On Gaming Audiences: Players, Personas, and Perceptions

With “Twitch Plays Pokemoncoming to a close (or at least it’s first playthrough), I think it’s a good time to talk about the audiences of games. There is something interesting happening on Twitch with this and its counterparts – collective play. While games have never been completely solitary actions, they are largely experiences of individuals. These individual experiences, those of the player, are abstracted to create discourses around various games/genres/mediums. These collective experiences range from seeking advice on how to beat a particular level to the meaning of a given game to how institutional forces affect the production of games.

If we want game criticism (and, by extension, games) to be better, we cannot stay solely within the paradigm of the player. While readings of games are important, understanding why they are made and how they work requires a more collective analysis. The idea of the player is comfortable in that it is what we know; it is what we directly experienced, read, and made meaning of. It is important for games creation in that it aids in the understanding of how the individual, the recipient of the medium, creates meaning from the game. However, it is also important to look at the audiences of games, the collective, generalized, and unknown group of people that experience a game. 

In general, audiences are manifested through the reading of texts. The key difference between looking at the player and looking at the audience is where meaning is being placed by rhetors. When we focus on the player, we look to the cues and reactions of the individual in relation to the game. If we shift the focus to the audience, we start with the understanding that the game is a production of an author (which requires much more complication) looking to persuade or dissuade the generalized and plural player in some way. Games are not made for one, but for many.

My purpose here is to update older theories of the rhetorical audience in order to contextualize them within the arena of games. While new concepts and theories must be created with games as their starting point, we cannot discard the knowledge produced in the criticism of other cultural objects. At the same time, these require updating in order to actually speak to the unique processes of contexts their original authors knew nothing of during their invention.

While the concept of audience is as old as communication itself, the only primary sources we have of it are from ancient Greece, notably the works of Plato and Aristotle. However, these are pretty fucking boring and offer no nuance to the idea. This is likely because of the audiences they were speaking to – official Greek speaking situations were usually filled with landowning males, creating a very homogenous audience that didn’t require (and didn’t actively call for) the nuance we require today.

The most basic definition of an audience is a person/people that is in some way influenced by a text. This is broad, but creating more boundaries increases the possibility that something gets left out or isn’t considered. The audience isn’t always directly appealed to, nor is it always conscious of the text’s reception.

One of the first ways that we situate the audience of games is through the type of interaction that is taken on by the receiver. Currently, criticism and design has focused on the intended receiver, the player, and not on those that also experience games and are affected by them but do not play them. When games are released they enter a rich cultural milieu and can be used as objects of interpretation and persuasion by multiple audiences experiencing them in multiple ways. For example, the existence of violence in video games allowed for their use by NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre as a scapegoat for school shootings. I’m certain that the creators of the mentioned video games did not intend for this to be the mode of interaction with their game, but the entry of the game into the public leads to the possibility of different modes of interaction and reading.

While this is an important thing for creators and critics to consider, it is something that I would rather discuss extensively at a later time. For our purposes here, we are looking at a general audience that plays games and understands a bit about the context of games.

In the history of the rhetorical audience there is a lineage that discusses the different personas that must be constructed in order to look at audience and incorporate the audience into textual production and criticism. This begins with Edwin Black’s article “The Second Persona” (PDF here). According to Black, the second persona is the figure that is established by the author as those who are being addressed. This ‘implied auditor’ is in direct relation to the first persona, or the character that the speaker creates as a rhetor. An example of this first persona is the figure that Ken Levine creates in his announcement of Irrational Games’ downsizing. This has been polished, influenced in ways that are not readily apparent to the reader, but have led to the creation of a certain image that Levine wishes to convey.

This second persona is important because it points to the intended audience of a text. It lets us see how a particular text was created in order to fit the makeup of that audience. Why is Call of Duty: Ghosts more of the same? It is largely created with the second persona of the ‘typical’ FPS player in mind – those who put in dozens or more hours into multiplayer who are largely straight men and who expect continuity of some sort from previous games within the series/genre. There are audience expectations that authors wish to meet.

However, there is a problem for all parties with the creation of second personas. It requires critics, developers and marketers to put together imaginary collectives that are wildly different for each text and each producer. Let’s take as our example Bioshock: Infinite and Levine’s announcement. The creator, Levine, assembles this imaginary audience of ‘core gamers’ to which his new games will appeal to, even though this designation has no equivalent in reality. The marketers of Infinite (probably) conceptualized the audience in terms of demographics (the 18-45 demo, the teenage male demo…I’m going to guess they didn’t try much harder than that). This limited what they would look at and how they would view their own game throughout its creation and existence.

