nile and the history of the people there. And I worked with a filmmaker who was on site and we had this, you know, anthropologists, subject matter experts, like all these interesting people working on this big educational CD ROM game thing.

So yeah, I have a lot of experience and a lot of very different kinds of pockets of interactivity and where it hits games and where it moves away from games a little bit.

Max Haiven: I want to come back a little bit later to talking a bit about the kind of games that you design and how they’re different. But I think this is a very good segue to talk about your latest book, which was coauthored with Mikhail Jakobson Playing Oppression, the legacy of conquest and empire in colonist board games.

Just speaking about the Nile and the kind of exoticism that often animates board games. In the book, you talk about how, you know, especially in the, we were apparently in a golden age of games and yet you and your colleague played dozen, hundreds of games, I think, to look at this kind of colonist and colonial and imperialist tropes. Can you tell us a little bit about the method behind the book and what you found?


Mary Flanagan: Well, the impetus for the book kind of came with a confluence of things. I went to this board game studies conference and I’d known Mikhail for a long time from the digital game space, but we started talking at an event and we were both kind of sharing our dismay at going to the Essen Game Fair and seeing all of these, you know, Basically Indiana Jones esque things everywhere.

And even in 2009 in my book Critical Play I wrote about “Settler’s of Catan” and the robber character and other game people have talked about that since and you know it recognized that okay maybe that’s not a great thing to have a board game that has robbers. One robber character, the only movable pawn in the game, is a brown or black pawn that does not have a name and takes things from you.

So, there are these things you notice as you play games and a lot of people have just been uncomfortable with them, laugh them off, or just not been a part of that community because it’s not super inclusive. Historically speaking, now I think it’s changing for the better. But the real trick is that I kind of had thought that the problem was new and that people were like, it was the last bastion of this kind of colonial thinking that Hollywood doesn’t do any more of that as much, but maybe it’s moved into this game space and that’s the place where you, but in fact, that’s totally not true.

And the origins of board games are really steeped in a lot of this colonial mindset. It’s education about indoctrination, about nation and nationhood and cultural superiority and all of the mechanisms that go into really not only just a colonial narrative, but also a capitalist one that is about the extraction of wealth from non players in the capitalist scene.

And I have to say that I have been very deeply influenced recently by a book by Nancy Frazier called Cannibal Capitalism. And it’s a great analysis and it really brings together a lot of the tropes about not valuing care and labor, about the need for universal income, but of course, where does the excess of social capital and go, if it goes to the hands of a few, she’s talking about all of these things that come up in all of these different fields, but she’s brought them together in a really great way.

And if I were going to write playing oppression now, I would have far more. Time and attention on the capitalist and colonialist link and the resource and lack of paying for care structures. So I can’t wait to write another one. 


Max Haiven: I can’t wait for you to write another one.

Mary Flanagan: Although it’s dark, I’ll say, you know, like it’s not so cheery.

You’re in these archives finding horrible thing after horrible thing. And you’re like, really? Can you believe people played this with their children? You know, it’s appalling really to look at our playthings. Not everyone knows they exist, right? They’re often in archives. They’re often kind of hidden out of sight.

Only really big board game geeks really get into this like minutiae of historical artifacts. But when you do, you see that some of the very familiar things that happen in contemporary board games are very much rooted in board games that presented themselves as much more problematic and intentional. 

Max Haiven: Did any example kind of stick out? Many people, their narrative of the development of board games would sort of begin with the paleo period of the uncertain emergence of “Chess,” and then “Monopoly” appears, you know, in the 20th century. But what were some of these games from the 18th and 19th century that really stuck in your mind?

