Re-conceptualizing Gameplay as Play Play

Sam here. As Swim Pony’s new Artistic Associate, I’ll be taking on some of the company blogging alongside Adrienne.

I grew up playing video games. Since my brother is only seventeen months older than me, we spent most of our time together as kids, and in addition to building LEGO cities and biking around the rotary at the end of our street for hours, that meant a lot of video games. First, it was Cruisin’ USA on the Nintendo 64, Super Smash Brothers Melee on Game Cube, and every generation of Pokemon. Later, we were more into epic role playing games like Fire Emblem and the Tales series, as well as real-life simulations such as Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon… and the occasional round of Mario Kart.

At a certain point, I developed more of my own interests and gradually played fewer and fewer video games. Ironically, I think my falling out with the hobby coincided pretty directly with diving into theatre full-throttle in middle school. For a while now, I’ve thought of gaming somewhat nostalgically, as something I really enjoyed and wish I could have time for again.

So starting work for a company interested in the hybridization of gaming and theatre feels more than a little bit like coming full-circle. Over the past few weeks, we’ve started Play Play meetings, where a group of theatre artists gather and share ideas/games/research links that explore the whole game/theatre mash-up concept – and it’s more prevalent than I thought. Key players in both industries are becoming more and more interested in immersive experiences that welcome participants into the world of the game or the performance, and therefore it’s clear to see how the two can meet in the middle.

Our conversations so far have focused largely on games with hyper-realistic role playing and thus real world believability. We talked about Sunset and Gone Home, two short computer games that place you in a hyper-realistic world where you role play as a character and have to explore your environment to solve a mystery. They’re what are called “real-time art” or “story exploration games.” By default, you’re forced to interact with your environment as you would if it were real: open drawers, turn on lights, read notes. The ability to interact with the world in a real way is as important as the plot in creating a sense of immersion, if not more so.

But digital games aren’t the only form of “gaming” out there. Another popular genre is LARPs (live action role plays). When this topic came up, I realized that I have a huge amount of misconceptions about what LARPing is today – partially due to ignorance, and partially because I’ve just never really thought about it. I considered LARPing as sort of a physical take on fanfiction: players dress as their favorite character(s) from existing games or stories and act out alternate universe/continuation plotlines.  In some cases, this is accurate; LARPing can be as simple as a group of friends getting together and fighting with foam swords, inspired by characters or scenes from fantasy worlds.

But I have recently learned that LARPing is a lot more than that. Adrienne shared a clip from a Nordic LARP called Delirium, in which 36 players portrayed couples in a mental institution for fifty hours. The environment was designed so that it was impossible to escape from your character; if players tried to rebel against non-player authority figures or the set expectations for a situation, the scene would reset and they’d have to start over. The experience was much more intensive and immersive than my preconceived notions of LARPs.

Though this is considered a game, since people choose to play and to take on roles, it feels very theatrical; there is a set, costumes, lighting, rehearsed actors (playing doctors and other authority figures), and so on. It seems a bit like a sneaky way to get shy audience members to become participants in a large-scale immersive play, by tricking them into thinking they’re playing a game rather than seeing theatre.

One of our Play Play conversations brought up something else that is, technically, a LARP. Several members of the group talked about times when they were assigned to play out societal roles in middle school as a practical lesson. One “game” involved first, second, and third world layers; the small first world group had a Nintendo, Doritos, and air conditioning, while the third world classroom was jam-packed with no entertainment, money, or hope for escape. Another school had “Immigration Day,” where they spent the whole day standing in line, and were more successful at getting through quickly based on the characters they’d been assigned and how they dressed and acted correspondingly. These cases were very successful at getting participants to engage and play their roles because the setting was created with real in-game rewards and punishments for role playing appropriately.

My question after hearing about these scenarios was whether the participants, as middle schoolers, were aware of the lessons they were supposed to be learning or if they just felt like they were playing a fun game. This led to agreement that debriefing about the lessons learned was an essential part of the experience. But in thinking about actually devising a theatre/game hybrid, is there a way to ensure participants are aware of the plot being created around or by them while they’re actively within it? For that matter, is it more effective/useful to aim for an immersive and complex world or to prioritize the plot you want the participants to experience?  How many branching storylines are you able to realistically incorporate into live theatre, when each change affects the real world and the variables are harder to control? How can the digital element of video gaming be incorporated into live performance? Is that a necessary part of game/theatre hybridization?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of our conversations and the questions they brought up for me. I’m excited to see where we go from here, both at Play Play and Swim Pony at large.

And I think my brother – who never stopped playing games — will be proud to hear I’ve started again, and that I even get to consider it part of my job.

-Sam

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