Performance & Mimicry: Do Video Games Even Have Rules?

Performance and how it manifests in play takes up more of my thoughts as time goes on. We do see some mention of performance in games, typically that players perform with games as an aesthetic perspective. Players and objects as agents influencing each other, rolling into one another like improv acting is generally something I’m on board with. It allows us to see what sort of prompts each agent involved gives the other and the politics of the relationship that rises from the call and response that results. What trips this up however is a shallow look at what sort of prompting games give players, particularly video games. Instead of a performance we see the glorification of interaction and interactivity, or rather just the fact a call and response of any kind is happening. It influences game design, critique, and playing to understand video games as things that prompt interaction rather than objects with agency that lend themselves to performance.

Having just spent time going over my notes to Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, Games, I found myself thinking about his ideas on mimicry as a category of play and where performance fits into that. In this context, mimicry is the suspension of disbelief and evoking illusion over ourselves and the environment as a setting for play. Caillois cites games of make-believe to theater as the domain of mimicry, all of which performance is the evocative element that substantiates play. The quirk here is how in his classifications of games, mimicry is one of the types that doesn’t have rules: “the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed–rules for the dissimulation of reality and substitution of a second reality.” So there seems to be here a clash between performance and rules, because the sacred space of performance is marked by the act of performing rather than the bounds created by arbitrary rules. With rules, we don’t make-believe, we submit to the rules and act by their affordances. Performance, which is more than just literal action, requires manipulating illusion and revelation of the self in relationship to reality; being outside of it is like trying to have a call and response relationship with the void.

What looks like is getting in the way of creating, observing, and participating in performance with video games is the craft’s insistence that they are rules-based games. While there is ambivalence on this point for tabletop and live roleplaying games where there is performance with actual written rules that create the space one is in, video games have no such thing as rule-bounded realities for play. Instead, they have what designers call ‘material rules,’ or rules implied by what the code of the game and physical inputs does and does not allow the player to do. Thus follows the interactivity-based lens which looks at video games chiefly on what a player can and cannot do, and how they act within those constraints. Performance, narrative, and experience can only be described as an action report in this perspective because ‘what counts’ is that the player is doing, not necessarily what the player is doing.

We can shift focus then and see material rules as an attempt to classify video games as Caillois’ agon, competition or strife (the computer being who we play with) within established bounds of rules, when they actually do not have rules and are games of mimicry. Most if not all digital games do not have rules unique to themselves when it is recognized the game either will or will not let you do something. Unlike rules-based games in Caillois’ perspective, video games don’t dissolve away when a rule is ignored. Because video games are designed, analyzed, and played as rules-based games through convention, performance is rare. The times performance tends to happen is when perceived rules, said material rules, are broken or changed, much emblemized by the phenomenon of speedrunning. We see illusion and subversion in mods, hacks, glitches, and player-created challenges. While many designers embrace uncertainty in what the player will do and experience through creating multiple avenues of agency and adding procedural generation to everything, these are not used as prompts for performance as the creator could anticipate the possibilities of play down to a fine level of detail. Rules are more conventions that creators use as they make video games rather than what players eventually follow. For example, painters will use color and perspective to manipulate how the eye travels across their painting, but general viewers themselves are not following the laws of color and perspective on any lucid level. This is particularly apparent in fighting games, which are often described in performative language. Without questioning skill and dedication, all fighting game matches are predictable in concept by the creators, and in this perspective players are operating the game in the way it was made to operate. It’s obvious that creativity is at work in fighting games, and the community surrounding them attests to that, yet the games themselves are not platforms for generative play. The main way performance happens in video games currently is when a game is improperly used and purposefully broken which creators do not anticipate. When players do this we don’t see the game as necessarily ruined or dissolved, but evolved and on-going.

To nurture performance in video games, creators have to craft for it beyond the base of interactivity. Performance is generative, it creates. So far, the idea of performance is used as an on/off switch, that games aren’t ‘alive’ until performed. Performed in that usage simply means to operate. Crafting for performance means creating prompts and continuous calls and responses that you cannot possibly predict. The implications of performance and video games is most felt in their exhibition, and by effect how they are played overall. Despite being interactive, video games do not impart aesthetic experiences very well when put in exhibits or shows, since most are made for consumption in private spaces. That curators and event organizers only know to place a video game on a computer at a station shows that we do not fully understand the aesthetic experience video games have to offer. A computer in the museum is, in this context, no different from a picture frame on the wall. The art is dead and kept away from the people. In this light, I don’t think many people in video games have seriously considered games as artistic experiences outside the forms of entertainment consumption.

Performance has a history of interrupting the usual flow of commodification and consumption of art. Performance art challenged ownership, meaning-making, and methods of expression. Video games routinely run into what seem to be unsolvable issues that center around these sorts of issues, particularly engaging with social issues with any depth, interrogating relationships and intimacy, dealing with the subjective experience of shared events. This was an impetus of a work I performed earlier in the year, empathy machine, which moved a video game I made, Mainichi, into a performance context that activated its meaning through public engagement. It came after years of seeing Mainichi played in exhibitions on computers and completely lifeless. The proper context for a call and response was missing and instead people just glazed over it much like every other game curated around topics of social importance.

It’s possible what I’m talking about isn’t video games but something beyond them. Maybe this is to say that video games actually require a stronger presence of hacking, cheating, and modding for performance to come alive. Is it that they should be designed for maximum availability for exploitation or have vague enough material goals so players make their own? I’m only beginning to dig into performance and games, and these are just ideas, but I do think it’s a conversation worth having as games become increasingly absorbed into art and theoretical circles.

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