[Most games let you change things on screen. But how about games that make changes in the real world? Writer/designer Ian Bogost looks at Pain Station, World Without Oil and a role-playing game piggy bank to explore games that affect our everyday lives directly.]
Playing a video game is usually something
we do outside of our everyday lives. As with any medium, our experiences with video
games can influence how we think about our real lives, whether now or in the
future. But when we play games, we take a break from that life. Playing a game
is different from sorting digital photos, filing business receipts, or
responding to email.
The same is true for so-called serious
games. A corporate training game or an advergame might be designed to serve a
purpose outside of the game -- learning how to implement a fast food
franchise's customer service process, or exploring the features and functions
of a new mobile phone, for example.
But even so, playing the game isn't the same
thing as fielding customer complaints at the taco hut or managing appointments
in the mobile calendar. Doing those things requires leaving the game and
re-entering the real world.
There is power in using games as an "act
apart," to use one of Johan Huizinga's terms for the separateness of play.
When games invite us inside, they involve experimentation, ritual,
role-playing, and risk-taking that might be impossible or undesirable in the
real world. When video games take over our television screens or black out our
computer desktops, they act as portals to alternate realities.
In short, when we play games, we
temporarily interrupt and set aside ordinary life. And that's not really
anything unusual. We do the same thing when we curl up in an armchair with a
novel, or when the lights go down in a theatre, or when we plug in our earbuds
on the commuter train.
But, in other media, immersion in a world
apart is only one of many modalities. We don't just read novels, we also read
road signs and sales reports and postal mail. We don't just watch film or
television, we also watch security monitors and focus group recordings and
weather reports. We don't just listen to music, we also listen to telephone
ringtones and train chimes and lullabies.
In these cases, when we interact with
the writing, or the moving images, or the music, we simultaneously perform or
experience an action, be it work, play, or something mundane and in-between.
Philosophers and linguists sometimes
distinguish between different types of speech. One such distinction contrasts
speech acts that describe things from
those that do things.
Philosopher of language J.L. Austin called
the kind of speech acts that describe things constatives. Most ordinary speech falls into this category: "Roses
are red, violets are blue."; "I wish I were Zorro."; "Finishing
all his kale so reviled young Ernesto that he lost his interest in the éclair." These acts describe the world
but don't act upon it.
"Performative" is a name for
speech acts that do things themselves
when they are uttered. The classic example of the performative is the cleric or
magistrate's declaration, "I now pronounce you man and wife." In this
case, the utterance itself performs
the action of initiating the marriage union.
Other examples are promises and
apologies, christenings and wagers, firing and sentencing. "I promise to
come home by midnight";
"I dub thee Sir Wilbur"; "You're fired!"; "I bet you
$100 I can beat Through the Fire and Flames on Expert." When we utter such statements, the act of speaking itself issues the
commitment or regret, the naming or the bet.
In every video game, players' actions make
the game work: tilting an analog stick to move Crash Bandicoot; pressing Y to make Niko Bellic carjack; strumming
the fret of a Rock Band guitar to
puppet the on-screen guitarist. Such is the definition of interactivity, after
all. But there is another, rarer kind of gameplay action, one that performs
some action outside of the game at the same time as it does so in the game.
The notion of the performative offers one
way to understand such actions. In these cases, things a player does when
playing take on a meaning in the game, but they also literally do something in
the world beyond the game and its players.