Mary Flanagan is an artist, author, educator, and designer. She is the inaugural chair holder of the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professorship in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and the director of the Tiltfactor Lab, an innovative game research laboratory. She graduated with a BA from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, earned MFA and MA degrees from the University of Iowa, and achieved her doctorate from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, UK. She studied film for her undergraduate and masters work while her PhD was in Computational Media focusing on game design. Her art has been exhibited around the world and she was featured in the video game art documentary 8 BIT. Within the field of culture and technology, she is known for her theory of playculture. Prior to coming to Dartmouth Flanagan had been on the faculty of Hunter College. She serves on the faculty of the Salzburg Global Seminar & the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy Academic Consortium on Games for Impact.
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Let’s Talk Game Design and Game Research
I have worked with big names and small houses as a consultant designer and won design awards way back in the 1990s for Discovery Channel games. I’ve made games and game related artworks that show up in galleries, on store shelves, and in the App store. I’ve spoken at events such as The Game Developer’s Conference, IndieCade, TEDx, the Salzburg Global Seminar, NextLevel Conference, DIGITEL, Vienna Games Conference, Women in Games, and at the Museum of Modern Art. She has given invited talks at MIT, the GDC, Microsoft Research, USC, NYU, Georgia Tech, University of Toronto, Games for Change, SIGGRAPH, University of Tampere, Cornell, the Smithsonian, etc. Ask me about working the game design industry!
As a scholar interested in how human values are in play across technologies and systems, I’ve written more than 20 critical essays and chapters on games, empathy, gender and digital representation, art and technology, and responsible design. My 2009 book Critical Play explores the intersection of art and games, and "should be required reading for anyone who cares about the cultural importance and future potential of games.” My most recent book, Values at Play in Digital Games with philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, has been called “an essential read for designers who believe in the power of games to change minds.” My innovative scholarship was showcased in 2014 The Atlantic article, “Not Your Father’s STEM Job.” My lab is regularly featured in game blogs such as Kotaku and Polygon. I am widely known as a pundit of matters related to digital culture, publishing popular scholarship in venues such as USA Today, The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, Inside Higher Education, The Daily Beast, and more. Ask me about academia and its relationship to mainstream media!
I’ve been called "A real-life video game heroine" by Salon.com. I’m also a professor at Dartmouth College, where I teach courses including a game design course, and course on digital culture. Ask me about teaching game design!
I founded the Tiltfactor game research laboratory in 2003 and lead a team of really nifty folks in the research and creation of computer games, board games, card games, and performative games. Tiltfactor specializes in influential play— how play and games can get us into positive mental states, more tolerant frames of mind, and be generally less influenced by common psychological biases. Does Cards Against Humanity make you a better person? My team has studied that! Do players play iPad games differently than tabletop games? We’ve studied that too. Many of the games at Tiltfactor seek to change players’ attitudes and behaviors subconsciously (and we’ve been accused of brainwashing before). Ask me about designing and studying games that affect players’ psychology!
My newest game, MONARCH, is currently up on Kickstarter. MONARCH is a board game in which the players play in the role of siblings— the the daughters of a dying Queen. The crown will go to whichever sister proves herself most worthy. MONARCH features scratchboard art by illustrator Kate Adams, and is a gateway strategy board game along the lines of Settlers of Catan or 7 Wonders, built to bring new players into board gaming. Ask me about designing tabletop games, the mechanics of MONARCH, and making challenging games for novice gamers.
What does it take to land a career in the games industry on the creative side, not the technical side? i.e. Producers, designers, writers, etc.
What do studios look for?
Dear Tragic, Folks I know look for examples of great work. So design your own games, or manage other projects, or create Twine interactive fictions with your own ideas that are really compelling and complex. A great portfolio/set of exemplars that stand out will open a lot of doors.
What do you think of contemporary video game criticism, particularly Anita Sarkeesian? Have you seen a change for the worse, or better, as a woman who works in game design? And what do you think could change (in higher ed, in particular) to make gaming a more inviting place for women?
These are great questions, self_titled! While the A.S. debacle was bad, Overall, I think that the game industry is really improving. A lot has to do with new indie studios contributing new standards like thatgamecompany. At the GDC this week there was an education panel about improving the numbers of women in higher ed games classes. Interestingly, in a very very recent survey, there are now over 30% women in college game courses, which is higher than women in the industry, so we're on an upswing. Check out the data at http://www.higheredgames.org/content/pdfs/2015%20HEVGA%20Survey%20Results.pdf
I noticed that all the player characters in Monarch are female. Has that been an issue when you've played the game with male gamers?
Great question. In our play tests in gamer groups, with local folks, and even places like PAX and GenCon, we’ve never seen playing as female characters be a problem. In fact, gamers like the twist on the traditional “kingdom” story. We studied the full prototype of MONARCH at Tiltfactor in experimental studies involving young men at various New England schools, to see not only if young men would play it but if they liked playing as female characters. The game was a success there too, and interestingly, the study showed that revealing the gender later in the game (i.e. finding out that they were playing as sisters 1/2 way through the game) made it an even better experience for the players!
