Game Changer

Innovative digital humanities professor and game designer Mary Flanagan takes the art of play—and social change—to a whole new level.

 

First, let’s get something out of the way. Mary Flanagan, Dartmouth’s digital humanities chair and founder of the game design and research lab Tiltfactor, could expound for hours on the history of games and the psychology and design of them, whether it’s Tic-Tac-Toe or Angry Birds, but she is not interested in yet another conversation about violence in video games. “It’s the first question the media has asked me in my entire career,” she says. “And I think it’s a little weird.” (For the record, this reporter waited until at least 40 minutes into the interview.) “I suppose that if games can be used as a tool for good, one could argue that they could also be a tool for the not-so-good,” she adds. “But I’ll leave that for other folks to spend time on.”

She’s got more important things to do. Arriving at Dartmouth in 2008, Flanagan, whose full title is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities, was hired by then dean of faculty Carol Folt to shake things up at the College and help steer it toward a future that includes a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching. Working across multiple fields in the arts and the sciences, Flanagan is now known across campus for far more than just her trademark pigtails. “In terms of research, the most exciting questions now are in the margins of all the disciplines. Bridging those areas is risky and difficult and takes a lot of energy, but Mary is absolutely amazing at navigating it all and making it look easy,” says professor Ross Virginia of the environmental studies department. “She’s a rock star. There’s no other way to put it. An academic rock star.”

President Phil Hanlon ’77 has been a fan since he arrived in Hanover. “One of the key ambitions I began talking about, really from day one, was that I want Dartmouth to think big—to imagine a future where our faculty and students are forging new knowledge and innovating in the areas between the traditional disciplines, in the spaces where those disciplines overlap,” he says. “Mary’s work receives the interest and attention it does, as well as lines of students eager to get into her classes, not only because it captures the imagination, but because it is an example of the academy taking on complex societal challenges and unleashing the creativity and potential of our students in the process.”

For her part, Flanagan is grateful to be at a place where she isn’t simply alternating between delivering lectures and sitting at a desk grading papers. “The direction Hanlon wants to go in with experiential learning is how I like to teach,” she says. “Getting out in the world, trying things and seeing how they work. I can’t just teach one class for the rest of my life.”

Not that it wouldn’t have a waiting list. In her popular game design course, which she offers each spring, students not only create prototypes of games, but they benefit from Flanagan’s huge network of contacts by skyping with some of the biggest names in gaming. Last spring she wowed students by lining up Gamelab cofounder Eric Zimmerman (who designed the popular tablet game Diner Dash). “It was really crazy,” says Sara Holston ’17. “Professor Flanagan came in and just said, ‘Okay, we’re doing this and this in the first half of class and then in the second half we’re skyping in Eric Zimmerman, so think of questions!’ ”

Max Seidman ’12, who took three courses with Flanagan while he was a student, says that he hasn’t met many instructors like her either. “She is extremely energetic and was constantly giving us great anecdotes and these really positive critiques of our work,” he says. In fact, he was so inspired during his time as a student that he took a job at the Tiltfactor lab after graduating and is now a full-time staff member. One of his first assignments was working on a project commissioned by the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative, which asked Tiltfactor (whose tagline is “game design for social change”) to create a game emphasizing the importance of vaccinations. “You could make another brochure that says ‘vaccinate your child,’ but games are more fun,” says Flanagan. The goal of the game they came up with, called Pox, is for players to protect the weak by vaccinating those surrounding them, while at the same time containing outbreaks. After the game was released the team kept tabs on how it was played and what impact it has had on its users. One finding was that Tiltfactor’s zombified version of Pox (called Zombiepox, of course) garnered more sympathy from players than the original board and iPad versions.

One reason may be that make-believe can be more powerful than fact. “Fiction is far more useful as a tool toward behavior change than we originally thought,” says Flanagan. “Some think it’s escapism, but it stays with you longer. I mean, how many people know the spells in Harry Potter but don’t have the slightest interest in learning what’s in front of them in an algebra class?”

