Performative Play as Nudge: It’s fun to do right?

The Prius Game Scoring SystemWhen evaluating “games for change” – whether we mean games that aim at education, social impact, or behavioral modification – the problem of transferability looms large. Sure, maybe we can teach someone to cognitively understand usury or compound interest, but does that really lead the person to walk away from the payday loan store next Thursday? The answer seems to be as murky for “good” behaviors as for violent ones.

Ian Bogost’s piece on “performative play” offers one avenue of response: play the change you wish to see. In other words, gameplay can involve real-world actions that have immediate impact:

Performativity in video games couple gameplay to real-world action. Performative gameplay describes mechanics that change the state of the world through play actions themselves, rather than by inspiring possible future actions through coersion or reflection.

A rudimentary precursor to performative gameplay might include the Prius MPG gauge. No, the gauge does not create gameplay any more than a 20-sided die, but Prius owners can and do make up their own games, challenging themselves to ever-higher mileage achievements. There’s even, you might say, a guild for the MPG-conscious. So before there’s a game, there needs to be a mechanism for gameplay, whether that be a Wii balance board, GPS chip in your shoe, or – who knows – a full-body ARG suit.

Bogost’s piece asserts a basic need for reflective performance: “the player’s conscious understanding of the purpose, effect, and implications of her actions, such that they bear meaning as cultural conditions, not just instrumental contrivances.” But if our goal is to retard energy consumption or encourage saving, I’m not convinced that conscious understanding is necessary.

As Thaler and Sunstein point out in Nudge, sometimes the inputs of our behaviors are unconscious – which is not to imply irrational or stupid. Take the oft-repeated example cited in the book of electricity bills that put smiley faces next to below-average usage and frowny faces next to above-average usage. What’s interesting about this from a game design perspective is that it translates a numerate and rational score into an emotional and social one. We’re not obligated to do anything about that score, as Thaler and Sunstein go to great pains to point out, but those of us whose values correlate with those implied in the scoring system are now more likely to change our behaviors as a result – even though we are literally paying a price for not optimizing our energy usage without that additional nudge.

Given the temporal and technological disconnect between an electricity bill and the means of changing electricity usage, Bogost would be correct that, in the example I just gave, conscious understanding of the effect that turning off the air-conditioning would have on the “score,” as well as the cultural desirability of that score. But another example from Nudge doesn’t require conscious awareness: painting parallel lines on the road that come closer and closer together as the road enters a dangerous curve does far more to cause people to slow down than putting up “Slow or Die” signs. Reflection, in the case of someone about to drive off the road, would just get in the way.

Whether conscious awareness is necessary or not is really just a side point here. I’m fascinated by the possible combination of Nudge with Performative Play and would love to think more about possible avenues for experimentation and implementation.

- Gene Koo

3 thoughts on “Performative Play as Nudge: It’s fun to do right?

  1. The idea of conscious reflection comes from the notion of felicitousness in Austin’s “happy” performative. In linguistic accounts of the performative, recognition of the context is necessary, otherwise the performative fails. This makes sense in the case of “I do,” for example. If the speaker does not grasp its meaning, the vow can’t work.

    There are many ways to think about game actions that perform real actions; this article explores one. That said, I’m not sure that the principles in Nudge are really any different from the coercive practices Persuasive Technology. I’m sure there are more interesting blends to be made.

  2. Got it — by “performative” in the dramatic sense — distinct (although conveniently similar to) “performance” in the do-something sense. Which helps me understand your description of the Wii Fit.

    Thanks for swinging by, Ian!

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