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Play Smart - Home Run or Strike Out?

Posted Jul 15 2010 11:15am


Play Smart Trading Cards is Visual AIDS newest set of Artist Edition Broadsides, promoting harm reduction, HIV prevention and AIDS awareness.  Play Smart is packaged with a set of trading cards, sticker, condoms and lube.  They are distributed for free. 

While Play Smart has hit a home run with some viewers and blogs Bilerico , After Elton Open Ceremony , Chelsea Now, we also wanted to share this critical review

via The New Gay

July 16 2010.  By Ted Kerr.

FOUL! Visual AIDS strikes out in new broadside

Every year New York based Visual AIDS, VA, “the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to HIV prevention and AIDS awareness through producing and presenting visual art projects,” unveils two new broadside projects created with different visual artists to promote  “harm reduction, HIV prevention and AIDS awareness” to diverse audiences.  According to, “Broadsides are a creative response to the lack of provocative and frank HIV-prevention messages in our city and nationally.”

Of the broadsides being released this year is a trading card project called PLAY SMART with photographers Aaron Cobbett, inkedKenny, Greg Mitchell, and Slava Mogutin in consultation with Dr. Demetre Daskalakis at the NYC based The Men’s Sexual Health Project, M*SHP.

Each photographer created a set of trading cards, one side featuring a photo of a man in sports drag and the other communicating ‘stats’. Rather than ‘player’ information, the PLAY SMART trading cards feature the ‘new rules’ of what Daskalakis calls “Smart Sex.” The rules include using a condom, getting tested, talking about HIV / sex with friends, partners and doctors, and getting information on post-exposure prophylaxis.

Visual AIDS supporters like myself and other community members are calling time out on PLAY SMART for its language and imagery.

According to Amy Sadao, Executive Director of Visual AIDS, some early push back on the broadsides came from a NYC POZ activist who asked after reading the name of the trading cards, “What? Am I having dumb sex? Are you calling me dumb?”

As Sadao and Santos explain the PLAY SMART theme and name emerged after the trading card size and sports motif were decided upon. Designed specifically to be given out at clinics Daskalakis runs within NYC sex clubs, it was thought that the trading card size, and sex-positive sport motif would ensure people picked up and retained the cards as well as absorbed the information provided.

As Santos recalls, “Using the word “smart” instead of “safe” was a way of refreshing the concept. People seem to tune out the words “safer sex”… but “smart” was a different way of thinking how to play, like using the proper equipment or talking to your teammate so you know what’s going on ‘on the field’.” Sadao says she hears the critique and, as with everything pertaining to the campaign, it is under consideration as VA thinks of how to roll out of the second phase of the trading cards.

For me the issue with the PLAY SMART trading cards is around how the narrow focus of whom is being ‘traded’ in the cards. All feature fit, able-bodied, predominantly white, men.

As those involved in gay men’s health know being able to navigate condom use, talk about HIV / AIDS with friends, family, doctors, and accessing Post-exposure prophylaxis is often a point of privilege based on race, class, ‘attractiveness / desirability’ and other factors.

Diversity is not represented in the cards. If anything PLAY SMART works against social factors we know to be true;

So while the information PLAY SMART wants to get out is very helpful, the images of the card may prevent someone from thinking that the cards are for them, or worse may work to reinforce poor self esteem, heighten senses of not belonging and ensure that the information is never obtained or retained by the intended audience.

PLAY SMART, aside from being culturally and otherwise insensitive also plays into the tyranny of fit white males as the dominate ideal of who is gay, who gets to have gay sex and who can / should be desired and protected.

The supremacy of white fit bodies is such that it rules out other conversations that could come from PLAY SMART.  We can’t talk about condom use if we don’t talk about social isolation. We can’t discuss the need for frank discussion of sexuality unless the cultural differences around sexuality are on the table.

Of course PLAY SMART is not all bad. One could argue that in a way PLAY SMART is advocating for a holistic approach to HIV / STI prevention. By using a sports theme the broadsides can be understood as suggesting ’smart sex’ is a lifestyle choice- taking care of your body is not just about getting fit but also condom use, getting tested etc.

In the end PLAY SMART falls short. It is just sexy. It is just eye catching. Celebrating the male form and being sex positive is much need in gay men’s health work but what is not needed are messages – intended or not – that silence, disappear and under mind bodies already repressed and undervalued in society (often further within gay communities).

Visual AIDS is an amazing, thoughtful, proactive organization that has lead the way in how art can galvanize energy and ideas around HIV / AIDS. PLAY SMART, in my mind does not represent the best of what VA can do – but along the way does raise valuable questions about limits and expectations of campaigns.  If I can venture a guess I would say that Visual AIDS has taken a hit on this one, will go back to the locker room to regroup and will come out swinging better than ever next time.

Ted Kerr is a writer, artist and activist with a focus on HIV / AIDS, queerness and expression. He was HIV Edmonton’s first Artist in Residence and currently contributes to Queermonton – a column about queer life in Edmonton for VUE Weekly. He was a founding member of Exposure: Edmonton’s Queer Arts and Culture Festival.



Part of Visual AIDS mission is to "provoke dialogue," so please feel free to share, comment or contact us with your thoughts and suggestions at

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