Learning from the Gamification of Theater

Many years ago I participated in the first Alternate Reality Game (ARG). It was created to market the Spielberg film A.I. The entrance points were clues hidden in trailers and posters that led to web searches or phone numbers. It went on for months in the spring and summer of 2001, and players from all over the world collaborated online to uncover the story and solve a mystery. It didn’t just take place on the internet, though—there were meetups, staged within the world of the game, and phone calls with actual actors in character. It was as though the entire world had become a video game, and we were dropped into it, trying to solve whatever puzzle was in front of us in order to open up a path to the next piece of the story. I remember thinking—this is theatre. This is a performance that completely immerses the audience. This was theatre that I wanted to create.

It was ten years before I had another experience like this—when I attended Sleep No More in 2011. In the years since the British theatre company Punchdrunk opened this show in the United States, it has become a huge New York City attraction, selling out nearly every performance to an audience of about four hundred people each night, and triggering a discussion about the “gamification” of theatre. The term “gamification” refers to using game mechanics in non-game situations. Many believe that understanding what draws people to games can be used to draw in audiences that might not attend traditional theatre.

A poster with  he words Sleep No More on it.
Image is from www.punchdrunk.com.

Sleep No More is an adaptation of Macbeth staged across six floors of a warehouse. Audience members are masked and, after being told “fortune favors the bold,” left to wander at will throughout the space. They aren’t supposed to talk throughout the piece, or remove their masks. They may encounter an actor and choose to follow her and see part of her story, or they may wander elsewhere and explore the well-designed environment. Audience members are encouraged to open drawers, flip through books, and read letters they find. Occasionally, performers will interact with members of the audience and even pull them aside for “secret” scenes. For me, it was a haunting experience, unlike any other theatre I had seen.

But what happens when an audience is removed from passively viewing a play and turned into a group of first-person players in a game? I contend there’s a difference in the behavior of gamers inside a video game and theatregoers watching a play. Both are valid ways to experience Sleep No More, but attending Sleep No More as a gamer can overshadow and disrupt audiences who have come to experience a play. Gamers are trying to achieve an objective, and Sleep No More has created a theatre experience that lends itself well to planning approaches and achieving goals. Many people see the show more than once. Some repeat attendees are intent on “collecting” scenes they missed on previous visits. Others are determined to receive an invitation into Hecate’s lair. A few become aggressive in an effort to attain their goals, getting physical with other audience members or even actors. Having objectives doesn’t have to be detrimental to the creation and appreciation of art, but it does sometimes result in unexpected consequences. It’s a little like playing a game with a friend who has beaten it several times—the friend knows where to go and what to do to trigger events, and some of the mystery and discovery are lost on the newbie as a result. Are we creating gamified theatre at the expense of the artistic experience at its core? If immersive theatre is going to become a sustainable part of the theatre ecosystem, we need to find ways to create an experience for the audience that allows everyone to enjoy the work as art.

Each audience member is in her own first person game, and some treat other audience members like non-playable characters rather than fellow attendees at a performance.

Open-World Theatre
After my visit to Sleep No More, I was brought back to my ARG experience ten years earlier. Instead of browsing for pieces of a narrative on websites and emails, I was watching fragmented scenes, reading letters from Lady M to her husband, watching half a phone call and wondering who was on the other end. A friend described it like being in the game Bioshock—a first-person shooter video game. While the audience obviously isn’t asked to be a first-person shooter, they are immersed in exploring a space any way they choose. It’s similar to playing an “open-world” game where the player is given freedom to explore and can make choices in how they approach the game. Many games ask players to explore a place and uncover the story. Other games present a central storyline to all players but include optional side quests for those who uncover them. In Sleep No More performers will occasionally choose audience members with whom to interact privately, sometimes giving them a task to perform. This, plus the sheer size of the production, makes it impossible for anyone to see the entire show in one performance—just as it’s not possible to experience all three Bioshock endings without replaying the game. Because of the “re-playability” of Sleep No More, every audience has its share of repeat attendees.

