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Friday, June 9 • 4:30pm - 4:50pm
Facilitating Critical Design Through Meaningful Play Practices

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As our world becomes increasingly interconnected and design problems more complex, design education has been embracing multi/inter/trans-disciplinary pedagogy (Costantino, 2017; Blevis et al., 2015; Baalen et al., 2021), systems design (Stroh, 2015; Meadows 2008; Sellers, 2018), and speculative design tools (Ehret et al.,2019; Helgason & Smyth, 2020; Khan et al., 2021). These approaches allow students to investigate topics from varied perspectives, analyze the interdependencies and intricate layers of issues, and better understand the diverse people, places, and things that are affected by design decisions (Davis, 2018).

Yet deep investigations about highly-charged topics are often hindered by students’ intention to “say the right thing” as well as by sensitivities about sharing their own varied lived experiences. These factors can keep their exploration about societal issues superficial, without purposeful engagement.

To explore social justice issues with more depth, co-instructors Author 1 and Author 2 integrated meaningful engagement tactics from game studies and introduced what they term “subversive roleplay” into a six week-long project in an inaugural junior-level class called Multidisciplinary Design in the spring semester of 2022. The course is taken by a range of design majors, and it asks students to address complex problems by applying disciplinary practices and systems design methodologies in collaborative, multidisciplinary groups. Integrating instructional approaches from game studies and elements of tabletop roleplaying games using methods like character creation and world-building, A1 and A2 provided students with a framework within which to explore a variety of fictional scenarios that paralleled reality. Instead of simply asking students to design a noble solution for a sensitive issue in contemporary society, A1 and A2 asked them to role-play as significant decision-makers that might have nefarious intentions within a fictional world. Within these imagined settings, students were able to explore issues like immigration, climate change, body autonomy, xenophobia, and elitism through playful analogies and fictional parallels. This approach generated conversations that focused on real-world systems where design fiction became a tool of simulation. By implementing these student-led “embodied stories” (Gee, 2003, p.82) through roleplaying as evil policymakers in playfully-imagined situations, students had a critical space where they were able to experiment, have deeper discussions, and ultimately explore the root and impact of issues that affect us today.

Upon reflection of this project, students expressed that they found the freedom to be “cartoonishly evil” liberating. Compared to the first project in the course that did not utilize this method, students felt more comfortable discussing the nuances of these topics which led them to uncover new insights, and ultimately a more impactful project. Students were intrinsically engaged with the deeper impact of their designed systems at multiple levels.

In this project, the authors present their subversive roleplay method as a tool for design education that addresses the complicated layers of societal issues from a systems thinking perspective. This method is not limited to their course, and can be applied to any speculative design project that aims to engage students with critical design practices without making them feel anxious about making mistakes.


Lilian Crum

Associate Dean and Associate Professor, Lawrence Technological University

Ahu Yolac

Lawrence Technological University, United States of America

Friday June 9, 2023 4:30pm - 4:50pm EDT
Main 212