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What can theatre learn from the £4.2bn video games sector?

By the End of Us by Block Stop at the Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Blockstop By the End of Us by Block Stop at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Blockstop
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On the face of it, theatregoing and gaming make for unlikely team mates. Theatre invites its audiences to watch, listen and reflect; games demand that we think strategically and play to win. One is communitarian, the other competitive. Whether it’s the brightly pixelated worlds of role-playing games and first-person shooters, or the concrete playgrounds of performance-parkour companies such as 2PK Network, gaming is an active medium. Writer and game designer William Drew sums it up: “The form is political. You’re not saying: watch. You’re saying: do.”

Gaming is big business. When it comes to video games, this is doubly the case. In terms of consumer revenues, the UK was estimated to be the sixth largest video games market in 2015. As part of our nations’ creative sector, its value nudged almost £4.2 billion in the same year, while UK theatre accounts for approximately £1.5 billion. In other words, the possibility of combining the two disciplines makes for an exciting and potentially lucrative opportunity.

What’s more, with a much wider cross-section of society taking part in video games (the Big Fish Games Database estimates that 29% of gamers are now under 18), the possibility of generating new and diverse audiences for theatre is immense. Online platforms such as Sploder and Flowlab mean it has never been easier to create your own video games. Indeed, you could say that the fringe culture that facilitates the work of emerging theatre artists has found its own form in the world of independent video-game programming.

Both gaming and theatre break the rules to create new forms. The result is a crop of theatremakers dedicated to synthesising game design and theatre devising to create highly participatory experiences. For companies such as Coney and Block Stop, game design has redefined the artist’s relationship to audiences, situating them as proactive participants who can influence narratives. Meanwhile, for theatremaker and curator Thomas Martin, whose Beta Public V (Camden People’s Theatre, 2015) encompassed work from artists such as John Smith and Figs in Wigs, video-game mechanics inspired new forms of “liveness” within established theatre practice itself.


Profile: Coney

Production: Adventure 1
Location: City of London
Dates: July 2015-March 2016, part of Sprint Festival
Website: coneyhq.org

For Tassos Stevens, artistic director of Coney, this “marriage of dramaturgy and game design” is about empowering players to make meaningful decisions. “For us, it’s all about deciding on the model we want to adopt in building the work. It’s about asking what an audience is doing. What are they interacting with, and what impact is that level of interaction having on their experience?” But turning audiences into players poses logistical challenges. Unlike the predetermined nature of traditional theatre performance, players can destabilise events through their own involvement. “It’s bloody difficult to rehearse,” affirms Drew, who is also an associate artist of Coney. “You can only guess until you get some people in the room and see what they do. So there’s always uncertainty and there’s always risk. You are always surprised by what the audience does and often the things they do become permanent parts of the show.”

Adventure 1 by Coney, part of Sprint Festival in March. Photo: Coney HQ
Adventure 1 by Coney, part of Sprint Festival in March. Photo: Coney HQ

With Adventure 1, Stevens and Drew crafted a covert, undercover mission through the City of London. Players interact with the private-public spaces of London’s financial district by responding to instructions via text message and recorded phone conversations. The objective is to tail a mysterious trader known as Mr X. It’s an exhilarating, reflective and even transgressive experience in which players fulfil tasks that lead to real consequences. As Stevens explains, developing such interactive, mission-oriented experiences is one of constant testing: “Development began with reconnaissance of the site. What follows is a play-test. At this stage, we hadn’t yet started creating the story. We needed to ensure it was fun and to check that – technically – players didn’t find it bothersome.”

These interactive encounters excite audiences with the promise of multiple possibilities. As players, we’re encouraged to test boundaries, to poke and prod at the contours of performance, to deviate from established routes. It’s a format that challenges theatremakers to accommodate a range of playing styles and individual experiences. Daniel Thompson, co-director of Block Stop, creators of live video-game performances By the End of Us and Counter Call, explains the breadth of possible outcomes for players. “Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? You read a paragraph and you’re given a choice of flipping to page 10 or 12? That’s kind of how we write our scripts. We write them with lots of different, branching possibilities in mind.”


