Reflective Games: What Makes Design “Critical”

reflective games

The reflective games group has been working in earnest since the beginning of the semester and my chosen focus has been on moments in play that I call “the reflective turn” — that is to say, the moments that help encourage reflection in players. For now, here are the two approaches that I’m taking and questions that I’m asking:

1* Inspired by the Nordic LARP concept of bleed, one design strategy I want to experiment with is a moment of disruption in the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life. For example, Blast Theory’s Ulric & Eamon Compliant does this via their interview at the end of the experience, which addresses an ambiguous “you” that could be talking about Ulric or Eamon, or could be talking to the player, and through the use of deictic grammar.

2* Thinking about the concept of the unreliable narrator, is there a way that we can leverage misinformation/omission in the game instructions, or in the stated/unstated purpose/impact of a player’s actions to encourage players to question and reflect on their actions as they uncover this information? Brenda Romero’s Train comes immediately to mind as an example.

There are definitely more distinctions to be made and more specificity that could be added to these questions, especially in terms of what distinguishes these instances of reflective design from other standard game occurrences.

When I was reading Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, I wondered about what made critically-engaged game design different from other practices. According to Flanagan’s model, the steps involved in traditional iterative game design, which are cyclical, are as follows: “set a design goal –> develop rules –> develop playable prototype –> playtest –> revise goal –> REPEAT.” The “Critical Play” game design model is as follows: “set design goals + values goals (eg. empowerment, diversity) –> develop rules + tasks which support these values –> design for diverse play styles + subversion –> develop playable prototype –> playtest with diverse audiences –> verify values, revise goals –> REPEAT.” I found that this second model lacked specificity, as it didn’t unpack how designers approach these individual steps, or how individual designers work (it would have been nice to hear about Flanagan’s own practice). It also immediately came to mind that the idea that values are embedded into the work of all creators, not just critical designers. By not making this explicit, the first model reinforces the notion of apolitical art as something that it is actually possible to create, rather than art that supports the status quo (“apolitical”, politics which are rendered invisible by the status quo) versus art that challenges it. Is it truly just subject matter, and the design approaches that flow from that subject matter that make something critical versus affirmative of the status quo?

Context, too, matters, of course — the easiest example of this is historical context, but the conditions under which a project was created, as well as who has created it (an example of positionality as context) are other examples. What this means is that subversion in one context may be affirmative of the status quo in others. This is a particular question of concern when it comes to games designed around lived experiences, and especially around lived experiences with marginalized identities. Who profits from the telling of these stories and how they profit can reproduce problematic dynamics.

In trying to think through how these questions could be better-delineated or more specific, the same sorts of questions arise. Controlling the flow of information and surprising players with the impact of their decisions and play is hardly unique to reflective games. Leveraging surprise is a common-enough storytelling tactic as well. Many authors and creators aim to build tension and leave the reader wanting to know what will come next — for some readers/players, this is why they read or play. What separates a game like Brenda Romero’s Train from others might be that the actions leading up to the revelation seem quite innocuous. Logistical optimization is hardly uncommon in Eurogames, which are also the sorts of games that tend to have little wooden people (one particular type, common to many Eurogames, is known as a Meeple), and are themed around economics and being the player to earn the most points. So, the actions in /Train/ are almost banal. All the symbols are there, in the game, waiting to be read — the broken glass board, the trains, packing as many people as possible onto the trains. Knowing the destination of the trains suddenly reveals the meaning of these apparently innocuous actions, revealing, in effect, the banality of evil. The historical context matters a great deal, and the themes and content of the game that point to that history.

