Stephanie C. Jennings is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University, where she also serves as Director of the online Master of Arts in Education program. Her research has primarily centered on issues of methodology in the field of game studies, often weaving together considerations of intersectional feminism, epistemological theories, and concepts of gameplay. Building from this work, she is currently pursuing projects that interrogate understandings of agency in game studies, gaming culture, and approaches to games-based learning.
Jayemanne, D. (2017). Performativity in Art, Literature, and Videogames. Palgrave Macmillan.
Though the spheres of videogames research have been swelling, proliferating, morphing, and diversifying, they’ve been doing so in an odd sort of stasis: floating in an enforced historical suspension, out-of-orbit in a conceptual enclosure, radiating exceptionalism. So many stubborn little binary-bindings have still been sealing things together, and we’ve still been finding ourselves returning to a tight bundle of quibble-worn tools for our studies. But things are changing. The stasis isn’t sticking. More and more scholars are banging the tools on the bindings till they start to crumble. Some others are repurposing the tools, devoting them to disruptive tasks. And some are rocketing their scholarship along new vectors, sending it ricocheting off the walls of the enclosure till cracks appear and outside air finally bursts into the vacuum. We’re finding, then, that the space beyond the walls isn’t stifling, as we’d previously been warned it would be. Instead, it’s vivifying. Wandering into the spaces beyond, the spheres of videogames research are starting to take new shapes and are moving all about.
Darshana Jayemanne’s Performativity in Art, Literature, and Videogames is an essential contribution to this ongoing animation. The book has much to give: a generative, comparative methodology; a vibrant and extensive lexicon for describing the qualities of videogames; many vivid case studies. Performance is its vital pivot point. Although the field of game studies has tended to treat performance as “either an actualization of abstract rules or a voluntarist creation of meaning by the player in each actual play decision” (p. 14), Jayemanne emphasizes that it is not so easily sequestered or reduced. Videogame performances emerge between player and videogame—as well as across distributions of multiple players and networked streaming audiences—out of muddles of play potentiality. They do not form merely “a concatenation of basic units, but a complex multidimensional weave” (p. 5). Jayemanne’s proposed methodology is, thus, specially equipped to handle the intricacies of videogames’ tapestries of performance. It enables analyses of the ways that particular performances arise from a videogame’s performative multiplicity. As such, it is a valuable mechanism with which to identify the specificities of videogames and to understand how these features create meaning and experience.
But Jayemanne is careful to divert this exploration of medium specificity away from that radiant glow of exceptionalism that has lured in so many game studies scholars. Indeed, the book’s perspective is expressly “at odds with approaches that insist on the novelty of the videogame form” (p. 10). It is also, moreover, at odds with dominant approaches that over-privilege game as the prime, if not exclusive, category that describes videogame forms and how players engage with them. Resisting these popular tendencies, Performativity is a dynamic process of locating videogames within far vaster and all too often overlooked media histories and scholarship. Whereas much of the field has venerated concepts like interactivity as proof that videogames represent radical breaks from other media forms, Jayemanne instead begins by tracing connections between videogame performance, the felicitous and infelicitous performative utterances of Austin’s (2003) speech act theories, and the framing devices of Ndalianis’s (2004) Neo-Baroque aesthetics.