Profile: Block Stop

Production: By the End of Us
Venue: Southwark Playhouse, London
Dates: June 7-11, 2016
Website: blockstop.co.uk

By the End of Us (Southwark Playhouse, 2016) exploits the bond between actor and audience to create a player-character relationship. By tapping into video-game mechanics, Block Stop allows players to direct actors in completing objectives via a live-streamed, interactive mission that riffs on the spy-thriller genre. It may sound technical, but the resulting performance immersed audiences in the moment-by-moment excitement of live decision-making.

As you can probably imagine, when it comes to the design and development side of things, the challenges are formidable. “In the early stages, we have the main character roam around with a laptop connected to Skype,” says Thompson. “It’s a simple way of using free technology to test the concept. Working with technology is costly, so before you spend all that money, you have to be sure that the concept has legs.”

Video games are a form of performance art

Video games have already mastered an open-ended approach to storytelling. The success of franchises including Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto capitalise on the principles of freedom and agency. Within theatre, the possibility of affecting change through direct participation is still in the embryonic stages. “It’s challenging because there isn’t a rule book,” explains Thompson. “There aren’t that many people making this kind of work. So we are very much learning as we go. It’s about creating pathways through which players feel empowered to make choices, while ensuring these choices make sense within the overall narrative.”

But if game-play centres on decision-making, those decisions need to matter. For Stevens, the success of bringing game-play into the sphere of theatre rests on a subtle, but crucial, distinction. “Freedom in itself is not meaningful. It’s agency that is meaningful. I might be ‘free’ to do anything, but it’s possible that a lot of those actions have no value.” For Drew, it’s about acknowledging the limits of this freedom while facilitating genuine involvement: “If, as the artist, I’m handing over control to you, then I think that feels meaningful in itself. There are limits to that, of course, because we keep things within a certain framework.”


Profile: Thomas Martin

Productions: Beta Public V, Human Basic
Venue: Camden People’s Theatre, London
Dates: November 17-19, 2015, April 26-27, 2016
Website: thomasjamesmartin.co.uk

Beyond interactive theatremaking, the gaming world continues to permeate other forms of live performance. For Martin, it’s the aesthetic ideas and design principles underpinning video games that hold a particular fascination for the theatremaking process. In Human Basic (CPT, 2016), Martin harnessed the ideas generated through the internet, with its plethora of avatars, memes and digital games, to create a piece of theatre that reflected new forms of online interaction.

Beta Public V by Thomas Martin and Pat Ashe at Camden People’s Theatre, London, in 2015. Photo: Camden People’s Theatre
Beta Public V by Thomas Martin and Pat Ashe at Camden People’s Theatre, London, in 2015. Photo: Camden People’s Theatre

“I think a lot of it has to do with the mechanics,” Thompson explains. “It’s a great term that game players and designers use, but when I’m watching theatre, I’m asking myself what kind of mechanics are taking place. This is what a lot of people would call dramaturgy.”

These practitioners are united in their willingness to blend methodologies. Throughout our conversations, it soon becomes clear that theatremaking and game design have a great deal in common already. What game designers refer to as mechanics, theatremakers call dramaturgy, and while directors may talk of ‘form’, programmers will speak about ‘models’. “The terminology used within game design and theatre studies use different words for essentially the same thing,” explains Thompson. “With game design, we refer to MDA (mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics). In a way, that’s really not dissimilar to the theatremaking process. What the audience experience first is the look and feel of a performance, but then you start thinking more about the inner workings.”

As live performance moves into the zone of interactive gaming, exciting new hybrids will continue to emerge. “For me, video games are a form of performance art,” asserts Thompson. It’s an intriguing notion. Despite their different tactics, perhaps these disciplines are playing for the same team after all.

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