The Tiltfactor lab, located on the second floor of the new Black Family Visual Arts Center, is a bright, fun and invigorating atmosphere. Lots of windows, red leather sofas, a Rock Band kit in the corner, rows of computers, shelves of card and board games and Wii discs. Oh, and writing on the walls. When Flanagan was helping design her office and the lab space (connected by frosted glass), one of her must-haves was whiteboard paint so she and her team could easily jot down ideas. Add a vending machine and this could act as a bunker you’d never want to leave. Perhaps, say, if there were a Zombiepox outbreak.

“I’m interested in helping some of our larger social institutions, such as libraries, which are kind of the foundation of a democracy, to become more robust in the 21st century instead of withering on the vine,” says Flanagan. “We can use the power of games to reinvigorate that space.”

Flanagan, 45, founded Tiltfactor when she was working as a professor of contemporary digital arts, culture and technology at Hunter College. Happy in New York City, where she had an apartment in the West Village, she didn’t give much thought to the Dartmouth professorship, which opened thanks to a $10 million gift from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation to hire professors in emerging fields. In fact, she wrote a recommendation letter for a friend instead. A year later, the job still unfilled, she realized it was time to make a move herself. “They wanted someone who could teach in different areas, like studio art, et cetera, so I was really interested in that aspect,” says Flanagan, who is also an artist. Her installations, which include a giant joystick you need to climb on to use, have appeared internationally as well as at the Whitney and Guggenheim museums.

Just six months into her new gig, Flanagan and her Tiltfactor team, which first worked out of a cozy corner in North Fairbanks, made national headlines with a game called Layoff, which is still available to play at Tiltfactor.org. Similar to Bejeweled and Candy Crush, where the player places matching tiles together to remove them from the board, this is a game where you play a CEO type improving company efficiency by letting workers go. As your bottom line grows, so does the unemployment line. Meanwhile, financial headlines scroll along the bottom and, as you hover your mouse over the workers, each has a backstory, such as “Dakota supports an elderly father at a nursing home.” With the release timed so closely after the bank bailouts of 2008, the game, which attracted 1 million players in just its first week, struck a nerve across the country. Blogger Michael McWhertor hit the nail on the head by calling the game “edutainful”—a combination of entertainment, education and pain.

Inciting a reaction in players—while they’re having fun, of course—is exactly the “social change” aspect that Flanagan is going for when designing a new game. “She takes either uncomfortable or controversial or complex issues and tries to approach them with a slant or a skew,” says Dr. Geoff Kaufman, Tiltfactor’s postdoctoral researcher in psychology. “I think that’s part of the reason she named the lab Tiltfactor. She takes pride in tilting people’s perspective on things. She’s very free-thinking and open-minded, and she likes people thinking outside their comfort zones.”

Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation, Tiltfactor makes little money from sales of its products. The real value is coming up with games that can, for instance, help combat gender bias, educate people on communicable diseases or explore the limitations of our healthcare system—all projects it has worked on. Tiltfactor also runs a program called Metadata Games, which offers games that add new life to archival material by allowing users to tag uploaded photos from museums and schools, making them easier to search for by future users. Dartmouth alums can play along at alum.metadatagames.dartmouth.edu by tagging pictures from the Rauner Special Collections Library. “I’m interested in helping some of our larger social institutions, such as libraries, which are kind of the foundation of a democracy, to become more robust in the 21st century instead of withering on the vine,” says Flanagan. “We can use the power of games to reinvigorate that space.”

Flanagan’s next hurdle? Climate change. It’s an issue close to the heart of Professor Virginia, director of the Dickey Center’s Institute of Arctic Studies. “The science is clear that the impacts are large and humans can make a difference,” he says. “But people are so entrenched in their own ideas, it’s difficult to break through that to create a dialogue. What I’ve come to learn from Mary is that games are a really useful way to break down barriers, so we’re trying to find a way to chip away at that.”

