CRPGs as a Case Study for Single Player Performance
When looking to videogames as performance, much research and theory has grappled with the self in the postmodern era of socialization, examining the mediation of selves through digital spaces to how identities are at play in multiplayer digital games. It is a natural conclusion to reach, given the fascinating behavior in digital games and beyond. Observing actions on display, describing the embodied costumes that are avatars, and analyzing the meaning behind the performances and social relations in digital spaces are all important and well explored topics (T.L. Taylor, Consalvo, Turkle). But when those same performances and those same costumes are divorced from the context of a social world, when they are enacted in independent play, previous analysis appears useless. Applying sociological dramaturgy to single player games seems a moot point entirely.
In The Ambiguity of Play, Brian Sutton-Smith just briefly mentions a concept that may apply to sociological study of the solitary. Throughout the chapter “Rhetorics of Self”, he elucidates play discourses that revolve around the individual, from the neurological to the experiential. So when Sutton-Smith briefly mentions “the role of play as personal performance” and that there is a need to “develop a performance theory of play that is about individual as well as social play,” questions of what it means to enact a “personal performance” arise (Sutton-Smith 197). Most performance studies are modeled off theatre plays, a metaphor that necessitates an audience, complicating the idea of personal performance. Keeping Sutton-Smith’s questions in mind, defining what individual play as performance means is not sufficiently answered by dramaturgical studies.
The rhetorics of self are deeply tied to freedom. They describe play as “free choice” and “carefree, aimless;” in sum “play and the freedom for private thought and action have come to be inexorably bound together” (Sutton-Smith 174, 176). When speaking of play in this framework, such descriptions echo the discourse around computer role playing games (CRPGs), such as Mass Effect, Fallout, or The Elder Scrolls. These games are characterized by striving for “player choice” or “player freedom.” The inherent idea behind these games is that they are ripe for so-called immersive play, of occupying a world via an avatar and experiencing the thrill of the world responding to the player’s mediated actions (Klevjer 87-8). Regardless of the extent to which any CRPG achieves such an experience, the core rhetoric is maintained: to play a CRPG is to play freely. Because CRPGs so well follow rhetorics of self, they lend themselves as a case study for how single player games may function as spaces of personal performance.
To define what personal performance can mean, Goffman’s regions of performance is useful; playing single player games in general occurs in a “back region”, one in which no formal audience exists and is meant to be a space for private management of self. In conjunction with Goffman’s models of performance regions, Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity can be used to expound on the mundane activity of solitary play in a fictional world as a component of identity.
Applied to CRPGs, the fictional worlds that compose these kinds of games are a coherent back region and space for rehearsal-like play; they strive for narrative diegesis and world reaction to player action. That identity is mediated through an avatar or player character (or some combination of the two), so that the player’s actions are beholden to the artificial natural and social rules of the game. Taking these characteristics into account, CRPGs are a play space for personal performance.
Sutton-Smith looks to empirical studies on the performances of child’s play as a starting point for a theory of play as personal performance. Although his larger argument is that excitement is derived from the “molecular actions of play,” his use of child’s play is no coincidence and a good place to start when defining what personal performance is (Sutton-Smith 192). Speaking to the example that Sutton-Smith uses, a child playing house alone is an example of what Erving Goffman would call a “back region” in relation to performance (Goffman 69).
A back region or stage is “a place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman 69). Where the front region is where social actors engage in impression management, presenting a self for others, the back region is where social actors may relax, where a self that is not coherent with selves presented in the front region may be performed. More significantly for play, the back region is where actors can rehearse the performance they will give for onlookers. In the context of child’s solitary play, particularly the kind of make-believe that mimics adult roles, the back region is where the child may prepare and polish social norms in a safe environment.
The personal performances in play that Sutton-Smith mentions are back stage regions. They are a space in which a rehearsal of self may occur, an expressive performance that only the actor evaluates. However, when Goffman speaks about front regions and back regions, he is referring to far more specific situations where one manages impression of self than such a broad concept as “identity” (Goffman 67). In the case of child’s play, the children are practicing roles such as “parent” or “doctor” that have a corresponding adult role that they may take on later in life. Single player games, however, are not a rehearsal space for the player’s future career as a dragon slayer or space marine. While there may be corresponding roles or kinds of social interaction simulated in a game, Goffman’s definition of a back region is not satisfactory for something as fuzzy as personal performance.
What’s more, Sutton-Smith is not describing the mimicry of an external world as the primary drive for play when considering rhetorics of self. Instead, the children play with “interpreting their own feelings and thoughts” about their actions (Sutton-Smith 198). Goffman does not particularly account for how the actor feels about their rehearsal in back regions without contextualization from the front stage.
To fully craft a definition of personal performance in the context of single player games, integrating Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity is helpful. Referencing Foucault’s redescription of the demarcation between the inner/outer, Butler asserts that the difference between the public and private is constructed to reinforce the status quo. Body politics create an artificial barrier between the interior self and the public sphere (Butler 185). Applied to gender, and as an extension identity, all acts are performative, not just ones that are observed, because the interiority of the self is just as fabricated as the social context in which the self exists. Unlike Goffman, who very much differentiates between a public performance and a private performance, Butler asserts that all actions are performative and the self is comprised of the repetition of acts.
