Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Noted: Ian Bogost on performativity in games

It’s taken me a while to get to this one, because I was away and because the subject is so important to me and so germane to what I’m doing with the concept of the PPP (performative play practice [see here]) that I had to spend some time on this note.

My own use of the word “performative” comes, like Ian’s, from the work of JL Austin on what Austin was the first to call “speech acts.” A speech act is an utterance that does something, rather than saying something. The classic example is saying “I do” at your wedding (as long as that’s what you’re supposed to say to get married in the ceremony you’re using, and you’re doing it at the right moment in the ceremony). Speech acts aren’t true or false; instead, they’re felicitous or infelicitous—they work or they don’t work; you get married or you don’t get married.

Seems pretty simple, but Austin himself recognized, and later critics began to demosntrate in ever more complex ways, that the line between speech acts and utterances that aren’t speech acts (to use Austin’s terms, “performative utterances” and “constative utterances”) is pretty much non-existent. Even with the classic “I do,” there’s a component of true/false constativity—is it true, for example, that you are going to support your spouse in sickness and in health?

Ian’s piece in Gamasutra (here) is as I understand it an argument that one thing games can do is affect the real world. He gives several examples of different ways that happens, including the Pain Station and Cruel 2 B Kind. Ian would seem to call it peformative play whenever a game has an effect on something outside the game, whether a player’s nervous system or random passersby who are serenaded on the misimpression that they are playing the same game as the serenader.

Here’s where I part company from Ian pretty dramatically. Although I think it’s absolutely fascinating to think about how symbolic actions taken inside the zone of play can affect material circumstances in the “real” world outside the zone of play (which is how I would characterize what Ian is doing), I have to say that I don’t think that it’s in the spirit of Austin and those who followed him in the study of performative utterances to call those phenomena “performative.” If I’m reading Ian’s piece correctly, he’s saying that any time something inside the game causes an effect outside the game, it’s performative. My own reading of Austin and the other speech-act theorists suggests that performativity in any sign-system (for instance, spoken language or the visual, auditory, and interactive language of video games) depends entirely on the cultural context to supply the necessary distinction between felicity and infelicity. That is, for an act of signification to be performative, it must be recognized as a performative practice within the relevant culture. If you say “I do” outside a wedding ceremony, you’re not going to get married.

My own view is that the performative involved in gaming is for instance “I engage in this practice which is called Pong.” If a group of people were standing around me, they would recognize my playing of Pong as felicitous if I were in fact playing Pong, and infelicitous if for instance my TV weren’t working. If the game were configured so that a lightning bolt shot out of the TV and killed a bystander when I scored a point, it wouldn’t be performative, it would be manslaughter. The only performativity involved would be that I was playing a game of Pong that produced the death of a bystander—a kind of game that would be recognized within culture as entirely infelicitous as a play practice.

The reason I call my theoretical construct “performative play practice” is precisely that the play involved, which I would argue produces both games and stories, is recognized within culture as having the necessary cultural authority to create a zone of play (what Huizinga, as Ian points out, called an “act apart”). The felicity of that practice—that is, whether it is recognized as performative or not so recognized—depends only on whether society recognizes the occasion I have chosen as one that’s appropriate for performative play. In my view, that has nothing to do with any “real world” effect my play might have.

So my objection to Ian’s piece is I suppose that I want to keep the concept of performativity for the relationship of games to the other practices of culture, rather than to what I would seek to characterize as tangential effects of games upon phenomena outside the game. In the case of the Pain Station, my own view is that players’ bodies are conscripted as abstract signifiers inside the zone of play; in the cases of Cruel 2 B Kind and World Without Oil my own view is that the “real world” effects of the games are actually part of the reception of the games, and have nothing to do with their performativity as games.

On the other hand, I would see Gwap, incidentally, as the most interesting case, because I agree with Ian that it’s actually infelicitous as a game—that is, given a full understanding of its mechanics, culture I believe would not recognize it as being a game at all.

I finally want to thank Ian deeply for bringing the matter up, and I hope the community will take up the matter of performativity in games as a topic of discussion.