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.

a monster and two men from a video game
Screenshot from Half-Life 2. Source.

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?”

“No!”

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.

Celebrate Newness

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.

To gaming.

This is, I believe, a huge problem. Can children’s theaters honor and challenge the Internet and gaming-fueled intelligence of today’s audiences?

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7 years after this article, I'll say this: Playwrights, do yourselves a favor and write for video games; bring the Theater to the kids, since the kids are not going to the Theater. Make video games a theatrical, thought provoking, ethical dilemma they won't forget.

There's another issue here that goes beyond whether plays should be "dark" or not: TYA is generally marketed and created by adults.

So the adults choose plays that are interesting to them....and sell them in a way that would make other adults want to come see them. (Yes, I know that parents are usually the ones making the decisions...but still..)

The key in dealing with the "gatekeeper" issue is in how you deal with starting that conversation with parents.

I don't know the answer.

I live in a very conservative part of the country...where many parents get upset if you use the word "crap" in a play. So the idea of building enough trust with them to do a play about death, homosexuality, or bullying seems like a really tall order.

But sometimes I know that I (and the theatre community) are also guilty of underestimating our audiences. Perhaps we start with a less controversial topic and then slowly, methodically raise the bar each time?

While I disagree with the comment that reading is "more passive" (depends on the reader, depends on the book), and I am without doubt old (very nearly as old as the author, Mr. Olive) and utterly without personal experience in gaming, what he says rings true. If we treat young audiences as if they were composed of dangerously malleable oafs that must be carefully guided to our great world of "good" (look the hell around and tell me how f'n "good" we've made it), they sniff it out in a second. These games may be many things, and many things I don't much like, but they are NOT homiletic, and what work of art that any of us finds really compelling, that we go to of our own accord, is?Good work, John...

As a playwright who writes for young performers, I applaud this. Playwrights do have a "gatekeeper" problem. A year ago, a middle school asked me to write a play for them regarding the life of a young teen today. I needed to avoid anything to do with sex, drugs, alcohol, bullying, cutting, violence, etc. Things that all their students are well acquainted with in knowledge if not in experience. The kids had "fun." The play was - "cute." And I filed it away.

John:

Sorry this took a while to respond. It was great to see your name, I've been a fan of yours for years. I am playwright in residence at The Pollyanna Theatre Company in Austin. In the past 9 years, I've written plays about loss, war, disability, genocide, global warming, and women's inhumanity to women. All this, in cute costumes with lots of humor, too. We firmly believe that our TYA plays should be good theatre first, and for the educational enrichment of children and families second. I think we do pretty well, but one always has to try to keep improving and do new things. I did write scripts for educational flash animation at one point, and I wouldn't say it deviated significantly from stage drama, except in length and "frame" the size of frame that can be focused on during the story. There is a concept of transmedia, that the world of the drama becomes key in cross media adaptation. We've been doing a stage/video series called PATTERN NATION that I'm drawing directly from national standards in science and math for early childhood. They aren't traditionally structured plays, I found a model for "problem based instruction" that sort of adapts to an episodic dramatic form sufficiently well. The most critical dramatic element is the relationship between the characters. Which leads me to what I really wanted to say, which is I think is most important for young people in the theatre is that the performers be good. They must do complex, deep, and true actions. I'm lucky that I get to work with great actors who know how to connect to a young audience. So, in a way, the actors become the other players in the gaming metaphor. The live experience is inherently interactive.

Anyhow, thanks for the shout out for TYA. We sometimes feel left out of national discussions about new plays, so thanks for including us.

John! Thank you so much for putting this article into the world! It is a necessary inquiry, and, I think, spot on.

My writing partner's and my solution to the problem of dwindling TYA attendance: a hip, subversive, empowering one-man show that can be performed in alternative spaces and is infinitely relate-able to YAs...called (you're gonna like this) GAM3RS: the Play. Not only does it fit the criteria, but the subject of the play is gaming itself.

Through social media outreach and the title of the show we've switched on many first-time theatre goers. We've also had incredible success taking the show directly to schools and offering it to the whole student body (usually as part of some larger event at the school). We took Joe's advice above and made sure it ALSO appealed largely to adults and regular theatre goers.

