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Feature: 'Persuasive Games: Performative Play'

Most games let you change things on screen. But how about the real world? In this intriguing piece, writer/designer Ian Bogost looks at Pain Station,

Eric Caoili, Blogger

June 25, 2008

2 Min Read

Most games let you change things on screen. But how about the real world? In this intriguing piece, writer/designer Ian Bogost looks at Pain Station, World Without Oil, and an RPG piggy bank to explore games that affect our everyday lives directly. Performatives - as opposed to constatives, which are speech acts that describe things - are speech acts that do things themselves when uttered, according to philosopher J.L. Austin. For example, when a cleric or magistrate declares, "I now pronounce you man and wife," his or her utterance is a performative, as it performs the action of initiating the marriage union. The idea of performative speech can also be translated to performative play: In every video game, players' actions make the game work: tilting an analog stick to move Crash Bandicoot; pressing Y to make Niko Bellic carjack; strumming the fret of a Rock Band guitar to puppet the on-screen guitarist. Such is the definition of interactivity, after all. But there is another, rarer kind of gameplay action, one that performs some action outside of the game at the same time as it does so in the game. The notion of the performative offers one way to understand such actions. In these cases, things a player does when playing take on a meaning in the game, but they also literally do something in the world beyond the game and its players." Bogost points to the Pain Station, a 2001 installation by German artists Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff, as an example of performative play. The game is a variant of Pong, providing an interesting and violent real-world twist: Two players compete by controlling a paddle with a knob in the usual fashion. The other hand must rest on a metal sensor, completing a circuit to enable the game. When a player misses a ball, it contacts a pain symbol corresponding with one of three different types of pain: heat, electric shock, and flagellation. As each power up passes the goal line, the corresponding pain is inflicted upon the player by means of a heat element, electric circuit, and leather lash built into the table. The first to remove his hand from the sensor loses the game. Morawe and Reiff have called Pain Station a video game adaptation of the duel. Although the outcome is less dire than a bout of pistols, the Pain Station means business; a web search reveals a cornucopia of ghastly injuries sustained by Pain Station combatants. Like the duel, Pain Station serves as a test of honor or a challenge of champions. To do so, its participants literally perform violence on an opponent by means of the game." You can now read the full feature for more examples on performative play, including World Without Oil, The Grocery Game, and BankQuest (no registration required, please feel free to link to this feature from other websites).

About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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