LIFT Blog: On Gaming as Theatre
Published on LIFT Blog, July 2010
Can computer games be art? It’s a debate that has been rumbling on for years: delve the depths of the internet and you’ll find passionate advocacy of the aesthetic properties of Tetris, for example. In recent years, thanks to technological quantum leaps, that question has become more mainstream. Where computer games were once mere obstacle courses in which individual challenges were either passed or failed, many are now open-ended structures. Games such as Grand Theft Auto, The Sims or Red Dead allow such freedom that the player must decide how he or she wishes to play the game.
That choice is, arguably, a moral one. Certainly when one makes the jump to social gaming – online multiplayer modes, Second Life or World of Warcraft – the ethical nature of one’s choice increases enormously. One’s own play affects that of others. The virtual impacts upon the real.
We are, I think, tackling a similar question with the non-virtual gaming currently being presented in an artistic context as theatrical or as theatre. As a form, the game as theatre (by which I mean participatory models rather than spectating) is in its infancy. That form, I believe, has a great deal of aesthetic potential. But if it is to fulfil that potential, it must draw on its ethical dimension.
Tassos Stevens, a co-director of the agency of adventure Coney, delivered an advocacy of play at Wonderlab (which you can read in full here), in which he described play as “make believe at the double.” It relies on the multiplicity between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’: Play, he says, is “the distance between these two spheres of what if and what is, it’s a dynamic space, sparking like the electrical storm of Van der Graaf.” I like that a lot, but I’d playmakers and gamedesigners must ensure that the connection runs back and forth between the two spheres. To leap from what is to what if is not enough. We do that when sat in the dark watching a drama. Participation requires us to go from what is to what if and back again.
I suppose I’m saying that it’s not merely enough to get us playing. You have to make us look back at our behaviour and question the choices we made during play. You have to leave something lingering and change the world (if only for a while).
At the same time, the game as played (ie the experiential) must be more than the game as a set of rules or instructions (ie the structure or concept). That is, it is only by actually playing or participating in the game that we get a full experience of it. It’s not enough to read the rules and understand the artist’s point. (Hutong, a game in which two rectangular routes of identical proportions are walked in different cities, suffers from this. The concept of connection is made clear by the rules, but never really furthered by being experienced.)
At the moment, there are games that do and there are games that don’t. Walking (S)miles by Present Attempt (and in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit to being a former member of the company), which yields discoveries about the world only when played seriously and intently. You notice not just the rarity of smiling at strangers (which occurs to you from the rules alone), but also the different types of smile and the range of motivations behind smiles. The city changes when seen through this filter: not full of passing people, but potential smiles. And to look back is to realise that you’ve treated people as means to an end and, probably, devalued the nature of a smile.
There are many other examples: Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere – a toy world that demands reflection on behaviour within; Blast Theory’s Rider Spoke; Third Ring Out by Metis Arts; You Me Bum Bum Train, currently on at the Barbican and many more.
Perhaps all this is to forget the pure aesthetic properties of play. After all, there’s beauty in a game played skilfully or inventively. Isn’t that why chess tournaments dish out trophies for ‘Best Game’?
The form is growing up. So what do we want from our games as theatre? Is it enough just to play or must we demand that games demand more?