I would love to share everything we've learned over 5 years of producing GAM3RS around the country with you and anyone else interested in one possible successful model. You can find me at gam3rsthewebsite.com

Our play, GAM3RS, has addressed many of the suggestions you make--making it much more accessible to students. We hit them on their own level--it is a play about video games and is rife with pop culture references to the world in which they live: the Simpsons, South Park and the like, but it also throws in a bit of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. They hear the F-word all the time, so to pretend it doesn't exist is silly. The character sounds real to them because he talks like them. We have done the play in all sorts of venues including classrooms, conference rooms, and even the museum at MIT. So it is hipper, newer and more relevant. Every school we have played wants us back as word spreads to the other students. And a comment we get after almost every show is, "I didn't know theater could be fun. What else have you got?"

Thanks for this article. I don't primarily write for young audiences although I often (always) have teen characters in my plays. My latest deals with date rape, abortion and getting a tattoo....maybe I should rethink its audience? Although I don't know that the parents would like it so much...

Incredible article, John. Thank you for it. Just a few days ago I engaged in a conversation with an adult who said TYA should be clean, educational, fun, and not dark, and/or showing serious matters. I responded by saying that such thinking has us going backwards.

Children and young teens hear and know the bad words, the negative dark side of our world, the racism, the homosexual debate, the reality of dying. Yet, many adults shelter kids from such and, want us to ignore it as we create new works.

So, thank you John. I only hope more artistic directors, more directors, more teachers, and those famous human filters read what your article, and hopefully understand how many of them have become part of the problem with TYA. I also hope playwrights can look at your article (the way I'm looking at it) and take the challenge to write plays for young audiences with smart, intellectual, and daring themes.

One thing that I think people sometimes forget is that good Theater for Young Audiences should be, first and foremost, good theater. If anything, they should be better productions than "adult" theater because they reach a more diverse audience. for this generation of young people, that does mean darker and more subversive material. We need to be willing to meet our audiences where they are, not where we wish they would be in the ideal of a perfect childhood. I just watched a show about bullying which, while entertaining, was so simplistic in dealing with the issue that I wanted to scream. The problems children face in our world cannot be handled with a trite saying and a song, so we need to offer them material that can both entertain and present them with a new way to approach the challenges they face on a daily basis--even in the world of games. Thank you for introducing this important discussion.

Thanks for this great discussion, John. I may be citing you in an article I am planning to write for Incite/Insight--one of those TYA periodicals Hallie refers to. We need more of your kind of thinking in our field's journals. BUt I would also like to see more scholars and TYA artists be allowed into the conversation in more of the "adult" theatre journals. We have tried to claim One Theatre World for a long time, but alas, it is still an unrealized ideal.

I'm very appreciative of this dialogue and John's attempt at tackling the often frustrating world of TYA. One piece that I don't think has been mentioned is that most young audience members do not enter the theatre unaccompanied by an adult. Children are usually brought to the theatre by a parent, teacher, or well-meaning relative. Therefore, the theatre pieces in production need to appeal to a broad audience. While a TYA play may have a child or children as the protagonist or main characters, the form of the play may also need to appeal to adults as well. Teachers also are responsible for selecting the plays that their students see. The "adult" component of TYA's audience cannot be ignored here. I consider Mabou Mines' PETER AND WENDY to be a fine example of this. Never conceived as a piece for children, it's been presented at the New Victory Theater in NYC at least three times since its premiere in the mid-90s. And it's toured to other venues in the US and in the world. The story and the aesthetic has broad appeal. I think that's what we need to pay attention to as we make theatre for young audiences. Great discussion!

John, I found this article thoughtful and even radical (in the most flattering sense of that word). Keep thinking and sharing! Barbara

this is a very interesting conversation! as a producer and director of work for Young (high school age)students, I actually believe the YA audience maybe lacking not due to gaming but due to lack of arts encouragement from schools, parents and frankly the field itself. It's refreshing to be having this kind of conversation in a theater journal and not a periodical specific to TYA. Keep it coming!

At The Brick, we run an entire annual festival devoted to the intersection of gaming and theater: http://www.bricktheater.com...

