Interview: Mary Flanagan

Mary Flanagan is a designer, artist and scholar focused on how people create and use technology. Her work investigates how human values are embedded and reflected across technologies, and she has written extensively on value-centric responsible design. This work – framed as  Values at Play™ – also specifically investigates how “designers can be more intentional about the ways in which they integrate human values into their game-based systems.” She founded the Tiltfactor game research laboratory in 2003, where researchers study and make social games, urban games, and software in a rigorous theory/practice environment. Of most interest to this discussion are Tiltfactor’s series of outdoor Massively Multiplayer Urban Games. The interview below was conducted via email on June 11, 2011.

Could you give us a brief history of these games as well as a description of basic gameplay? How have the play experiences generally turned out, and what key observations did you make about how players engaged with each other, the rule-set, the city, and community members?

The Massively Multiplayer Urban games were live action games specifically designed to celebrate the values of community and diversity in a compelling game. Too often, urban games appropriate the city and its inhabitants for the entertainment of the players and game designers. Our goal was to break down the wall between game players and those in the community in which they might play, so that we could foster real sharing and communication between people.

The only way to do this is to design games differently. Such games need different reward structures and goals in order to motivate players not to merely appropriate the city and its inhabitants as props, but rather foster meaningful exchanges.

In your book Critical Play, you discuss at length issues surrounding the theory and practice of locative games. For instance, you note: “What is play in one location, in one language, in one public space, may or may not be recognized as play in an entirely different context. With only a few exceptions, one can conclude that the phenomenon of play is local: that is, while the phenomenon of play is universal, the experience of play is intrinsically tied to location and culture.” Do you think that mobile and location-aware gaming poses new or unique redefinitions of activism?

It is obvious to me that games wishing to incorporate civic action need to be tied to local concerns and local ways of meaning making. This does not mean, however, that only local issues need be addressed in a game. Rather, it means that the games have to understand how players would engage in different neighborhoods, within different cities, and in different languages. Such mobile games also need to protect players’ rights and the rights of those in the city.

What is your perspective on gamification? Proponents may argue that gamification involves the everyday and the urban in new, unexpected and empowering ways. Do you think there is potential for effective civic action? Do you think there are constraints or even dangers inherent in this trend moving forward?

Games as motivational structures do work to alter human behaviour on some levels. With this comes responsibility. If games end up being frameworks for social behaviour, they have the power to motivate people to lose weight, or vote, or help each other. But games could also become an ideological tool for social control and forced labor. It is essential that developers know this power and use it responsibly.