Mary Flanagan: In some ways, this genre of games that is very familiar to us now called the “Game of the Goose,” which emerged in the 14-1500s, allegedly from Italy, but we really don’t know. But it’s the first pictorial board game in the West. Now, there were other pictorial board games in other places, including India, which has really old gaming traditions, and possibly China, because in the West, we don’t have that much research. For example, in playing impression of Chinese games, but it’s really a language barrier problem, even though I used to speak Chinese, but I don’t research in Chinese. I was at a conference and someone had a board game from around the 1500s from China that was this hilarious way of how to become a bureaucrat in the Chinese system. It was the most complicated looking board game. Like the text was so small cause it had to do so many rules and everything.

So this moving around a circle that represents some kind of progress, getting to an end, that means winning that format is really mostly based on this idea of the Game of the Goose, which is possibly a 15th century kind of structure. At least that’s what we know now. We might find totally different things in 10 years because the archives are constantly revealing new ways of seeing these things if they were saved right. And if they were digitized, there’s a lot of layers into getting access. But I was really kicked off in this research by a few artifacts that I found in the Getty Museums, the GRI, the Getty Research Institute, and I was a fellow there. And they have a special collections, and so they had a box of colonial themed toys and paper cutouts and dolls, and someone had a collection of paper goods with colonial themes, and there were some board games in there. And I got very excited about what else might be in other archives and what, you know, things I hadn’t seen. One was the Game of the French Revolution, which was actually redone over and over after the French Revolution happened. Now, not exactly a colonial, like it’s not about going and conquering other countries and taking their stuff, but it is about indoctrinating one into the values of place or country or Republic, right? So all the values of the Republic are around on the board, like, we’re getting rid of this tax and we have religious, we’re down with religious, you know, oppression. So, you know, extremist religion groups. And, those conversations that were on that board game from 1790 are still in conversation today, right? The same conversations are happening about freedom of religion, religious expression about immigration.

I mean, all this stuff was actually shown in the board game of 1790. Then it was published maybe 200 times after that. So it was published well into the 20th century. There are different kinds of copies and different ones have different songs in the corners and things like that. And it’s really, really richly decorated–there are heads on pikes. It’s kind of violent. I like to talk about that one because it’s kind of not very controversial. It’s very much what it says it is. It’s a game about the French Republic and it’s just promoting the values of the French Republic as seen by the game makers and the constitution.

Move that into a different kind of game called the “Jeux d’Exchange.” That one, it’s from the 1940s. And it was published on newsprint. So it seems to have been maybe mass distributed, possibly in a Sunday paper or something like this. Very little is known about it, but it allows you to cut up all of the little pieces and you play different pieces.You get to control different colonial countries of France and get their resources. So I have rice from Laos or something and you’re shipping this stuff out and it’s modeling some kind of grand, you know, global extraction shipping situation. That one’s memorable because it’s like, ‘Hey, everyone should imagine this. Let’s send this game out to everyone and everyone can cut up their own version and play with their family.’ 

The game’s rules actually are a little broken too, maybe it wasn’t fit for you know, commercial distribution, but the idea that there was this intention to and it was during the Vichy control of France during the war, so you wonder, is this a way to get people with renewed interest in their colonial situation?

It wasn’t a critical piece. It was a celebratory piece about, ‘Gosh, where does our tea come from? And where does our rice come from?’ and this kind of thing. And it shows that sense of the system abstracted without any humans, lands or nonhumans paying any actual price for any of those things, right?You just go get them. You don’t have to pay for them. Right? So those kinds of elements of games still exist today. Like there’s a lot of games where you just, ‘Okay, I get more food this turn. Okay.’

Well, where did that come from? Actually, this is this non-renewable, like a renewable forever fund of resources that never run out and that don’t have to be thought about. Okay. 

That is very much a part of thinking like a colonial power, right, where you just go, ‘Hey, we need this thing, we’re gonna just get it there if not there.’ So there’s lots of tendrils that come out from those earlier games to today’s games.


Max Haiven: Yeah, so much. I really value your book Playing Oppression because it’s so well done I feel like I could give it to a lot of the game designers. I know who are not, you know already conversant in post-colonial and anti-racist themes that they would they would sort of get it.