Combining these two seemingly contradictory ideas arrives at a functional definition for personal performance in play. Framed by the back region, single player games can be marked, even if only artificially, as in a distinctly different performance space than those with an audience. This denotes that different performances of self can occur within these unmonitored spaces and introduces the notion of rehearsal into the equation of performance. Performativity ensures that actions in play that occur within a fictional world with no similarity to the mundane world are still reflective actions that comprise the self and the fuzzy concept of “identity.” Personal performance in individual play is taking action in a space without an audience, and the pleasure of play that derives from the performances relation to self identity.
CRPGs are an apt place to begin as a case study for testing this definition, particularly with pre-existing performance studies of multiplayer games in mind. The conventions of popular, contemporary CRPGs fit the definition of personal performance.
The fictional world of the single player CRPG is a modified version of the back stage; it is a separate, unmonitored space for play with a world that can react to the player’s performance in a nonconsequential way; these worlds are spaces for rehearsal. Typically, games such as Mass Effect, Fable, Skyrim or any one of their predecessors invite descriptions such as “forge your own legend” or “deadly consequences for each decision;” one Fable II advertisement asks “Who will you become?” the idea being that these game present a cohesive world in which to occupy as an organic character and alter in a persistent way (Forbes, Gamespot, YouTube). A survey of developers for these CRPGs intend to “create a sense of freedom for the player, eliciting, and amplifying the player’s emotions, creating a sense of immersion and believability, and giving the player a sense of control over the narrative” (Lowndes 6-7). From the sandbox-style games that strive to mimic the natural effects of a world to the branching narrative RPGs that provide dialogue choices to give the player control over the story, the conventions of CRPGs maintain a fictional world.
These two categories of CRPGs, while not mutually exclusive, go about creating a reactive space for personal play in different ways. Sandbox games cultivate a world fit for spatial exploration, seeking “immersive and believable game environments” that allow player interaction to alter the space (Lowndes 13). In Skyrim, a large, traversable map is populated by harvestable plants that grow back; when a non playable character dies they will generally remain so (Skyrim). Succinctly, the sandbox game is:
a highly interactive environment full of plot points, characters and interesting locations. The player is then set free to explore this world at their leisure… The ability to go virtually anywhere at any time is precisely the way that we would expect to interact with a realistic virtual world. (Lowndes 13)
This definition of a sandbox game is characterized by the space, the idea that the player can have an experience of mediated embodiment.
Branching narratives in CRPGs entail player involvement in a preset series of narrative choices they enact through dialogue, with each choice diverging into more branches or a foldback narrative, where different choices lead to relatively the same end (Lowndes 8). For example, Mass Effect contains a branching narrative. One of the more well known “decisions” in the first installment entails letting a companion character die, a choice that engenders play for the rest of the series (Mass Effect). In this vein, the strength of branching narratives is that it is constrained enough to allow NPCs to react to player choice (Lowndes 11). In sum, sandbox games seek to create back stages focused on environment and branching narrative games seek to create back stages focused on social relationships.
The degree to which any of these games achieve a deep sense of cohesiveness or agency is debatable, but the rhetoric of “freedom” and “player choice” surrounding them belays that the genre is attempting to achieve immersion via the aforementioned conventions. In either variety, the conventions of these CRPGs show that they are meant to give the player sense of presence via the avatar in the game world in a tangible way. They are a space in which to take action and for those actions to have a social consequence within the world.
Of course, even if the world of the CRPG functions as back stage region, the player is not truly within that space. Instead, the player’s interaction is mediated. The player’s occupation of the world in CRPGs is circumscribed by the avatar. An avatar is “an instrument or mechanism that defines for the participant a fictional body and mediates fictional agency; it is an embodied incarnation of the acting subject” (Klevjer 89). The avatar is how the player takes action in the demarcated space of performance. It is not that the player identifies with the avatar and that avatar’s action, but that the avatar is a conduit for personal performance.
Klevjer attempts to differentiate between the function of avatars as expressive and embodied when he clarifies that he is “not concerned with playable characters as a vehicle of communication and self-expression, but... how players engage with singleplayer gameworlds through fictional and vicarious embodiment,” but with personal performance in mind these are closely related components of the avatar (Klevjer 9). When all actions that the body takes are performative, all embodied actions in the game space are expressive. As the “prosthetic extension of the body-in-the-world,” the avatar is indicative a larger construction of identity because embodiment and the bodies navigation of social spaces is vital to the concept of performativity (Klevjer 93).
A significant point that delineates single player RPGs from multiplayer games and how the space for performance differs, is that many CRPGs feature avatar-player character hybrids. Whereas an avatar is something of a blank slate mediator, a player character is an aspect of the narrative. The avatar-player character hybrids in CRPGs are unique (Klevjer 116). Rather than created as tabula rosas that the player defines and through which interacts with the fictional world, avatar-player characters are just designed enough so as to provide a more responsive world.