This is a site of interest for me, but I wonder how far the design lessons of Train can be taken — this sort of moment can feel like a “gotcha” if it isn’t handled well. I think there are other games that make use of procedural rhetoric to slowly impress upon the player that there is something negative or unfair about a system — in this regard, Akira Thompson’s …&maybetheywontkillyou and Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please are notable. I think there are fewer subjects for which the Train approach, which might be described as “you are performing an innocuous action or a series of innocuous actions, and because you are used to the rules of games, you do not question this innocuous action, but this series of innocuous actions is in service of a very horrible occurrence,” works. The idea of being a cog in a machine without understanding the purpose of the larger machine is compelling, but the surprise can only work so many times. If you know ahead of time that this is what is about to happen, I wonder if playing the game becomes a matter of admiration for what the designer hides in plain sight and about clever choice of subject. The packed-to-capacity trains in Train are visible from the start – it’s the “Auschwitz” card that re-contextualizes them.

Knowing the surprise ahead of time, I wonder what the experience of playing it would be like. In many tabletop roleplaying games, keeping this knowledge from my “in-game” self and committing to play as if I didn’t know what was going to happen would be known as resisting the urge to metagame. However, generally speaking, the reward for not metagaming lies in the pleasure of playing a role. I don’t think that the roles in Train are particularly pleasurable, and my understanding is that the player is playing as themself playing a game, not in a particularly developped role (after all, that amount of information might ruin the surprise). In the end, this question, if taken to be specifically about unwitting participation through one’s actions in systems of oppression, may be too narrow, although I do think there’s room for exploration. If the question is taken to be about control of information and the moment of disruption, the question may in fact be too broad — after all, games are full of revelations and surprises, like other narrative mediums. These surprises are part of why some players and readers seek out these narrative experiences.

On a similar note, the relationship between the role a player takes on in a game and who they think of themselves as in daily life is one that many games must negotiate. I think there may yet be a productive tension in highlighting and making visible this relationship. In games, players take on roles and perform actions that they might be uncomfortable with if they thought about them and examined them. It is not at all uncommon for players to kill non-player characters in games, for example. I think that Eamon & Ulrike Compliant is particularly interesting because of how it refamiliarizes (as opposed to defamiliarizing) the notion of terrorism. Terrorists are frequently viewed as “other”, as inhuman, but so long as we view acts of terror as incomprehensible, alien actions, it’s unsurprising that we would continue to fail to be able to understand how a person might be drawn into acts that eventually escalate into terrorism. This rhetoric is embedded into many mainstream responses to terrorism, which talk of “senseless” violence and dehumanize perpetrators of violence. Although undesirable and awful, however, maybe violence is altogether too human. Of course, it may be an uncomfortable experience to think about how we as humans are capable of violence, but not thinking about the topic won’t change that capacity.

The line between the player and the role that they play bears further examination, I think, especially in respect to how these roles bleed or fail to bleed into our lives, and how we constitute our identity alongside or in opposition to our actions. A related question could be about player identification with the various roles that they are asked to inhabit, and how designers can build a strong relationship between players and the characters that they play. How can we build identification that helps with the reflective turn? Another related topic that comes immediately to mind is about stakes — how can we “raise the stakes” for players such that they care about game events in a way that supports the reflective turn?

In terms of strategies for exploring these related questions, my mind immediately turns to narrative. It is possible to build stakes and interest in characters through the challenges that they face, if these challenges and narrative events can make players care about the characters. Another area which I think bears further consideration is usefulness. Perhaps we care more about characters that we like from a narrative standpoint, but that are also useful to us. Thinking back to the archetypal character death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, while I did choose Aeris as a love interest for Cloud, I had invested time building her skills as a healer partially because I found her to be less obnoxious than some of the other characters, and that investment made her useful to me. When she died, part of the impact of the moment came from the fact that this was simply not often done in games. To have a main character die without the possibility of recovering them through a sidequest or other means (I’m looking at you, Chrono Trigger) was unheard of — at least, in my gaming experience at the time. Another part of my emotional reaction came from the fact that I had lost a useful party member.