Mary Flanagan: That was what we tried. We tried very hard just to not make it only for academics because the game community loves their history, right? And it’s not really talked about people play all these historical games, but they’re actually the whole board game industry’s history is really not been studied academically, right? That’s strange because there’s plenty of things about other parts of pop culture that I’ve studied at length. So that board games have been seen as this play thing that are unimportant, is just part of that whole history of devaluing domestic work, and devaluing domestic situations, and devaluing, you know, educational things, women’s things… There’s a reason that that’s not high art.

[00:20:09] Max Haiven: It’s funny, I’m working on a my first board game, which hopefully will be available in 2024 or early 2025, called “Billionaires and Guillotines”. And you can kind of guess how it ends based on the title. But I’m a very new game designer, and one of the things that I do here in Berlin is I go to game designer meetups. Which is a great place to get feedback. You know, the game design community is for an artistic and a craft community, very generous, because everyone needs playtesters. So there’s a kind of democratization. But one of the things that struck me immediately is, you know, I came with this game that had a very kind of clear, explicit, somewhat cheeky political bent. And I found myself playing very sophisticated games with game designers who in some ways couldn’t care less what the theme or the story of their game is. They’re just, you know, and the metaphor that I came up with, and then I tested on them and they’re like engineers who say that like they’re building a motor for a car. They don’t care what color the car is. They don’t care about the safety mechanism. They don’t care what happens inside the car. They just care that that kind of machine works. But what I really appreciated about your book is that you kind of show us how this long history of colonial themed board games influences not just, you know, what graphics you see on the game, what imagery you see, but what the narrative of the game is.

It fundamentally shapes the mechanisms behind the game. And you list these four Xs, which are kind of things that are talked about in the video game– the exploring world: explore, expand, exploit and exterminate as these kinds of key mechanisms that keep repeating themselves again and again. And even if you transport the game into the far future in space, these colonial themes somehow rear their head again and again.

I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit. 


Mary Flanagan: Yeah, you know, that was key for me in the whole project was to show that this is not just about re-skinning a picture to be another picture, right? So this is not just like, ‘Oh, well, we thought we were going to make a Monopoly game, but we decided to make it about New York.’

And so we just changed it to whatever, although that Monopoly is a funny example because Monopoly was designed to be a critical game about changing the tech structure and ends up being with not many changes. So sometimes a skin or re-skinning of a game actually does change some of the ways that people think about it.

But the real core of the matter is when mechanics are implemented that seem critical that are actually very much a part of various kinds of problems and my critical stance and that stuff came out a lot of the project Helen Nissenbaum and I wrote a book called Values at Play in Digital Games, and we really investigate okay where values coming from when you have games and she’s a philosopher who studies technology and values. And I’m game designer who studies values. And, one could think, ‘Oh, well, technology values have a different– they’re built on these chips and they do these things.’ But in fact, these mechanisms are these subcategories. They could be in technologies. They can be in paper, but they’re widgets and mindsets that propose certain logics behind which we’re framing interactions. And we’re building imagined worlds. So if we don’t unpack those very simple building blocks. I don’t think you can really build a new building. 

Max Haiven: One of the other things that you mentioned in that book and also in critical play is that there’s a kind of presumed Subjectivity at play here, the kind of resource manager, the, the worker placer, the kind of commander in chief, that kind of is implicit in all of these games, that also has this kind of political resonance as well.

Mary Flanagan: Yeah, even when you’re supposed to play well, I’m thinking “Spirit Island,” a more contemporary game, you’re still playing a god. Or spirit. You have some power. So power itself is something to interrogate in any game, right? Like, ‘Okay, well, who’s got power and why do we have it? Why do we have that power?’

And what would flipping that power on his head do? To how we would play a game like this, just these kinds of thought experiments thinking about, like, think about things that are weird, like make it weird, what happens and can we see them in a new way? Right? Can we actually see them in a new way?

