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Persuasive Games: Performative Play
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Persuasive Games: Performative Play

June 25, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Office politics feels like a game because it involves many unpredictable, intersecting decisions that recombine in complex ways. Office work often involves strategy and planning, but it all happens behind the scenes, off the time clock. Attent puts that work back on the books, but invites rather than hides the social rules that drive office work.

For example, a group of lower-level workers can aggregate their attention capital by amassing Serios-filled emails to one another, whose loot a representative can then use to get attention up the chain. Attent tightly couples the workplace and the workplace game, such that "moves" in the game correspond closely to direct action in the workplace.

The Grocery Game offers another example of more mundane performative play. A web-based service provides data on the cheapest goods at local supermarkets, as well as tips on saving money on groceries through bulk purchase strategies. The goal of the game is to reduce one's family grocery costs as much as possible.

Implied sub-goals like turning a $100 grocery bill into a $5 one through extremely efficient uses of coupons and specials drive competition and community. In The Grocery Game, the act of play, shopping, and saving compress, such that the first action enacts the latter two. Through very tightly coupled performative play, Attent and The Grocery Game show how some games have more in common with doorbells and exit placards than immersive fantasy worlds.

Tomy's forthcoming Bankquest piggy bank turns The Grocery Game on its head, making the savings drive the play rather than vice-versa. Bankquest is a piggy bank for kids with a tiny digital role-playing game built into the front.

Coins dropped into the bank become savings in the ordinary sense, but they also get translated into currency in the game, which can be used to buy items like weapons and armor.

Here the performative play is even more tightly coupled with the action it performs: filling the in-game wallet simultaneously fills the real one. And kids still get to spend the money they save.

Performative Play

Video games often face a challenge: what does playing a game do to people in the world? In the case of entertainment games, such a question asks about the effects of violence on players, or about how players find and evaluate meaning in games.

In training, advertising, and learning games, the question asks how players take knowledge they learned in a game and apply it in their daily lives. The motivational (and compulsive) aspects of games suggest other ways gameplay can influence behavior. But such matters cover only part of the intersection between our game lives and our ordinary lives.

In speech, performatives function because people understand both the meaning of the words they utter and the actions they cause. Austin suggests that performatives make conscious actions explicit; this is why making a promise works. Likewise, in games that feature performative mechanics, the performance and the play are both known to the player, and their implications are simultaneous and immediate.

Performativity in discourse produces action. Performativity in video games couple gameplay to real-world action. Performative gameplay describes mechanics that change the state of the world through play actions themselves, rather than by inspiring possible future actions through coersion or reflection.

But there is an important distinction to note between performative play and more generic real-world effects. As examples like Wii Fit and the ESP Game demonstrate, performativity is a special kind of play that for which outcome alone is an insufficient criterion. In addition, the player's conscious understanding of the purpose, effect, and implications of her actions, such that they bear meaning as cultural conditions, not just instrumental contrivances.


Pain Station photo by Ultimaratiopharm, used under Creative Commons license.
Cruel 2 B Kind photo by Kiyash Monsef, used under Creative Commons license.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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