Working with Flanagan has blown him away. “She has a driven curiosity. She’s always so optimistic about everything,” he says. “I’m sure she has a worry list like everyone else, but when you’re working on something with Mary you just run out of time before you know it. She has this youthful and open enthusiasm that belies the seniority of her accomplishments.”

The first person in her family to graduate from college, Flanagan was raised by an electrician dad and stay-at-home mom in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Were there always games on the table? Did she make up her own from a young age? While she enjoyed playing lots of card and board games at the home of her grandmother, whom she calls a “rural farm lady card shark,” and she has a picture somewhere of receiving Operation as a gift at 4 or 5, she can’t recall being any more into games than the next kid. “I’m slightly suspicious of narratives that make it seem like you were meant to do this one thing and only this thing,” she says. “Some people may convince themselves as adults that they always knew, but we’d be really boring if we all had such a linear track. ‘Oh, he’s already a physician? Well, when is he going to watch the Muppets?’ ”

Some of her fondest memories are making elaborate Halloween costumes with her dad, a natural tinkerer who died in 2009. “One year I was an upside-down blimp with blinking lights and fans,” she says. “I’m not from a long line of innovators in a high art sense, but my dad was pretty interesting. Given a different place in time and different resources, he definitely would have been an inventor.”

She took her first computer course in high school, learning BASIC (written by two Dartmouth professors), but just knowing how to program wasn’t enough for the young student. “I had all these conceptual questions that got in the way, like ‘How does the computer know what run means?’ ” she says. “My teacher would be like, ‘Just type it in,’ and I’d just keep asking, ‘But why?’ ”

She encourages such deep thoughts from her own students. During her foreign study program this summer in Scotland, where the class attended the Edinburgh International Film Festival and studied music video production and digital cinematography, Flanagan held dinner salon discussions for her 10 young charges. “We’d read essays and talk about all the movies we saw,” she says. “People come to Dartmouth because they actually want to be scholarly and explore intellectual life, so we did a lot of that.”

With her work at Tiltfactor making waves across the gaming community and landing her research and essays in dozens of publications, Flanagan, whose fifth book, Values at Play in Digital Games, was just published by MIT Press, is now a sought-after lecturer, which sometimes leaves her very little time in Hanover. This fall included trips to Boston, New York City and Buffalo, New York, and she was a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto in late September. In mid-November she’ll be a keynote speaker at the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference in Istanbul and then she’s heading to France for an artists’ residency. Wouldn’t she rather stay home and stick to the stereotype of a professor curled up fireside with a book and maybe a pet cat? “There are no cats, there are no fireplaces, and I don’t like sitting around,” she says. “I guess I’m not your traditional professor.”        

Jennifer Wulff lives in Wilton, Connecticut, and is a frequent contributor to DAM.

 

Play Time 
Professor Flanagan reveals her five favorite games (that she did not create) and why she loves them.

Go
(China, approximately 2000 BCE). “The simplest of board games, but simultaneously the most complex of them all. Human players of the game still beat computers.”

Flower
(Sony, 2009). “A console game that acts like a meditation on existence, with simple controls but much to think about.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Atari 2600, 1982). “Because I played this game so much as a child I could draw each eight-bit pixelated screen from memory.” 

500
(U.S. Playing Card Co., 1904). “This card game was the most popular social game in the 20th century before bridge emerged. I played with my immediate family, grandmother and great- aunts until the wee hours.”

Words With Friends
(Zynga, 2009). “It is fantastic that my mother continues to beat me, week after week, though I am an Ivy League professor.”

Portfolio

Alumni Books
New titles from Dartmouth writers (September/October 2017)
Candid Camera
Documentary filmmaker Lance Kramer ’06 tackles complex social issues through his Washington, D.C.–based production company.
The Computerization of Music

September 1987: Professor Jon Appleton explains how electronics have changed the music industry.

William W. Helman IV ’80
On his time as a trustee

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