The Gaming Challenge to Theater for Young Audiences
Can playwrights and producers of theater for young audiences (TYA) learn anything from video games?
Video games began reaching wide audiences in the mid 1980s, first as arcade entertainments, such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders. In the 1990s, computer geeks took over (you needed a state-of-the-art desktop system to play Doom, Quake, Hexen). In the last ten or twelve years, though, games have become ubiquitous. All PCs are powerful enough to run them. X-Box and PlayStation consoles are everywhere. Wii sets have become popular in rest homes. There are dozens of games for iPhones.
The numbers astonish. According to Price/Waterhouse, annual earnings for games went from $32 billion in 2006 to $66 billion in 2010. In 2007 alone sales shot up 43 percent. Things have slowed in the recession, but just barely; sales in 2011 are projected to be down 5 percent. Gaming easily beats Hollywood and it edges out music in terms of revenue. Only pornography outearns video games.
At the same time Theater For Young Audiences (TYA) has suffered. Few children’s theaters are doing well and some are slashing their budgets, carrying crippling deficits, laying off staff, doing fewer plays, plays with smaller casts and noticeably simpler production concepts. Storybook plays (plays based on well-known books, films, fairy tales, etc.) proliferate as theaters try to take advantage of a famous title’s popularity.
How do video games work? What is the nature of their appeal? Is there anything that we—playwrights and TYA producers—can learn from them?
It all comes down to grim arithmetic: there are fewer butts in the TYA seats.
Is this a coincidence? The audience for plays shrinks while that of video games explodes? Is it just the sputtering economy? When it recovers—slowly, so slowly—will TYA be back to business as usual? Maybe. Hopefully. But this is not, one suspects with equal parts paranoia and bleak realism, to be. In the past decade, as it has become widely popular, video gaming has emerged as a ferocious competitor to live theater.
It behooves us, then, to look critically at this monster, and ask: how do video games work? What is the nature of their appeal? Is there anything that we—playwrights and TYA producers—can learn from them? Can we, somehow, borrow their clearly successful techniques in order to make our venerable art more palatable to game-savvy 21st-century children?
How They Work
Ever play a video game? Myself, I’m fond of the Battlefield series. On a rainy day I’ll crank up one of the Quake games. My fourteen-year-old son, whose knowledge of gaming is encyclopedic, prefers Star Wars and Assassin’s Creed (he gave up World Of Warcraft as too addictive; it’s called “WOW crack” for good reason). Occasionally the two of us will play Half Life II. Togetherness.
The first thing you learn is that games are astonishingly, fiendishly hard. You’re holding a very awkward controller (there are seventeen ways to input an X-Box controller) struggling to stay alive when an alien comes out of nowhere, and zap!, you’re dead. “Try again, Dad,” your son says, smiling patronizingly, and so you do, and you get three or four more steps into the game, and then, zap! Another alien kills you.
This is the vibe. Repetition. You play till you die, again and again. And again and again. Games come, significantly, with no manual. It’s as though someone sets up a chess board, then says to a novice: There. Play. What’s the point of the game? Figure it out. How do you move? Figure it out.
This is fun?
Well, yes, it is, and a kid whose math homework sends him screaming into night after ten minutes will play, and die, and play and die again, until he collapses, from pure exhaustion, some time around dawn. Why?
Because of what video game scholar James Paul Gee calls the “probe, hypothesis, reprobe, rethink” cycle. Players are probing the gamescape, moving deliberately, making discoveries, dying, brushing themselves off, then moving deeper, applying newly acquired knowledge. The learning curve is steep, but when you master it, you’re, well, a master.
To outside observers, players seem like brain-dead automatons, pausing to take occasional bites of cold pizza as their fingers blur over their controllers. But in their heads, something marvelous is happening. Their brains respond to the probing, the making of hypotheses, the reprobing, the exploring with a solid shot of dopamine (there is plenty of neurological evidence to back this up; check out psychologyofgames.com and follow the many links). This is what allows players to game for hours: it’s addictive, literally. Empowering.
Can TYA compete with this? Will parents pry their offspring away from the gamescreen in order to spend $200 (roughly the price for four tickets at a professional children’s theater, plus dinner)? “Honey, would you like to go see Anne Of Green Gables?”
I’m a parent myself and like (almost all) parents, I choose my battles carefully. This is a battle that, more and more often, live theater loses. It is, I believe, a major reason for the current travails of many children’s theaters.
A Lesson for Playwrights
Can plays match the be-dopamined probe/hypothesis/reprobe/rethink appeal of video games? Probably not. Plays are communal. Group-experiences. Linear. Story-centric. Games are non-linear, violent, with silly story lines.
But plays could become, as games already are, much more empowering—more complex and interesting, less condescending, and definitely less cute. Contemporary playwrights and producers do not sufficiently honor the sophistication of 21st-century children. These kids game, they surf the Net, they Tweet, they Facebook, they text. They are smart, hip, and articulate. Moreover, their parents game, surf the Net, etc. We are dealing now, for the first time, with two Internet-savvy generations. The species has never before encountered this before. There is one thing that can be said about this Internet Generation: they dislike condescension.