Because this is a key thing when you’re talking about speculative futures and, and any kind of like moving forward in games as a tool, as a, as a framework for thinking about futures. Possibility spaces. We have to understand that the pieces are coming from different possibility states, right?

So you might use them, but you might twist them and you might put in, put them with something else that, but just having that granular attention to the kinds of powers and the kind of assumptions your game mechanics have is really, I’m not saying we have to abolish. A game mechanic. No more collecting ever and ever.

But I’m saying we need to see what the links are. And oh, it tends to be that we collect a lot of things because there’s a lot of things to collect because it’s an infinite because it’s this place that we are robbing. 


Max Haiven: Because you mentioned the word and we’re here on the podcast of Weird Economies, I wanted to dig into it a tiny bit, which is like, how important the weird is and what weirdness means to you. I’m thinking a bit about some of your board and card games, where you work a lot with the history of art, surrealism, abstraction the history of the occult, the kind of limits of quantum theory, like, you’re kind of into weird themes as a way to open up.

We’re into weird in a big way, but what does that term mean for you, and what work can it do?

Mary Flanagan: As a person, I’m someone who’s never fit into a category or box, and I have always been the weird person. I see the world like kind of askew in a way. And I learned to value that because not everyone does.

And so for me weirding, it’s like querying, you know, like making things very apparent with how constructed everything is and how we can change it and think about it and be critical. And I think if you don’t approach these projects from a perspective that’s out there, that’s just trying strange stuff.

I don’t think you can really find the nuggets that will take you somewhere interesting. I think you have to go way outside the lines to get a sense of a different direction. It’s dangerous, you know, it’s risky. It can be emotionally unsettling. It could be professionally stupid.

I’m pretty convinced that difference brings wondrous things to play systems and to systems design in general if it’s really celebrated. And that is kind of where I’m coming from in my practice. Some things that I make do not want to be in a box that is sold at Target. Right? Some things are not going to be for that.

Some things are going to be, just like this project I just opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I’m It’s like a wiggly playful sculpture that is intended to be a portal into thinking about embodiment and yourself and, and water and elements and the Anthropocene and all of this stuff. That’s my intention.

And it’s kind of just hypnotic and interesting to interact with. So in that context, it’s an artwork, but it’s a playful experience. It’s, it’s an interactive thing. Sorry, the parrot. So I don’t try to follow ideas that fit into a box. I follow ideas and figure out which box ish they’re kind of going to.

And some things don’t fit in any.

[00:28:24] Max Haiven: Those are the best ones I think. It’s a segue to something I was going to ask a little bit later, but now it seems the right time to bring it up, which is you also run a game company called Resinim, which publishes your games and other games, and I think it would be interesting for our audience, because it is, we’re talking about weird economies and the exploits of play, to hear a little bit about what the board game and card game market It looks like I mean, some people are maybe very familiar or a little bit familiar with a massive video game market that, you know, is said now to rival or exceed Hollywood board games and card games are in a golden age, but they certainly haven’t yet achieved that kind of level.

But what have you, since you’ve been selling, you know, working on getting these games to their public in a capitalist marketplace for a few years. What have you observed and learned about that strange world and what, what consumers seem to want and don’t want? 

[00:29:21] Mary Flanagan: In some ways it’s very market driven in a traditional way.

You know, like awards, the Spiel des Jars award will actually increase sales and visibility of one particular game. Very, very much so. But to get that, you have to publish in Germany. So to even be eligible. So just those kinds of things that, that if you were just going to design a small game and see what happens, that it’s, it’s probably not going to get a spiel de jar.

And it’s probably going to face a lot of competition. And we’re in this golden age of board games in the sense that a lot of experimentation and change is happening, which is great, a lot of new authors. But it also means a lot of competition, which means fewer hits. In the classic sense, you know, but more voices.