When playing a computer game, we’re often driven to find out all of its secrets. We return to rooms where we know a scene can be unlocked, or a quest can be completed. We’re able to do anything—within the programmatic limits of the game—in order to achieve a goal. With four hundred people attending each performance of Sleep No More, large numbers of audience members follow each performer, and the re-playability factor leads to people trying to be in the right spot to be chosen for the one-on-one. A friend who attended for the first time recently told me that this behavior distracted from his experience. There was no mystery when someone was going to be chosen, because people became more aggressive and bold in order to be the one selected. There was little hope in him being selected, because he wasn’t pushing to be at the front of the crowd. Each audience member is in her own first person game, and some treat other audience members like non-playable characters rather than fellow attendees at a performance.

On subsequent visits to Sleep No More I was increasingly aware of the behavior of those around me. It bothered me that the gameplay mechanics had essentially overtaken the art. The danger in creating theatre that intimately involves an audience is that the audience is given a certain amount of power over it. Their actions and choices affect the piece and others trying to experience it. Mixing game mechanics with art opens up many possibilities to artists and audiences but because we can’t account for how people will interact with our work, this needs to be part of the experience. It’s a challenge for future immersive theatre artists: make the level to which an audience can affect or disrupt a performance a conscious choice, and keep the audience that isn’t re-playing the game engaged, or find ways to curate the audience’s experience while still providing the open-world exploration. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re making art for an audience and not just creating an experience for a single player.

Theatre “On-Rails”
Another immersive piece currently playing in NYC, Then She Fell, offers a different experience. A small, fifteen-member audience is split up and led to different start points on a journey through Alice in Wonderland. Everyone’s path through the show is unique, but no one is left to wander wherever they choose. This is similar to playing a game “on-rails,” where players are led from one moment to another, with a lack of choice in how the experience progresses. One of my favorite games, Dreamfall, is played on-rails, and to someone wanting the experience of freedom within a virtual world it can feel forced. What Dreamfall has going for it in story makes up for the lack of autonomy for the player; the same can be said for Then She Fell. The carefully crafted experience was satisfying, intimate, and never felt forced. I was still immersed in the show and interacting with performers, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do something completely unexpected.

At the beginning of Then She Fell, the audience gathers in one room and is introduced to the play. Just like with Sleep No More, the rules of the performance are explained. For Then She Fell that one rule is: the audience is forbidden from opening doors to other rooms. The audience is then split up, and the experience of being on-rails becomes apparent. Everyone is led from one room to another, one scene to another, each time entering a room and finding the doors closed behind. It wasn’t until the end that I started wishing I’d had more freedom, and started brainstorming ways in which more freedom could have been incorporated within such a curated experience.

The downfall to playing a game on-rails is the artificiality. As a player, I should be able to move freely, encounter characters, and not have to solve a specific puzzle before that character will give me a piece of information. The beauty of Sleep No More is its similarity to real life. I am an active participant in my experience and can change that experience at any time. Then She Fell kept me from ever missing that autonomy, but ideally I want to create immersive theatre where I’m not guided through a specific experience. Is the answer simply in having a smaller, more manageable audience than is currently the case with Sleep No More

Multiplayer Theatre
The Rude Mechanicals’ production Now Now Oh Now, performed in Austin, Texas in 2012, also incorporated gameplay mechanics into theatre. The first third of the show was a multi-player game: puzzles were scattered about and the audience had to work together to solve them. Players opened secret doors or discovered hidden objects that affected the narrative later on. It reminded me of my ARG experience in 2001. That game would have never been solved without a global collaboration. In Now Now Oh Now the audience wasn’t filled with individual players of a game, disconnected and anonymous. Instead, we had to look at each other’s unmasked faces, talk to each other, and work together to solve the mystery. I’m left wondering: what would Sleep No More look like with an element of collaboration in its audience?

The combination of games and theatre is too full of new possibilities to not explore it more.

