In Search of the Creative Moment – Computer Games in the Theatre
Scepticism about virtual game worlds is waning. The theatre is increasingly taking up computer games and interactive media and incorporating them in stage reality. A look at the most recent inter-media encounters.
The introduction of new media in the theatre is a gradual process. It took a long time before static film recordings (already used by Erwin Piscator in the 1920s) were joined by mobile hand-held cameras and recently by live film productions such as in the work of the English director Katie Mitchell (most recently Request Programme by Franz Xaver Kroetz at the Schauspiel Cologne, 2009, and Miss Julie after Strindberg at the Berlin Schaubühne, 2010). In her productions sound designers, hand models, camera crew and actors scurry about in a film set on stage in order to create cinematic images of inner life that can be followed parallel on a screen. Thus a hybrid genre has arisen in which it is no longer possible to say whether theatre has entered into the service of film or vice versa.
Boys with Game Boys
Measured by such advanced developments, the theatre’s use of interactive media such as computer games is still in its infancy. Although individual genres have played a role in young people’s theatre – the notorious shoot-‘em-up and ego-shooter games have been a component of topical dramas of rampage – such interventions are generally conspicuous by their absence. We see players on stage (boys with Game Boys), but not the games themselves. Video images occasionally feed in external views of the games (as when in 2007 cuts from the kick-boxing game Mortal Combat spiced up Anna Bergmann’s production of Sera Moore Williams’s young people’s play Crash at the Oldenburg State Theatre).
These images deny precisely the inherent logic of the new medium: its interactive character. They skip the games themselves so as to take a look at the social discourse with which they are entwined. In this way the early multi-media encounters in young people’s theatre correspond to the debates of the 1990s, which focussed mainly on the social and psychological dangers without examining the specific game’s potential to influence action.
Heroes in the Second Life
Game Studies, an academic discipline that emerged mainly in Scandinavia and the United States and that has been institutionally entrenched since the turn of the millennium, changed this discourse. Now structures of play interaction are examined in detail. And on stage a correspondingly nuanced way can be found of dealing with the challenges presented by computer games.
Roger Vontobel set up his 2008 Hamburg production of Ibsen’s early work The Vikings of Helgeland as a “mixed world production”. At the height of the hype surrounding the social network world “Second Life”, Vontobel opened the heroic Nordic saga in virtual reality: on a screen behind the stage, animated play figures fly to the snow-covered island of Helgeland, while the actors, who guide these avatars, sit at desks in the stage area. They recite Ibsen’s text and the avatars accompany it, rather woodenly, as best they can (dancing, brandishing swords). It is a radio play with 3D illustrations, in which both computer games and stage acting are sold below their value. Consequently, the animated attempt is very soon brought to an end: after the screen figures have reached an heroic hall (modelled on the real stage space with its desks), the actors take over and perform the events with great agility until the end, but still in the conventional theatrical manner.
This was therefore not finally a mixed world. The computer-generated horizon served merely as a visual attraction. Yet the evening did convey an interesting dramatic insight: the ancient epics, with their archaically simple values such as honour and strength, have returned today in virtual communities and their role-playing.
The level of the new epic
This insight was also at the bottom of the most important dramatic contribution on gaming culture to date: in his 2007 Next Level Parzival, Tim Staffel interconnected the Parzival myth of the Arthurian legend with structures from online role-playing games such as World Of Warcraft. In the play young people meet for a LAN party and go with their avatars on adventures and courtships, scoring virtue and power points with which they can rise into higher ranks in the virtual world of knighthood.
The play operates at two levels: outside the play world, the players plunk away on their keyboards and deal along the way with the typical problems of young people’s theatre (sexuality, otherness, school stress); inside the play world, their avatars strive to form alliances, gain the favour of their mistresses and win combats. This separation of levels works until the foolhardy strongman Parzival, a non-playing character, appears on the scene, defeats higher-ranked knights and brings the manageable coordinate system of the game thoroughly into crisis. Is this wondrous warrior a virus or a new game challenge (the ‘next level’)? At the very least his appearance generates new, creative forms of conduct: he has to be integrated, for it is hopeless to fight him.
Staffel was here not only treating on the quiet social ways of dealing with the unknown; he was also showing how virtual relationships function as laboratory situations in which solutions to problems can be tried out safely. And he showed the threat that looms when the correlation of real and virtual spheres of action dissolves: when the kids’ Intranet party is opened to the Internet, this disintegrates their game into chaos, blurring the allocation of levels.
Dwelling in artificial worlds
Staffel’s play is still created for a conventional stage situation with a fourth wall. It presents interactive phenomena, but is not itself interactive. Interactive theatre, by preference domiciled in the independent scene, goes one step farther. In Fight Club – Real Tekken, the group God’s Entertainment (2006) has the audience control the performer by means of a joystick so as to re-enact the kickboxing game ‘Tekken’. The result, however, is a very simple wake-up call: we learn that virtual violence is also violence and gain a feeling for the painful consequences of our joystick clicks through the suffering of the fight performer.
More complex than this experiment are the worlds set up by the Austrian-Danish artists collective SIGNA. In Die Erscheinungen der Martha Rubin (i.e., The Apparitions of Martha Rubin, Schauspiel Cologne, 2007), the audience enter an old-fashioned village, make acquaintances, learn about relationships and take part in rituals. This is a Second Life become reality, a fitness studio for simulated social intelligence, which some of the audience inhabit for days on end because of its cosiness.
To form an idea of the possibilities for developing these formats, it is worth taking a look at computer game theory. Artificial worlds, when they do not want to be marvelled at merely for their arrangement, require puzzles and creative challenges. The point is to find a balance between the freedom of action of the active visitor (agency), who can roam about the world at will, and a problem structure – for instance, of a story (narrative), through which he is manoeuvred to targeted tasks. We are looking, according to the game theorist Michael Mateas, for the ‘sweet spot’, where the structures of prepared meaning are maximally open to subjective input. It is at this ‘sweet spot’ that an advanced interactive theatre will be aiming.
The author is the editor of the Internet portal www.nachtkritik.de and theater critic for Theater heute, the Berliner Zeitung and the Märkische Allgemeine Zeitung.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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