So from a capitalist perspective, it’s probably, you know, you don’t get as rich making, sorry,

but, but that’s not why we formed the company and we formed the company to get our ideas out. And, you know, it’s the kind of way that Americans can get ideas out. It could have been a nonprofit, but. It kind of almost is anyway, because it’s not a super lucrative company. But it is something that you, where we have all the say in what, in what goes on.

And it’s not always the case when you work with publishers. And the reason I started the company actually, because I had this game called Monarch, in which you play as sisters vying for the crown, and you can. Lead by it’s a nonviolent game. You’re trying to show that you have more, you know, more culture or more wisdom or to, to be the best ruler.

Right? So it’s not a battle game. It’s a, it’s a set collection game and the people I took it to no one would publish it. They’re like, well, you know, this whole what’s, why are you so insistent on this sister thing? And, you know, that whole pushback I had and also changed my name to a German man’s name.

That was not. Yeah. That was less than a decade ago. Okay. This is not ancient news, you know, this is within the last decade. So while things have changed and I’m glad we started our own company because then we have complete freedom, but in some ways it hurts because I’m really a grassroots it up. We have a Kickstarter.

We see what we can do. And sometimes if you enter in with a bigger boom and a bigger market, you might have bigger impact, but. You know, this was always my issue with working in the games industry. You know, I would have meetings with electronic arts or these big, big, big game companies, and they’re like, you know, why are you, why are you doing this thing in academia?

You should be working for us. I said, because I, because I can, I can ask questions and you guys don’t ask them and say, well, no, we ask some of them. We just don’t, we try not to scare our players away. Right. So the whole idea of risk adversity, because you know, players can’t, you Take certain concepts ideas.

This just drive me a little bonkers. But that’s where you know, you get more. Political discourse, more kind of critical play. And, you know, I, does there always have to be an avant garde in order to to be a kind of counterpoint? Is there always a conversation or could the mainstream actually be that conversation?

I don’t know. Those are questions. We’re living through right now. 


Max Haiven: This story of game companies being very reluctant to bring to market critical games, games with critical ideas, games that fall outside the kind of normative frame, I think has come under criticism, especially in the video game world over the last decade, because of things like, for instance, like Gamergate, which was, you know, for our listeners who are not familiar with the game world, hopefully they’ll have heard of it, but was a kind of horrifying kind of patriarchal misogynistic swarming of feminist game critics and game designers in the video game space now almost a decade ago.

Maybe more than a decade ago… I’m trying to remember getting my years. 

Mary Flanagan: It was more than, I think it was around 2012, right? So I think it started in 2012. The end of it is, it’s uncertain. Yeah. The end of it is uncertain and you know, it was the first extremist. kind of reaction using social media that I had experienced and that my friends had experienced.

Now, I can’t say if that’s true globally, but it did provide a model. It kind of demonstrated how extremism works very well with online tools. 

Max Haiven: And it was sort of revolved around this idea that these and I think that gamers who mostly identified as male presumably had that identification beyond that felt like they were having their game worlds stolen from them by feminists and by critical game designers and that somehow there was some, there was some aggrieved sense of loss, but particularly around games.

And I just wanted to connect it and ask you what you thought about it. In terms of the way that the industry has traditionally assumed that the vast majority of players are Male identified and that’s, you know, what they want is those four X’s, you know explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. And that any, then somehow that creates a kind of audience who’s already, I don’t know, I mean, there’s some who would argue that, that if you grow up playing games with those mechanisms as your whole thought world, it’s not so surprising that at a moment when somebody just begins to say like, there might be something else outside of this, you would.

You would feel the sense of threat. I was thinking about it because you were particularly mentioning sort of this way that the game companies are quite conservative in allowing critical themes and critical designers to kind of articulate other values, essentially. 


Mary Flanagan: Yes, they have formulas that work and they sell games and they don’t want to disrupt that process, which is why the indie game scene is so interesting by contrast, right?

