Playing as Performance

Words: 1988 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

One of the wonderful things about the rise of video capturing and streaming technologies is it has allowed a lot of people who play video games to do something that was often dreamed of by kids: to make a living playing video games. To do so is, of course, not easy. Not every person who tries to do so succeeds. But the very promise of being able to make money by playing video games has a certain appeal and even provides a sense of freedom – for those who truly love playing video games, you can make your work something you enjoy.

However, generally to make money the player needs to provide something to the audience. There must be some kind of performance that the viewer gets to observe along with the game itself. Sometimes the performance can be comedy, or analysis, or information. Even when the player’s performance is not the main draw, the performance becomes how the game is played: a speedrun or high-level play. But rarely does the task of playing serve on its own as a draw for people to watch.

But with the rise of these performances, we also see a change in how we approach games. And by “we” here I do not mean merely those people who do let’s plays or stream for a living. I mean even those who consume such content. To observe these performances is to also learn a set of habits that we mimic on our own. Watching others perform pushes us to perform as well, even when there is no audience.

I want to examine this alteration because it is a kind of double-edged sword. There is a sort of entertainment value that we can derive from our new outlook on games. But it can also impact our relationship with games as we play them. Performance requires a level of detachment that can inhibit more “authentic” (for lack of a better term) experience.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are tradeoffs to be made, and how we approach games on a visceral and an intellectual level can be at odds. We have a careful balancing act to maintain in many cases, and so it is not surprising that sometimes we slip and fall into one bad habit or another. But it is by looking closer at this phenomenon that we can better understand how performance impacts our play.

Joking and Critiquing

To perform is not simply to use our bodies and voices in ways that are distinct from the actual task of playing. To lean your body as you turn in a racing game. To shout in frustration when you are killed in an online game. To scream in surprise and terror when you are frightened in a horror game. All of these things might be something you would see someone do in a stream or in a video, but they alone do not constitute performance. They are things you can do on your own because they are a form of immersion: you lean because you feel like you’re inside the car, you shout because you are genuinely frustrated, you scream because you are genuinely scared.

Instead, we should see performance as more about altering our behavior because we are being perceived. The changes are often subtle, though sometimes they may be conscious. We may make our actions or exclamations more dynamic. We generally would be careful with the way we speak, even if solely for the sake of not sounding stupid. When we perform, we are concentrated on the performance itself. What comes to our minds while we play is not simply that which is second-nature, but that which we are creating because there is an audience.

The most common ways to envision such performance is through comedy and analysis. On the comedy front, there are often moments in games that make us laugh. Sometimes there is a genuinely funny scene in a game, or something is so patently absurd that we can’t help but break out in laughter. But it is also the case that sometimes a scene is funny not on its own, but by our poking fun at it. Perhaps the scene is designed to be serious, but by digging at some component of the premise we can turn it into something farcical. Those jokes can produce moments of real mirth. But they are also a form of performance, because they require a level of conscious thought outside of the game and the task of playing itself.

Likewise, analysis requires this kind of conscious thought. To understand the symbolism of a game’s story, to examine its themes, or to think about the mechanics and how well they do or don’t work all require us to step outside of the experience of the game itself. And so we engage in a sort of back-and-forth with ourselves (or with an audience), mulling over possible explanations for meanings or providing critiques of the game from artistic, narrative, or mechanical standpoints. These endeavors are all worthwhile intellectual pursuits, and again there is a genuine sense of enjoyment that can come from both participating in and observing such criticism and analysis. But doing these things because we are expected to – because we perceive that as something that an audience wants – transforms it into a performance.

Now the performance itself is not the object of this essay. I merely want to try to get some handle on what a performance looks like in contrast to “normal” ways of playing. To distinguish between certain behaviors that are performative versus those that merely can be performative. Performance itself is fine because for quite a few people it is fun and/or a source of income. We are interested in performance not for performers, but for those who specifically are not engaged in performing.

A Performance Without an Audience

So how does this all impact us as players?