I think that if players can play a farmer in Agricola, or a goat in Goat Simulator, then players can play a princess, whether or not that character shares the player's gender.
What is your favorite Board Game?
how about Monarch ha ha! I really love Dark Tower, but it is not the best game per se; it captures, however, the fantasy world that even an abstract board game can conjure for players. I really like euro style games and new games like Resistance, Love Letter, etc.
Dartmouth is in my list of colleges I intend to apply to, maybe someday I'll end up showing in one of your courses, lol.
yes come on board! It is fun up here.
Where do you start in teaching game design? Is it about aesthetics? Is it in coding and animation? Is it in statistics and maths to balance it? What is the course that you teach focused on? A key idea or goal?
When designing a tabletop game, what is the most important factor to take into consideration and how is that different to video games?
Great questions! I like to actually start teaching game design by playing a game. I always start with paper prototyping. Each design teacher has their own process, but mine is really based on prototyping simple game models and adding complexity. (Note: For a book, I really like Fullerton's Game Design Workshop). I don't start coding or even any pretty art until the designer understands systems of games. Every game design teacher would have a different 'perfect game.' I like looking at a range of games starting with board and card games: the card game PIT, the resource management of Settlers, and others. Then I introduce analysis of digital games before building, making sure to offer unusual models that win awards (like Journey for example). My goal is to invent new mechanics and models with students so I don't tend to start, for example, with hit points and balancing type exercises.
What do you think about the schools such as Full Sail University? Do you think they are worth anything or is their sole purpose to cheat trusting kids (and their parents) of their money?
I'm typically in favor of overall liberal arts learning vs training. A well rounded game designer--at least, the most interesting designers I know--will likely be interested in anthropology, art, history, and other things. So while I won't disparage these programs, I also would support people taking risks and learning things that interest them.
Why do you think there is still a degree of prejudice against adult people playing games, both digital and tabletop? Do you think games will ever be able to shake off the image of being "just for kids"?
Good observations. Even Plato disparaged play that was frivolous, in favor of play that helped one excel such as sports. But I wouldn't be the first to say Plato sometimes missed the mark!! It is curious to note that playing cards is seen as "adult" (poker games) but board games have been in the realm of 'childish.' That is changing. For example, when businesses value leadership in games (like this great piece about WoW http://www.forbes.com/2010/07/19/career-leadership-strategy-technology-videogames.html) that changes the value of games and supports their idea that games are for learning in many forms.
If money wasn't a thing, what kind of game would you like to design or see designed?
This is interesting. My aim is not to make one magnum opus, but strive for systemic impacts. My process is to see my games (and art) as a type if inquiry. If I had even more time and an excellent team, I would love to create many many games that alter cooperative and competitive mechanics-- to constantly invent new ways of working together, new "paths" in the field of game theory, that could positively impact the way people see global problems and each other. I would like to help reinvent schools by incorporating powerful games and stories that shift our thinking. I aim to have real world impact from people's interactions with one another, so that pro-social solutions could be discovered through play.
Hi Mary. You've done and accomplished so much, congratulations!
What do you do for fun, like in your free time?
Free time, ha ha! Seriously, I like to exercise, visit with friends, read (I'm obsessed with poetry, young adult fiction, and psychology literatures), see much art, and of course make my own art and games!
No does one go about learning the trade of game design? Do you do more nitty gritty work or conceptual work?
To learn the "trade of game design" -- well, game design is an entire profession, with professional organizations and meetings like the game developer's conference happening now in San Francisco. I'd suggest you read Game Design Workshop, prototype games, and learn design thinking in general. Go to play test groups and meet other designers to get feedback. I think architecture is a very similar kind of profession because it's systems- and flow-based.
Do you prefer board games or digital games? What's the difference between the two in terms of the player's experience?
I like both board games and digital games, but for different reasons. While many games are inherently social, board games are nearly universally so. I like the openness and flexibility of board games and the way that strategies come into play so differently say, in Letters From Whitechapel vs Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride. I love the “magic circle” of board games. I love getting together in a playful ritual. It’s part of my family history and something I love to do with friends. But I started out as a digital game designer. I like digital games that present interesting mechanics or curious worlds, like Journey, Flower, Minecraft, The Room, Waking Mars, etc. These games are great because their worlds are rich and meaningful. And of course I like some of my favorite card games to play digitally, like Ascension. Each genre and medium has its strengths. I also enjoy non playable, game-like, or even just playful interactive art. I’m always interested in the rules of responsiveness the artist crafts.
You like cereal? If so. What's your favourite?
Unf I'm gluten free, but at one time I certainly was a fan of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF_Dhgisbys