Is calling someone a ‘good liar’ a compliment or an insult? Or does it depend on the circumstances? Play, for example, complicates simplistic distinctions between real and virtual, tangible and intangible, truth and falsity. As a consequence, play transforms the significance of the language it appropriates. If statements in plays and in play are “lies” insofar as they subvert ordinary notions of truthfulness, then they must be lies of a particularly interesting sort. Statements made on stage and in games are meaningful in ways that play with the so-called “ordinary” uses of such statements. In play, language acts both by performing actions and by enacting a performance itself.
This article questions the special meaningfulness of playful forms of deception, asking how language in theater and games can use their fundamental unreality to real effect. Such deceptiveness, I suggest, is no simple untruth, but rather establishes the fictionality of theater and the virtuality of games as ways of playing with and within reality.
When Saying Becomes Doing
Building upon Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life,” J.L. Austin defines performative utterances as ones in which saying becomes doing. For example, statements such as ‘I do’ (during a wedding ceremony), ‘I promise,’ and ‘I wager’ perform rather than describe social actions.
What happens to performative language within theater and games, forms of social play that blend linguistic and bodily performance? These performances, I argue, suspend certain elements of everyday conversation, such as the standard division between truth and lies. At the same time, however, the ‘magic circle’ of the stage or game can only suspend so much—meanings inevitably slip between the special circumstances of the play and the social circumstances in which they are embedded. This contextual doubling generates a spectrum of meaningful possibilities for its participants. Playful deceptions, therefore, matter because they are simultaneously inconsequential and consequential, because they perform virtual realities that paradoxically may reflect, engage, or subvert the ordinary. This performance, moreover, operates as a kind of language play in which the doubled significance of words as actions generates potentially meaningful tensions, playful experiments with reality and unreality.
Austin on Performatives
Verbal utterances in and as play deserve more scholarly attention, especially with respect to analog gameplay, which tends to involve plenty of conversation. Austin’s ‘ordinary language’ philosophy is, therefore, relevant to game studies, although Austin himself bypasses contexts such as theater and play, explaining:
A performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in a soliloquy. This applies in a similar manner to any and every utterance—a sea-change in special circumstances. Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use.
The recognition of the specialness and parasitism that characterizes playful utterances gives a glimpse of Austin’s potential contribution to game studies. Precisely because Austin’s theory is general, yet simultaneously recognizes the particularities of “a sea-change in special circumstances,” it is able to bridge the dual uses of language to constitute play within the game and circulate playfully around the game. Moreover, this language of context-dependency might be used to more precisely articulate the interplay between the nested contexts of the game and its social milieu than the somewhat overused metaphor of the magic circle. Furthermore, Austin’s method of reading language as performance provides a compelling foundation for studying language in performance and, by extension, in play. Gameplay is not only interactive and performative like language, but is often interactive and performative through language. After all, in games, words do things. Finally, Austin is particularly relevant to an exploration of playful deception because he shows how as actions words confound typical notions of truth and falsity. In short, Austin helps elucidate how linguistic performances can become actions that can, in special circumstances, become play.
As performances that generate actions, performative statements become meaningful in relation to when, where, why, how, by whom, and to whom they are uttered. That is, the significance of a statement is context-dependent. Understanding performatives requires understanding their circumstances, including implicit and explicit social conventions, particularities of the material environment, and roles of individual participants. This means, moreover, that performatives are not purely linguistic phenomena, but are moves within larger social practices.
Statements mean (and do) more than they say. Take, for example, the statement “keep calm and relax” displayed on a throw pillow in someone’s home. This statement performs the actions of advising and inviting the reader to keep calm and relax. It advises by being overtly displayed where it will be read as applicable wisdom. It invites, moreover, by alluding to its immediate material context: a comforting environment within which the advice can be followed. In these ways, this printed utterance performs an active role within the social contexts in which it is encountered, doing something for its readers by saying something to its readers. Although play performatives may differ from this everyday example, they nonetheless make meaning in similarly contextual ways. For example, a verbal utterance in a play may initiate a promise between two characters and an utterance in a game may count as a move within the game—advancing a guess, initiating a battle, selecting an available action, etc.
