Listen to this chapter here, or subscribe to the entire serialized audiobook.

This peer-reviewed article was simultaneously prepared as a keynote address for Re:Humanities 2014, a peer-reviewed undergraduate digital humanities conference held by the TriCollege Digital Humanities Initiative (Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore). The slides for the keynote are here.

We are accustomed to thinking about play as frivolous. We think of play as something that young children do; play is not serious, it doesn’t encourage deep, intellectual thought, it must be set aside as one grows older for quiet, reserved contemplation. Play is fun and pleasurable, the supposed opposite of rigorous education. Yet, Fred Rogers (better known as Mr. Rogers), is well known for his claim: “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” People who work in the arena of higher education have extended this sentiment to grown-up children: Sean Michael Morris, Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel argue that play constitutes a new form of critical inquiry; Cathy Davidson suggests, in Now You See It, that game mechanics should be used to reformulate some of the most critical learning goals in education; game designer and evangelist Jane McGonigal notes that “reality is broken” and that games are the solution to many of our problems — that if we played games as if our lives depended on them (especially collaborative games), we would learn that challenges never stop, and that it is worth risking absolute failure for an epic win. Accordingly, increasing numbers of educators are tuning into the idea of play as something serious and rigorous. A Serious Play Conference is held annually by key game developers as well as educators; while Michigan State University offers a Masters of Arts in “Serious Games.”

Play is not only not frivolous, but capable of producing serious intellectual work and an activity that possesses deep political power. Contrary to our commonplace understandings of play, I argue that a thoughtful analysis of the political power of play is potentially one of the most fruitful areas for those of us who are interested in furthering Paulo Freire’s “critical pedagogy” — a type of pedagogy that involves teaching both the oppressed and the oppressor of the structural mechanics that create these oppressions.

a comic about postcolonial digital humanities

Why and how is play political? Let me illustrate with several examples. In Edward Said’s introduction to Joe Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine, an account of Sacco’s experience of the daily struggles, humiliations, and frustrations of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, Said argues that “most adults […] tend to connect comics with what is frivolous or ephemeral, and there is an assumption that as one grows up, they are put aside for more serious pursuits.” He goes on to describe his first experience reading comic books — which were instantly banned by parents and school authorities — as one which made him feel at once “liberated and subversive.” For the child Said, comics are a playful, seductive and dangerous agent:

Everything about the enticing book of colored pictures, but specially its untidy, sprawling format, the colorful, riotous extravagance of its pictures, the unrestrained passage between what the characters thought and said, the exotic creatures and adventures reported and depicted: all this made up for a hugely wonderful thrill, entirely unlike anything I had hitherto known or experienced.

Comics blur boundaries in their graphic, colorful excess, represented by the abundance of images and risqué flows in depictions of conversations.

Said goes on to reflect on the reasons behind the almost authoritarian ban on comics by his parents and by school authorities. He notes that the ostensible reason for the ban was that comics “interfered with one’s schoolwork.” But for Said, the logic behind the ban was deeper and more psychologically subversive — comics in form and content provided the ability to imagine, create, and live alternative realities: imagining the alternative being the most political of acts. The liberationary aspect of comics lay in their ability to express the unexpressed, to give form to the formless:

In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding — far more, say, than film cartoon or funnies, neither of which mattered much to me — seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and reshaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently.

In these words, Said gets to the core of how the play expressed within comics is so subversive; within their playfulness, their excess, they create a space for a world to be imagined differently — the key towards creating a space for this difference which can be one day translated into reality.

This idea — of play being at once both serious, and political — is by no means unique to Said. In “The Location of Brazil,” Salman Rushdie declares: “Play. Invent the World.”  It is through play that the world is constructed and deconstructed — only to allow us the ability to imagine alternative forms of construction. Rushdie’s essay is a deconstruction of the 1985 film Brazil by Terry Gilliam, which depicts an Orwellian world controlled by meaningless bureaucracy and machines. The point of Rushdie’s essay hinges on the question: What is the location of the Brazil that the film alludes to? There is no sign of the South American country in the film’s grim dystopia outside of the film’s haunting refrain: “Brazil… where hearts were entertained in June… We stood beneath an amber moon… And softly whispered, someday soon…”

The location of the Brazil in the film Brazil is key because it represents imagination, the creative impulse and play; all three of which are deeply political as they allow the dreaming of alternate possibilities and realities. Recalling Joseph Conrad’s injunction that the goal of the writer is to ultimately make one see differently outside of the usual idées reçues, Rushdie argues that “the true location of Brazil is the other great tradition in art, the one in which techniques of comedy, metaphor, heightened imagery, fantasy and so on are used to break down our conventional, habit-dulled certainties about what the world is and has to be.” In other words, just like the subversive power of play in the comic books that Said discovered, through breaking down our “conventional, habit-dulled certainties,” play reimagines the world. To reimagine the world is to create the potential to change it.

