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Persuasive Games: Performative Play
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Persuasive Games: Performative Play


June 25, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

Another mixed reality game with performative results is ITVS's World Without Oil, an ARG about a global oil crisis created by Ken Eklund and Jane McGonigal. To play, participants created stories about their imagined strategies to get through daily life during an oil shortfall. Some wrote or recorded hypothetical accounts, while others literally enacted oil-saving strategies like planting community gardens or starting carpools. Doing so contributed to oil conservation in real ways, even if small ones.

Carnegie Mellon computer scientists Manuel Blum and Luis von Ahn's human computation games offer a very different example. Now aggregated at gwap.com, the best known is probably the ESP Game, in which two remote players see the same image and try to guess words the other would use to describe them.

As the game finds a match, it not only rewards points but also stores the matching terms as descriptive tags for the images. Google has even licensed the game (as the Google Image Labeler) to train its image search algorithm. Other Gwap games work similarly: Tag a Tune for identifying music, Squigl for identifying object positions within images.

In Cruel 2 B Kind and World Without Oil, the reality mixed into the game is physicality. In the Gwap games, the mixed reality is labor. Their gameplay performs a kind of work that's hard for computers but easy for humans. When players partake of the ESP Game, they perform the tagging of images directly and simultaneously with every move in the game. Here, gameplay resembles the performative act of christening a ship or a building.

That said, there is something "unhappy" in Austin's sense about Gwap's performative play: unlike World Without Oil or Pain Station, it fails to reveal and contextualize the meaning of its actions. Players may have some sense that the games contributes to image or music tagging, but they do not understand the implications of such actions in the way they understand promises and wagers when they perform such speech acts. This defect raises ethical concerns as much as formal ones.

When a game performs an action without the player's understanding of its implications, it confuses performativity and exploitation. "I do" is a meaningful performative utterance because bride, groom, and witnesses all fully understand its implications.

But the possible implications of image tags, for example, as tools for surveillance as much as for image searches, are not made obvious by the ESP Game. "Gwap" is an acronym for "Games with a Purpose." But a purpose is not enough to describe performative play. A context and a convention is also required.

The Mundane

Ethical matters notwithstanding, exercise, kindness, oil conservation, and metadata gathering are far more dramatic actions than many things done though other media. Restroom signs and rear view cameras are useful tools, but they are also mundane ones; people need to find toilets and avoid tricycles. Performative play in games can address more mundane activities like these as well.

Consider enterprise solutions start-up Seriosity's product Attent. The premise is this: we all get too much email, which reduces productivity. In large organizations, much of this email is sent internally. The attention cost of receiving email doesn't match that of sending it. Things just get worse as the recipients become more senior, and therefore their time more valuable. Time management isn't the answer; less email is. And one way to reduce the email people receive is to make it more precious to send.

Attent tries to do exactly this, making email more expensive to send, or at least making workers more deliberate about how they do so. Since attention cost rises with seniority and expertise, email can be recast as an attention game: the CEO's attention costs more than the junior manager's, so the latter should have to "pay more" to get the attention of the former. And likewise, a senior executive would take a request from a junior one more seriously if the latter had to spend more of her scarce attention capital to obtain it.

Attent turns attention into capital, literally, via a scrip currency called Serios. Workers can get Serios by accepting email with attached payments, or companies can choose to dole it out in other ways as incentives or rewards. Attent works as a plug-in for the popular corporate email client Microsoft Outlook, so it's possible for workers to track their credits along with their calendar and even to sort email by their value in Serios rather than by date.


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