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Editor’s View: Netflix sees computer games as a competitor – so should theatre

Adetomiwa Edun, who starred in the National's Translations last year, as his virtual alter ego Alex Hunter in FIFA 18
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Netflix is often considered a rival to traditional screen entertainment produced by HBO, BBC or the Hollywood film studios. But the streaming service made an interesting observation about those it considers its biggest rivals in a letter to shareholders this month.

“We earn consumer screen time away from a very broad set of competitors. We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO. When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and sign-ups spiked for that time,” it said. “There are thousands of competitors in the highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”

Other streaming services such as Amazon’s Prime Video are barely mentioned. Fortnite, if you are unaware, is an online game with 200 million registered players (as of last November).

RSC partners with Fortnite creator Epic Games and Punchdrunk to deliver major immersive project

I wonder how often theatres take this lateral approach. Some will see Netflix as a competitor for their audience’s leisure time. And, perhaps more importantly, for actors, creatives and crew. But how many are considering the impact of YouTube or computer games?

Most people who run our theatres come from a generation before computer games were ubiquitous, but increasingly they are becoming a native form of entertainment for adults – not just kids. They also offer many qualities that theatre likes to think distinguish it from TV and film: liveness, interactivity and community.

Where computer games have so far failed to really challenge live drama is in terms of emotional heft, but it is a developing art form and this will surely come: especially if it poaches talent from other sectors. Games are already one of the fastest-growing areas of employment for actors: audiences at the National might have recognised Adetomiwa Edun in its recent revival of Brian Friel’s Translations from his starring role in the computer game FIFA 2019. How long before someone commissions Lucy Prebble or James Graham to write a computer game?

Netflix is tapping into gaming fans with releases such as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which deploys the interactive approach of computer games and role-playing novels. Punchdrunk has done something similar in theatre – I await with interest the results of its recently announced partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Fortnite creator Epic Games. But for most mainstream theatre companies this remains a blindspot.

Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith

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