Blog Post

Digital Humanities / Digital Games : The Work of Mary Flanagan

Last week I attended a fantastic talk given by Mary Flanagan, artist, game designer and professor of Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College. In the talk, part of Nick Montfort's Purple Blurb series at MIT, Mary spoke about her artistic practice, and while I can't sum up everything she said, I wanted to raise a few themes that came up and alert to you one of her current projects, Metadata Games, a multi-player, Internet-based game in which players will compete to add keywords and descriptive data tags to library and archival databases. I encourage you all to hear Mary speak if she's ever in your area. Also, you can check out some of her projects and games on her website. Some of her work can be seen on YouTube as well.

I must admit that I am not a video gamer, and the extent of my computer game experience is hours of Oregon Trail in middle school. For whatever reason (perhaps to be explored in another blog post) I never got into playing video games nor for that matter board games. However, as a graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, I am surrounded by people who think about and research games and play as a mode of engagement. A few years ago, I wouldn't have considered digital games to be a rich form of creative expression. Games are still widely seen as utilitarian somehow, and therefore at odds, with art practice or intellectual rigor. However, if we think about games, for instance, as the creation and exploration of systems that necessarily embed aesthetic and moral dimensions, it makes sense that games could, and should, be seen as a form of creative practice.

The art, games, and writing of Mary Flanagan engage with the current ways and histories of how technology not only surrounds us, but embeds itself in our daily lives. Technologies like databases, game consoles, and virtual worlds become the subject and means to explore creative potential, to find ruptures and reveal them for exploration. Her talk made me eager to read her latest book, Critical Play: Radical Game Design which traces a history of alternative game play including avant-garde art practices, traditionally female modes of game play, (like playing with dolls) as well as more recent socially committed game projects, like Persuasive Games.

Also of great interest to the HASTAC community is one of her current projects that recently received an NEH-Office of Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, Metadata Games -- An Open Source Electronic Game for Archival Data Systems. The project is a collaboration between the games lab that Mary directs, Tiltfactor, and the Dartmouth College Libraries. According to archivist Peter Carini of Dartmouth's Rauner Special Collections Library, (as quoted in a press release), "If successful this project will bring archival images and possibly other documents into the gaming sphere and thus to a broader audience. If the project succeeds in the way we hope, it will also provide a way to gain deeper and richer content related to historical materials. More perspectives will produce broader search terms and make it easier for researchers to find what they are looking for. We have more images and more materials than we can adequately describe in a lifetime. Even if we had the staff and the time, librarians and archivists bring their own, naturally limited perspectives to the description of their collections. Offering these images up to a broader community for interpretation only serves the public and research community."

It seems clear that any way you look at, digital games, whether as creative expression, intellectual exercise, or collaborative tool, are a constituent part of the emerging field of digital humanities.







Thank you for bringing Mary Flanigan to the attention of the HASTAC community.  I wanted to add a few more names as recommended scholars for those that are interested in video game and play.  Jane McGonigal and Marie-Laure Ryan are two scholars I recently had recommended to me.  I also attended a talk by Noah Wardrip-Frum who analyzes game play by comparing traditional game practices, like table top versions of Dungeons and Dragons, to translations of these practices in games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  His main argument is that too much attention is paid to graphics and not enough attention is given to processing power.  He argues that a refocus on sophisticated "operational logics" could create a truly immersive gaming experience.  He offered the Will Wright franchise the Sims as an example of a game that really focus on complicated "operational logics."  Based on his suggestion I have been playing the new Will Wright game Spore.  I have been fascinated by the way in which the complete game has been repurposed into smaller segments for multiple platforms (mobile devices, trial versions and casual gaming).  I would be intrigued by research that attempts to engages with each of these brilliant thinkers and then compares their theories to the economic imperatives of the gaming industry. 

Thanks for the great post.



I haven't read Mary Flanigan yet - thank you for the links. Her site is a tremendous resource.

I've been particularly interested in the status of metadata, especially as a site of creative and epistemological contol. I've been doing alot of work this year on multimedia databases, and have despaired at the lack of attention that is given to the selction of metadata in the construction of databases, particulalry in the form of keyword tags. Designers seem to get as far as providing the user with the ability insert metadata, and through this ability gain a degree of authorial control making the experience 'interactive'. However, little attention is given to the criteria by which the user selects one option over another.

Currently I am working on a Korsakow film. Korsakow is a freely downloadable interface intended primarily for the creation of 'interactive' documentaries. There are multiple video screens visible at all times - one main screen and any number of smaller 'preview' windows. The relationships between the screens is determined by the filmmaker through a series of pre-selected keywords. The progression of the documentary is determined by which of the preview screens the user/viewer selects. However, almost no documentation exists to train the filmmaker on how to create conceptual patterns using keywords. Nor have I seen an interactive film, using Korsakow or any other software, where the user is provided enough clues or information to make a a strategic selction. Infact most examples of 'interactivty' default to 'random selection'. While randomness can be intriguing, and at time aesthetically pleasurable, it does little to heighten the agency of the user/viewer, and seem to negate the value of the exercise, if that is the only real choice.

I'm interested in delving in the Mary Flanagan's use of games as an alternative to the pervasivness of 'the random' in multimedia interfaces. It appears that the rule-based structure of games demands that random choices be minimized in favour of more intentional slection of options.


Wow, lots of stuff I want to check out here!

I recently had my first formal introduction to metadata, and I have to say it was a very disappointing experience. I think there is a big disconnect between what "information about information" in general could do, and what the term "metadata" refers to in the traditional academic library science world. Namely, making formal metadata, e.g. Dublin Core or EAD as determined by professionals in a library or archive, seems a very solitary, arbitrary, and exclusionary process. Something like a metadata game, though, explodes the power dynamic inherent in traditional metadata schemes.

Participatory metadata processes go a long way towards defeating the problems with metadata that Cory Doctorow spells out in his essay "Metacrap."

Also, Carolyn, I'm really excited to check out Korsakow. It kind of sounds like Cati Vaucelle's idea of textable movies?



Nice post, Madeleine! :)

I wonder what bringing gaming rhetoric to the metadata discussion does for it. What value is added? The description of their proposal is confusing. When I hit the library search box, I want quick and easy, not pleasurable and persuasive.