Additionally, there was accountability that is absent in Sleep No More. The masks worn by the audience allow the wearer to act in ways they might not otherwise act. I’m normally a theatregoer who doesn’t want to be singled out, and at Sleep No More I was terrified of performers noticing me. With the mask on, I found it easier to step outside of my comfort zone. I walked into a room, was alone with Hecate, and I found the guts to take her hand when she offered it. But there’s always an audience member who hears the phrase “fortune favors the bold” and chooses to act in more disruptive ways. When Hecate put a ring on another friend’s finger in one of her scenes, the masked man standing next to her actually tried to take it off. There are stories of audience members trying to distract the actors, force their way into locked rooms, or remove parts of the set. Some multiplayer games have “griefers,” players who deliberately harass others and try to disrupt the game. In gamified theatre, is it inevitable that these audience members will exist? What would happen if you took away the masks? Punchdrunk has explored multiplayer theatre before with And Darkness Descended in which unmasked audience members became resistance fighters working together to achieve objectives. But even in something less collaborative like Sleep No More perhaps losing the masks would restore some accountability to the audience and force them to acknowledge each other, not as non-playable characters but as other people experiencing the piece.

I’m in the beginning stages of developing a piece of immersive theatre; I imagine that I’m not alone. I look at the droves of people playing Sleep No More and wonder if there is a better experience to be had for the audience. The answer might lie in the audience size—an open-world theatre performance could be enjoyable to everyone with only a fraction of the current Sleep No More attendees. It might be in removing the anonymity granted by the masks, or setting the performance on-rails to control all of the variables. The combination of games and theatre is too full of new possibilities to not explore it more. I’m interested in an exploration that respects the artistic experience as much as the gameplay involved.

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This concept is quite interesting, but it does kind of sound like you're showing up for dinner, paying, then cooking the food yourself. As a broad scale theater experience, this type of "performance" doesn't appear to have legs really. There will always be a niche for these types of theater, but I wouldn't expect to find "game-like-experiences" like these to ever really penetrate the theater market too heavily.

I hope that's not true. And judging from the success of Sleep No More, younger audiences in particular seem to want more than a seat in a dark theater. Sometimes being spoon-fed just isn't enough.

Great piece. I'm doing an MA in this kind of work but I'm looking very broadly at play. I think we're going to paint ourselves into a corner if we're only thinking about computer games. Play is, evolutionarily, a way to test things, to negotiate, to learn socially. I love my computer games but I know that you can't program genuine negotiation and consequence. What theatre has to offer, the thing that programming can't match, is the encounter with another real person, the chance to figure out together in a world that is infinite in its information density. Computer games are dominating our cultural landscape but they're such a tiny slice of play and there's a lot of other elements that I think are more relevant and exciting for theatre makers.

This is a wonderful write-up. I was a head writer for a play called BRAINEXPLODE! (which you can read about here: http://thatsoundscool.blogs... We had a small group of six audience members who each took turns controlling the protagonist. The rest of the audience participated as a traditional theater audience - they watch the play unfold. There was the action on stage in the world of the play, and then there was action between the players and the characters, which was pretty much a second play in it of itself.

It is interesting to me that the discussion about interactive theater is very much focused on how open the world is vs. how much you are put on the rails. That's pretty much a discussion that can be plucked directly from video games. How much freedom is a player given? Is it narrative based or exploration based?

There are so many different iterations of how you can balance mechanics to create a world that is open, or narrow the focus to create narrative drive, and I think there's a lot of room for exploration. In BRAINEXPLODE! we made the decision to start the experience very open, and gradually put it on rails. I've been wanting to evolve it to version 2.0 for a long time to see if it can become even more open ended and still maintain thematic, intellectual, and narrative drive.

Thank for this article!

The idea of game theory to drive audience attendance seems like a commercial, not artistic, concern. I see an overemphasis on form over substance, one that distracts from artistic virtue, namely the artists opportunity, and responsibility to make a relevant cultural impact, through thematic story. I don't subscribe to the theory that the media is the message. Gamification is focused on how something is being said often to the detriment (as you describe with the aggressive audience participants) to what is being said. This type of theater has had application widely and commercially - I acted in over a year's worth of performances of "Shear Madness" - a wonderful tourism mechanism, but a performance more akin to an amusement park than expressive art. Game theory exists to drive consumer behavior but how does it enhance human thinking?

Really great write up. You got me thinking about the fine line between theatre that employs game mechanics (gamification of theatre) vs. games that employ theatre mechanics. When is it a game first and theatre second? It's a pretty semantic question but still interesting.

I think at the core of most of your challenges are questions of essential experience and scale. What essential experience is the piece you are making trying to accomplish? And what scale supports that? I'm currently designing a game/theatre/experience where we're trying to build an open world, allow for player choice with consequences, and encourage team work. All of these challenges are being solved with a very small scale - one room, specific choice points, and only 4-6 people.