Understanding any performative, therefore, entails understanding both how the conventions of its context determine what actions are performed and how the purposes of its context structure how it is to be received. Understanding play, likewise, entails understanding the play context as systematically shaping how language performs. Contexts structure both the performance and reception of linguistic actions, determining both meaningfulness and appropriateness. Performatives (as actions) are threatened not by falsity but by infelicity, “the things that can be and go wrong on the occasion of such utterances.” Certainly, statements can go wrong in many ways, as when a player fails to make a move within a game by stating an action that is not allowed by the game rules.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Austin draws on an ethics of speaker intentions to argue that performatives may succeed and still be infelicitous. False and broken promises are, for example, successful promises that play an improper role within their social circulation because they lack sincere intentions or are not fulfilled. They are not quite lies—because they are actions rather than assertions—but they have something of the feel of lies. They are, in Austin’s terminology, abuses—not necessarily in the sense of being unethical, but of being abnormal or aberrant uses that undermine the social function of promises. This kind of abuse can also occur on stage or in games—for example, in disinterested acting or the play of a spoilsport—but is not characteristic of the productive deceptiveness of plays or play in general. Contrary to abuses like lies and false promises that undermine proper uses, theater and games properly belie everyday reality in ways that powerfully reflect or represent that reality.
Performative language, therefore, contributes both to the constitutive deceptiveness of the fictionality and/or virtuality of play in general and to the particular uses and abuses of deception within these play spaces.
Turning first to the theater, the stage seemingly depletes performative content, since actors are not beholden to statements they make while performing their roles. The same words spoken in the same tone by the same individuals might be a proposal, promise, or insult offstage, but count as none of these onstage as actors are not expected to become engaged, promised, or insulted as a result. It is tempting, therefore, to consider stage performance as inimical to linguistic performativity, the theater as all saying and no doing. While onstage performatives certainly differ from most conversational ones, it would be a mistake to minimize the complex ways linguistic performativity bears on stage performance. Plays gain significance as an interplay between a staged fictional world and the reality of the stage itself. Within this doubled context, words themselves may take on special doubled significance as they simultaneously gain special meaning within the play and reflect or refract their everyday meanings.
Stage performatives are genuine insofar as they apply not to the actors but to the fictional characters they play. There is nothing strange about uttering genuine performatives on behalf of others, as interpreters and messengers routinely do. And there is nothing strange about fictional language becoming meaningful in much the same way that ordinary language does. Therefore, although we do not consider actors beholden to the statements they make, we do consider characters so beholden—if in the first act the actor utters a marriage proposal, promise, or insult, we fully expect this to influence the subsequent story. Staged language is certainly differently consequential from offstage language, but I believe it is precisely this difference that makes fiction so meaningful. Thus, whereas Austin writes that “Walt Whitman does not seriously incite the eagle of liberty to soar,” this statement has both force and seriousness when its doubled meaning as an expressive poetic image and metaphorical rhetorical incitement to the reader are properly understood. If such theatrical, fictional, and poetic language is fundamentally ‘deceptive,’ it is deceptive in a way that generally aims not to mislead but to express.
Onstage performatives have additional force insofar as they are directed to the audience, encouraging spectators to participate in producing the significance of the spectacle. The stage invites the audience to share in the deception, to collectively dream rather than lie. Devices such as the soliloquy or aside, for instance, allows the spectator to share intimate secrets, promises, or insights with a character. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, famously concludes with an address to the audience beginning with the performative: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended.” Couched as a playful apology, Puck’s soliloquy is essentially an invitation to engage in the play’s fantasy rather than judge its reality. This performative invitation is characteristic of an influential approach to theatrical performance famously articulated by playwright Bertolt Brecht, who argues that exposing the artificiality of the theater opens up certain forms of theatrical meaning-making.
