On Playing Games as Performance

On Playing Games as Performance
My Fair Gamer
Written by My Fair Gamer

One of the simplest and best avenues to get that [non-pejorative term for people who don’t self-identify as the type of people who play videogames] into gaming is to find a title that they might appreciate on the surface-level, and then expose them to that game by playing it while they watch. Taking the issues of controls and mechanics out of the picture relaxes one of the largest barriers to entry for gaming and can help your non-gamer focus more on the characters, plot, music, and visuals.

On Playing Games as Performance

One of the simplest and best avenues to get that [non-pejorative term for people who don’t self-identify as the type of people who play videogames] into gaming is to find a title that they might appreciate on the surface-level, and then expose them to that game by playing it while they watch. Taking the issues of controls and mechanics out of the picture relaxes one of the largest barriers to entry for gaming and can help your non-gamer focus more on the characters, plot, music, and visuals.

Finding this gateway game is simple: just appeal to their personal tastes. This can range from a game that features:

  • licensed or a genre of music that your non-game-playing-cohort already listens to,
  • art or visual design that they might appreciate (from cutesy to grim or dark),
  • a setting that they fancy in other media (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or comedy), or
  • is itself a piece from a favorite genre (horror, adventure, or comedy). 

You have to use your hands?

Of course, potentially the largest barrier when it comes to playing games is controls and mechanics. It’s easy for anyone to passively absorb media such as television, movies, and live performance. Attach the forward momentum of those things to a controller covered in tiny buttons, and what is normally an expertly coordinated ballet of sight and sound becomes a disjointed cacophony of failure and apathy in the hands of an amateur. While your casual gaming boyfriend might enjoy horror movies and playing Fruit Ninja on the bus, he’s not going to fare too well if you just send him off blindly into the depths of something like Amnesia or Lone Survivor.

This is where you come in, the [enthusiastically motivated but certainly not simple derivative of an outdated stereotype] gamer. In your partner’s stead, you will play the game for them as a stage actor might perform a play for an audience. With you, the game will continue unabated: the story will progress; the protagonist will succeed; the show will go on.  But there is a catch:

You have to make it interesting for the non-gamer! Remember him? The person who’s heart and mind you’re trying to win over on the idea that "games are for adults too, you know"?

I’m being dramatic.

Simply put, you cannot sit there with your uninitiated loved one, friend, or date (remember dating? You did that before you discovered Skyrim) and play your chosen game with the same mentality and finesse as you would alone. It may surprise you, but to an outsider watching somebody play videogames is, on the whole, pretty boring.  There’s a language and a vocabulary—much of it uncodified and ever-changing—to the design and the nature of gaming.  You probably aren’t aware that you have this knowledge, but trust me it’s in your brain and you’re applying it every time you touch the controller. I call it “game brain.”

Gamin’ on the brain.

In The Last of Us, Naughty Dog attempts to circumvent a lot of this inherent gaming vocabulary by infusing their world with as much realism and nuance as possible. By and large, they accomplish this with flying colors. But tell me, how many times did you crest a ridge, climb a bus, or round a corner to be faced with as of yet unoccupied space full of bookcases, half-height counter tops, or seemingly arbitrarily placed concrete barriers? Obviously a something is going to occur here. Obviously, you are meant to take cover behind these objects. Obviously, an attack is coming.

Things like that? Not obvious to the non-gamer. Where you see the transparency of game design, the non-gamer sees another space in a series of connected but altogether unassuming spaces. They don’t know about Nintendo’s "rule of 3s" or what the term “hitbox” means or that pushing in the left-stick in an FPS causes you to run (because it just does, okay?). This is actually your biggest advantage in getting someone to sit down in front of Persona 4 or Silent Hill 3. To your viewer, they’re fun stories with interesting characters, scary monsters, and triumphant victories.


…but you have to make it interesting!

Let’s return to The Last of Us and our room full of half-height countertops and bookcases. In the far corner, you see something blinking. You’re pretty sure it’s a first-aid kit, which in our little thought experiment, you need desperately. However, you are almost entirely sure that before you can even get to it something is going to happen. Normally, you would probably situate Joel in the most direct vector possible to the item, ensuring that if (and when) the attack is sprung that you are near something to take cover behind. This is game brain. This is the antithesis of playing games as performance.

Instead, I give what I consider to be "the perfect demo run." I’m sure most of you have seen what I am talking about.  It’s the stage demo at a trade show, the devblog entry of a new mechanic in Game X; the “vertical slice” of an E3 floor demo; the way Publisher X’s marketing team and the scenario designer envisioned you playing their game (instead of how you actually play—like a methodical robot).

For Joel, and you, as the player, this can mean two things:

  • That you make an ill-advised bee-line for the first aid kit.  You need that kit; you’re liable to die in the next attack if you don’t have it. There is literally no reason not to get it immediately. Except that, just as you knew it would, a Clicker emerges with a couple of Infected from the opposite side of the room, trapping you between the first-aid kit and the exit.
  • You proceed to casually look around the room. You know there’s nothing else in here; nothing else is blinking, but maybe that desk has something interesting on it. The kitchen area looks kind of ransacked. Was somebody here before you? Mention that out loud to your audience. Maybe detour into the small adjacent room before moving onto the first-aid kit. The attack is going to happen, and the false sense of security you instill by behaving calmly will likely startle your audience, further involving them in the experience.

