Playing games and finding our humanity

Games are artificial situations in which players willingly attempt to overcome contrived obstacles.  They can be fun, a type of escape, because they are not exactly real.  Like great art, however, they reveal the deepest impulses of humanity.

“Games have existed from a time before the pyramids,” says Mary Flanagan, a game designer and professor of digital humanities at Dartmouth College.  “They are older than written language.  They clearly are a link to what is an ancient and essential aspect of being human.”

As a theorist and scholar, Flanagan explores the way we represent ourselves in playculture and digital spaces.  She is an activist designer who has founded Tiltfactor, a gaming research laboratory at Dartmouth focusing on designs that foster a “joyful commitment to human values.”  She is also an internationally-exhibiting artist and writer whose creative practice further investigates human relationships with systems.

“Games are dynamic systems, and systems have always been a part of life,” Flanagan says.  “Knowing about the systems of the weather during agricultural times or the health of animals and their environment has been key to human sustenance.” 

She notes, however, that we don’t always perceive the long-range impact of systems because their effects take place over extended periods of time.  But now we are experiencing a heightened awareness of them because they are becoming more expansive.  “The consequences” of our systems, she says, “are global and the turnaround for the consequences is becoming shorter.”

Playing games is one way to mediate our relationship with systems and to understand cause and effect.  Play can therefore be a way of thinking critically, Flanagan says.  Play takes us outside the rules of our everyday lives and gives us a chance to interact with and experience alternate realities with novel types of constraints.

Game theorists suggest that games can express our inner psychological lives or serve as social reactions to the main drive of a culture.  Perhaps they fill an emptiness, satisfy a desire or release stress to make life bearable.

While it might be possible to psychoanalyze a culture through a study of its games, Flanagan does not presume to make such heavy-handed interpretations through her work.  She observes the values and skills expressed in play in order to understand how games work.  And she is using that knowledge to bring gaming into a new era.

“I believe that we haven’t yet explored the richness of play and the medium of games to its fullest potential,” she says.  “Collaborative and cooperative gameplay can be a great deal of fun, for example, yet most people think that for a game to be fun it has to be competitive and there has to be only one winner.  I don’t want to approach play with those types of assumptions.”

Flanagan purposefully designs games that give players a chance to express positive, almost utopian, values that are desperately needed in the world today.

“At a basic level, producing only what you have seen before isn’t very creative,” she says.  “I don’t think all games and play need heroes and enemies, points and gold stars. That’s too simplistic.  I am constantly working to invent game models that are good at tackling human issues.”

In Flanagan’s theory of game design, we can practice kindness, generosity, empathy, sharing and other benevolent actions as we play.  We can draw on altruistic inclinations as we respond creatively to a manufactured obstacle.   “I want to use the power of games for imaginative play to help people realize new things that benefit society,” she says.

Which way the game will go depends on the sensibilities of the person designing it. “All games involve a game designer’s values, whether they intend them or not,” Flanagan says.  Clearly, game designers have a choice.  They can create play that safely contains a release of the negative sensibilities that we suppress in everyday life.  Or they can invent spaces that allow for the flourishing of the better things we could be.

In Flanagan’s most recent research, she has developed new games that actually lower discrimination and triple pro-social attitudes about women in science. She has discovered playful techniques that have shown in experimental research to influence people to be less biased towards others.

In her theory and practice, Flanagan studies games as a way of understanding how our values are embedded in the technologies and systems we build.  Games tell us something about ourselves.

“They involve fate and chance as well as fundamental human values such as fairness and equity,” she says.  “Games and play are a deep part of being alive.”