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Persuasive Games: Performative Play

June 25, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[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.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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