A crash course, Performativity

[Whoa. I went from feeling pretty good about my writing with a crowd of around 8 to gaining a whole order of magnitude more in a few hours thanks to Line Hollis linking to my stuff. Thanks, Line. It meant a great deal to me that you did that.

Thanks also go to ~hellfire~ for both commenting and linking to me. “[The response post is]  excellent and so is his blog”? Really? Thank you very much. I’ve been enjoying your stuff too.]

As is usually my nature, I jumped into a conversation with hellfire on Judith Butler and performativity without taking time out to define some things to help people follow what we were talking about. In fact, I jumped into responding to hellfire’s post having only done the initial research to understand what was being talked about and how I felt about it. It’s time then to try and clarify some things.

hellfire did a great job of defining performativity as:

“Performativity is a process of both expressing and forming an identity within constraints.”

Judith Butler, in this quote from the first chapter of her book Gender Trouble, defines gender in a way that she uses to mean performativity:

“Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being. A political genealogy of gender ontologies, if it is successful, will deconstruct the substantive appearance of gender into its constitutive acts and locate and account for those acts within the compulsory frames set by the various forces that police the social appearance of gender.”

Sara Salih, in her essay “On Judith Butler and Performativity” (part of the collection Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life: A Reader), condenses this into the idea that “gender is not something one is, it is something one does, an act, or more precisely, a sequence of acts, a verb rather than a noun, a ‘doing’ rather than a ‘being'” (original emphasis).

Gender identity, Judith Butler argues, is derived from social norms — “within a highly rigid regulatory frame” — and the reaction of a self — “a set of repeated acts” — that then become — “congeal over time” — the gender identity.

As hellfire put it:

“The performance of an identity depends on norms; while an identity is produced through expression, it is also constrained.”

“Okay, but how does this apply to video games?” you may ask (as I did at first).

Well, if you extend identity to be defined by performativity, “a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being”, then you have an interesting framework for talking about how player expression forms character actualization. That is, how the player’s identity and character’s identity, two often separate things, work together toward what hellfire calls “a third identity” and I call “a third self”.

However, there are problems with this. Specifically, what are the social norms, “highly rigid regulatory frame” and “various forces that police the social appearance”, of a player-character identity?

Judith Butler states that the powers (“the law”) impose regulations that limit language — hellfire’s “[w]ithout the language to express certain identities… they can’t be formed” — and this, in turn, influences the social space of gender. Basically, as long as official forms use the binary, male or female, then that is what the general public will expect as the gender identities available. More can be added but must be known through “a set of repeated acts… over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being.”

What in a game imposes this same power?

The obvious answer would be the game mechanics themselves. As I have mentioned before from the Border House podcast, one of the panelists — , I think from this work — talked about playing a transgender Shepard and how the game would not support that identity unless continued pressure — “repeated acts” — from the player was used to reinforce this choice. It could be said that the game’s rules, as hellfire suggests, is one of the powers that restrict player identity. Another, of course, are the developers themselves.

Quinnae, in the post “An Open Letter to Mary Kirby and David Gaider“, makes the case that “there are a welter of creative possibilities before you for trans-recognition that generates good characters within a believable, setting-native context.” From that post, the point is obviously made that developers ultimately have the ability to include and exclude possible identities. They can influence, even with the initial choice of gender, how people will think about the game from the beginning. (This is a great example of why designing for subversive play or even expecting it is something many developers should pay attention to in their own work.)

As I pointed out yesterday, there is an additional complication though. Every game world has its own culture, especially games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls series. (Put another way, games with actual ethical decisions.) While the player can identity through expressions in the world, they must also contend with the judgement of others, each societies own norms. They have to exist, as a character, within a culture that may or may not approve, accept or even allow certain expressions.

It’s interesting that, to my knowledge, few games have characters react negatively to identifiable attributes like gender and race. Some question if Shepard is ready for command, in Mass Effect for example, but not, if playing as a woman, if she is ready in a world of male commanders. I know that Oblivion has races who dislike each other and its possible, since I have not put great time into them, that the Dragon Age games are similar. Of course, this might also be because I have only taken up the habit of cross-gaming in recent years or have not remembered other games. (Please tell me of other examples.)