Audience as Agent - What can theatre learn from video games?

Convener: Hannah Nicklin

Participants: Flavia Fraser-Cannon, Max Allsup, [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], Paul Whitlock, [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], Trish Parry [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] [email protected], [email protected], Pat Ashe [email protected], Tom Mansfield [email protected] Claire Thill [email protected]

The discussion began by highlighting examples of what people though crossover between video games and theatre might be, Blast Theory's work was a focal point, and Improv Everywhere in the US were mentions; in particular a piece where a large group of people (200ish) descend on a Best Buy shop wearing khaki trousers and a blue shirt - also the uniform of Best Buy Workers. The participants (agents as IE term them) did not deceive customers, or ever explicitly say that they were employees of the store, but it was suggested by our group that this was an interestingly playful way of playing with the rules of social space. Coney's A Small Town Anywhere was touched briefly upon but a person who had taken part in it described it as slightly too complicated for her, and perhaps the simplicity of some games, or indeed the factoring in of a difficulty curve as you might get in a trad gaming experience.

A question was raised about the difference between getting gamers into a theatre vs getting theatre goers to play games but it was also suggested that generalised ideas of 'theatre goer' and 'gamer' were too reductive to be useful.

The aesthetic and aim of a video game was explored slightly, and the idea of aesthetics over story in popular FPS authoring, and player achievement as a motivating force, the masking quality of an avatar was mentioned, as too the anonymity of a virtual environment, but it was countered with a sense of the entire disappearance of a traditional theatre audience's body in the darkness.

In the same way as with the mooted immersive qualities of video games, problems with immersive theatre were raised, with the example of a common negative reaction to punch-drunk shows as having to fit in to their authored vision, could the sandbox game model help here? Is there such thing as too much, or unmanageable freedom? You can always find the edge of a sandbox world.

Coney were talked about as a more game oriented company, and the question of it being 'theatre', rather than performance, or performative experience was briefly tackled, with people falling on either side, suggesting that it was performance only, or that it was reductive to deny theatre new forms.

The root of both gaming and theatre being play was mentioned, and indeed it's role in how we learn, but also the historically dim view of pleasurable ways of learning. Why are we told to stop playing? And how is it now considered viable in certain spheres; theatre, consoles. Again it was mentioned that care needed to be taken not to generalise types of performance or games.

Ben and Rich of Invisible Flock talked about (physical) game creation, the meta narratives, rule sets, and world creation. It was emphasised how games are fully authored and curated environments, aesthetic experiences. The fact that sandbox games (is Minecraft the purest example of this, or not a game, but something more akin to a 'paint' program?) always still have linear routes through them was discussed, as well as there being nothing necessarily not-game like about a well made linear experience.

The concept of emergence was brought up by Ben of Invisible Flock - interaction that brings unpredictability. This moved on to ideas about MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) and online play in games like Call of Duty - what is the root of their appeal? Hannah asked if X Factor etc could be considered a massive multiplayer game, and was that which is at the heart of the success of that and things like CoD online, WoW (World of Warcraft) an urge to collectively affect a world?

LARPs (live action role playing) were discussed in their similarity to pervasive gaming, and the question raised as to why the latter is more socially acceptable than the former.

Game design was touched on, and the need to think carefully about the 'tutorial' aspect of participatory theatre/performance. And at the same time as discussing things the audience can bring as agent, emphasis was placed on the delight of discovering something that someone has left for us, in a novel, a play, a LARP, or a piece of authored pervasive performance.

Why, then, if so much cross over exists, are video games so much more culturally popular, garnering in the UK more spend than music and film combined. Again discussion touched on the ability to play with other people, and immersive narrative, as well as the amount of game play people actually get for their money and the pick up, put-down-ability*, but people were also to discuss what video games don't do that theatre can/does - looking at how video games fetishises cinematic storytelling, and actually collaborations with theatre folk (think Papa Sangre) can often be much more productive to their storytelling. Likewise the ephemerality of theatre is something quite specific to live or part-live experience.

Can theatrical processes learn anything from video games? The testing model of games is certainly interesting in this context - scratch culture is a nod to this, but content is rarely revised with an audience in mind, rather the effectiveness for the author. scratch is more like R&D than real testing.

Hide and Seek's work was used as an example of a testing model, but also the focus on mechanics over experience that this sometimes results in. Do they test stories or mechanics? How separate are/should be these things.

Then, the act of inviting someone into rather than to watch a world you have created was highlighted as a much greater act of trust, which tends to make an audience (agent) more invested - games can perhaps teach theatres about longer, fuller audience relationships.

The role of the performer in this world of audience as player was emphasised as an important one to think about - and although the journey of a performer is a playful one, what happens in a world which is cutting out the 'middle man' be it news, record labels, to the deliverers of performance? New forms don't always mark the old as obsolete. 

The projection of oneself in theatre or masking of video games was compared to the power of the first-person performative experience, what theatre can offer games, is a body. in a world where our bodies become (capitalist?) battlegrounds, what a weapon might bodied theatrical experiences be? And because this work is so contingent upon people's bodies, is a greater duty of care necessary? Video games are a young form, old can learn from young, just as young can learn from experience, perhaps there should be more direct dialogue between the theatre and video gaming disciplines?


A session of useful questions.

Thanks for reading!


* perhaps only rivalled by something like the Edinburgh Festival