To both illustrate and build out from these interrelationships, the book moves through close readings of a sundry yet cohesive set of case studies. Each of these features a gallery scene that effectively thematizes framing devices, those structures that communicate performative possibilities and the mechanisms by which they are judged. As Jayemanne explains of these galleries:
By recursively incorporating other artworks, stories or framing devices into their textual structure, these works comment on their own mode of presentation and generate feedback loops that present challenges for audiences or readers that, in their quasi-ludic character, prefigure those of videogames…[T]hese readings thus show a prehistory of the sorts of processes and feedback loops that this book argues are central to videogame performativity. (p. 23)
The case studies include Willem van Haecht’s 1628 painting The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest; novels such as Balzac’s (1831) The Unknown Masterpiece, Pynchon’s (1965) The Crying of Lot 49, and Atwood’s (2003) Oryx and Crake; and a powerful concluding analysis of the videogame Life is Strange (Dontnot Entertainment, 2015). Jayemanne’s selection is eclectic yet strikingly harmonious in its assorted gallery scenes, and it is all the more significant for its commitments to media artifacts that have long floated outside of the field’s central realms of concern. For instance, while there is no shortage of scholarship that ties videogames to film—and, to a lesser extent, literature—there are far fewer instances of game studies research that explicitly contemplate art history. Some of the book’s gallery scenes may therefore pose a challenge to scholars who are not well versed in art history and aesthetic theories. I struggled with the chapter on The Cabinet of Cornelis van der Geest for this reason, given my own inexperience in these areas. Yet, I found that this struggle made reading Performativity all the more valuable, as it incites a broadening of horizons against the insular habits that continue to pervade in the field.
In addition to its gallery scenes, the book contains an array of rich, lively examples from many different videogames. There are deep reads of videogames like QWOP (Foddy, 2008), God Hand (Clover Studios, 2006), and Planescape: Torment (Black Isle, 1999). And there are so many snapshots of granular, passed-by videogame details: doors in Half-Life 2 (Valve Software, 2005); a narrow safety rail impervious to enemy projectiles in Destiny (Bungie, 2014); and a glitchy, disappearing clot of mud in Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, 2012), to name just a few. A particularly memorable moment comes in the amusing, if a bit gruesome, examination of framing that occurs during Roggvir’s scripted execution at the beginning of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, 2011), where players can search the inventory of Roggvir’s out-of-reach body by activating his severed head.
These enthralling illustrations breathe life into the book’s collection of novel, incisive concepts. Jayemanne’s investigation of God Hand, for example, buttresses a crucial discussion of serial aesthetics and salient features in videogames. Salient features are representational framing devices that “have performative ramifications” (p. 173); together, they contribute to the formation of serial aesthetics, which are visual articulations of the consistencies of virtual bodies. These communicate performative possibilities to players by signifying the transformations and forms of movement available to in-game bodies, many of which are frequently “tied to specific statistics and parameters” (p. 173). God Hand’s salient features emerge in the caricatured, over-exaggerated bodies of enemy combatants, whose humorous designs help players “keep track of characters prone to dynamic movement and transformation” (p. 165). Yet, these salient features construct a serial aesthetic that exemplifies and impacts gaming’s problematic depictions of ability, sexuality, gender, and race. As Jayemanne explains, “the aesthetic techniques of exaggeration, simplification, and emphasis have had distinctive effects on the way that bodies tend to be depicted and modeled in videogames” (p. 173), often reinforcing essentialist assumptions of difference. Those performative ramifications at the heart of salient features are, therefore, important conceptual interventions in a field that has long held computation/representation as its fundamental structuring binary (Anable, 2018). That binary has elevated research that analyzes rules, mechanics, and code while subordinating the work of scholars who critique gaming’s noxious representational patterns. Fraying this artificial dichotomy, Jayemanne’s theories of performativity re-posit videogame form and content as melded and co-informant.
Such is the case with many of the concepts that Jayemanne provides across the book. Ever sensitive to historical situatedness, Performativity is also acutely aware of its own positioning within the flows of game studies. While the book acknowledges the precedents of the field’s numerous foundational debates, it deftly travels past the mires of exhausted divisions, refusing to sink into places where so many studies still slog. Its achievement, then, is a holistic vision of studying videogames that is eager to understand them in all of their complexities and strange minutiae, rather than by staking claims in either/or models of analysis. In this way, it is an imperative participant in shifts that are steadily accelerating across the field.