I experienced this at a play called Best of Enemies, a dramatization of the radical transformation of a KKK member based on a true story. As one might expect, the play featured quite a few rather nasty racist insults. While this was uncomfortable for spectators and actors alike (as one actor admitted in a post-play discussion), the staging was designed to situate the performance within a retrospective historical lens, using old newspaper headlines as a backdrop and period-appropriate music to accompany scene changes. Maintaining a realistic sense of the illocutionary force of the insults within the fiction while situating these insults within this historical consciousness created a kind of performative contract with the audience, a promise to redeem that language within the social justice motivation of the theatrical experience. Similarly, the design of a game conditions the relationships players develop with the game. To play is, in a sense, to navigate the game as stage. Insofar as players are actors, therefore, they use language in this theatrical way—to advance roles that have significance in how they are received by others who are both spectators and fellow participants within the world of the game.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Best of Enemies both intentionally highlight the artificiality of the stage to provide their audiences a particular self-awareness about the performance and its performative language. This is by no means the only way to navigate the double-layered context of the stage. The imperatives of realism, for example, suggest that plays be designed and performed to create a parallelism between the play’s real and fictional contexts. Even as its artificial setting reminds the audience that it is just a story, for example, Best of Enemies strives to remind us that it is a true story and presents itself as realistically documenting America’s history of racial violence. In so doing, the play echoes another of Shakespeare’s famous lines by reminding us that “all the world’s a stage,” suggesting that the KKK’s performative rhetoric is itself a social script and that its members are “merely players” stubbornly acting out the fiction that their world is designed for them alone. Just as the artificiality of the staging reminds the audience that the actor is not the character, this realistic scripting and acting suggests that the character is not the role, as demonstrated by the character’s growing disenchantment with racist identity politics that drives the Bildungsroman plot. In fact, the loci of Brecht’s artificial theater and realism represent but two points on a vast spectrum of possible ways to navigate the interplay of the real and the fictional, which produces a multiplicity of generative possibilities that characterize theatrical play. Similarly, gameplay performances are arrayed along a spectrum of possibilities that navigate a tension between distance and immersion that often accompanies gameplay. Although theater and games are by no means identical, I believe they are both appropriately termed play for this reason—that they perform a meaningfully doubling of fictional/virtual play spaces and the interpretive contexts that circumscribe them.
Performatives in Gameplay
Just as theatrical performatives do not fully bear on actors, gameplay performatives do not fully bear on players. Yet, as with their theatrical counterparts, gameplay performatives only suspend so much. As statements circulate in and around the game, they gain significance through the interplay of two overlapping interpretive contexts, namely the conversational and gameplay contexts. In some cases, statements are clearly situated within one of these contexts, but this is often not so clear. A statement, for example, may be ambiguous as in how the imperative “pass the chips” may refer either to tokens within a poker game or snacks outside the game. More common, however, are hybrid cases that fall along an interpretive spectrum generated by the blending of the two contexts. This includes various forms of metacommentary—discussing, explaining, exclaiming, strategizing, asking, congratulating, taunting, etc.—that address gameplay from its conversational context. It also includes a range of gameplay performatives that link verbal game actions to the conversational context, such as “check” in Chess (a metacommentary warning that functions as a game action insofar as its utterance is mandated by the rules). Similarly, performative utterances may shorthand non-verbal moves (as in correspondence Chess) and even end, suspend, or alter the game within the meta-discourses of the ‘forfeit,’ ‘time out,’ and ‘do-over.’
Since gameplay is a symbolic activity, saying becomes doing often and in many ways. While not all statements made during play are performative in the same way, there are some common conventions for translating speech into game actions. It would be impossible to fully capture this dynamic range of possibilities in a simple taxonomy, so I shall briefly present three examples of the diverse uses of (deceptive) performative language in gameplay, specifically in guessing and trivia games, gambling games, and social deception games. In each case, game design facilitates a particular kind of interplay between the conversational and gameplay contexts, relying on their simultaneous unity and disunity to generate play.
Guessing and Trivia Games
One of the more straightforward interplays can be found in guessing and trivia games (Trivial Pursuit, Twenty Questions, Charades, etc.) and game shows (Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy) that involve answer-giving as a performative that submits itself for evaluation. Most such games directly involve real world contexts, aiming at matching verbal game moves to facts about the world (or its language). The challenge of such games is usually the difficulty in forging the desired link between gameplay and reality due to the deployment of uncommon knowledge, partial information, and/or time constraints.
Complicating such straightforward guessing games, deceptive guessing games like Balderdash and Wise and Otherwise require players to invent plausible fictions that lure other players into believing them to be the correct real-world response. In these games, the acts of writing the fictions and of voting for particular responses both function as gameplay performatives that simultaneously commit the player to actions within the game and a stance towards truth or plausibility outside the game. As Balderdash asks players to complete incomplete facts and Wise and Otherwise asks them to complete incomplete aphorisms, both games bring the world outside the game into the game as an object of play. Most guessing games rely on fluency with discourses outside the game, bringing not only the social context but also knowledge and competencies from players’ everyday lives into play.