Play is, in brief, serious business. To play is to imagine; to imagine is political because it allows us to envision a different order, a different system, a different way to separate economic resources and power. In this light, games are potentially extremely powerful because they go further in terms of forms of identification. Games function on a type of rhetorical power that differs from narrative, text, and image. Ian Bogost has termed this “procedural rhetoric”: “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images or moving pictures.” In his analysis, Bogost claims that the power of games for education does not stem from the content of games, but through “the very way videogames mount claims through procedural rhetorics.” To put it simply: games depend on a set of rules which then determine possible movements and outcomes. These movements and outcomes are procedural; and the act of performing these procedures has a rhetorical effect. To play a game, in this sense, involves being interpellated in an Althusserian sense into a type of subject position; the act of playing a game implicitly asks a player to accept a set of rules, and rhetorics which structure the world of the game, and movement through it.

Civilization: Colonization and The War on Terror

Games thus offer an entirely different dimension to Frantz Fanon’s declaration that “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” The languages of games are encoded in their rules, their dynamics; for Bogost and some others, these rules for games are further encapsulated by computational dynamics when it comes to video games. When you play a game, you not only take on the world and the culture it is based upon, you function by accepting the rules and possibilities open to you by the game. In this regard, seemingly politically neutral games are hardly such. The popular video game Civilization: Colonization by Sid Meier is an excellent example of this. The game, a riff of Sid Meier’s original game Civilization, was first released in 1994 and updated in 2008. Civilization: Colonization puts players in the place of an European power and turns them loose on the Americas with a goal of colonizing the entire territory.

Trying to unpack some of the racial rhetorics of actually playing the game, Trevor Owens and Rebecca Mir modded the game to see what would happen if they tried to make indigenous characters playable. What they found out: the code that created the indigenous characters was written so differently from the European characters that they were basically useless and devoid of agency. Specifically, Owens and Mir note that “Natives were created by consciously turning off individual characteristics of standard peoples in Civilization IV. That is to say, Native peoples are not a different kind of entity in the game; they are quite literally another kind of people.” In Owens and Mir’s analysis, it thus appears that indigenous characters are rendered as disabled, agency-less characters, such that the “scripts speak them into existence at the level of code as a defunct, stripped and inhibited version of their oppressors.”

To play Civilization: Colonization, thus, is in terms of content to accept that the default human subject position is that of a European colonizer. Using the idea of procedural rhetoric, one can only play the game effectively if one plays as a colonizer. However, this level of analysis only covers the content portion of the game. When stripped down to the level of code, the procedural, computational rhetoric that determines the game shows that there is no way to “play” the Native characters in a way that would even allow them to interact on the same level as the European characters; they have been deformed as objects as recreated within the ontology and epistemology of the game world.

Playing Civilization: Colonization unthinkingly would thus be to assume the world, the culture of the colonizer as the default world. Understanding the function of this rhetoric of play is important — both in terms of appreciating the impact of the game, both at the level of content and code, as well as designing alternatives to it. Because games can be created not simply to reinforce colonial ideologies but also to subvert it. For example, War on Terror, the Boardgame, produced by TerrorBull Games in 2006, is a satire on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, inspired by the board game Risk. Through game mechanics, the game uses irony to show the effects of imperialism and geopolitics. Each player begins with a tiny presence on the world map as a budding empire, intent on “liberating” countries and continents, through controlling oil production and building cities. An empire manages to control a region when it has a development there (village, town, or city), and it can only build developments in a neighboring region if it is unoccupied. A player can interfere with others’ attempts to build empire by either 1) fighting wars against them, or 2) funding terrorist units to attack their opponents. The game is card driven, where each card will allow you a variety of actions; and more cards (and actions) can be purchased through buying oil, which is randomly spread out on the map and differs each time the game is played. Importantly, once players are out of the game, they become “terrorists” — and can still influence the result and even win the game.

Much of the mechanics of the game also center around secret diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiations between different empires — the game includes a “secret message pad” to facilitate this. The game also includes an “Axis of Evil” — a spinner at the center of the board that determines which of the players is “evil” and has to wear the “Evil balaclava”. All empires have a financial incentive to fight a war against the player that has randomly become designated as the “evil empire.”