And condescension is often what they get at children’s theaters. Too often TYA plays are based on an adult’s idea of what children should be, rather than what children really are. This is why the worlds presented are so often cutesy (and dull). With over-the-top production styles and stories that move like molasses in March. Racism should not exist; therefore you cannot do a play containing racism. Kids shouldn’t do drugs or have sex; ergo, no plays with drugs or sex. Homosexuality. Radical politics. Etc. Not all TYA theaters are guilty of this, but many are.
Here are a few modest proposals, offered in hopes that plays can employ some of the (clearly successful) techniques used in video games:
Make Plays Darker
Video games are, without a doubt, unbelievably and wearyingly violent. Filled with death and gore—“gibs” (giblets) as the game designers say. In order to move into the world of the game you have to kill and kill quickly, again and again.
Am I suggesting that children’s plays match games corpse for corpse? Of course not. But there is a reason for the ongoing popularity of violent video games: children have dark, frightening and often violent imaginations. Their inner worlds are not cute and simplistic. They are filled with monsters. Danger. With genuine evil. Too often playwrights and children’s theaters turn away from this unpleasant fact. This is not a mistake made by Id Software, EA Games, Blizzard Entertainment, et al, and their bottom lines reflect it. Again, it’s the TYA instinct to present the world as it should be, not as it is.
So, let’s deal with the competition of video games by creating plays that truly honor the intelligence and sophistication of contemporary children. And let’s admit that their imaginations are darker and more violent than we might wish. Let’s make plays that reflect this.
Make Plays Subversive
This goes to another major appeal of video games: they piss adults off. They’re time-wasters. Addictive. They distract players from more acceptable pursuits, like school, reading and socialization. Users believe that they’re mavericks, learning skills that no adults can match. The more parents criticize games, the smugger these kids become. I’m a rebel, my son often tells me. A gamer. Deal with it.
If only live theater could generate this kind of anti-establishment fervor!
Can it? Can wealthy established theater engender genuine iconoclastic fervor? Children want this; they want it badly. They are aware that the economy is in the permanent doldrums, that poverty, poor health care, hunger are endemic. They know about gangs, violence, slums, endless wars. They want plays to reflect this. They need plays to feed their dark imaginations.
Make Plays Hipper
All children’s material—literature, TV, theater—feature controlling adult gatekeepers. These are the artistic directors who choose TYA plays, the editors who decide which children’s books to publish, the TV execs, the librarians and teachers, et al. These gatekeepers mean well (there some hip librarians out there), but often they have grown-up agendas: cultural, educational, religious.
Twenty-first century children, it is fair to say (and though not always able to articulate this), dislike the gatekeepers. They sense condescension.
In gaming, the adults stay out of sight. Games are marketed via websites and through a very calculated word-of-mouth. But in Theater for Young Audiences adult gatekeepers are everywhere. They buy and sell the tickets. They drive the buses. They ush you to your seat. When the curtain rises, many, and often all, of the actors are grown-ups. Adults write, design, and direct the plays. In the case of a storybook play there is another layer of gatekeeping: the (often dead) author of the original material. This is a classic. Dig it.
Let’s try to make TYA hipper. One simple idea: let teenagers act as ushers. Children adore and respect teens; this is a long-established fact. Let young people lead the audience in. Let them sell souvenirs. This is children’s theater.
Make Plays in Alternative Spaces
From a child’s point of view, TYA theaters are huge, sterile, and let’s face it, fuddy-duddy. Plush seats, state-of-the-art tech, overpriced snacks. Wouldn’t it be cool to produce the plays somewhere where seeing a play gets you dirty? A warehouse maybe. Maybe this is fanciful, but the impulse is pure: plays should be special, made for the kids (not the gatekeepers), never seen before.
Take a look at the production history of most children’s theaters: how many of their plays are really new, i.e., not adapted from other forms? The answer is very, very few.
In video games, on the other hand, newness is everything. No one has ever seen anything like this. The visuals are lusher, the villains more menacing, the story more unique. Plays should have this kind of immediacy.
Along these lines, let’s ice the Big Titles. For one thing, they are getting harder to come by. Most publishers (who normally control stage rights) hold back popular titles in hopes of garnering Hollywood interest. Less and less often do they permit theaters to do adaptations. Well known public domain titles (e.g., Alice In Wonderland, Peter Pan) have become clichés.
More to the point, though, theaters do Big Titles for two reasons. First, they can horn in on a popular title’s mass appeal. A huge amount of marketing has already been accomplished. And second, these titles greatly appeal to the adult gatekeepers. Teachers: it will be “good for” the young audience to see Tom Sawyer. I can teach the book more easily. Parents: I loved The Wizard Of Oz when I was young; my children will too.
All well and good. But the problem is that we are leaving the kids, and their growing need and building desire for really incisive and original material, out of the mix. Moreover, Big Titles add a layer of gatekeeping, and condescension, to TYA. Yes, these plays often generate attentive respect. There is a reason for their enduring popularity; they’re great. But for real contemporary excitement, kids more and more often look elsewhere.
This is, I believe, a huge problem. Can children’s theaters honor and challenge the Internet and gaming-fueled intelligence of today’s audiences?