The act of play is something that most of us take for granted, an aspect of our lives and personalities that unfortunately tends to get side-tracked as we transition from youth into adulthood and life is dictated by work and responsibilities. In the words of George Bernard Shaw “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” This notion of play and the impact it can have on our lives is something that Mary Flanagan, Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College have spent her professional career researching and examining both as a scholar and designer. I was fortunate enough to share a talk with Mary about creativity, game design, and how these two elements combine.
The following interview was conducted over email by Fredrik Schulz.
Mary thank you so much for taking the time out of what I can only assume is a terribly busy schedule to join me at the game table, especially given the circumstances surrounding the pandemic and how it impacts our day to day lives. To those who are unfamiliar, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
I’m an artist, writer and game designer. In my art studio, I tend to make work that is influenced by digital culture and/or digital processes. I write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and I design games – board games, sports, digital games, sidewalk games, art games. To me these are fluid practices that each express what I’m thinking about in unique ways. All three of these things tend to be happening simultaneously, so I balance my time between such modes. One day I can be at a board game convention, then the next, showing work a museum in Barcelona. From the artist’s perspective, I ask questions and follow a research driven practice.
The works I show in galleries, or the poetry I write, aren’t always “user friendly.” They don’t have to make complete sense or be sellable or any of the other criteria used to judge “products.” They are the very raw responses to the kinds of problems posed. For example, I’m making a feminist artificial intelligence in order to critique how male and authoritarian contemporary AI production is, and how AIs are trained mostly on the writing of male artists in computer vision, and male writers in systems like Reddit.
This type of critical logic is also true in my artists’ games, like my long series of hopscotches I’m making into a book, to perform the hopscotches in public places. They are ruminations, provocations, putting hopscotch players into difficult circumstances. For a mass audience, for entertainment, these criteria change a little. I still build up the logic for a play world, but I do so with the understanding of scale and approachability, of sense making, of resolution. Not that I believe in resolution, but it can feel nice in a fictional world.
Oh, you might notice I like ghosts. Ghost Sentence (2017) is the name of my book of poetry. I was asked all about ghosts in Fields Magazine now there’s a party game, Ghost Writer, that you can play with the world beyond.
In addition to being a prominent game designer you are also a Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College, a published writer, and an artist all of which are remarkable achievements. What motivates and inspires you in life?
I have curiosity about a great many things, and it gets me into trouble! But truly, this kind of interdisciplinary work is not that unusual. Artists like Leonora Carrington wrote fiction and poetry in addition to being well known as a painter and sculptor. Käthe Kollwitz was an activist and school director as well as an artist. Anne Carson is a classicist poet and book artist. I think the lack of contemporary interdisciplinary practices across the arts broadly speaking is in part linked to the obnoxious focus on personal “branding.” Wassily Kandinsky was interested in music and also wrote personal and theoretical works; if he were working these days, he’d be pressured to pick one identity and “make a brand.” I refuse that. Many artists in history also did design work, taught, wrote fiction and nonfiction, pursued commercial photography, did performances, etc. Unfortunately, fewer women than men have been publicly celebrated for working in a multidisciplinary manner.
As someone who started their career designing video games, I am curious to hear what motivated you to make the transition to also design board games?
Even when I made video games, we used paper prototyping processes, which in some ways is close to making a board game. I teach with paper prototyping across game genres, Game Design Curricular Deathmatch being one example. A decade ago, a public health group came to our lab wanting to do something about the large numbers of people refusing to be vaccinated or to vaccinate their children. Making a game that could delve into the science of ‘herd immunity’ at the time seemed like a great way to get people to understand the fast way viruses spread, so we created a board game for doctor’s offices, family planning places, and schools. What was great is that we researched the efficacy of the game – did playing really give players the space to think about such a charged issue, and even change their minds? We worked with a PhD student at NYU and then managed to hire a researcher, a social psychologist, to run randomized controlled studies. We found that yes, playing the game helped people change their minds and value vaccination more; a board game was most approachable and accessible given the context in which it would be encountered. (I wish we could have had a similar game in distribution at the start of COVID about mask wearing!)
This is when we realized we could make games that fit into people’s lives in different places, not always through the computer or phone. Games could take place at conferences, in a field, in an app, on the tablet, on the table. Our game design ideas spread across media and delivery platforms and we had a lot of fun devising ways to study their efficacy. That happens to be also because I have an amazing team of people I work with. Max Seidman and I have been working together over a decade, and Sukie Punjasthikul nearly that long. We still design digital games in our research projects, but the company, Resonym, just publishes board games and any apps related to them. Max and I often debate about ease of use/approachability vs complexity/obtuseness. It is a constant conversation that keeps us trying new things as a company.