When guessing games bring the real world into play, they often trivialize it—hence the term ‘trivia.’ Gambling games, in contrast, are at once trivial and serious as the increased stakes render the play consequential in a real-world sense. According to Jesper Juul, the possibility—but non-necessity of—real-world consequences is definitional of games (he calls this negotiable consequences). Thus, so-called gambling games can, like any game, be played for any stakes. The design of a gambling game like poker, however, aligns with real-world consequentiality such that even when no money is involved the game nonetheless plays at gambling. In fact, the relative simplicity and luck-dependence of the hidden information card games that underlie poker facilitates an emphasis on wagering. The wagers themselves are generally conducted through verbal performatives which draw a parallel between the conversational and gameplay contexts—one wagers chips within the game that are associated with money, whether in fact or in play. As a zero-sum game whose play aims at the circulation and accumulation of chips (which both conventionally represent and mimic money by being abstract signifiers of value), to play poker is to gamble, even if only to gamble signifiers. Wagering is, in fact, an everyday performative that is adopted and adapted in poker’s game design. As with its everyday counterpart, wagering within poker is subject to standards of felicity and infelicity. While certainly deceptive, however, bluffing is no abuse in Austin’s sense because the performance of the wager does not require claiming anything about the particularities of one’s hand. Instead, the actual abuse in poker would be wagering what one is unwilling or unable to pay.
Social Deception Games
The lying within social deception games such as Mafia, Avalon, and Bang! generally lack the explicit consequences of gambling (although social capital can be staked and lost) that so strongly link conversational and gameplay contexts. Instead, the lying in such games often depends upon the disunity between these contexts, constituting both a legitimate move within the game and an illegitimate description of the game. This disunity, moreover, reveals the constitutive oxymoron of social deception games which are designed to promote social interaction by subverting social norms.
In the card game Coup, for example, each player receives two hidden characters which enable certain game actions. Any player may perform any action, but that player must be able to produce the corresponding character card if challenged or suffer the consequences (the challenger suffers the consequences otherwise). The first time I played this game, I developed a verbal tic of using unnecessarily oblique language, saying “I declare myself to be the Contessa” rather than “I am the Contessa.” In Austin’s view, these statements are identical performatives except that the first is unnecessarily explicit. Within the doubled context of play, however, these statements differ significantly—the first performs a move within the game without making a corresponding infelicitous statement (i.e. lying) whereas the second does both. In this way, such games play with social norms regarding truth and falsity by establishing a context in which certain forms of deceptiveness become viable social interaction. These performatives entail performances, as players’ success in deceiving others depends on their ability to lie convincingly—being a ‘good liar’ may be acceptable or even desirable. At the same time, since social interaction is one purpose of such games, their play treads a delicate balance between maintaining and suspending social relationships.
Thus, there is another spectrum at work in performative gameplay—a spectrum of player response, the diverse individual reactions that players may take when confronted with the interplay of conversational and gameplay contexts. At one end of the spectrum, deception games play with the psychology of lying aversion, in which individuals experience difficulty lying even in circumstances where lying is warranted or permissible. At the other end of the spectrum, the carnivalesque pleasure of deception gameplay depends upon transgressing commonplace norms within the playful suspension of everyday reality. Lying aversion and carnivalesque pleasure are, in fact, sides of the same coin—the taboo makes the transgression pleasurable yet fraught. Thus, more than a simple spectrum, there is an entire topography of differing play responses which waver, touch, and blend within the doubled context of the gaming experience.
Both theater and gameplay maintain a doubled context for utterances to attain meaningfulness both within and outside the magic circle. Theater performs fictions by staging performative language that simultaneously generates distance and intimacy with the audience. Similarly, gameplay depends upon entering a rule-governed virtual play space that suspends certain aspects of the everyday but simultaneously gains significance from the social contexts within which the game is played. Any incongruities between these doubled interpretations should, I argue, be understood as a complex play of reality and unreality. In gameplay, deception can be a form of play-acting (both acting and play) which, like theatrical play, depends upon performing a role that crosses between reality and unreality. While play-actors are not necessarily beholden to their performative utterances, their performance is a meaningful experience of slipping in and out of the game-stage, an interplay which I suggest is part of what makes such performances play. Saying becomes doing in theatrical and gameplay contexts precisely because language is always a performance, whether social, theatrical, or playful. Or, to put it another way, theater and games are special circumstances in which saying can become playing. Indeed, performatives seem peculiarly at home in plays and in play—perhaps because these activities are, after all, some of the important ways we explore how to do things with words.
Featured imaged “Day 43 – Every Brilliant Thing: Hope!” by Simon James CC-BY.
Jonathan Rey Lee, PhD is a comparatist currently researching toys and analog games, especially as performative sites for transmedia, narrative, and philosophical engagement. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Riverside and currently resides in Seattle. He has written (and is still writing) on LEGO and his paper “The Plastic Art of LEGO: An Essay into Material Culture” is available in the Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman anthology. Jonathan can be contacted at https://ucriverside.academia.edu/JonathanLee.