These types of characters run on a spectrum of narrative independence. On the extreme end there are avatar-player characters like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, who can enact a small set of characterized actions within the narrative. Most tellingly, Shepard is a voice acted character, an aspect that will inherently entail a significant degree of characterization on the part of the voice actor. Games such as Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, which feature a far less defined character that is closer to an avatar, are still constrained by the world’s narrative. To interact with NPCs, there must be a limit on what the avatar-player character can “say.” The character cannot express particular personalities as a player can in an MMORPG.
Players in these games adopt several styles of performances. Presented with a series of moral options in Mass Effect, some choose to perform as their own self, or as one player explained, they think of self performance as: “What did I want to do/say in that situation” (VilhelmNielsen, GiantBomb Forum). Other players describe meticulous roleplaying, positing who their character is terms of “nice” or “evil” (GiantBomb Forum). What’s more, these performances and the decisions they are entail are enacted with the nonplayable characters in mind (Escapist Forum).
What these players are describing does not sound that far off from Turkle’s description of players in MUDS. One player she studied constructed a character with the traits he himself wished he had; another used MUDS to experiment with parental roles. (Turkle 190-1) MUDS, she says, are “objects-to-think-with of the postmodern self” (Turkle 185). Turkle is speaking directly to the ways in which individual actors navigate digital spaces together and how MUDS subvert notions of authenticity of identity. Through MUDS, we see that identity is not as fixed as we believe it is. Single player games can function similarly. Although single player games are utterly divorced from actual social contact, they are objects created to emulate spaces, including social spaces. They are a realm of rehearsal. Embodiment in a CRPG is not just navigating an artificial space, but navigating an artificial social realm. If the avatar mediates digital agency, the player character mediates even more so. Via the avatar the player can take action in the performance space, experimenting with the world, but the avatar-player character is also beholden to the rules of the fictional world, not just the formal rules of the game.
The uniqueness of the personal performances within CRPGs comes from the constraints of the medium. Limitations occur from the technological concerns of just how much content a computer can run or simply from the practical constraint that creating content for every possible contingency of player interaction. Worldness in CRPGs is also constrained, as Klevjer puts it, to a dramatic plot: “it must be carefully orchestrated and engineered according to the laws of drama, so that it can be experienced as a satisfying whole, with a beginning, a middle and an end” (Klevjer 137). Stories and narratives are vital to creating a full understanding of personal performance as experience.
The worldness of any game is also constrained by the norms of its designers. In creating a fictional world, with simulations of fictional social systems, natural worlds, and economies, the cultural perspective of the designers will be embedded in the systems of the game. While broadening the space for play is certainly an aspect of the conventions of these large worlds, at their core the idea that a world can be created and a player can occupy it entails a highly designed space. The world that occupies that space may not be complete, totally “realistic,” or an unbiased creation on the part of the designer, but the idea is that the end creation is a reactive “world” unto itself and the particular conventions of CRPGs emphasize the player’s access to that world.
Irrespective of why these constraints are in place, their existence is what makes CRPGs and personal performance spaces unique. The goal of a CRPG is to give the player a sense of presence via an avatar/player character, but what is achieved is play with systems. Games are uniquely able to mimic systems in reality; to play a game is to explore the possibility space of its systems (Bogost 42-3). Like the avatar mediates player interaction with a digital world, a single player game mediates a hypothetical performance. Unlike MMORPGs, where the human factor of other players makes the game a messy navigation of actual social relationships, CRPGs are a contained space with consistent rules and an avatar that is beholden to those rules. The space is a unique kind of play and performance opportunity, wherein players can enact personal performances that are not, paradoxically, free at all.
To speak directly as to how players perform alone and how that reflects on identity creation is difficult. Perhaps drawing in studies from online multiplayer games may shed light. For example, if most women in MMORPGs play as female avatars, could the same be equally true for CRPGs (Consalvo)? Turkle describes how intimacy differs in digital environments and the mundane world through Freudian transferences and projections -- how can this translate towards the nonliving objects of a single player game (Turkle 207)? Specific questions of what personal performance means in a CRPG entails far deeper study than simply defining what personal performance is and fitting CRPGs within that lens.
Framing individual play as social performance is difficult. The sheer fact that no audience is inherent, that symbolic interaction as it is understood within sociological dramaturgy does not truly exist in solitary, makes adapting performance studies to individual play somewhat of a bastardization. By uniting Goffman’s metaphor of regions of performance and Butler’s theory of gender performativity, performance studies can be utilized within what we socially construct personal. These personal performances, occurring sans audience but still reflective of a presentation of self, are sites of pleasure in play. The pleasure to occupy a systems, to explore the way its rules overlap with identity, to embody the self on a stage where rehearsal, reinforcement, and experimentation are all found within these personal performances.
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