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Game Play: Partial Knowledge Performances

by Dan Cox on 11/12/11 08:07:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Stories are driven by knowledge asymmetry. However, you may know the term from the study of how a reader is affected by the story they are reading, that is, in terms of understanding irony. You continue to watch a movie or read a book because you either want to know what happens next (dramatic irony) or want to see how the knowledge you do have will come to pass (tragic irony). This dissonance realization, however, is born first in the central issue of either the characters within the story or the reader themselves knowing more or less than each other: knowledge asymmetry.

In passive mediums like books and movies, this is the propelling aspect of consuming the story. You come to be in discourse with a story, creating a narrative within your own mind in the process, because you desire that the knowledge between you and the story be synchronous. Even if you are familiar with the story, you momentarily "forget" when you are caught up in the moment of immersion (flow). Within games, and video games specifically, this knowledge asymmetry manifests itself within the roles we play and how we are able to play them.

All play within the scope of a game is a performance born through our Understanding, nurtured in Narrative and grown via the framework of Mechanics.

To borrow from those smarter than me: Corvus Elrod says Play is "any pastime with a primary goal of self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space", Roger Travis uses the phrase "performative play practice" and Judith Butler (in Gender Trouble and later works) uses the term 'performativity' to describe the discourse between self and social norms that maintains the creation of some definable attribute like gender.

I prefer the last term, performativity, to describe the process of the player manifesting within the virtual. Each player, in any instance of interacting with a game, is always within discourse with the mechanics of the system, their own knowledge of the story and their Understanding of themselves. This is, of course, a "self-guided exploration" and "intersubjective performance" too. It is an actor performing with limited script (knowledge asymmetry) within the scope of a stage (bounded possibility space).


Understanding can be thought of as its own discourse between the player and their society. We conform to those social pressures around us only insomuch that we allow them to influence our behavior. Through repearted meaningful actions, we can "invest new meaning" into a created persona, an action known as performativity. We always bring this awareness of ourselves to any game session. Before we come to control another character, we are always ourselves first.


If the player brings with them a knowledge of how they express their own individuality, then that must, because of the notion of partial knowledge — fundamentally knowledge asymmetry — be the primarily source of identity first before discourse with the narrative can inform and shape that view.

I see the narrative discourse further subdividing into two separate categories: Defined and Emergent.

The Defined narrative is that which the developer intended for the player to understand about the world of the game. The Emergent narrative, on the other hand, is that which the player tells another person — often themselves — during the ingestion of the story as reinforced by the feedback via the mechanics. This means that the manifestation of ludonarrative dissonance must either be internalized by the player (and thus become part of the Emergent narrative they experience) or rejected by rationalizations that then justify that rejection. Anything experienced must be judged within a similar system.


The developers state, through what actions they explicitly allow in the game, how the mechanics will keep in check the exploration of the player in all contexts. The physical and emotional spaces are dictated by the mechanical limits that the developer places on the experience. Just as important as what the player brings and the story dictates, the mechanics are the last line, the final judge. If it is possible, the mechanics will allow it. The performance must, in the actions if not always active interpretation, be grounded in allowed expressions (a function of the available verb-set). The physically must be rooted in the possible, but its meaning can move beyond that.

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