This is realistic, this is believable, this is dramatic, and this is not game brain. In short, make an effort to explore and behave as though you aren’t constantly aware you’re just moving a simulation forward.

Danger is my…middle name.

Of course, behaving in this manner can be quite against type for your own preferred method of play. You’ll likely have to put yourself in danger when you would otherwise not, or make what you inherently know is a bad—but ultimately a more interesting and fun—decision in order to entertain and involve your viewing audience. By forcing yourself to play in a different, more cinematic, and more exploratory way, you may get a chance to see the game from a different perspective and give yourself new challenges that you would have otherwise missed and never experienced.

Pretend you’re a director, both producing and editing his film at the same time. You get to decide where the camera is looking (quite literally in most games), you tell where the lead actor to go, what to say, and oftentimes how to act.  You control what is seen, for how long, and in what order.  If you are confronted with a particularly beautiful scene, then stop and admire it for a moment as though the character is reflecting on their journey and the challenges that lie ahead. Even Samwise Gamgee stopped to admire the sights and sounds on his journey to save the world.

If you’re able, move the camera around your character as you traverse the game world, don’t leave it stuck over your shoulder indefinitely. If watching a reverse angle of James Sunderland stalk down a dark hallway ratchets the tension higher than simply watching from over his shoulder, then do just that. Keep it interesting and keep it dynamic.

Hey man, you just work here.

Adding to this is the importance of giving your non-playing partner choices. This boils down to the type of game you’ve chosen to play.  Games that offer a lot of narrative choice are an easy avenue to solicit feedback from the person sitting next to you on the couch.  Franchises such as Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, or generally anything by Telltale Games are prime candidates for soliciting feedback from a non-player. Additionally, just about any game in the horror genre (Silent Hill and Amnesia) or any heavily story-focused title (Uncharted, Bioshock, and Beyond: Two Souls) allow for ample opportunities for you to ask your partner, “So, what happens next?” And, “Where should we go?”

Once your viewing audience sees that their choices have a tangible and, oftentimes immediate, impact on the game, they’ll become invested in the story and the characters. To them, it can become more like watching an interactive television show and removes the obstacle of complete passivity from their experience.  The non-gamer begins to accept responsibility for the events in the game because, after all, she told you to make Joel go in that room and get ambushed, and to make Drake climb that train, and to have Shepherd destroy the Rachni.

The problem you see, is choice.

It should go without saying that you should avoid games that require twitch precision with short feedback loops such as platformers, fighters, or racing titles. They may be well suited for cooperative play, but they provide little in the way of viewing entertainment. It would be akin to convincing your toddler of the joys of reading by handing them a political retrospective on the Bay of Pigs. You need to create a mental space in which your viewer can play and explore through you as a conduit.

Be inclusive, not aggressive.

There is no easy, step-by-step, guaranteed process of getting someone into gaming. The process is vague and filled with myriad steps. For those of us who are the shepherds, it is fraught with frustration and tests of patience. Playing games while others watch is one of the least trying and easiest ways to start this process. However, it is not a 100% guarantee. Gaming is as prone to the influence of personal taste as any other medium.

Be open and understanding of any complaints and questions your viewing audience may have. Not everything will make sense to them automatically, and like the sound of an annoying song, or an actor they don’t like, your viewer may simply not enjoy the game you’ve chosen to play because of personal taste. Don’t get frustrated if he fails to show the same passion as you do from the start.

Thank you for your patients (they were delicious).

Playing games for others can be as challenging as playing for yourself. There’s a bit of de-programming you may have to do to see a difference between what is rewarding for the gamer and rewarding for the viewer. Appeal to your viewer’s tastes, and be patient with him or her; even some of those speech prompts in The Walking Dead are quite quick. Using this kind of approach can elevate a game from the confines of a narrow and myopic definition and lend a sense of legitimacy to what would otherwise be dismissed out of pocket as "just some videogame." 

About the author

My Fair Gamer

My Fair Gamer

Sean has been gaming since 1988 when, at the age of five, his father brought the entire family down to the electronics department of Montgomery Ward to purchase an NES Family Pack. Sean's first two games were Contra and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Bloody Tears is to this day his favorite game theme of all time. He has oscilliated between being a console and a PC gamer for the past 15 years or so, but has squarely put himself in the PC camp for the time being. He primarily enjoys single-player campaigns and co-operative games and will play just about anything except hardcore simulation or real-time strategy titles.

He also enjoys electronic music of all kinds, being an amateur photographer, plying his skill at graphic design by profession, and knows just enough Japanese to get him into trouble. His favorite game of all time is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. His favorite co-op game(s) is the Earth Defense Force series.

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