What all of this adds up to is that I think that I’m going to have to rethink and reformulate these research questions through further careful thought, reading and play. I still want to focus on the moment of the reflective turn. I am still interested in how Train accomplishes its reflective turn through control of information and reframing the meaning of actions in light of that information. For Ulrike & Eamon Compliant, I am still interested by the role that player identification, bleed, and the line between the player and their role play in the experience. It’s just that I need to figure out and stake out a grounds upon which to experiment. Reproducing these effects exactly with other subject matter might teach me something, but I think I would hate every minute of the design process. But branching out too generally likely won’t be an effective way of delineating an area to research through making either. Clarifying these research questions is a good way of clarifying which direction to take my reading and research.

Here are some thoughts about that reformulation, in closing (as this post is getting fairly long):

1. It really is facilitating the moment of disruption and reflection that I am interested in. What happens in that moment is likely to be highly individual, and the moment may not be the same for everyone. I’m tangentially interested in what impact the moment of disruption has on the player, however… First, I want to learn to master the creation of that disruptive, reflective space.

2. For some games, the whole game might be a “moment” of disruption — creating a different headspace to think about a topic can be disruptive in ways that permits reflection (such as In Tune, which asks people to reconsider their received notions of consent). Similarly, games like …&maybetheywontkillyou and Papers, Please don’t get more or less unfair, their systems are engineered to show you their procedural rhetoric from the start, and the player can take however long is needed to reach the conclusions that the rhetoric is pointing them towards. It’s not necessarily about one moment in time.

3. I understand that these first two statements point towards very, very broad research possibilities — all of Reflective Games, in fact. My next steps may in fact have something to do with picking a specific theme and exploring “moments of disruption” in relation to that topic or theme.

That’s all for now, folks!

Reflective Games: Bodies in Pain

reflective games, research

[Content Warning: Chronic pain, bodies, bodily fluids, personal information related to said topics]

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about instructions, deictics [1] and grammar related to situating the person receiving the instructions in the present. Using Alison Gibbons’ work as a starting point, I’m interested in the topic because of how it might help players identify with a character. In Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant, this type of language brings the player closer to the identity of one of two terrorists, either Ulrike Meinhof or Eamon Collins.

I was planning to prototype an exploration of the subject matter this week, but became ill, which has led me to thinking through a much more personal subject than I had originally anticipated: pain, illness, and embodiment. As I write this I have a low fever and the flu. In this post, I’m going to position my own experiences with the aforementioned subjects, which means I’ll be talking a fair bit about my personal experiences with chronic pain and illness.

Nothing brings the notion of embodiment crashing back into view like a body that is ill or injured. In Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, the author elucidates how our own pain is immediate but the pain of others is almost impossible to relate to. “Pain separates us,” Scarry notes. Even though we might be just a few inches away from someone who is in pain, their pain is remote. We “invoke analogies to remote cosmologies.” Scarry discusses how pain can rob a person of their speech and how others, even though they do not have direct access to a person’s pain, may explain or attempt to metaphorize their pain to bridge that gap. Direct descriptions of pain are passed through very quickly and instead we get “as if” and “as though” descriptions. These descriptions picture an external agent to pain, and bodily damage to accompany the pain. How these metaphors work is problematic because they do not adequately describe pain as divorced from violent actions, or from the act that may or may not have actually caused the pain — for example, “it feels as though a hammer is coming down on my spine.” As Scarry tells us, “Physical pain is not identical with (and often exists without) either agency or damage, but these things are referential. Consequently, we often call on them to convey the experience of the pain itself.”

Perhaps the fact that I live with a fair bit of chronic pain and illness is one of the reasons why I am so interested as a designer in the subject of embodiment. So rarely am I able to forget my own body completely and become “involved” (in Calleja’s sense of the word) that I rarely, if ever, forget the player’s body in my design work.

Just so that there are no surprises, and in case you’d like to skip over these sections, I am going to tell you about my experiences with chronic pain and other chronic conditions, starting with the back and leg pain that I live with.