The indie game scene is inventing new forms and sometimes showing that, hey, you know, Dream Daddy made some money and it’s a cool game that is part of, you know, a lot of gamers collections. So I think that there are some games that come out that do ask those questions, that do push on On social issues, you know, gender sexuality.

Afrofuturism. There’s a lot of really interesting experiments happening right now in the, in the, in the digital indie game space and in the RPG space. Right. But the, the board game space has a fewer of those experiments in part because it relies on the distribution channels and the cost of print runs of board games and stuff, unless it’s a print and play, but there’s a real financial kind of commitment that you have to kind of have an ongoing Situation to distribute that stuff and, you know, versus something that’s downloadable, something that’s digital, or something that’s playable from a text.

Max Haiven: In Playing Oppression, you sort of propose four C’s that might guide the values of a kind of critical game design that are conservation, cultivation, continuation, and collaboration. And I wondered if you could speak a little bit about why Like, what happens when we approach game mechanics and games from those values?

And if there are any games you’re seeing that are emerging now that feel particularly resonant with those? 

Mary Flanagan: There are a lot of recent releases with an ecological bent, you know? I think “Wingspan” helped bring in that set of games. You know, there’s Photosynthesis, and there’s Various kinds of garden like a lot of gardening games a lot of ecosystem games even more in Europe There are like zoo games like make a nice zoo Like various kinds of things like that and again, though, without addressing some of these larger issues, the mechanic being the message doesn’t always deliver a message that is entirely rethinking how we might look around us and say, okay, well, what’s another way of designing this system?

How can we do X better? And, you know, I’m not asking every single person to be a designer, but we are talking in higher education about design thinking being a core principle for a lot of contemporary fields. I think game design is a great place to learn it. And it’s a great place to learn about critical things because you can attack difficult situations or you can address challenging topics with play.

Play doesn’t always have to be silly, fun, and meaningless. In fact, play can be profound and transformative. And so that’s what I’m hoping for is that people take that message away that, okay, well, what’s transformative about this thing? What, how can I, you know, how do I feel afterwards? And, you know, like we have so many more words in English for visual things than we do for sound, for example, we, We have very, very sparse vocabulary words for things that are about play.

And in fact, in a lot of languages, play and games are the same thing. So that’s even collapsed. But then we, you know, what is the aesthetic of that play experience? Do you leave a game more generous? Is that possible? I think so. I think it’s, you know, you leave a film looking at airplanes differently, right?

So you might leave a game and go, gosh, you know, this kind of system would be way better. I want to, I want to work for that kind of thing. I want to, I want to think about, I want to think about it this way. And it’s a great way to introduce people to new ways of thinking. And that’s why, you know, I’m hoping for a lot of games that could start to deal with collective good.

And with some alternate economies where more isn’t the whole point, getting more and getting surplus is not the whole point, but maintaining a balance and reinvesting, like all these kinds of words that we hear in fields related to conservation and to thinking about the Anthropocene need to come into our games really deeply.

And You know, I can’t be anything but hopeful, otherwise I’d be in a pool of despair. So I, so I, I choose hopeful, but I choose it not naively. Games can only do so much, but on the other hand, you know, someone talks to you about their favorite game and their eyes light up, their lives change. So to the right people, a good game can really bring a new way of thinking and being.


Max Haiven: I totally agree. And it’s very exciting to think about what game designers are going to develop And a new generation of game designers who are emerging now especially game designers who are not, you know, straight white European men might [00:40:00] also come up with and are coming up with that would completely disrupt and change.

Mary Flanagan: I mean there’s a lot of good signs for this, like the the digital it’s mostly digital games that the USC games program at the University of Southern California. I think they have more. Then 50 percent students who are women in their program, which is which is very novel. And it’s not It’s not a focus of every program.

Not every program is trying to do that. 

Max Haiven: One last question, which is that you mentioned before about how games are not, because of the devaluation of domestic space and sort of friendships and the spaces and structures around which board games tend to circulate, they haven’t really been taken seriously as either as a critical vehicle or really as an art form.

