Performances and operations (rules of the text 4)

As I’ve worked on these posts, I’ve been torn about how much of other scholars’ work to bring in, or, as I was taught to say in grad school, to adduce. It seems to me that the moment most readers of blogs see a reference to a book they haven’t read, like Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations, is the moment they stop reading because they figure that what follows will be over their heads, while those who have read the book stop reading because they already know what the author of the post is going to say.

But I’m about to hit a section of the argument that on the one hand wouldn’t raise itself except in reference to the work of other critics and, for that reason, won’t make much sense without reference to them, and, on the other, I intend at some point, either here or in a future “real” article, to make a contribution to the critical discourse about games and performance. It therefore behooves me to slow things down a bit and do what I was taught to do at humanities camp, and place my work in dialogue with the work of fellow critics.

So here’s what I’m saying: rulesets, whether of games or of any other kind of practomime, like (since we’re in the GRR Martin vein) novels, only become legible in performance.

What do I mean by “legible”? Well, on one level, I literally mean “readable,” because every time you read something you’re performing it, so there can be no reading of a ruleset without at least an exiguous performance. This is where I get to say that Roland Barthes talked a lot about reading and writing, and their relationship to one another and complementarity with one another, and that structuralist thought, founded on the work of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, conditions everything I say about practomime since that work founded the study of culture as a set of discursive practices that I’m carrying on here.

But I also mean “legible” in the senses “comprehensible” and, most importantly, “susceptible of analysis.” I’m saying that practomimes of all kinds can’t be understood without being performed. This point isn’t in itself new in any way; various schools of criticism have cropped up to deal with it in one or another way; deconstruction and reader-response theory are two examples, but it’s probably fair to say that every school of post-structuralist thought deals with this issue as a fundamental question.

But part of my argument is that the rise of games as a privileged practice–as something about which a debate “Is this art?” can occur, as jejune and undertheorized as we consider that debate to be–has posed the question in a new way, because since the days of oral epic composition there hasn’t been a privileged artistic discourse configured in such a way that the performer is not only imaginable, but necessary and visible not just as an ideal (this is what a reader does; reader-response and narratology are founded on their ability to nail down such formulations) but as an active agent whose experiences differ from another performer’s in ways so obvious that even non-theorizing performers (that is, gamers) cannot ignore them. Indeed, these non-theorizing performers focus on the differences to what often seems excess.

I’m saying that if we want to analyze games as part of culture, and also to analyze other cultural practices that I suggest have much more to do with games than they’ve previously been given credit for–especially if we want to analyze these things more thickly–we need to analyze the relationship between rulesets and performance. We need above all to see that a ruleset is a performance of another ruleset, that a performance of a ruleset is itself a ruleset, and that the corollary of these observations is a “great chain of practomime” that re-establishes play at the heart of artistic discourses of all kinds.

For this reason, if I’m to make this point in a scholarly way, there are certain critics of games whose work I must refer to, in order to clarify my argument by distinguishing it from theirs. Thankfully, because of the nature of their work and the nature of my project, that can be done pretty quickly. So here comes an academic paragraph.

Previous work on the analysis of rulesets as discursive practices has largely ignored the role of the performer in enacting the ruleset. Bogost’s concept of unit operations, Wark’s gamer theory, and Juul’s idea of the half-real nature of the zone of play all see the player as a constant, and his or her performance as supplementary to the artifact as they see it–the game. The idea that a performance of a ruleset is itself a ruleset cannot be grasped through these methodologies, because the player forms the boundary of the artifact, a boundary analyzable only as a boundary. Perhaps most revealingly, Wark’s gamer theory, which would seem from its name to hold promise for the thick description of player-performances, is rather predicated on a description of games as systems that make gamers all the same thing–that is, gamers.

Still reading? If so, I’m sure I’ll see you next time as I apply all this to the stunning (and I mean that, no matter how cynical people on Twitter are being) news that BioWare is going to be modifying the ruleset of Mass Effect 3 in explicit response to players’ complaints. I wasn’t going to go on, but considering the furore a bit of striking while the iron is hot is in order: BioWare did not cave; authorship and artistic value are not indissolubly linked; what happened yesterday (BioWare’s announcement) is a shaky, but enormous, step forward on the path to the realization of the expressive future of digital practomime.


  1. Yes, I have a sort of software engineer’s perspective on this question: What software developers in particular create when they produce a game is a sort of playground, same as the set of chits and papers in a board game’s box. The digital “game program” is really a constrained set of moving parts on which an interested player can project a variety of games proper. Now, many of these systems are constrained to the extent that most players are playing a similar, if not the same, game—”get to the end of the story”, for example—but most allow for the application of additional rules through personal intention or, through cheats and hacks, the rejection or modification of rules.

    I think that the equivalence drawn between performance and ruleset here is spot on.

  2. I, for one, wouldn’t mind if you took a more reference route and directly, if you didn’t mind, telling us where you got certain ideas. (Of course, this comes from someone who has read Unit Operations as well as most of the works mentioned too.)

    I would also argue against Unit Operations not mentioning the performance as unique per player. It’s subtle, but it would be in the concept of the Simulation Gap through which the player engages the Magic Circle. It’s the bridge (my words) over which we carry with us our cultural background and understanding necessary to the creation of the performance.

    We also don’t create in a vacuum and carry into an experience knowledge of other performances (viewed or played) to each ruleset. I agree that the moment of best legibility of a ruleset is in the moment of performance and that rulesets are performances of other rulesets.

    We can add to our available information. With save files or even previous knowledge of a genre, for example, we interpret mechanics into a performance. The dynamics of the situation are manifested from the feedback we receive from the game/text.

    If practomime is a chain of learned choices, we have to have a moment of first learning the rules of which we carry into future games. Something I have tried to consider in my own work is the game when I discovered that spikes in games were a bad thing. As far as I can discern this was Mega Man on the NES.

    To cite my own stuff, it’s this matrix of associations (Paul Werth; Text Worlds) that we bring with us and, in the moment, confirm or mutate as a result of the performance. If I learn, “This game says spikes are good, I must now remember that,” I carry that with me into my next game. Maybe, such as the moment in Metroid when I learned I could walk left, this transforms the previously accepted verb-noun set — my internal matrix has grown. In the next game I play, I may be able to both walk left and see spikes as a good thing.

    1. Author

      I certainly would never say that Unit Operations doesn’t mention the player-performance. But the basic difference from my approach is that the player-performance in unit-operations theory is purely functional: it’s there to mark the boundary, and allow the operation to instantiate itself. But I wouldn’t argue with the basic cogency of unit-operations theory; I’m trying to supplement it, in several senses of the word “supplement” (well, at least two, one of them Derridean).

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