Role, Fortunes and Performativity

hellfire, on the blog You Must Register, has an intriguing post that relates to some of the recent conversation — monologue? — over how the role of a player-character can be informed from the fortune of that character within a game I’ve been writing about. Going back to the quote from Ari — “Harmony between the character’s morality and the morality favored by the world usually results in positive fortune for that character; dissonance, naturally, leads to ill fortune” — then the goal of the player, to gain the most fortune, is to conform to the role of the character and, in essence, also conform to the social norms of that character’s world (What if the character is a misogynist?). However, that only defines the character part of the equation. For the player’s part, we go to hellfire.

First, let me define some ideas as I understand them from the post.

“When we play a game we also bring something of our own identity with us. But that identity gets restricted.”

Using Ian Boogst’s theory of the Simulation Gap (Unit Operations) and Johan Huizinga’s “magic circle” (Homo Ludens), I understand this to be that the player brings their own bias into the world of the game, a separate world, that then influences how they understand the rules, restrictions, that are placed on them. While the Magic Circle is indeed a separate, if you will excuse some slight hyperbole, reality, the player must have some basis of visual and cultural understanding in order to process the stimuli that the reality produces.

“This is because the player’s available goals, actions, and expressions are narrowed down by what the game rules allow the player to do; these rules are usually dependent on what the character can do or wants to do.”

Yes and no. While I agree that the character’s perceived intent is a factor in most decision making for the player — producing the “available goals, actions, and expressions” — the player can misinterpret what the social norms of the cultural instance, the game itself or even actively ignore them both. Mary Flanagan, who I’ve quoted from many times, puts forth the idea of Subversive Play which is often the ignoring or even perversion of the perceived social norms for performance [I’ll come back to this] or exploration purposes.

The social norms of the game’s world and the game itself can be different too. The morality, a subset of the social norms, can be highly expressive in games like Fallout: New Vegas. I, as the player, can often kill people in towns (against the social norm) which produces a punishment (other people attack me), yet rewarded by the game from the event (receive experience points for a kill). If I perceive that the reward for the actions outweighs the punishment, I may continue to do actions the character would not, which can be understood to be actions that conform both to the social norms and produce the most fortune by being in line with those norms.

Now, finally, I am ready to quote from the beginning of hellfire’s post:

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

“The performance of an identity depends on norms; while an identity is produced through expression, it is also constrained. Without the language to express certain identities— or the ability to recognize those identities—they can’t be formed. If there was no way to express being a gamer, whether because there was no language for it or no system of norms that it could be recognized in, having “gamer” as an identity wouldn’t really work. So identity is constrained by things like norms and language. Only things that get recognized can get identities.”

Before I go into how I think these ideas relate to what I have been saying so far, I want to discuss something that I find troubling in the linking of language to thought that hellfire mentions. While I agree with the idea, for the most part, that it is hard to conceive of something that your linguistic understanding does not allow (linguistic determinism), I think it is dangerous to extend that to the understanding of interactions in video games, non-verbal communication through a learned language of buttons presses and feedback from the result, because it would limit the total interpretation space. The Simulation Gap (“we bring something of our own identity with us”) means that we will also have some preset understanding of actions, possible performances, that the game may not allow or even suggest as possible. (I may decide to play as a transgender person, something the Border House podcast talked about, even if the game, Mass Effect in their example, does not allow it. I bring knowledge of that identity to the session even if the game world did not suggest it was an available identity to choose from.)

While I agree with hellfire that the idea of using performativity, the understanding of identity as a series of expressions under the constraints of the social norms (which are themselves only social constructs from a shared value system), is an interesting approach to understanding the role of the player, the character and how they influence each other, I am skeptical of trying to define what the norms are and who controls them — something I get the feeling, after reading of the addition at the end of the post, hellfire is struggling with too.

One approach to understanding the social norms of a game might be to examine the game’s world and determine which actions produce rewards or punishments. If the player dies by jumping onto the spikes, in a Mega Man game for example, then the player learns not to do that action. The game judges this to be a bad action and instant punishment happens. In a game like Planesscape: Torment, however, I may be able to make many ‘mistakes’ (as the game judges them) before punishment is enacted against the player. Obviously, the greater the ability to express means the more defined the identity of the character can become. This is where precarity comes into the equation.

“Precarity is how stable an identity is. The degree of stability comes from how that easily that identity fits into the structure it gets performed in, or whether it even can be performed… Precarity is how precarious an identity’s place in discourse is; the more precarity, the harder it is for an identity to be formed or asserted”

Again, while I think this is a great way of measuring the ability of identifies to fit into a game’s world, I do not agree that it precludes them —  “whether it even can be performed.” I go back to the transgender Shepard of Mass Effect or even my non-misogynistic Geralt in The Witcher. Just because the idenity has a high degree of precarity, does not means it is not possible, only that gathering the necessary expressions for the building of that identity becomes hard to accomplish and much interpretative work would need to be done on the part of the player.

“[B]y encouraging thinking about what we can do, what we can’t do, and what we want to do, a game can be meaningful for our real identities. It can help us think about who we are.”

I absolutely agree with this. This is the power of games: not only can we see the world through another point of view (as movies and books provide), but we can also act from within that point of view as well. The problems arise though in the considering of how to act. Should we build a separate identity (as many role-playing games allow) through expressions, performances, of a persona, our own beliefs or attempt to take on the social norms and reward systems to express the role of the character. Which, to put the question in a blunt way, is more important: the player or the character?