probably a big part of playing computer games, even in isolation, is expressing/performing a particular narrative of what sort of person you are/why you’re playing this game to yourself or others.
that’s definitely not an observation that’s unique to computer games but it’s what I was first thinking of so I’ll stick to that example.
obviously games frequently give you specific instructions to act out, often trivial things which could be automated like walking down a corridor between two cutscenes, for the satisfaction (I guess) of doing what it says. and games are also full of mechanisms to guide the player to do particular things, and criticised when it’s not clear what you’re ‘supposed’ to do. this is further cemented by the rise of ‘achievement’ systems which pat you on the back for specific actions. but I guess I’m thinking of something broader and harder to fully grasp here
I can’t remember who I saw make this observation, but part of the function of computer game advertising is to present a narrative of how you will engage with the game: explore this place, witness a story, make meaningful decisions etc. (the game will probably also be designed to afford particular ways to ‘disobey’ those instructions and play in not-explicitly-encouraged ways).
but it’s not just advertising and in-game instructions; probably the lion’s share of the work is done by your exposure to peers, by journalism etc. these give you a selection of narratives of like, different kinds of player you can then act as; received opinions you should have to align yourself with that subset etc.
when I go around an area listening to all the NPC conversations, it’s only partly because I might think the odds are that the stories I’ll find are genuinely amusing or interesting. partly, it must be about performing a narrative to myself (and others in the room) as a thorough player who appreciates the art she’s engaging with in detail. likewise, why I spent so long fiddling with New Vegas mods a few years back; I was on some level proud of the technical skill of figuring out the game engine and adapting it to my liking, and also carrying out a kind of perfectionism insofar as trying to make my playthrough of New Vegas be an ‘optimum’ one.
of course, games are not exceptional in this. take music: this sense of performance is an obvious reason people go to a concert in a suit, and sit listening with their eyes closed, but conversely go to a metal gig in a band shirt and a spiky jacket and maybe join a mosh pit. and insofar as any attendee isn’t paying a great deal attention to any other individual attendee, the performance of ‘classical concertgoer’ or ‘metalhead’ is mostly for the person themselves.
returning to games, this kind of role is very obvious in cases like streaming, speedrunning, pro gaming and other ways of playing to an external audience. but it’s also as much true in private. surely a large part of the reason I (or someone else) might prefer to play indie games, or Japanese RPGs, or FPSes, or old roleplaying games from the 80s, and appreciate them in a certain way (e.g. playing slowly and contemplating certain emotions), is to act out a particular internal narrative of being the kind of person who does this.
having ‘permission’ in the form of external evidence of this being ‘a kind of person you can be’ is very important to developing this kind of behaviour. how often do people sit down and tell a story together if not in the sanctioned context of a roleplaying game, or a campfire, or the like? it would hardly occur to people, and even if it did, most would be too nervous to propose it out of nowhere. to get started, it needed a template in an existing activity like wargaming.
hence there is a process of evolution, as subcultures around a particular activity grow and recede. capitalism tries very hard to link this up to the circulation of commodities, and identify performing a particular subcultural role with buying the right gear, but it needn’t intrinsically be so.
you also don’t necessarily need a large number of people to establish a role that someone might play, at least tentatively. today’s ‘lefty indie game’ scene bubbled out of a very small number of people, many of whom put a great deal of effort into painting themselves in a particular light (and disposing of people who no longer fit that effort). D&D began as just ‘gary gygax and dave arneson proposing a variant of a wargame’.
of course, this account leaves out the question of why someone might decide they would like to be an indie game nerd, or a speedrunner, or an unnamed but well-established role like ‘someone who explores Skyrim and does the quests’. I don’t have any immediate answer to that question beyond noting the simple presence of feedback loops (getting interested in a thing and deciding to learn more about it) and limitations (one’s time and energy and the incompatibility of certain kinds of performance).
the concept of performance here isn’t exactly the same as the one Butler said gender is performative, but there’s definite parallels. surely much of the reason for the self-exciting gender instability getting going in full steam is the observation that such a person as ‘trans woman’ can exist, giving me permission to think of myself in such a light and then act to further fulfil that vision… (and as ever, new narratives appear and give people new paths to pursue, in the 70s you might be a ‘queen’, nowadays you can be a ‘femboy’, and that’s just in my narrow cultural bubble). of course gendered identities (cis ones as much as whatever gender-variance a culture permits) cut across nearly every other activity and so go a lot, lot further than ‘someone who talks to NPCs’.
is all this bad? seems totally unavoidable on some level. we must constantly create narratives of our experiences to explain why we act as we do, and the light we cast them in will surely depend on the stories we have available, that are salient in the culture around us. insofar as humans cannot meet our own needs and reproduce our existence except as a group (and in any case the ‘lone survivor’ is just another story) then it’s inevitable we’ll get exposed to such narratives and enact them in some light.
at this point I recall the programmer-y injunction to ‘keep your identity small’; it’s a silly idea because even that effort is pursuing a particular identity as a ‘rational’ person, which is much more of a matter of demonstrating a particular affect than its proponents would like to admit.
perhaps it’s worth considering the question of what makes particular identities stable and able to reproduce themselves in other people. this is perhaps part of the role of public displays like wearing the ‘right clothes’ or using particular phrases and terminology; by being obviously ‘something’ it will catch the attention of others who might be interested in researching what a ‘true combo’ is, and accidentally set out on the road to becoming a fighting game fan.
i’m sure this is just arriving in the same place that psychologists and anthropologists have been for a long time, or maybe somewhere near Stirner (obligatory* note that I do not understand Stirner), but I found it an interesting train of thought to ride…
*oh, but what makes me think I am obliged to include this note? what story am I telling with this? ;)