Performativity and Identity in Games?

by ~hellfire~

[Edit2: Dan Cox of Digital Ephemera  posted a response to this. It’s excellent and so is his blog. I left a comment on his post which  hopefully clarifies the ideas here.]

Judith Butler writes about performativity. Performativity is a process of both expressing and forming an identity within constraints. A person who wants to express his or her identity as a gamer, a philosopher, or a transsexual, or all three, simultaneously forms and expresses that identity through some sort of performance. She communicates to herself and others the things that define her, and in doing this forms what she is.

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.

Following this, Butler says that performance exists on a spectrum of precarity. 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. 150 years ago, it’d be really hard for a person to form an identity as a homosexual. Now it’s less hard, although arguably still harder than forming other identities. 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.

This means something for games. When we play a game we also bring something of our own identity with us. But that identity gets restricted. In Planescape: Torment, the player’s identity is part of the character’s (at least in how it can be expressed within the game world). 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. So the player’s and character’s identities get combined—the character responds to the player’s input, but also restricts the player’s identity and asserts its own.

Again: identity is both formed and expressed simultaneously. To express and form an identity, there has to be a place in norms and language for that identity. And in games, that place is explicitly restricted by game rules. These game rules often correspond to the performance of a character’s identity, which is separate from the player’s. So what/who we play as in games involves overlapping identities.

Following this, both the player’s and the character’s identity are on different spectrums of precarity. One’s identity might be more stable, while the other’s less so. But they always overlap.

Of course, we know games restrict performativity. They do this in pretty explicit ways. In games we might be able to express identities we normally can’t, or we might be forced into performing an identity we normally wouldn’t, or we might not be able to form the identity we want. We’re usually aware this is happening. So we probably don’t lose track of our real life identities just because they’re being combined with a character’s. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that helps us to reflect on our own identities;  by 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.

 So we form a new sort of self, a cross between a character and a player. I think? These ideas are still getting in shape.

.gif of ideas getting in shape

[Edit: I should note that I kind of simplify Butler here. Butler thinks power and government play a big role in performativity. For games, I guess the game makers (who are, after all, influenced by norms that are enforced by those in power) are the ones who dictate what sort “I” can be produced in a game. The “subject”–the identity that gets recognized within a game–is not the same as that of the player because of this.]