En Brief: Mary Flanagan (@criticlaplay) pushes the boundaries of medium and genre across writing, visual arts, and design to innovate in these fields with a critical play centered approach. Her groundbreaking explorations across the arts and sciences represent a novel use of methods and tools that bind research with introspective cultural production. Her work examines the boundaries between the personal and the public, the perception of the real and the virtual, and what technology can teach people about themselves. As an artist, her collection of over 20 major works range from game-inspired systems to computer viruses, embodied interfaces to interactive texts; these works are exhibited internationally. As a scholar interested in how human values are in play across technologies and systems, Flanagan has written more than 20 critical essays and chapters on games, empathy, gender and digital representation, art and technology, and responsible design. Her three books in English include Critical Play (2009) with MIT Press and the forthcoming Values at Play in Digital Games, with Helen Nissenbaum. Flanagan founded the Tiltfactor game research laboratory in 2003, where researchers study and make social games, urban games, and software in a rigorous theory/practice environment. Flanagan’s work has been supported by grants and commissions including The British Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ACLS, and the National Science Foundation. Flanagan is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College.;

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Known for her theories on playculture, activist design, and critical play, Mary Flanagan has achieved international acclaim for her novel interdisciplinary work, her commitment to both theory and practice, and her ongoing pioneering contributions to the field of digital art. Her research examines the boundaries between the personal and the public, perception, power, and what technology can teach people about themselves. Using the formal language of the computer program or game to create systems which interrogate seemingly mundane experiences such as writing email, using search engines, playing video games, or saving data to the hard drive, Flanagan reworks these activities to blur the line between the social uses of technology, and what these activities tell us about the technology user themselves. Her artwork ranges from game based systems to computer viruses, embodied interfaces to interactive texts; these works are exhibited internationally at venues including ZKM Germany, the Laboral Art Center, The Whitney Museum of American Art, SIGGRAPH, Beall Center, The Banff Centre, The Moving Image Center, Steirischer Herbst, Ars Electronica, Artist’s Space, The Guggenheim Museum New York, Incheon Digital Arts Festival South Korea, Writing Machine Collective Hong Kong, Maryland Institute College of Art, and venues in Brazil, France, UK, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia.

As a researcher, she focuses on popular culture, digital studies, and computer games to look at issues of representation, behavior, equity, and process. In the field of creative writing, Flanagan is known as a writer of electronic literature, and she is also a poet, with work in The Iowa Review, Barrow Street, Mudfish, The Pinch, and is forthcoming in FENCE and other books & periodicals. She has written more than 20 critical essays on digital art, cyberculture, and gaming in periodicals such as Art Journal, Wide Angle, Intelligent Agent, Convergence, and Culture Machine, as well as several books; her books in English include reload: rethinking women + cyberculture (2002), re:SKIN (2007), and Critical Play (2009), all with MIT Press. She writes about popular culture and digital media such as computer games, virtual agents, and online spaces in order to understand how they affect and reflect culture. She is also co-author with Matteo Bittanti of Similitudini. Simboli. Simulacri, on the game The Sims (in Italian, Unicopli 2003).

Flanagan is the founding director of he theory/practice laboratory she founded in 2003, Tiltfactor, focused on the design of and research on computer games, board games, urban games, and other software that fosters a joyful commitment to human values. She is also the creator of “The Adventures of Josie True,” the first web-based adventure game for girls.

Mary Flanagan holds MFA and MA degrees from the University of Iowa, a BA in Film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and a Ph.D. in Computational Media from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London UK. Flanagan is the founder of techARTS, a not-for-profit program in Buffalo to encourage girls’ use of technology by exploring the arts with computers. Flanagan’s work has been supported by commissions including The British Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ACLS, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and she has been PI or co-PI on six National Science Foundation research awards. She serves on the faculty of the Salzburg Global Seminar & the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy Academic Consortium on Games for Impact. Flanagan is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College.

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As an internationally-exhibiting artist and as a writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, I see my work in the conceptual framework of imagists such as H.D. and others who emphasized the ‘thingness’ inherent in the world around us. The “chairness” of a chair, for example, interests me. So does the “technologicalness” of a technology. I’m interested in larger philosophical questions while grounding these in concrete images and examples. It is this fruitful tension between the concrete and the abstract with which I play to create my work.

My creative practice investigates human relationships with systems — technological, representational, linguistic, and social — from my position in a technologically-infused society. In my work I explore the relationship between such systems and their intersections with everyday life. Therefore, games, computer viruses, search engines, cell phones, email — seemingly ordinary systems — become for me extraordinary and revealing artifacts representing themes of human desire, intimacy, language, and the conceptual spaces of machines themselves. Games are of particularly ripe type of system to explore and utilize in my work: they are up to 8,000 years old and represent core aspects of human understanding. I use particular methods to defamiliarize myself with my own experiences of these systems, to be able to see them anew; computer game engines and networked databases are materials by which to explore the cultural impact of digital technology as it permeates everyday life, while it in turn is continually reshaped.

The process of creating the work feeds from ‘net culture’ and ‘computational customs’ where flippant trends become ongoing conceptual and physical ‘truths.’ Making these works is a way of creating alternate systems which reach a peace with the both the impermanence of the medium and its forms: the simultaneous fleeting nature of bits and bytes and conversely, the way these forms forge more lasting conceptual systems. Relationships of power interest me greatly.

My investigations manifest using a variety of forms: web-based media, poetry, computer applications, games, and social relationships. These forms are governed by rule sets that render possible worlds under constraints. Most works involve serendipity and accident as aleatoric, experiential interventions. My goal is for the work to be as experiential as it is imagistic, and that it abides by a tenet of openness in fields of possibility. It is my goal to create a challenging type of sense-making—rich forms and media that challenge absoluteness. Each work invents its own grammar and executes this through associative narratives in these images and collisions. Duchamp called his own work ‘laboratory experiments’; my intention is to pursue a blend of research, process, procedure, and performance using a similar experimental framing. In this way the conceptually driven investigations form a hybrid of research, process, and performance.