Though we haven't had any artists apply the concepts to children's theater... yet. Something to shoot for for next year!!

Wonderful! I have been thinking about these very things for years working in the field of dance and game design. The interface problem that Sean talks about is an issue but there are ways around it, some very expensive such as giving everyone a controller or some sort of input device. Other ways such as choosing some from the audience to participate or using cell phones are cheaper but still the issue of software and debugging are ongoing issues. Anyway its nice to know I am not the only one thinking about this.

I'm working on a "play for young audiences" right now, and your thoughts are very useful...there's a strong link, I think, between the dark, mysterious, poetic and blunt quality of fairy tales - the experience you have as a kid experiencing those stories - and the immersive, dream-like experience of a good game. Both, at some level, seem to be tools through which a kid or adult can work through otherwise insoluble problems...I worry about the passivity of the gaming experience, but I think, as tellers of stories and shapers of narrative, there's a lot to be learned from 'em...

I have to take issue with your assumption that the gaming experience is passive. It is far less passive than reading a book or watching a movie or attending many plays, as Michael pointed out above. Anyone who calls games passive has never really played one, and it amazes me that with no knowledge whatsoever of what's involved in playing and beating a game one would feel qualified to make any judgments about its nature. Moreover, the frequent classification of many media as passive is unsupported, in my experience. I have lived for a little over half a century and enjoy movies, adult and youth theatre, TV shows, comic books, novels, nonfiction works in a variety of media, dance and performance art, musical concerts and more. I've even tried my hand at playing video games and can attest they are really hard and require complex problem solving. I also love collaborating and creating art. Some of those experiences I enjoyed more than others. Some were boring, some were bad, some were amazing, some were transcendent, but none of them were passive experiences. My brain and frequently my emotions were fully engaged in every experience and there was always something to think and talk about when the experience ended. At every moment we humans create our lives and individual understanding of the world by synthesizing each experience and interaction. Surely theatre can find ways to more fully tap into and become a more resonant piece of this constant human creation. Games are important because they empower, demand interaction and require a lot from players. Thanks for this article.

One significant difference, though, is that gaming - even when played side-by-side, or when played as part of a user community - is essentially a singular experience: you play the game through your one controller, you experience the world through your one screen. Theatre, by its nature, defies singularity. It is plural, collective, and collaborative. The content is only one obstacle; the interface is the other.

Hi seani would suggest that if you ask young people about the singular vs communal experiences they have and value, they would consider their online gaming community and the adventures they share online with others much much more communal events than their experience in dark theaters. I fear its an old and not so useful paradigm, the belief that theatre is special because of its collective and collaborative nature. I think in its contemporary, most conventional examples,it is neither; relative to many other forms of current narrative experience and creative online participation practiced by young people (and adults), it is in fact an especially disempowering medium.

True a lot of theater is disempowering but can't that be a good thing? To give up your power for a couple hours. Not so sexy for kids though as they are constantly in a position of giving up their power (being underaged and all) so maybe children's theater can differ from adult theater in that way. More empowerment for them and less for us over them (making it a scary and interesting adventure for everyone). John I love this article and find myself inspired. Thank you.

You're right on so many levels. Another thought on the same front - a play may not have a directly, physically interactive element, but it can challenge their brains. As you suggest, kids love to solve puzzles, and pre-teens are damned good at doing so. I see more and more kids theatre, and it often seems concerned with making sure everything is super clear/obvious, and then where's the room for a hungry mind to draw it's own conclusions?

Two more thoughts - 1 - there seems to be room for the children's theatre so many love (aimed at 3-8 year olds) and also a LOT of room for something directly aimed at the 9-14 year olds. 2. Kids have faster "blink rates" now than their parents - they notice more in every given minute, and can handle multiple streams of incoming information. Why not explore that in theatre?

Thanks for these great, and applicable ideas!

I've been mulling this issue over, ever since the New Play convening at Arena Stage. I think video games can give theatre a lot of fresh perspective. They have the audience we want. So how can we connect?

Thanks for commenting!

I wonder if Howlround could provide the connection you talk about, by allowing writers to post proposals for new, paradigm-busting plays. If it can be done an a few brief paragraphs, great. If not, then a link to another site?