Critical Gameplay: Black Like Me


Session Title:

  • Games: Aesthetics and Criticism

Presentation Title:

  • Critical Gameplay: Black Like Me




  • Abstract
    This paper describes the theory and implementation of a 2-tiered procedural rhetoric game. The game, Black Like Me, employs critical design to encourage players toward situational analysis instead of mere attribute matching. Players are presented with a color matching game at the surface, but the game is designed to reward players for holistically evaluating a scene and subverting the explicitly suggested game rules. The game is designed to train players toward perceiving ambiguity and employing alternative play strategies.

    The Critical Gameplay project is a 4 year ongoing project to create and embed critical design games. The games have been exhibited at a variety of academic showcases, creative exhibits and related events in Europe, North and South America. It is an effort to raise awareness around game design assumptions that permeate traditional play[1]. Since 2009 the games have been displayed at 25 venues.

    Game designers are often reluctant to embrace alternative play within the systems they create. In reality some of the most successful play experiences are about designers merely providing a set of toys through which players can explore concepts. This is true of megahits like Minecraft and World of Warcraft to construction set franchises like Civilization, The Sims and Tycoon games. However, the fundamental distinction is that many of these games seek to impose specific ideologies about the way systems operate. The Sims for example, can be understood as a model of capitalist ideology [2]. This practice in games is as old as Monopoly itself, a game designed to impart Georgist economics [3]. The history of such games is largely tied to the implementation of political ideologies or game theory.

    On the other end of the spectrum are contemporary, self-identified social impact games. These games attempt to provide overt messages that are similar in character to first generation educational films. The games are often literal and their messages direct. Such games frequently ostracize their experience, leaving it at the fringes of player preferred play and interest. The games may ultimately become popular among the niche that produces and champions it. This is appropriate for developing a community around the practice, but it fails to impact those who do not know about such play or the concepts it seeks to promote.

    The goal of the third generation of Critical Gameplay practice is to bridge this dichotomy in what is commonly described as procedural rhetoric [4]. Instead of providing overt messaging on the game’s agenda, it seeks to offer fundamentally basic and inviting gameplay based on new concepts in play. The gameplay continues to embed a message through mechanic, but the mechanic is subtle. The goal is to create games that can be popular of their own right. Yet, instead of revealing themselves as social impact, players do what they naturally do – look for the fastest way to win the game. The game’s message is embedded not in the explicit rules of play, but in the resulting methodological framework players derive to win. The lesson is not in the winning or playing as instructed, but in the player’s experience in discovering a better way to win.

    The question the modern, digital designer must ask is how contemporary computer games utilize their larger player base to encourage players to think differently about the systems they assume on a daily basis. How can a game make people more aware of their own innate stereotypes? How can designer’s help people practice becoming more open minded, or perhaps even adopt an entirely new mindset?