American Journal of Play

In this Issue

This special double issue of the American Journal of Play on Blackness and Play challenges the field of play studies by offering new insights and important perspectives on play as a site for disruption, resistance, and joy in Black communities. Guest edited by TreaAndrea M. Russworm, it includes a wide range of interviews and articles that highlight the work of play luminaries, trailblazing toymakers, cultural studies scholars, early childhood educators, historians, ethnomusicologists, and game and media studies scholars.

Editor's Note

Welcome to the American Journal of Play’s special publication on Blackness and play, another in our series of themed issues. This double issue, guest edited by TreaAndrea M. Russworm, challenges the field of play studies by offering new and important perspectives on play as a site for disruption, resistance, and joy in Black communities.

We begin with five interviews and a conversation. Scholars David Crittendon, Rob Goldberg, and Yolanda Hester discuss the history and legacy of the Black-owned play company Shindana Toys. Ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt revisits her seminal work on Black girls’ play. Scholar and playwright Amina S. McIntyre considers the card game Spades. Olmec Toys founder Yla Eason and Cultural Toys and MAP Esports founder Jacob Milles III each recount their trailblazing work in the toy and game industries. Guest editor TreaAndrea Russworm and Spawn on Me podcast cofounder Cicero Holmes discuss the relationships between video games, adult play, and Black culture. In an article that draws on critical race theory, Black critical theory, Black male studies, and white racial frame research, Harrison P. Pinckney, Nathaniel Bryan, and Corliss Outley propose Black Playcrit as a tool to help us better understand Blackness and anti-Black violence in play. Shakeel Harris analyzes the play practices of formerly enslaved children in nineteenth-century America. Raven Maragh-Lloyd examines the social media hashtags #PermitPatty and #Karen to explore how Black online publics use humor as a form of resistance. Zhané Lloyd, touting the value of what she calls the “petty,” considers how Black Twitter—the part of Twitter dominated by members of the African diaspora—offers Black players of UNO a space to become unofficial game designers when they resist and defy official game rules. Abdah St. Fleur and Jennifer deWinter use interview data from six Black content creators for The Sims 4 to examine the politics of representation and self-expression in computer games, while calling on the game industry to include Black designers and creators from the beginning of the creative process. Cathy Thomas uses an ethnographic approach as participant, observer, and interviewer to offer a deep reading of Black women’s cosplay (or comic book and pop culture costume play) and masquerade. Kisha McPherson closes the issue with an exploration of the impact of anti-Black racism on Black play.

Guest Editors' Foreword

Blackness and Play
By TreaAndrea M. Russworm

Interviews

Overview

David Crittendon is an educator, musician, activist, historian, and the author of the novel Then See If I Care: A Story about Bessie Smith. In 1964, he participated with Lou Smith and others in the Mississippi Freedom Summer and, in 1965, worked alongside Smith at the Congress of Racial Equality’s Harlem office. He cofacilitated the Claiming Freedom Symposium commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer at Cal State–LA. Yolanda Hester is a historian, archivist, educator, and writer. She curated the online exhibit Community and Commerce: Oral Histories of African Businesses in Los Angeles for The Center for Oral History Research. She has written about the history of Black dolls and is currently working on an oral history series with The Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund at UCLA. Crittenden and Hester both served as historical consultants for Shindana Toy Company: Changing the American Doll Industry, a special 2019 episode of PBS affiliate KCET’s program Lost L.A. Rob Goldberg teaches history and cinema studies at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. His current book project, under contract at Duke University Press, looks at the way social justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s changed how Americans think and talk about toys. In 2019 Crittendon, Hester, and Goldberg founded the Operation Bootstrap History Collaborative. Key words: African American; Baby Nancy; Black joy; Black Power; dolls; Lou Smith; Marva Maxie; Operation Bootstrap; Robert Hall; Shindana Toys; Watts

Overview

Ethnomusicologist Kyra D. Gaunt studies gender justice and music as violence against girls through song, scholarship, and social media. Her first book, The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, won the 2007 Alan Merriam Prize in Ethnomusicology, which contributed to the emergence of hip-hop music studies, Black girlhood studies, and hip-hop feminism. She began her latest project by asking in what kinds of play do girls engage on YouTube. Her findings will constitute her next book, tentatively titled PLAYED: Music as an Instrument of Violence against Black Girls on YouTube. Key words: Black girlhood studies; Black musical identity; double Dutch rope play; ethnomusicology; kinetic orality