Do you think it is changing? Do you think it should change? A lot of your games games incorporate art, not just in terms of the visuals, but are thematically connected to different art movements. Historically, you yourself are an artist who produces images and texts and sculpture and art in many different ways.

I kind of wanted to close by asking you about the distance between games, and particularly board games and art, and if that distance can and should be closed.


Mary Flanagan: Definitely, while there are elements of game like things in the art world, for sure, in terms of its structure and, you know its competition and who becomes the art star and all of that kind of thing.

That’s, that’s just as much of a model as economic, financial, you know, all these other trajectories. But, I do think it’s important for artists. everyday person walking down the street to see toys and not see them as neutral. I mean, I think the things around us are designed and so for people to realize that something can be designed really carefully to not cause harm versus just being designed to sell something that it would be a great thing to communicate that We can ask questions about these things.

Like we’re asking, people are starting to ask questions about fast fashion, for example. And, and let’s talk about sustainability and clothing and let’s, let’s reuse our, our bottles. And you know, these conversations come like object by object in a way, which I’m not saying is the best way, but that’s, that’s another, that’s another conversation.

But a game as an object or a play thing in the creation of experience, I think it’s a great place to have a conversation about what comes out of it and how you think differently or how it helps, helps you solve problems. And one of the reasons games are pleasurable is that, you know, human minds like to solve problems and make things fit together and have these things.

You know, like we like puzzles cause we put them together. Piece of the puzzle. And I was like, yes, piece of the puzzle is in there. These are kind of human things. They’re kind of basic human pleasures. And I think that games do tap into that kind of thing. So Wouldn’t we like to be able to understand it more and to bring that sense?

To things that are more pro social and pleasurable and not about manipulation and buying, you know, because that’s what the gamification market is trying to do, right? Gamification is trying to say, hey, let’s get you to spend more money here and we’ll pretend it’s playful. Right? And this is why casinos are designed in particular ways, you know, and why people who design casinos are starting to design video games.

So there’s these links between you know, what is really free play and what is kind of an engineered experience to consume. That should be talked about. 

Max Haiven: Is there anything you’d like to add? This has been a really wonderful interview. It’s It’s perfect for our podcast. 


Mary Flanagan: Oh, I’m so glad. The only thing I’d like to add is I look forward to seeing where new games erupt that we don’t currently see games, right?

So I’ve talked to people in future studies and you know, corporations, a lot of people have said that. People in corporate positions or in you know, positions of authority, doctors, they have a hard time seeing the value of bringing a play object in to learn something new about something very big and very serious that they work on.

Right. And that is the next translation, because if we can get. People to say, yeah, this is a tool and this is a tool that actually has values and we could shift things and play with values. I think I think it would bring in so much benefit to a lot of different places that games aren’t seen as being relevant to right now.

So that’s what I would really like to see. And that’s what I’m working on. Actually. I’m working on a book on speculative game design, and I’m working to see We can take some of these principles and really unlock some doors and give people the right tools. I’ve seen some people in future studies start with games but they’re not trained as game designers.

So, you know, they’ll re skin Monopoly or, but you can get into this stuff, but it’s not always doing what you think it’s doing. And luckily I’ve had 20 years of doing social science research on games in my research laboratory in order to kind of dig up. What are interesting things that games are doing that’s helped me really get down to more of like a evidence based Practice of like okay this we know certain things from psychology work in games That’s really important to know because then you can make games that address your issues without kind of having these unconscious biases or constructs 

Max Haiven: If you could have one group of powerholders in society play a game you designed, who would it be and what would the game be?


Mary Flanagan: I really want to do a game on seed keeping, because I really like the practice and it happens in all these different places, it happens in the sciences, it happens in indigenous cultures, it happens, so, so it’s this, it’s really quite interesting to me. And I would love to do that with people who, you know, Like you have a seed keeping game that’s talking about the distribution of seeds and everything with people who are actually making agricultural policy, because I feel like so many things go down the agriculture policy people are not on the same page as almost everybody who is interested in food.