But here we run into problems. Obviously many other types of audiences picked up Infinite and they did not have the best response to it, likely caused by them not being a part of the intended audience of the game. This is where we get the other two personas in this conceptual lineage: the third and null personas.

The third persona, articulated by Philip Wander, looks at those audiences that are not addressed directly but might be implicated by a text in some way (PDF here). Wander writes:

The Third Persona, therefore, refers to being negated. … a being whose presence, though relevant to what is said, is negated through silence. … The objectification of certain individuals and groups discloses itself through what is and is not said about them and through actual conditions affecting their ability to speak for themselves. Operating through existing social, political, and economic arrangements, negation extends beyond the ‘text’ to include the ability to produce texts, to engage in discourse, to be heard in the public space. (210)

It is an audience that is written out of games in meaningful ways, but still is addressed in some ways. The problem with this concept is, how can we delineate who is and is not being addressed within a game? There is certainly not complete silence when we have the blatant racism of Infinite or Ghosts, but there is only silence for those that these games affect the most. Ghosts’ single player silences the latina completely while the latino is present but also silenced by the lack of dialogue and the presence of the white colonial marine. This is a complication that Wander doesn’t think of in his own article (focusing instead on the singular Jewish audience of Martin Heidegger’s speeches), but an important nuance that we need to articulate when analyzing games.

This brings us to the null persona, which was developed by Dana Cloud in reference to the speech of black mill workers in the early twentieth century (PDF here). This persona is a response more to Black’s first persona in that it looks at the rhetors themselves as creating a certain figure in certain situations. She writes, “The null persona refers to the self-negation of the speaker and the creation in the text of an oblique silhouette indicating what is not utterable” (200). For games this could take on multiple forms, but the most important is the minority critic that speaks on minority issues. Maddy Myers wrote a while back about Anita Sarkeesian and the issues with being a woman critiquing games online. She writes, “If you’re also a woman, you’ll endure more scrutiny and more harassment online just for that reason. If you’re a woman and you write about gender roles in relation to videogames, the harassment will get worse.” The online culture currently is one which places many critics into this sphere of audience – those that are actively harassed for their participation. I don’t have any problems when I post games criticism because I’m a straight, white, cis male. I’ve never had to silence myself and create this null persona in order to avoid violence and harassment.

While this null persona is one I can more concretely express when we’re talking about the criticism sphere, where does it work within the area of game development and design? I’m not really sure, but I have to think of Robert Yang’s article on the Flappy Bird backlash, a response that led to Nguyen silencing himself and taking the game off the market. If this self-silencing is going on with an independent designer, what is happening in larger corporations where there are very different structures of power? What happens with the oppressed coder or animator who doesn’t like the objects their company is producing, but has the added pressure of worrying about whether they will keep their job or not if they talk about it? These are situations that I don’t really have an answer to, and haven’t experienced, but they are questions that we must investigate in order to have a better understanding of how texts are being produced through active voices and active silence.

There are a lot of problems when starting with these concepts and trying to update them for a new method of delivery. These authors had no idea of the player’s participation and influence on the creation of texts. They were written with ideals that kept the speaker and the audience completely separate instead of understanding some recursive structure at work. Additionally, within that static relationship, the author is singular instead of the amalgamation that we get when we’re talking about a major corporate developer like Activision or EA.

So what’s the point? Why look at audiences when we’re talking about games at all if they’re just abstractions created by authors of differing careers? With an active and conscious understanding of the audiences involved in games production, we can understand those that are not being addressed, negated, or silenced. The point of the critic must be to shift the audiences currently within the third or null personas into that of the second, to create these audiences explicitly and force them within the head of the developer (Kate Cox wrote an article about E3 a few years back that speaks to this movement). This is a mechanism through which feed-forward can make games’ production change.

How do we create welcoming games that people at least feel neutral to and not actively oppressed by? How do we make sure that games of all sorts move towards creating non-hegemonic spaces? It is by being better aware of the audiences that are involved in games. Understanding that there is no such thing as a ‘core gamer’ and that the days of a few straight men playing Doom in a college dorm has grown to whole groups of people playing a game like Infinite in every room on the campus. Games cannot be put back into a homogenous context like that of the Athenian senate. Understanding this involves a lot of steps (mainly the inclusion of oppressed groups in the games-creating process at all levels and areas, a much larger systemic issue than just the industrial/journalism/criticism worlds we discuss), but a comprehensive and active thought process about the audiences involved in games can be the basis for more inclusive games.

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About Nick Hanford

Graduate student at RPI and editor-in-chief at Journal at Games Criticism. Reach me at https://twitter.com/nicholashanford .
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