Overview

At work on a PhD in Religion from Vanderbilt University concentrating on religion, psychology, and culture, Amina S. McIntyre holds a BA in Anthropology from Colby College, an MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University, an MFA in Playwriting from Spalding University, and an MTS from Emory University. She is a playwright from the Atlanta, Georgia, area who has worked with the Actor’s Express, the Atlanta History Museum, the Out of Hand Theatre, Oakland Cemetery, and the Vanguard Repertory Theatre. An Elder in Full Connection with the CME Church, she is also a cofounder of the Hush Harbor Lab—a new play development company in Atlanta—and an avid Spades player. She discusses here the intersections of her interests—of her work and play, of drama and religion, of card games and African American culture—and their implications. Key words: Black joy; card games; hush harbor; Spades; storytelling, trash talking

Overview

Yla Eason is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Rutgers University where she teaches business communications and marketing. She has directed learning and development for the R/GA digital advertising agency and the Center for Excellence in Advertising at Howard University and lectured at the business school at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York (CUNY). In 1985 she founded the multicultural toy company Olmec Toys and has earned numerous awards, including the U. S. Business Enterprise Trust Award in 1996 and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award in 2020. In this interview, Eason describes how she founded and ran her trailblazing company. Key words: diversity and toys; marketing toys; Olmec Toys; toy design; toy industry, Sun-Man

Overview

A veteran media, entertainment, and toy industry executive, Jacob R. Miles III has held executive positions at Kenner toys, General Mills Entertainment Group, Tonka toys, Hasbro, Cultural Toys, Urban America Television, and Urban Cool Networks and, over the last forty years, has worked with fourteen Toy Industry Hall of Fame inductees. An original member of Kenner’s Star Wars toy team and an avid Star Wars toy collector, he has been involved in developing and manufacturing such American toy and children’s entertainment brands and figures as Six Million Dollar Man, Stretch Arm- strong, Play-Doh, Sega Game Systems, the Baby Alive doll, Tonka, Pound Puppies, Hollywood Hounds, Ghostbusters, Alien, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, Batman, and Superman. Miles has also helped develop television and film products based on content from Lucasfilm, The Jim Henson Company, DIC Entertainment, Disney, Warner Bros., Film Roman, NBA, MLB, NFL, American Greetings, Motown, and Hallmark Entertainment among others. As an award-winning entrepreneur and now analyst of global media and entertainment trends, strategies, and diversity, Miles has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Business Week, Black Enterprise, PBS, and numerous books, magazines, and newspapers. He currently serves as CEO and chairman of MAP Esports Network Inc., a multimedia platform and network that provides esports and robotics-based media and play learning centers and services for disadvantaged and at-risk youth as well as mainstream communities. Key words: culturally diverse toys; toy design and development; toy industry; toy manufacturing

Overview

A self-proclaimed AfroGeek, TreaAndrea M. Russworm is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a series editor of Power Play: Games, Politics, Culture. She is also currently Associate Editor for Outreach and Equity for the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies whose research covers digital games, popular culture, and African American studies. The founder of Radical Play, a public humanities initiative and afterschool program in Springfield, Massachusetts, she is also the author or editor of Blackness is Burning: Civil Rights, Popular Culture, and the Problem of Recognition; Gaming Representation: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games; and From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry. She is currently at work on a book about race, video games, and the politics of play. Cicero Holmes is a Black information technology professional who has been playing video games for most of his life. He cofounded the first podcast that blended Black culture, politics, and video games—the awarding-winning Spawn on Me—in 2014, and he has been a cohost and regular guest on other games and culture podcasts, including shows about Star Trek (Discovery Debrief) and pop culture (The Incomparable Podcast Network). He is currently a cohost of the video games debate show, Test Your Might, and he participates in livestreams of Rivals of Waterdeep, a tabletop role-playing game that features a racial minority cast. He has recently begun voice acting for video games and other digital media. Key words: arcade; Black culture; hip-hop; Jerry Lawson; Spawn on Me; racial representation; video games

Articles

by Harrison P. Pinckney, Nathaniel Bryan, and Corliss Outley

Abstract

Drawing on such academic topics as the white racial frame, critical race theory, Black critical theory, and Black male studies, the authors offer Black PlayCrit, a tool focusing on the specificity of Blackness and anti-Black violence in play. Calling for the adoption of Black PlayCrit in future studies, they suggest researchers should consider practicing its tenets by developing questions that privilege the stories of Black male youths and consider racism a part of their everyday lived experience, including their participation in structured and unstructured play. Protecting young Black males, they argue, requires a shift in the way we view them and how they play in schools and communities. Doing so may make students of play uncomfortable, may push the boundaries of the scholarly understanding of play, and may force the scholarship around play to face harsh realities about the structure of communities and recreational agencies. However, such thoughtful consideration can help create a society in which playing while Black no longer becomes a death sentence. Key words: Black critical theory; Black PlayCrit theory; critical race theory; playground to prison pipeline; play of Black male youth; play-spatial exclusion; redlining and play