Through its game mechanics, then, War on Terror: The Boardgame deftly encourages its players to understand some of the hypocrisy and complex mechanisms behind the US invasion of Iraq; that much of the rhetoric behind “liberation” through occupation is motivated by the financial incentives of controlling oil resources; that empire propaganda of “liberation” is often accompanied by covert funding of terrorism by empires themselves against their enemies; that the notion of an “evil empire” is a completely random one, but one which has deep political and financial consequences as other empires develop a financial incentive to invade the random player who has been designated as “evil.” The game mechanics also teach the players that it is the dispossessed that are inclined to become terrorists, as they have nothing to lose — all players who have been dispossessed by other empires become terrorists in the end.

Games and play thus offer some of the most interesting and underutilized ways of creating political thought and action. Through their mechanics and rhetorics, they create worlds which ask players to internalize political ideologies on the levels of content, mechanic, design, code; by the ways actions in games are supported and delimited by their creators.

Trading Races and the Political Power of Play

Because of the tremendous power of games and play, I spent the previous academic year (2012-2013) writing a role-playing game called Trading Races, which was supported by Stockton College and the Humanities Writ Large grant at Duke University.  I wrote this game because I teach so many classes on gender, race and ethnicity; on types of oppression which dominant groups find difficulty identifying with. I’ve been intrigued by the political power that I have seen embedded in games, in how they allow for different levels of identification and engagement, and wondered if I would be able to apply that to my classroom through playing a game.

Trading Races is set in 2003, right before the landmark decisions on affirmative action took place at the University of Michigan. Players in the game take on a combination of complex characters which range from real to imaginary, such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Clarence Thomas and bell hooks, to members of a multi-ethnic, multi-national Michigan Student Assembly. Players are divided into three factions: color-blind (against affirmative action); color-conscious (for affirmative action); and indeterminate. Each character has a set of individual goals which remain secret from the rest of the other players, which consist of meeting their own individual objectives as well as faction objectives. There are players of the same ethnicity representing different parts of the political spectrum; for example, there are pro-affirmative action Asian American characters, anti-affirmative action Asian American characters, and undecided ones. The game takes about nine to ten class sessions, or about three to four weeks. There are three stages in the game — the pre-game period, where the instructor discusses the course material with the students, actual gameplay, where students debate in character, and the post-game analysis, where instructor and students reflect on the metadynamics behind the game and how it might have diverged from actual history.

Players win the game through effective rhetorical persuasion. The goal of the game is to convince others to agree with your character’s position. For this reason, a person who plays this game well has to effectively demonstrate that she understands his or her character’s ideological position so well that she or he can convince other players to side with her, whether she agrees with her given character’s position personally or not. For this reason, this game is really about “trading ideological positions” rather than trading “races” per se. I derived my inspiration for this game from a series of educational role playing games first developed out of Barnard College ten years ago titled Reacting to the Past, all of which focus on games which take place at critical historical moments, such as the Partition of India, the French Revolution, the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. These games are called Reacting to the past, not Re-enacting the past, because in many cases, history unfolds differently in different iterations of the game when played; some important things that happened historically might not happen in these games, all of which are teaching mechanisms for the contingencies within social movements and histories.

Thus far I’ve been extremely impressed by the results of my game. Trading Races has been played several times — with two groups of undergraduates at Duke by my colleague Eileen Chow; at an upper-level history seminar with Sharon Musher, and by myself in Fall 2013 at Stockton College. When I taught the game as a class in the Fall, I spent the first half of the semester discussing the core readings with my students before gameplay actually began. My students blogged and produced an imaginary Michigan student newspaper during the game. I was impressed by how much their writing and speaking improved while roleplaying—it was markedly so much better than what I saw in the classroom when they were not in character. At the end of each of the playtests, various students from different classes have reported that while they have not fundamentally changed their ways of thinking, they have had to consider the nuances of the opposing side a lot more carefully than they initially did, which to me, speaks of pedagogical success.

I say again: play is serious business. Play and games are immensely powerful in their ability to shape and create worlds through the building of platforms, rules and mechanics. This power is also political. Play and games have tremendous rhetorical power that can be harnessed for a plethora of unexplored social, political and pedagogical purposes. We need to deeply reconsider the role of play in how we educate ourselves and each other, because play is not merely the work of childhood as Mr. Rogers claims, but serious work that involves us all.