What does theatre have to do with video games? 

Convener(s): Alex Fleetwood

Participants: Alan O’Leary, Samal Blal, Lyn Gardner, Myro Wulfr, Sam Hall, Andrew Somerville, Lindsey Hope Pearlman, Aaron Minnigin, Helen Muyridge, Ian Pugh, Joe Austin, Sharon Seager, Antonio Ferrara, Tassos Stevens, Laura Friedman, Gavin O’Carroll, Robert Wells , Caroline Pearce, Gary Campbell, Katie Day

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

This was a very hot and engaged discussion. There was a vibrant atmosphere and a high level of discourse around this topic, which I personally found so exciting that I can’t remember exactly what was said. Apologies if this is a little scattered.

Video games have traditionally occupied the living room, creating an intense relationship between an individual player and a screen-based experience. Our perception of those experiences is that they are aesthetically limited and socially backward.

The average age of a video gamer is 39. Video games are played equally by men and women. American teenager spend on average 7.5 hours day looking at a screen, in which they consume 11.5 hours of media. New gaming platforms like the iPhone and the Nintendo Wii give humans more human ways of interacting with a digital game – to do with touch, gesture, and interaction with the people or the world around you. As gamers expect greater sophistication and more human interaction, there is a colossal opportunity for theatre makers and video game producers to share skills and understanding.

There hasn’t yet been a break-out theatre / game project that defines this notion. Books had Masquerade. Cinema has spawned numerous ARGs (alternative reality game) projects which blur the boundaries between narrative and play. Theatre needs to catch up…  

But won’t we alienate ourselves? Laura spoke of the experience of her brother, 18, playing Call of Duty since he was 11. Shooting, killing, dying, respawning – talking on his headset to people he doesn’t know, telling them to cover him while he takes that guy out. Tassos reminded us that if we viewed all theatre through the experience of audiences for The Mousetrap we would have a very different view. Call of Duty is only one tiny component of the world of video games. And Call of Duty online multiplayer is a live, 12 player experience that one can access at any time of the day or night, where the people you are playing with and against are fellow experts, having logged hundreds if not thousands of hours of playing time. If we divorce that experience from the content for a minute, one has to regard it as a huge achievement on the part of the game’s creators.

Another way of thinking about video games is articulated in the book Casual Revolution by the ludologist Jesper Juul.


PLAYER SPACE        /                  PLAY SPACE


Immersive games like Call of Duty create a detailed play space (a 3D world) that negates meaningful agency in the player space. Conversely, Wii Sports creates a flat, shallow play space that allows for greater agency to be located in the player space. Does this model translate to proscenium arch theatre?

Games design posits the existence of a player – or group of players – or vast panoply of potential players, each with a different set of expectations and attributes – and conducts a series of iterative design processes to shape an experience in which the player can move through the experience. Can a piece of theatre do this? Can a theatre create a space in which stories can be told?

Coney’s project A Small Town Anywhere attempted to do this very thing. Rather than a computer brain tracking the players’ inputs, a team of theatre-makers responded to the live social play of a group of 30 people. We discussed whether there is a live interface limit to the number of players for whom a single gamerunner can facilitate a meaningful experience – the general sense is that 12 is the upper limit.  

Lyn reflected on whether video games offered new models for the distribution of theatre experiences. Can the old model of uniting audience and performers in a physical space at a fixed point in time be supplanted with a model that enables groups to come together digitally, to experience interaction and involvement with a theatrical work?

Can we create theatre-on-demand?

Rotozaza’s piece Etiquette and Duncan Speakman’s subtlemobs both use downloadable MP3 tracks (part story, part instruction set) to create a distributable participatory theatre experience). They share a narrative sophistication and a radical simplicity of technology – perhaps both instruments of their success.

There is also a question of whether ease of access = A GOOD THING. The act of bringing people together for an experience which is happening now and only now, is an essential part of theatre. But video games are a form of distributed live experience too. Every time you play, it’s different.

I asked the question of whether there was anything video games and theatre couldn’t do together. Andrew raised the question of survival versus nuance – games tend to be about living or dying, husbanding your resources to survive. A theatre piece can be about a subtle change in the way a person sees the world. Can game experiences manage that? I would argue that they can, but don’t – often – yet. Google Every Day the Same Dream and play that. See what you think.

It’s also true that games, especially live games of the kind playtested at Hide&Seek events, tap into some fundamental tribal instincts – we are bonded together against the enemy, we must work together to win, you are now my friend. The physical rush of playing together dissolves London’s social barriers without recourse to our traditional drugs of choice – that rush is something that theatre makers could learn to harness.

And the way that theatre is divorced from marketing and learning and participation – the idea that a theatre maker makes a work and it is up to others to interpret, deliver and bring an audience together with it – games offer a range of tools to rethink that model. If the moment you get your ticket, you are rewarded with an  experience, one that leads you closer to the live event, and from that experience there are a number of paths that you can follow, and there’s one that suits you, and ultimately that path leads you to the show with a vastly enriched understanding of the work – that’s a way of thinking about a theatre that markets itself and educates its audience as it does so.


A tiny plug – my company, Hide&Seek, makes work at the intersection of play, performance and public space (or ‘games’), and we curate a monthly night called The Sandpit, which invites artists from any discipline, game designers, and interested people to try out game ideas on a friendly group of players. If you;’d like to do that, please drop us a line at [email protected] or call me on 07900 692150. We have exciting plans for International Sandpits coming very soon.