by Shakeel A. Harris

Abstract

The author examines the childhood experiences of formerly enslaved children. He suggests that the conventional understandings of scholars and histo- rians concerning play may not be applicable to the complex lives of enslaved children because researchers do not consider such children as always propertied beings. Their play practices were molded by their proximity to violence and by their being owned as property. Rethinking what constitutes play for enslaved children, Harris asserts, unlocks newer possibilities for understanding the behaviors, actions, and desires of these children. Their play practices allowed them to learn about—and challenge—their place in the world. Building on and challenging seminal scholarship, Harris encourages readers to rethink what constitutes play and to view ordinary forms of play as intentional attacks against the institution of slavery and white supremacy. Key words: enslaved children and play; slavery and play; white gaze

by Zhané Lloyd

Abstract

The author discusses the impact of Black Twitter, a section of Twitter dominated by members of the African diaspora, on marginalized communities when it offers alternatives to the rules and expectations of mainstream social media, especially in relation to such online games as UNO. She touts the value of what she calls the “petty” for Black players turned unofficial designers and their creative and important resistance to—and even a defiance of— such official rules. Key words: Black Twitter; pettiness and creativity; UNO

by Raven Maragh-Lloyd

Abstract

Traditionally, Black communities have used humor to talk back to those in power while avoiding what the author calls “the dominant gaze.” She argues that Black humor acts as a resistance, especially when considered through the lens of play. Drawing from cultural play literature, critical race studies, and the literature about Black humor, she considers two related case studies based on the hashtags #PermitPatty and #Karen to explore the response of Black people to white femininity. The first case concerns the circulation of the phrase “Permit Patty” in response to a white woman who called the police against a young Black girl for selling water on the sidewalk. The second details the use of the name “Karen” online, highlighting how white women align themselves with police to oppress African Americans. The author concludes that Black online users deploy elements of humor, such as the omniscient narrator and inverse stereotyping, to call attention to this reliance of white womanhood on the police state, often at the expense of Black and Brown people, and children in particular. Key words: Black humor; culture of dominance; double consciousness; Karen; Permit Patty; resistance

by Abdah St Fleur and Jennifer deWinter

Abstract

Using interview data from six Black content creators for The Sims 4 (2014), the authors consider the politics of representation and self-expression in computer games. Black content, the authors find, consists not merely of depictions of skin tones, but also of the diverse global cultures of Black lived lives and Black experiences—including hair textures and styles, fashion, and objects and assets. These Black creators, the authors find, are filling the gap left by The Sims 4’s predominantly white designer group and engaging in playbour, or work that resembles play. The authors highlight Black players’ motivations to create, diversity of Black identities, creative skill development, and creative identities. The authors call for the industry to include Black designers and creators from the beginning of the creative process and offer a gallery of Black content created by those they interviewed—a snapshot of the diversity of representation in The Sims 4 community of modders (players who make changes—“modify”—the game). Key words: diversity in electronic games; playbour; Sims 4 mods

by Cathy Thomas

Abstract

The author argues that Black female figures disrupt the normative constructions of genre and gender in narrative-based costumed pretend play and turns body spectatorship into new narratives of speculation. For Black women at play, she asserts, cosplay (i.e., comic book and pop culture costume play) and masquerade (i.e., as during Caribbean Carnival) are rhetorical and performative cognates. She suggests that Black women at play highlight the paradoxical dilemma of their visibility and invisibility so that, in public (whether virtual or actual), their presence becomes a phenomenological experience and political expression of their capacity as world builders. She finds that, because the category of “Black women” in this research includes people who use an array of binary, nonbinary, and contested gender categories, Black femme praxis addresses the complex relations of the real and fictive worlds their play inhabits. To demonstrate the overlap between cosplay and playing mas (masquerade), she includes excerpts from interviews with science-fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson, cultural theorist Emily Zobel Marshall, and content from various Black female cosplayers on social media. Key words: belonging; Black femme; cosplay; dissemblance; playing mas (masquerade); social media; world building

by Kisha McPherson

Abstract

Drawing connections between anti-Black racism, surveillance, and the criminalization of Black bodies, and using an autoethnographic approach, the author discusses the effect of racism on Black play. She analyzes her personal encounters and the public accounts of others to illustrate how white supremacy uses scrutiny and its attendant actions by citizens and law enforcement to deny Black people the basic freedom of play. Key words: anti-Black racism; Black play; racism and leisure; surveillance and play

