Other Types of Play: Games and Anti-Oppression

An interview with Mattie Brice on how play is challenging the status quo as a new tool for activism and expression.

by The Editor & Mattie Brice on April 28th, 2014

1. What roles can games play in anti-oppression?

We’ve been using play all our lives to explore ourselves and the world. When we were young, we played pretend, very often roles that were handed down to us by an oppressive society, and also sometimes subversive identities to push at those boundaries. Games give people the opportunity to play with a structured role different from theirs, or to design a new one for themselves, such as playing as a different gender or sexuality. What’s new now is looking at play as another tool for expression and anti-oppression, to take what we might see as frivolous to discuss important topics, from airport security to sexual consent. Think of it as another color on the pallet we already use; it’s not uncommon for words, sounds, images, performances, and other artistic modes of communication to be used for activism, so now it’s time to add play.

Photo of Mattie Brice.

Photo courtesy of Mattie Brice.

2. What games have you seen in the past few years that are doing interesting work around challenging existing status quos, or making a space in games for traditionally under-represented audiences and identities?

There is an interesting confluence of events going on right now, both of interesting new artists and regaining a sense of history. Video games are seen as the main artistic mode of play, despite being among the newest, and they have a constructed history that aims to only highlight hegemony. Presently, there are many, many games that are being made with accessible tools, like Twine (check out games tweeted by @philomela), and the influences are endless. We can look at 2012 and see games made by queer women with these tools, but there’s also the work of Tale of Tales (The Path for example) and the Nordic LARP scene (consider Mellan Himmel och Hav by Emma Wieslander) that came before this new wave to challenge what games are. In a sense, what’s important right now is to resist canonization while trying to respect the struggles of those before us. We’re in a good spot to celebrate the resistance happening before there was attention on it, because it’s often the work of minoritized people left out of the conversation.

3. Do you see any shifts in the mainstream industry – either in games themselves or in the community around it – in response to this sort of work?

The games industry is a slow moving beast. The bigger budget games take years to make, and are financially conservative in their decisions. I don’t think the industry will or maybe even can respond to radical game making as much as other blockbuster art does to its own DIY scenes. Look at mainstream music and movies, you really have to dig to find stuff that we would consider anti-oppression work. Sure, it would be nice if the larger industry became a great source of radical work, but I think it’d have to be removed from it’s capitialistic environment before it could be moved in that way at a significant speed.

4. You have talked about how identity labels and groups function in both positive and negative ways in the gaming community. How do those dynamics have an impact on games that disrupt the status quo and the people who make and play them?

I find that labels can be useful for community building, and they are also useful for othering and segregating. Often, “queer games,” “empathy games” are called upon to box away games and different types of play so that the mainstream doesn’t feel obligated to engage with it. The conversations usually ends up in a sort of “mainstream vs avant-garde, isn’t there room for both?” when the mainstream isn’t heeding much room for other types of play.