From a young age, I had a tendency to hyperextend my knees when told to stand up straight. When I was fourteen years old, I wanted to join karate because I had a crush on a boy. As it turned out, there was no room in the junior class that he attended, but I joined anyway. I always have been into team sports, playing football from ages 7-12, and being on my school’s swim team. My brother soon joined me as well, and I attended karate for eight years, earning my blue belt, and stopping while training for my brown belt. It is through karate that I found out that I have an abnormally high pain tolerance. Karate, despite the kindness of my teachers, was occasionally a problematic, male-oriented space. Advanced belts were encouraged to join the advanced class, which I did, where I was generally the only non-dude. There was subtle encouragement to work and train through the various kinds of pain we encountered. We were barefoot at all times in the dojo, and began each class running around in circles on the hardwood floor. I made a habit of running on the balls of my feet (which is not good). I also had a wicked front and side kick (which put strain on my feet).

During the time that I was in karate I also worked for a number of years at a sushi shop. Once a week I would complete one twelve hour shift spent entirely on my feet. During this shift, and in other contexts, my feet were constantly sore. I used to tell myself that I must get sore feet from working that twelve hour shift, and since I only did it once a week my body could not get used to it. Eventually, I mentioned it to my doctor who sent me for X-rays. My doctor was astounded to find that I had multiple microfractures in my feet, which had healed poorly, and were leading to pain. I had basically broken my feet multiple times without noticing. This was the beginning of an ongoing saga involving my lower back, legs, knees, ankles, and feet. I somehow gave myself a stress fracture in my right arch, and for half a year could not do high impact sports. I saw a physiotherapist for both my knees and my ankles, which would give out on me painfully. I discovered that my tendency to hyper-extend my knees, as well as the microfractures in my feet, led to a number of other problems and alignment issues. My leg muscles are extremely tight. There is a nerve that runs from my lower back, to the outside of my thigh, into my knee, down the front of my shin, and into my ankle, in both of my legs, that is constantly being trapped by my tightened muscles. I have a number of stretches that help alleviate the pain, but when the pain is tolerable it can be hard to prioritize an hour’s worth of physiotherapy stretches in my everyday schedule. I also roll out my muscles every night with the help of my spouse, and I wear orthopedic insoles in my shoes. Truthfully, the pain never really goes away for long, and I have to be constantly vigilant for signs that it is worsening.

This next example deals with a normalized disability that plenty of people in the world have, and I want to contrast that experience with another chronic health issue that I have. From the time that I was thirteen until January 2017, I wore a combination of glasses and contact lenses for a fairly strong prescription. Since I needed them to do most sports that I was involved with, including scuba diving, swimming, and karate, I had a number of learned behaviours and rituals around my contact lenses. For example, when working at the Sushi Shop, I used to put in my lenses when I got to work. I had to wash my hands very carefully, and dry my hands with paper towels. These had to be the white paper towels, which we used for food preparation, and not the brown paper towels that we were supposed to use to dry hands, because the brown paper towels were much more likely to leave dust and filaments on my hands. Even with all this careful preparation I still often felt a foreign object sensation in my eyes after putting in my contact lenses. (I later discovered that I have dryer than usual eyes, a symptom of which is a foreign object sensation). Another learned behaviour that I have is never opening my eyes underwater as long as I wasn’t wearing a mask. I’ve also changed into my lenses in all sorts of contexts and locations, from the middle of forests, to outhouses, to truck stops, and gas stations. I always had to carry my glasses, a bottle of saline solution, my contact lenses, and a set of back-up lenses. I thought for sure that one day I was going to give myself pink-eye, or some other eye infection. Since glasses and minor sight problems are a totally normalized disability, I never thought twice about all of the preparation and ritual involved with my sight. Having laser eye surgery, although there were hassles in the short term, has been life changing in terms of how I travel and how I participate in sports. I’m only now learning to open my eyes again underwater, which I now realize was a constant low-level stressor throughout my scuba diving career. That is to say, the thought that I might lose my mask and be blind underwater was a constant stressful possibility.

