Hack# 2: Critical Play

The inspiration

For this hack, we were challenged to transform play into something more than itself; something that goes beyond whimsy and binaries in order to engage the player in a more thought-provoking activity. As Flanagan said, subversion is “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, event, or object” (Flanagan 10). I immediately knew that the institution that I wanted to undermine using play was American politics.

The news, whether print, television, or online, often feels like a jarring mix between horror film and comedy show. Newsmakers and events seem to be getting more incredulous every day. Perhaps this is in part because of the divisive nature of politics these days, or perhaps it is because of new tools that can be used (such as social media or new surveillance techniques) that allow for previously unimaginable circumstances. We live under a President who often makes foreign policy simply by Tweeting it. We live in a time where people’s home assistants, like Alexa, are calling the cops on them. These changes, coupled with the 24-hour news cycle that requires constant fodder to consume, makes for some interesting (to say the least) headlines. It is this uncanniness that I wanted to subvert in my hack. I wanted to call attention to the gravity of the problems we face through irony – that is, show the magnitude by trying to make it funny.

My first idea was to make Mad Libs out of the most ridiculous politician’s Tweets and news stories I could find. Players would fill them out and read them aloud – and they would (hopefully) be hilarious and nonsensical. Then, they would read the original, undoctored version and realize that it too, seemed like it had to be imagined at random. However, that type of subversion (having to compare the play to reality) didn’t feel seamless enough. I thought that the act of having to compare would ruin the Magic Circle of play, bringing a player outside of the game in order to see what was critical about it.

Instead, I started thinking of other existing games that I could subvert by inserting ridiculous headlines. I immediately thought of Cards Against Humanity, but after realizing I didn’t have access to a deck, I settled on What Do You Meme. In this game, one player, the “judge” places a picture card in view of everyone else. The other players then submit word cards with captions that they thing make a good meme with that picture. The judge picks their favorite, and that submitter gets to keep the picture card until the end of the game when the person with the most picture cards wins. Like Cards Against Humanity, What Do You Meme is a game that is meant to be funny and raunchy. The punchlines aren’t family-friendly, and usually, the most outrageous submission wins (as long as it still resonates some sort of truth – no one likes a judge who picks random cards).

The subversion

To subvert this game, I wanted to infuse it with reality – specifically, our reality as citizens of the world living through the current political climate. What Do You Meme has many “expansion packs” that can be purchased to play the game with – they include newer memes and special interest cards (like “basic bitch” and “stoner“). I decided to make my own expansion pack, called “Political Party.” No longer would the captions be fictional, hypothetic, outlandish suggestions – I wanted to make them real life, but still have the same comedic effect. I scrolled through various news publications’ “weird news” sections and pulled headlines to turn into caption cards. I didn’t even realize that it was so common for major news outlets to have entire website sections dedicated to weird news.

NPR’s “Strange News” front page from 2/13

I also found a few iconic funny political images to be used as picture cards in the game. Obviously, I wasn’t able to create a full deck (the storebought version has over 400 cards), but the cards I made could be included into an existing deck to make the appearance of reality occasional and surprising.

The cards I created are different from the game’s actual cards in a few ways. Most obviously, the construction of the cards is different (and somewhat lacking), but the content differs as well. The headlines are actually more family-friendly than a lot of the original caption cards. Also, because they are headlines, they are meant to be attention-grabbing and indicative of the story they go with. Pairing the headlines with an image works well since so many online news outlets rely heavily on visual aids to interest readers and illustrate their points. The citations under the headlines and photos that I pulled also change the feel of the game by reiterating the fact that these are real headlines, not made-up captions from the game creators. The citations mediate the game by bringing reality to the forefront without breaking the Magic Circle; the rules of the game and the way it is played don’t change, but it feels different now. Admittedly, most of the headlines are fairly lighthearted (as far as headlines go). I wanted to have more politically charged topics included in the game, but I found it hard to search these out without injecting my own political bias into the game. What one party uses as a punchline might be another party’s rally cry; I think a more collaborative group or some kind of scraping program would be better equipped to compile more headlines.


To relate this to the idea from class about the Five Layers of a “Platform”, I have subverted the game on the level of reception and operation. While each level offers an opportunity for subversion, I believe that my hack changes the way a game makes a player feel the most; therefore changing what people do with the game. My hope is that when people play the game and a news headline becomes a punchline, they will have a jarring moment as they realize that their reality was just judged as funnier than the fictionalized options. This “rewriting” of the narrative surrounding reality generates critical play by calling into question our own complacency in the world.

One difficulty that I ran into was finding headlines and pictures. I expected there to be compilations online of ridiculous political headlines generated by others that share my frustration. However, I couldn’t really find these without singling out politicians, which I believe was too biased of me to do. Some ridiculous headlines, also, were ridiculous but wouldn’t work for the game; they were too specific to an issue, or just didn’t make good “meme” captions.

This hack made me really rethink about how some recreational activities let us turn blinders to the world’s problems. Perhaps this is a good thing to a certain extent, but I think that developing critical play scenarios will lead to a more aware and caring society.

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