Subversive Play

Having spent some time thinking about the ideas that are presented in Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, I think the books might be better titled as “Subversive Play”. Instead of the ties to other frameworks that use the terms “critical” and “play”, most of the book is spent, in my opinion, on the ways that forms of play can stretch the rules and content of a medium and most often in games. Critical Play is not linked to the thoughts about critiquing how to play or what ways people might play but is filled with examples of subversive play, play that is spent in the borderlands between the normative systems and the edges that a system will allow before breaking.

Subversive play seeks to say something through the play-session, to explore ideas and concepts that might not be part of the social norms. It is made manifest in sessions where roles are deconstructed and additional ideas are passed into the system to explore social issues, regardless if the system allows for such exploration. The demonstration of a session of subversive play can be categorized by five different patterns of behavior, all of which sit within the previously determined model of Reskinning, Unplaying and Rewriting used by Mary Flangan to analyse behavior patterns in Victorian doll culture and players of The Sims.

Designed to be disturbing

The play-session is planned in such a way as to produce a reaction in either the player herself or an additional party. The play is arranged, organized or otherwise developed for the intention of getting an emotional reaction from those that might come upon the designed work. It is made to prompt the user to consider an issue, thought or concept in a new and creative way. It is willful and purposeful made experience that is developed to force the user to discover material that is disturbing in nature, that differs from the social norms.


The act of play should be a method to subvert the normal rules within the system. In order to be a subversive action, the play session must be against the system but within the rules of play. In order that the action be considered to be a successful subversive experience, the world of the play, the limits of the game world, must be pushed but not broken. The goal is to explore the boundaries and not to smash the world as it is presented to the player. The objective is to explore new avenues of expression and “to play” within the rules of the world. The “magic circle” must not be broken in the process.

Exploring boundaries

In the pursuit of the subversive nature of the experience, the goal should be to find the edges of all possibilities. Finding the ending of all options and the point at which the systems may fail are needed. However, the world must not break. Looking at all potential arrangements and points of relationships are needed in order to map the boundaries of the game world. All physical spaces must be discovered. The point of all missions should be the possibilities of spaces, physical emotional or otherwise.

Increasing the anxiety of control

There exists a tension between what the game will allow and that which is the default play style. The more that this tension is pushed, the more the player feels anxiety that the control of the game could slip away from her. In this aspect, the more this anxiety is pushed, the more likely that subversive play is happening. In other words, the more the rules fight to keep the game grounded in standard play styles, the more they should be pushed. As the anxiety of control, the illusion of control, is confronted the player may be at the breaking point of the game mechanics and the default content arrangement and thus subversive play can begin.

Takes on cultural patterns

As the boundaries are explored, the player is able to tap into making the game accommodate cultural patterns that are, in reality, against the standard norm. For example, players wishing to explore issues of gender can play as a female or male character and try out the various plot pathways, each time picking the opportunities that the game can allow but that are against standard, default, play ideals. This exploration of gender can also become manifest in the romantic or even erotic choices that the player can discover. While playing a s different gender, the player can safety look into the roles that society, reality, reflect upon the game world. Race too can be explored through the means of the game as a reflection of the self that the player wishes to explore. These safe boundaries, the game world, allow the player to break against their own cultural and social norms and experience the world of the game, as a fantasy of reality, in a clear but different way, taking on different role playing actions.

Each of these five behaviors are bound up in the idea that the world of the game, the “magic circle”, can allow players to push at the edges of the world, that the boundaries, once they are explored, become fertile ground for the exploration of the player’s self as they are manifested into the game as the character. This freedom, coming from the action of reskinning, taking on a new role, allows the player to experience the act of unplaying, the subversive play, that leads to the player to changing the narrative of the game world as it exists for them, rewriting. Each of the three pillars of Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play model come not from thinking about the world of each game in a critical manner, but more as a subversive one. Each time the player replaces the default and the known for the thrill of the unknown, the player is acting in a subversive action, is changing the system around them. This type of action, the subversive play, is paramount to the future of the medium. As more edges are explored, more boundaries met and exceeded, the ability of games as a greater whole grows more and more.