Says who? Problems with Performativity

I was initially really excited about the idea of using performativity to describe the on-going and in-moment generation of the player-character as a unit. It makes sense to talk about the discourse between the self and the surrounding social norms in the creation of a performance that is made manifest through expressions. Since Judith Butler uses this idea for the formation of gender (Gender Trouble) in society, it would stand to reason that any attribute or even the recreated and reflected self in the virtual could be seen within this framework.

However, there is a major problem, as I discovered later, with using this framework: whose social norms are you in discourse with?

In her own framework, Judith Butler’s “social norms” are hetero-normative enforcement ideals that comes not from Powers (government) as I initially thought — and wrote — but from the fact that her ideas rest on Lacanian psychoanalysis (as dmccool pointed out). The enforcement of gender, and any other definable attribute of personhood, arises out of the language called forth by the Father (during the separation of the child from the Mother, according to Lacan). In other words, patriarchal (i.e. men ruled societies) are most often to blame for putting forth laws and reinforcing cultural ideals of hetero-normative behavior that restrict alternative interpretations and especially performances that might challenge that. (I’m not saying I completely agree, but it is certainly a provocative and worthwhile way of looking at the situation.)

The question then becomes this: who or what are the social norms we are in discourse with and how did they get in the game space?

Says ~hellfire~ in a comment on that post:

“I need to clarify what I mean by ‘norms’ when taken from Butler’s theory and into games. Butler’s ‘norm’ gets translated *loosely* into a game’s ‘rules’. So a game might only allow progression by killing foes, and have limited room for exploration. In such a game, killing foes is the norm. But there is also space left for exploration: a tiny bit of room is there for an identity of explorer to be formed an expressed. While killing foes isn’t necessarily a rule in the game (we CAN do otherwise), it is the norm.”

I think that is close to what we need to look at, the mechanics (rules) of the game. The other part, as we both agree on, is the narrative rules of the game. The third part though is what the player brings, part of the bias — although probably that’s not the right word — that the player brings to every experience. Let’s look at the later first and work our way to the others.


We know that the player influences the behaviors of the player-character and that these behaviors build from the expressions into the performance. However, what do we call what the player brings to the table, so to speak, in their discourse with the other parts? How about — since I do not have a better work for it at the moment — Understanding?

This Understanding is made up of another discourse of self and society that is at the core of the player. The created self, the performativity of the player herself, serves as the fuel for the expressions that will eventually develop as a function of the choices and accuracy of personification that the game allows. Each part — Mechanics, Narrative and Understanding — are, together, a separate discourse that represents the influence of all three.


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 — asymmetrical knowledge — be the primarily source of identity first before the narrative rules can inform and shape that view. Before the player is the character, they are themselves.

I see the narrative rules 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.


I covered part of where this comes from back in another post:

“The obvious answer would be the game mechanics themselves. As I have mentioned before from the Border House podcast, one of the panelists… 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.” (“A crash course, Performativity“)

The developers states, 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 spaces — if you can fall off ledges or not — as well as the emotional spaces — no, you cannot have a FemShep relationship with Tali — 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, mechanics is the last line, the final judge. If it is possible, the mechanics will allow it. The performativity must, in the action but not interpretation, be grounded in allowed expressions. The physically must be rooted in the possible, but its meaning can move beyond that.

Each person who plays a game has their Understanding (of self) which they bring to the game. From this, they pick a mask (in discourse with narrative) and then act (within discourse with mechanics). Together, all three parts, in the very instance of play, bring about the performance as expressions; born through Understanding, nurtured in Narrative and grown via the framework of Mechanics.