What is a Game Performance?

This is a light translation of a text originally written in Finnish.

Immersive theatre became a significant concept in performing arts in the United Kingdom from the turn of the 21st century onwards. In Finland, it has gained broader recognition primarily from the late 2010s onwards. The term encompasses a wide range of works: those closer to traditional site-specific practices, interactive remote performances on Zoom during the pandemic, and performances realized in three-dimensional virtual reality (VR).

In Finland, those self-identifying as immersive performances can generally be divided into two artistic strategies:

1. Linear Experience, aiming to carefully control the audience’s experience. This experience often repeats with a nearly identical structure for all audience members.       

2. The Freeroaming Model, where the audience is free to move within the world of the performance, curating their own experience based on choices made within the work. In this case, the structure of the experience varies among audience members depending on their choices within the work.

The first structure is closer to the model of a conventional stage performance. Although the relationship with the audience is different from a stage performance, the experience remains linear and artist-controlled, akin to a stage performance. The latter, installation-like approach is exemplified by the British company Punchdrunk, whose influence is strongly felt in Finland as well.

In both strategies, the audience rarely influences the course or form of the work. Despite the different nature of the audience relationship compared to stage performances, the basic principle of the audience relationship remains the same: the work could occur even if the audience were not present. In this sense, it can be stated that the audience is not the central part of the work.

Makers originating from gaming culture often criticize this characteristic of performing arts: the audience or players have little influence on the structure of the work. This criticism directly challenges the claims of many contemporary performances regarding community, deconstruction of norms, or democracy: how can a work be truly communal or democratic if, most of the time, the majority present—the audience—is secondary to the work itself.

The Need for a Re-Think

Immersive performances emerge from artistic practices that seek to renew audience relationships. One of their goals has been to challenge the dominance of stage performances as the prevailing form of audience engagement in the field of performing arts. The objective is to expand the artistic toolkit by diversifying audience relationships and integrating the audience relationship more concretely into artistic work.

There is a risk that new artistic strategies may solidify into specific forms instead of continually questioning their own principles. This can lead to artistic regression instead of innovation: when forms are repeated instead of questioning principles, new performance forms become the next norm. The system perpetuates itself, and the artistic thinking that previously rejuvenated audience relationships comes to a halt. In this paradigm shift in the arts, one phenomenon is established practitioners in more traditional performance forms adopting new, ‘trendy’ forms, where new concepts may be used for marketing purposes without a significant change in the principles of the artistic work.

One purpose of new concepts is to distinguish previous artistic strategies from new ones. They aim to identify how artistic practices have changed in relation to the past. This precision in thinking reflects the precision of artistic work. The critical analysis seeks to delve deeper into advertisements, especially when marketing embellishes conservative forms with fashionable terminology without altering the working principles.

Concepts also serve to assist in analysis. Few things are entirely new or entirely old: concepts help dissect which dimensions, forms, and techniques of artistic work lead art to change. Although few things are entirely new, the paradigm of art still changes.

One goal of concepts is to find tools to assess the artistic quality of exceptionally shaped performances. In the case of immersive performances, the grandeur of their execution—whether in terms of space, finances, or production scale—often dominates the conversation, and the analysis of the artistic merits of the works remains incomplete. In such cases, the unique qualities of these exceptional works fail to emerge, and the development of their art-renewing dimensions comes to a standstill. What was previously an artistic strategy renewing art becomes a spectacle and entertainment.

Whose Rules Are You Playing By?

I will suggest one clearer concept for performances that diversify audience relationships in a particular way: a game performance. At its simplest, this refers to the combination of a game and a performance. However, this has deeper implications.

Game designer Jesse Schell, in his influential book “The Art of Game Design” (2008), has highlighted mechanism as the central element of games. It is what makes a game a game. From the perspective of performing arts, the mechanism can be translated to mean the structures of audience relationships. The mechanism is a dimension that performing arts often overlook because their strong suit traditionally lies in (re)presentations and the meanings linked to them. This arrangement has persisted even in seemingly more experimental forms, such as postdrama and performance art.

In simplified terms, postdrama made the various elements of performing arts (light, sound, actors etc.) equally important, but it often failed to recognize the level of mechanisms as one of these elements. Therefore, even seemingly experimental postdrama often ended up repeating one norm of audience relationships (stage performance). Similarly, even in its experimentation, performance art still includes stage performances, making it alone insufficient for a more diverse and critical analysis of audience relationships.

Immersive theatre or immersive performances have taken audience relationships as a tool for artistic work, but even in them, the more radically artistic development of audience relationships often stagnates, repeating commercially successful solutions.

The concept of game performance brings the mechanism to the forefront and proposes its assessment as one dimension of artistic work. It asks what is the artistic purpose of the performance’s mechanism. When games present a challenge to performing arts in the form of mechanisms, art responds to the challenge by demanding artistic justification for the mechanism.

These questions focus on the mechanism and the relationship between the performance and the audience. Each mechanism also has other dimensions: each one suggests a way of being together and thus a certain kind of politics. Each one brings up ethical questions and gives them tangible form by proposing interactive structures for the specific cultural context of that performance world.

Combining game mechanisms with a deep understanding of (re)presentation that performing arts inhabit makes such performances artistically rich, providing them the opportunity for more radical political analysis, and suggesting new worlds more concretely.

From the perspective of games, game performances raise relevant questions about the artistic dimensions of games in that transition where games are finally gaining their well-deserved place as an art form.

From the perspective of performance art and contemporary performance, game performances ask questions in a new way about what a performance is, but more importantly, about the interactive situation in which this question is asked, who is asking it, and how this shared question opens up paths to an increasing number of artistic dimensions.

Samee Haapa

Schell, Jesse. 2008. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: CRC Press.