Do you think we, as theater makers, should move away from words like “gamification” when we talk about the mechanics of immersive theater? I don’t what to think of my audience as a “player” and when I’m in the audience I don’t want to be considered a “player” of the piece. For me, the audience member as participant, collaborator or simply audience member feels right and I want to create stories that allow that kind of engagement without creating a game.

I think the language we choose as we go forward matters.

If it works for you, it works. I deliberately wanted to talk about these pieces with gaming language because that's where my interest lies. I think that looking at games from the perspective of theater makers, we might find a lot of interesting solutions to problems that we wouldn't see if we stayed solely within the world of theater.

Your absolutely right.

I think my only small point is that we all (not just gamers) move easily from the virtual world to the actual world and that theater makers and other storytellers have an opportunity to create narrative experiences that are not games or advertising (the people who sort of own this space now). And that a little piece of that is creating a language in how we share our ideas about this medium. If we borrow the language of games and advertising to explain what we are doing we risk suggesting to the uninitiated that part of what we are making is akin to the content of these genres.

I recently read an interview with Felix Barrett in which he discusses the intersection of performance and game-play in his work. He addresses many of these same issues, including his thoughts about making the audience a more active participant. Interesting read: http://classicgoldbug.tumbl...

The masks and the discussion of gamification are two separate issues.

I think the masks are great in theory in that they allow people who might be too shy or introverted or nervous the opportunity to participate rather than staying on the fringe and observing other people's experiences. The problem with masks is that it provides anonymity which, for some, encourages behavior that would never happen if the individual could be identified. Accountability vs. the Experience. It's a tough call. Should safety be the paramount consideration at the expense of the experience?

Having attended both SNM & TSF, I'm going to agree with part of what Ms. Reilly has said. Traditional theater is more of a spectator event where we watch the skin of a story. We only see the superficial bits that we are intended to witness. In SNM we get to peel back a bit of the curtain. We can follow the characters. If we're lucky, we get pulled into their world however briefly. I remember the first time I attended SNM and had an 'unconscious' actress placed in my arms. It was an incredibly powerful way to personalize the experience. It happens in every performance so I realize that the personal nature of that was an illusion based totally on my perspective.

There are people who want to feel that kind of intensity. There are people that seek it out. Some of those will seek it at the expense of others. They feel that their experience is more important than the experience of others. It becomes a competition. They bring " a carefully devised mechanism where someone has the ability to win or is in at least direct competition with their peers". It wasn't the intent of the creators but it is a reality that has been created by super fans that feel entitled to what they want instead of merely accepting what is available. They place themselves strategically to improve their odds of having the "special" encounter. In the initial elevator ride of SNM I have seen people maneuver themselves to get the trip to the secret area. These people are a minority certainly but they do affect the experience of those around them. SNM contributes to an environment where those who are so inclined do turn it into a game of sorts. Competitive Super fans are more likely to create this mentality as they try to accumulate little wins. Each private audience, each discovery that their friends haven't made yet, each "special" experience is a win. Each attendance of the show brings a new opportunity to win a new prize. Maybe the grand prize is Hecate's ring. Maybe it's obtaining every "special" experience the play has to offer. Each competitor has to decide the conditions that let them feel that they've won. They also choose to set the conditions where they feel they've lost. If they don't get selected for the private encounter, they feel that they've missed out instead of remembering all the other good stuff. Maybe they're jaded.I love SNM and it's approach to the audience. I wouldn't change it. I'd simply ask that the attendees consider that their experience is no more important than anyone else's, that they are not entitled to anything from the actors or the other audience members.

I just don't have a lot of faith in a long running show having an audience of 400 people that are ALL willing to behave. I love the way the show relates to its audience but I hate to think that the best way to experience it (as Will Snider and I were discussing recently) would be to buy ALL the tickets and select a much smaller audience with whom to see it. We actually joked, in an attempt to figure out a solution, that no one should be allowed to see it more than once (not exactly the best way to make money, gain a following OR simplify the job of the front of house staff).