In preparation for this interview, I watched the talk you gave during the 2018 WEF Annual Meeting in Davos on the theory of embedded design and how video game applications can be implemented to inspire engagement and new thought-patterns in players. As someone who designs both digital and analogue games, do you think that board games can be used in the same way as an instrument to evoke self-reflection in those who interact with the game?
I see all games as their own kind of artform, separate from the other ancient arts practices (sound arts, visual arts, dance/embodied arts, storytelling arts). Games, broadly writ, constitute an additional form that manifests across different materialities and contexts. So yes, they can evoke self-reflection. We’ve seen it in over a decade of research at Tiltfactor, my research laboratory. In fact, our research points to the fact that board games may be better media forms than digital forms for self-reflection, as well as for richer dialogue with other people. I’d encourage people to read up on our research articles, which can be found via Tiltfactor’s research tab!
Video games have rapidly evolved as a narrative medium, capable of engaging players on an emotional level far beyond the scope of simple entertainment in a way that I personally feel board games have yet to achieve. What are your thoughts regarding this topic, is it an unfair comparison or can analogue games evolve to this level of storytelling?
I’m not sure games need to evolve into a narrative medium. They are in and of themselves their own artform. For comparison, I don’t think most people watching sports think, “wow, football needs to evolve as a narrative medium!!” Games are art forms of action, decision, constraint, choice. Games can grow, change, and morph in many directions; narrative is only one branch of possibility. Other directions can include sonic directions, embodied directions, performative and critical directions.
Your publishing imprint Resonym was founded in 2012, what pushed you to pursue a path as a publisher of tabletop games?
Well, I was creating several research-backed board games in my laboratory, Tiltfactor, and I thought they were good enough to publish. I started pitching them to publishers, and faced a lot of push-back: I’m a woman, I’m an academic, I’m interested in social activism and I run a research laboratory. Once they looked me up, the publishers went silent. In 2015, in an effort to mentor me, one publisher suggested I utilize a German man’s name as a pseudonym, and remove references to “sisters” in the game Monarch, and replace a family of women with you know, a “regular family” – I believe that’s how they put it. I was advised to focus on the European castles and dragons instead of the various global architectures, outfits, and traditions incorporated into the game art of the speculative universe. Conversations like these sparked a rebellious spirit on my part, even though attitudes like that are not new. Remember, I worked in the early days of the digital games industry. But it’s quite surprising that paper-based games, games one plays with friends and family, could be such a male-dominated industry. These experiences made me determined to get the games out to players as I believed they should be. So, Voila! Resonym.
For the past couple of years, we have seen more and more board games that feature a digital companion app like for example Mansions of Madness Second Edition from publisher Fantasy Flight Games, bridging the gap between analogue and digital. As a designer experienced in both fields do you think this is a trend that will continue to grow to the point that these two distinct formats merge into a singularity?
I think of these computational and physical hybrids as the starting point for new forms of expression. Artists have used such mergers for some time. What does a hybrid analogue and digital experience offer to the player/user/fan? We developed an AR app for the Resonym game Mechanica to teach players how the pieces work, in addition to the printed rules. For us, right now we’re not making exclusively digital-paper hybrid games due to questions of access and inter-generational play, but this may change with time and demand.
Even though interest for solo playable board game designs has soared the past year I do wish that this paradigm shift had happened under happier circumstances. Going forward into a post-covid world do you think that this solitaire trend will continue in the design community or are we going to see a veritable explosion of games centred around social, face-to-face interaction?
There is always a portion of our players who identify as solo players, so we keep them in mind. Mechanica has a solo play mode, for example. The puzzle’s we are posting on our current Kickstarter are one player, but the current game is a party game. Some games fit this model better than others. I do think some people are waiting to literally bump elbows at the gaming table! There’s a thirst for interaction, and for some of the population, games provide a wonderfully structured experience within which to interact. Board games give us something to talk about, some reason to get together, something to focus on all while we face each other, not a big screen. Additionally, many people are just tired of a full time life on the screen. I think board gaming will have a fantastic year coming out of the pandemic!
As a way to cap off this interview, tell us what people should keep an eye out for in the near future from yourself and Resonym?
We’ve got an exciting new party game, Ghost Writer, in a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign right now, and Surrealist Dinner Party is just out! There is a lot going on…. Order Surrealist Dinner Party from your local game store soon (it’s just hitting the databases, so be patient!) and check out our new game!
I want to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Mary Flanagan for participating in this interview. You can find more information about her inspiring work as an artist, designer, and researcher on her personal web site including links to both Resonym and Tiltfactor.