Performativity’s final chapter helpfully, thoroughly outlines many possibilities for its methodology’s future use. Admittedly, I am most excited about its implications for the future of close readings of videogames. Though close readings are still uncommon, and in many ways scorned, in game studies (Ruberg, 2019), the attitudes surrounding them are changing. However, as more scholars decide to try their hand at close readings of videogames, they may find that the field’s tight bundle of quibble-worn tools is far too prohibitive to meet their needs. Performativity is here to begin answering those needs. The book presents videogame scholars with a solid-yet-flexible foundation with which to undertake close readings of videogames from myriad angles. Its elaborate vocabulary grants many fresh, subtle ways of describing what occurs when we play videogames. Moreover, its cybernetics-oriented methodology can dialogue productively with other recent scholarship that has asserted the significance of intimate game-player mingling in the construction of videogame experiences (Anable, 2018; Keogh, 2018; Ruberg, 2019).
Performativity is a challenging read. It is, in fact, quite demanding. It is difficult to digest its conceptual offerings without chewing on them first—and, I assure you, there is a lot to chew on here. Jayemanne deals with many complex ideas, and engages with the work of other scholars in ways that not only require a working familiarity with their concepts, but a skillful command of their slightest details. Even if you believe that you have that working familiarity, you may still find yourself scrambling to re-acquaint yourself with these cited works before progressing further in the book’s analyses. A standout example in my own reading was the pivotal chapter on the tactile unconscious of gaming, which describes how players become bodily habituated to performing the responses that videogame’s framing devices prompt. To historicize this process in relation to other media forms, Jayemanne puts numerous concepts from the works of Walter Benjamin (2006) into dialogue with one another: distraction, shock, innervation, mimesis, play. This chapter is intricate and potent—but it does not dwell on detailed explanations for any of these concepts, compelling me to revisit and re-contemplate Benjamin’s writings in order to appreciate the nuances of its arguments. For use in classes, I would therefore recommend providing students with some initial contextualization to ensure that they have the conceptual grounding necessary to explore the connections that Performativity draws between gaming and other media theories.
Amid the frantic torrent of multitasking that is academic life, I thought it was refreshing to engage with a book that refuses to be rushed. I cherished being asked to slow down. In fact, I don’t think that the book can be grasped in an initial reading. I’ve returned to it multiple times afterward to review underlined sections, to re-read passages, to take more notes—and still I feel like I’ve only kind of skimmed the surface. I think, ultimately, that I will only begin to fully comprehend Performativity by using it. Only through the application of its methodology and its conceptual cornucopia will it really reveal itself and all that it holds.
Anable, A. (2018). Playing with feelings: Video games and affect. University of Minnesota Press.
Atwood, M. (2003). Oryx and Crake. Anchor Books.
Austin, J. L. (2003). How to do things with words. Harvard University Press.
Balzac, H. (2001). The unknown masterpiece and other stories (R. Howard, Trans.). New York Review Books.
Benjamin, W. (2006). Selected writings: 1938-1940. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Bethesda Softworks. (2011). The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Videogame]. Bethesda Softworks.
BioWare. (2012). Mass Effect 3 [Videogame]. Electronic Arts.
Black Isle Studios. (1999). Planescape: Torment [Videogame]. Interplay Entertainment.
Bungie. (2014). Destiny [Videogame]. Activision.
Clover Studios. (2006). God Hand [Videogame]. Capcom.
Dontnot Entertainment. (2015). Life is Strange [Videogame]. SquareEnix.
Foddy, B. (2008). QWOP [Videogame]. Bennett Foddy.
Keogh, B. (2018). A play of bodies: How we perceive videogames. MIT Press.
Ndalianis, A. (2004). Neo-Baroque aesthetics and contemporary entertainment. MIT Press.
Pynchon, T. (1996). The crying of lot 49. Vintage Classics.
Ruberg, B. (2019). Video games have always been queer. New York University Press. Valve. (2005). Half-Life 2 [Videogame]. Valve.