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Iain Hart on the Performativity of Gaming

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

In the context of video games and gaming, I would define performativity as the ability to dynamically interact and influence virtual actions which, in turn, evoke sensory and emotional stimuli in response. Iain Hart refers to this sensory and emotional stimulus as “the location of meaning” (Hart, 2014, p. 279).

In his paper, he asserts that video games and performance art forms share a similar element of performativity, and video gaming is best understood as a performative activity.

For the purpose of justifying my definition of performativity, which is in agreement with Hart's assertion, I will compare the performativity of playing the video game Dark Souls (FromSoftware, 2011) with an improvisational electroacoustic piece I recently performed for a small audience. To do this, I will apply Hart’s framework of actions, goals, and effects (Hart, 2014, p. 278).

When I play Dark Souls, I move the joystick on the console controller to move my character forward to face the boss enemy. Then I press the button to begin the boss fight. I do this because I know I will earn a lot of souls - a valuable form of currency. These actions and goals have the effect of triggering boss music, the boss fight, and the potential success or failure to earn the desired souls.

When I perform a piece of music I play various notes on my trombone. My goal is to have the audience enjoy the music. These actions and goals lead me to want to perform and thus the audience will hear the notes play, but it does not guarantee the successful completion of my goal to have the audience enjoy the music.

The performative element of video games is therefore aligned with an ‘uncertainty in goal achievement’. In performing music, the uncertainty is a product of the dynamic engagement and communication between myself and the audience through the notes I play. As I play, the notes are received by each audience member. Their response is communicated back to me through their continued presence, attentive listening, and final applause. In video games, Hart (2014) says that “it is possible to reframe the video game itself as a virtual audience… [since] the information relayed by the game to the player is, in some way, a response to the information relayed by the player to the game” (p. 283).

When one waters down the experience of playing a video game relative to watching a movie it removes the presence of this inherently wonderful ‘unknown’. Hart (2014) explains this reduction as simply observing “the multisensory spectacle of the elements displayed on the screen and transmitted to the player’s ears” (p. 280).

Hart (2014) concludes that playing a video game is a performance through play. This is observed in the decision to fight or run when the Dark Souls boss music begins to play. Other players might start the fight and then realize they are unequipped, and therefore experience the thought that they should back out of this one, and come back later. In each situation, the experience of the game and the boss music will be “uniquely received” (Hart, 2014, p. 290).

Works Cited

Iain Hart (2014) Meaningful Play: Performativity, Interactivity and Semiotics in Video Game Music, Musicology Australia, 36:2, 273-290, DOI: 10.1080/08145857.2014.958272

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