The habits we observe in others can cause us to mimic those habits in our private moments. In playing games on our own, we may learn to not simply notice something absurd, but to consciously make something absurd for the sake of humor. We may witness a serious or solemn moment and attempt to make light of it in some way because it is funny.

Or we might engage in analysis. We might ask whether a particular line in a story, or the structure of the story as a whole, or the controls of a game are good. Such that we make the effort to explain to ourselves what we are enjoying and not enjoying and why.

The idea is that we learn to perform as though there is someone watching. Even when we are unobserved, we may feel compelled in some way to make light or analyze (or engage in some other form of performance). Perhaps it could be an attempt – consciously or unconsciously – to train ourselves for an attempt to perform publicly, to get into the world of streaming or recording. Perhaps it is merely something we pick up in observing others. The exact reason why it happens is largely irrelevant to our discussion.

I will note, also, there is nothing inherently wrong with this behavior. There is not necessarily a “right” way to interact with games, and these forms of interaction can bring joy on their own. To make ourselves laugh or to use and stimulate our intellects are sources of fun for players. If we choose to interact with games in these ways, we are not playing the games wrongly.

But even so, we should not ignore that something is being left behind when we do so. Video games rely largely on immersion, both for playing and narrative purposes. The player is meant to feel lost within the game itself, as the distinction between player and game disappears. The distinction will always remain, but one of the key aspects of creating good games is attempting to blur that line and make players less aware of it while they are playing.

By engaging in these performances, though, we necessarily remove ourselves from the immersive experience. To make fun of a game or to analyze it requires stepping outside of the game itself and viewing it from an external perspective. But immersion requires being inside. We potentially attempt to inhabit two places at once, but it is at the very least incredibly difficult to pull this off, and potentially even impossible.

Let us use critical analysis to focus our discussion a bit. To immerse ourselves in a game is to, in some sense, engage with it unthinkingly. Not that we don’t use our minds in a variety of ways while playing: we still may need to plan, puzzle, or decipher. But this thought is all directed to the internal components of the game itself. We turn our mind to what the game is telling us and focus on that. But criticism and analysis direct our minds outward, to examine the various components of the game and its narrative not as the game presents them to us, but through the lens of examining games and storytelling as a whole. If immersion asks us not to think about the game while we play it, such immersion is at odds with the performative aspect of criticism.

This is not to say that we must choose immersion or analysis. Having both is not impossible. But having both may require a separation. We must be immersed first before then stepping out and analyzing. It is not the analysis itself, but the attempt to analyze while playing that creates this problem. And hence why I frame this as an issue of performance, and not analysis as a whole. We can generally play a game and afterwards ask ourselves why we liked or disliked it. We may not be very good at providing an answer, but we can at least separate the two tasks. But in observing the performances of others, in learning the techniques of criticism, we begin to apply those techniques while we are playing in a way that unblurs the lines and shuts us off from becoming immersed.

If there is a solution here, it is really about becoming more conscious of how we play and what we are doing. We can ultimately find this loss worthwhile. Perhaps we are gaining more from being critical of our experience than we would if we were fully immersed in the game. But if we are going to do that, we should at least be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing: to acknowledge that something is being lost. While choosing to forego immersion for the sake of these performances is justified, to fool ourselves about what is going on would not be.

Concluding Remarks

Performance itself is a part of human life. Even everyday social interactions can involve some sense of performance. It is in part why we distinguish between the performative and the “authentic,” the latter of which showcases what is real and usually privately held. It is no surprise that playing video games have become a performance on their own, and that other forms of performance have been integrated with the action. So long as there is an audience, we will seek to perform in some way.

But performance is a double-edged sword. Performance can be enjoyable, but can impact our relationship with the things we consume. We gain, but in gaining we also lose. We do not need to halt performance as a whole. We should not be so worried about any potential losses that we must forego all of the entertainment that performance brings us. But we should step back now and then and ask ourselves how we play games, and how performance – both in being a performer and in learning habits from watching performers – changes how we play games, and what that change in turn means for our relationship with these games.

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