At this very moment, I have the flu, and I may have in fact ignored the symptoms for a few days because of another chronic condition that I live with. This one is a good deal less easy for people to understand compared to glasses. I have a postnasal drip, which basically means that thicker than normal secretions run from my nasal passage down my throat. To be clear, the secretions part is normal, but they are usually thin enough that the average person just swallows them without noticing. My postnasal drip is constantly filling my throat with thick spit, which obstructs the passage and occasionally, when it is very bad, makes me feel like I am choking. I constantly have to clear my throat and spit, or deal with the feeling that I am choking. So, occasionally, when there are no other options, I have to spit outside in public, or have to use a napkin or other receptacle to clear my throat (and some people are less than understanding about this). Accompanying this is a constantly runny nose, most of it water. As a result, I carry a handkerchief everyday (the alternative being a large box of tissues), and blow my nose frequently. There is a corticosteroidal nasal spray that helps to alleviate the problem somewhat, although when my seasonal allergies are at their worst, it can have little effect. At night, I use a humidifier and an air purifier to help with allergy symptoms and prevent my mouth from drying out too badly, and I drink a lot of water.

Still, occasionally, my postnasal drip acts up and causes me to cough up a lot of spit, and since I had let my prescription for the nasal spray lapse of late (switching between Montreal and Fort McMurray has its challenges in terms of keeping prescriptions active), I thought that my coughing in the past few days was simply the aggravated drip. Today, I was running a fever, had the chills, and was coughing up phlegm that was decidely not mostly water, which brings us up to date.

My body, and I imagine the bodies of others, has grown accustomed to pain and to ignoring it, especially if new and exciting pain is drawing my attention. Still, pain is a constant presence in my life, especially in my back and legs. It affects what I am able to do, and it never completely fades from view.

Deictic language was useful in Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant because it continuously pulled the player’s attention back and involved them in their immediate surroundings. Coupled with the use of “you” to address the player, and the simple actions that the player was called upon to perform while being addressed as either Eamon or Ulrike, deictic language helped players become involved and identify with the stories of a type of person that we would rarely want to be seen as identifying with — a terrorist.

Thinking through how this might connect up with embodiment and pain or illness, there are a number of practices from psychology that operate by creating a focus and awareness of the subject’s body. Many forms of meditation, relaxation, and hypnosis ask participants to focus on their breathing, for example, and taking slow deep breaths. Similar methods exist for controlling pain, such as the Lamaze method for childbirth.

My Master’s thesis, which attempted to translate the technical aspects of scuba diving into a readable dimension of a collection of short stories, often dealt with breathing, as this is core to the experience of scuba diving. Awareness of one’s own breath can make the difference between a long or a short dive, but also the difference between life and death. I found that, by mentioning breathing in these stories and making readers aware of their own breathing, these sections often had a dramatic effect. Readers reported feeling unsettled, claustrophobic, and in some cases, close to panic. This makes me wonder about the use of bodily awareness in player instructions for creating experiences in the vein of Ulrike and Eamon Compliant.

In my personal life, I constantly have to read the needs of my body, and am also quite bad about ignoring symptoms that I shouldn’t, due to my experiences with chronic pain. If I could see into another person’s experience with their body, since humans experience embodiment every day, I wonder how similar our experiences would be. Scarry’s work suggests that we cannot know another’s pain, even in relation to our own, and that furthermore, even our own recent pain quickly becomes inaccessible to us. Now, I’m not suggesting that I want to create a series of malevolent instructions that would cause players pain, but I wonder how creating bodily awareness and thinking through rituals related to caring for our bodies might be used in embodied game experiences.

[1] From ThoughtCo: “A deictic expression (or deixis) is a word or phrase (such as this, that, these, those, now, then) that points to the time, place, or situation in which a speaker is speaking.”


Blast Theory Theatre Company. (2009). Ulrike & Eamon Compliant. [Performance] Venice,
Italy: Venice Biennale.

Calleja, G. (2011). In-game. 1st ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gibbons, A. (2014). Fictionality and Ontology. In Stockwell, P. and Whiteley, S., eds., The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.410-425.

Scarry, E. (1987). The body in pain. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

ThoughtCo. (2017). Deictic Expression (Deixis). Website.