Right. So, so, so I would like to really understand that more. That’s the direction I’d like to go in. Once I, I gave a talk at Davos, and I visited a kind of an immersive. Project about refugees, and it was done by a group who was a refugee rights activist group out of Hong Kong. Interestingly, and they had this simulation where you were put in a refugee camp yelled at shoved.

I was put in a thrown into a tent really with people with arms like guns and bullet, you know, shouts were going off and there was smoke and, and most of the people who are in that room were CEOs from around the world and they took, they took your jewelry. They took your wash it took your phone. They just watching that.

In the RPG space, it, it probably would be, there’s like, no, there’s no safe word. It was like, there were so many problems from a consent standpoint, right? But none of them would have consented to go in there. And they had this experience. And then there was a big debrief about what, you know, and all the people who were running this simulation were actually refugees, right?

They were, they, they had had real experience and you could really feel it. So that’s a, that’s another place where, you know, the consent thing is really tricky for me because I, I tend to not want to endanger my players, but sometimes when these lines are crossed, you see this big, profound thing that happens.

So I’d love to just have more conversations about that anyway. It’s positive and messy stuff.

[00:48:29] Halle Frost: What an amazing conversation. Really, but I love this outro with Mary of whether we’re playing, we’re having free play or whether we’re having an engineered experience to consume. How dark is that? Wow. And yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s so true of so many phone games, right? They’ve just found a way to just take your pockets for everything.

Yeah, Max, what’d you get out of this episode? 

[00:48:56] Max Haiven: I was just reminded again about how, you know, A very specific paradigm of gamification has really captured so much of our engagements with the world. And it’s something that we’ll talk about in a later episode of this podcast with Alfie Brown and will come up in a number of other interviews as well, that a very, yeah, as you point out, like a very limited and very exploitative idea of games has been used in order to create, I mean, not just the stuff that we use every day as adults, but like the stuff we’re giving children.

You know, like often these devices are what are raising a next generation of people and you, you know, if we go back to our discussion with Sonia Amadei about game theory, again, part of the focus of this podcast is thinking about how deeply games and play do influence us and how really in some ways awful the paradigm of games that we are given in this world are and how, but then I think the silver lining there is how possible it is To play different games and invent different games and hack games and to do different [00:50:00] things with them can open up many Exciting pathways, but listeners are gonna have to wait a little while for us to get to some of those greater Possibilities because in the next episode we’re gonna be speaking with Gargi Bhattacharya Who is a specialist in critical race theory?

And specifically, theories of racial capitalism. And I really wanted to talk to Gargi, and I’m looking forward to our interview, because there’s something very strange going on in our world right now, with the incredible success in many jurisdictions and countries of the far right, and the resurgence of, like, quite naked racism in our moment.

And I really wanted to talk to Gargi, who really sees It specializes this and thinking about the relationship between racism and capitalism about the strange way that racialized people are often cast by sort of racist politicians and media outlets as somehow cheating what is otherwise a fair game. So you can see this, for instance, in the kind of castigation of migrants who are seeking to cross borders, whether, you know, Normally, or in at non normal forms of crossing, we can see it in terms of how public vitriol is whipped up by these racist politicians and directed towards people who are usually assumed or projected as racialized who are claiming state benefits.

And there’s something that gets. I think it’s really fascinating to look at in terms of the resurgence of racism under under this moment of capitalism, where the accusation that that racialized people are cheating the system becomes so central to the way that these far right and indeed fascist or post fascist or neo fascist politicians are able to succeed.

On the electoral scene and companies that sort of whip up this frenzy succeed on a commercial scene as well. 

[00:52:00] Halle Frost: Weird Economies is sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts. You can listen to the whole podcast as well as view the transcript at