Persuasive Games: Performative Play
June 25, 2008 Page 2 of 4
On first blush, exercise games seem like an obvious example. In a game like Wii Fit, the player exerts physical effort to play, such as balancing on one leg or doing a push-up, the aggregate results of which improve her physical condition over time.
The same is true for physical performance games. In Dance Dance Revolution, the player moves around in a way that not only approximates dancing, but also demands physical exertion. Such games clearly accentuate the aerobic potential of video games and their immediate effects on the body.
But exergames also offer only a limited example of performative play, since the action performed in such games refers only to the player, and does so in an incremental way. When a bride says "I do" at the pulpit, she enters a new state of commitment completely and immediately. But when she performs a push-up on her Wii Balance Board, no particular state of fitness arises; it happens little by little, over time, in ways that each push-up can't fully explain.
In Austin's terms, a performative has to be complete to be considered an earnest one (he calls them "happy performatives"). Stronger examples of performative physical interfaces would act upon something more completely, and they would also have the potential to act on more than just the player herself.
Consider the Pain Station, a game installation created by German artists Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff in 2001. Pain Station is a variant of Pong in a cocktail-style arcade cabinet. Two players compete by controlling a paddle with a knob in the usual fashion. The other hand must rest on a metal sensor, completing a circuit to enable the game.
When a player misses a ball, it contacts a pain symbol corresponding with one of three different types of pain: heat, electric shock, and flagellation. As each power up passes the goal line, the corresponding pain is inflicted upon the player by means of a heat element, electric circuit, and leather lash built into the table. The first to remove his hand from the sensor loses the game.
Morawe and Reiff have called Pain Station a video game adaptation of the duel. Although the outcome is less dire than a bout of pistols, the Pain Station means business; a web search reveals a cornucopia of ghastly injuries sustained by Pain Station combatants. Like the duel, Pain Station serves as a test of honor or a challenge of champions. To do so, its participants literally perform violence on an opponent by means of the game.
Another place to find performative play is in mixed reality games that couple computational interaction to real-world interaction in deliberate ways.
There are many genres of such games: mobile games, ubiquitous games, pervasive games, alternate reality games (ARGs) are among them. But not all of them necessarily involve performative play. A handset game played in a train or a puzzle game played by GPS hardly alters the state of the world through play alone.
The ones that do focus on game actions whose meaning and effect are layered, such that the same act has an in-game and out-of-game function and outcome. Furthermore, the meaning of the one often seems to inform or determine that of the other.
Cruel 2 B Kind, created by Jane McGonigal and myself, is a mobile phone-controlled real-world adaptation of the popular live-action roleplaying game Assassin. Instead of using water pistols or the other faux weapons common to Assassin, Cruel 2 B Kind's weapons are acts of kindness: compliment a person's footwear; wish them a pleasant day; perform a serenade for them.
The game is designed to be played in groups within bounded urban environments among pedestrian populations. Since the participants are not revealed before the game, part of the experience involves deducing who is and who is not playing.
In the process, it is common to compliment or serenade ordinary folks going about their daily business. In such cases, well-wishes still function normally, bringing surprising but harmless pleasantry to people caught in the game's crossfire.
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