Book Reviews

by Michelle Parnett-Dwyer

As a curator of dolls and a feminist, I am an enthusiast of most works by Miriam Forman-Brunell. Biases aside, Deconstructing Dolls: Girlhoods and the Meanings of Play, edited by Forman-Brunell, proves a noteworthy source for readers interested in dolls, girlhood, and emerging contexts and disciplinary developments. The eight contributors demonstrate how a variety of backgrounds and interpretive frameworks provide unique understandings of dolls’ meanings.

by Paul Booth

Contemporary academic work focused on today’s “board game renaissance” often examines what Stewart Woods (2012), in his book Eurogames, calls hobby board games—“radically different” games that have “evolved outside of the mass market” or are considered “specialist” (p. 20). This is, perhaps, not surprising, given that any academic field (especially ones like game or media studies; see my own 2021 Board Games as Media) concentrates on exemplars that reflect key advances in the field rather than more popular fare: for example, we write about the TV series Mad Men as television par excellence instead of Two and a Half Men as television par common. Is it any wonder that hobby games like Catan or Pandemic become fodder for new academic work on board games? They demonstrate groundbreaking game play and exemplify the field.

by Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

Tara Fickle’s The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities unearths the ludo-Orientalist logics that structure not only Asian racialization, but game play itself. Fickle defines ludo-Orientalism as processes wherein “the design, marketing, and rhetoric of games shape how Asians as well as East-West relations are imagined and where notions of foreignness and racial hierarchies get reinforced” (p. 3). Tracing the history of ludo-Orientalism from nineteenth-century anxieties about Chinese American gambling to contemporary anxieties about Chinese “gold farming” in massive multiplayer online games, The Race Card dazzlingly explores the social and historical forces that have made “playing the race card” such a taken-for-granted concept in American culture.

by Carolyn M. Cunningham

Amanda Phillips provides a fresh reboot to video game studies in this new work, drawing from feminist, queer, and women of color scholarship. This research pushes the boundaries of game studies through what Phillips calls a “disciplinary remix” (p. 181), opening up the study of video games to a range of fields and centering analyses of race, gender, technology, and politics. Each chapter explores discourses surrounding particular “troubles” in games, ranging from online harassment and trolling campaigns such as #Gamergate to industry practices and technologies that reinforce oppressive cultural norms to how players push back against these controversies.

Past Issues

Volume 1, Issue 1
Volume 1
Issue 1
Volume 1, Issue 2
Volume 1
Issue 2
Volume 1, Issue 3
Volume 1
Issue 3
volume 1, Issue 4
Volume 1
Issue 4
Volume 2, Issue 1
Volume 2
Issue 1
Volume 2, Issue 2
Volume 2
Issue 2
Volume 2, Issue 3
Volume 2
Issue 3
Volume 2, Issue 4
Volume 2
Issue 4
Volume 3, Issue 1
Volume 3
Issue 1
Volume 3, Issue 2
Volume 3
Issue 2
Volume 3, issue 3
Volume 3
Issue 3
Volume 3, Issue 4
Volume 3
Issue 4
Volume 4, Issue 1
Volume 4
Issue 1
Volume 4, Issue 2
Volume 4
Issue 2
Volume 4, Issue 3
Volume 4
Issue 3
Volume 4, Issue 4
Volume 4
Issue 4
Volume 5, Issue 1
Volume 5
Issue 1
Volume 5, Issue 2
Volume 5
Issue 2
Volume 5, Issue 3
Volume 5
Issue 3
Volume 6, Issue 1
Volume 6
Issue 1
Volume 6, Issue 2
Volume 6
Issue 2
Volume 6, Issue 3
Volume 6
Issue 3
Volume 7, Issue 1
Volume 7
Issue 1
Volume 7, Issue 2
Volume 7
Issue 2
Volume 7, Issue 3
Volume 7
Issue 3
Volume 8, Issue 1
Volume 8
Issue 1
Volume 8, Issue 2
Volume 8
Issue 2
Volume 8, Issue 3
Volume 8
Issue 3
Volume 9, Issue 1
Volume 9
Issue 1
Volume 9, Issue 2
Volume 9
Issue 2
Volume 9, Issue 3
Volume 9
Issue 3
Volume 10, Issue 1
Volume 10
Issue 1
Volume 10, Issue 2
Volume 10
Issue 2
Volume 10, Issue 3
Volume 10
Issue 3
Volume 11, Issue 1
Volume 11
Issue 1
Volume 11, Issue 2
Volume 11
Issue 2
Volume 11, Issue 3
Volume 11
Issue 3
American Journal of Play cover, Volume 12, Number 1, Fall 2019
Volume 12
Issue 1
Volume 12, Issue 2
Volume 12
Issue 2
Spring 2020 Issue cover
Volume 12
Issue 3
Shadow puppet cover
Volume 13
Issue 1
Double issue 13, 2 and 3
Volume 13
Issue 2