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!