I'm inclined to agree on smaller audiences as a viable solution in curtailing some of the dangers audience anonymity or "mob mentality" might bring out. It's definitely a question I've been playing around with in devising/ideating theatre pieces that behave like video games (or even vice versa).

I wonder (and I'm sure it's going to run into a cost-effectiveness issue that'll be, once again, solved with smaller audiences) what would happen if theatre-makers treat audience members who may interact in an open world like avatars in a game, guiding them through initial stages of customization of "audience pieces" that allow for a timed audience creativity while simultaneously instructing them on both the rules of the world and their "engagement" with the world. It would provide a hybridized rail-structure in terms of leveled introduction (tutorial) in the world, and then unleash the "acting spectators" into the open world with rail-guided psychological presets in mind. MMORPG's (and even traditional JRPG's) seem to utilize these approaches to wonderful player effect and all end up welcome under that umbrella - basic storyline navigators and hardcore-100%-ers alike). Why couldn't the same be employed for theatre?

Ultimately, I think the three structures you've laid out are wonderful ways of looking at immersive theatre and illuminated crossroads that I hadn't considered as a gamer-playwright. I think it sets alternative pretexts to consider and even hybridize for future immersive experiences - or even smaller-scale dramaturgical introductions/interactions into more traditional theatre fare (especially if more plays keep exploring the gaming world).

The audience is way too big. But, if you're only allowed to see it once, wouldn't you run into the problem of audience members getting even more aggressive to "get the most" out of their only time? In games, as soon as you buy it, you can go back and play as many times as you like. The moment I decided to come back to SNM, minutes into the show, I was able to switch my mindset to enjoy the show. That said, price point is an issue.

I think you're laying too much of your own experience as a gamer onto this kind of theater. A critical point I believe you're missing is that SLEEP NO MORE didn't start out with gamification in mind, but was intended to be a promenade immersive piece that would be different for each audience member. The gamification aspect you're describing where repeat audience members try to figure out which new scenes they can discover grew organically as it built its audience. Also most of the Sleep No More super-fans don't seem to view it as much as a game where they're in competition with one another and just as something they love and want to consume every possible aspect of. Gamification as a theory implies a carefully devised mechanism where someone has the ability to win or is in at least direct competition with their peers, I don't see that at all in either of the pieces you're talking about here. In fact these pieces seem to be tailored to an individual experience that has little to do with others as you experience it as an audience member. The masks in Sleep No More serve that purpose, to keep you from even knowing who's around you and who you're interacting with. Also I'd argue that the masks allow the audience the freedom to really explore the world without fear of how their reactions might be perceived.

I don't believe that gamification has to always imply either winning or competition. Not all games are competitive, or involve winning. Gamification can be used in many instances that are more about completing tasks or problem solving than about competition.

My gaming experience started with Myst and its clones. Most of those games are about exploring a space and solving a mystery. In something like The Seventh Guest, you also have to hunt down specific scenes in order to learn the backstory. Within Sleep No More there are several sprawling storylines occurring at the same time and without investigation beyond simply watching a play, there isn't any way to see the whole thing. That's where the comparison began for me, with the idea of "unlocking" parts of a mystery.

Sleep No More takes this to another level by adding in quests. The famous example is looking for Hecate's ring - this is a series of one-on-ones that you "unlock" by finding her ring. People go repeatedly to SNM just to look for that ring.

I would argue that some of the super-fans do look at their participation with some level of competition. They keep track of which one-on-ones they've "had" and which ones they haven't, and they go with specific goals in mind ("Tonight I'm going to follow Macbeth for a full loop." "Tonight I'm going to see if I can discover what happened to Agnes's sister.") I don't believe they need to consciously and intentionally consider it a "game" and themselves "players" for the comparison to be apt.

What I want to do is solve the problems that this creates with the audience dynamics, and I'm looking at games to see if there is an answer. Comparing Then She Fell to an on-rails game doesn't mean that I see Then She Fell as a game, but it does mean that there are similar mechanisms. BUT, I can easily see someone going back repeatedly to Then She Fell to experience all of the different tracks through the show, or to see what happens if they choose different ingredients for the tea, or to answer Alice's questions differently. Would she have stormed off if I had told her that I had married the first person I fell in love with, or would our interaction have changed?

I agree with you Megan and I think that experimentation with narrative in games is actually aligning with the experimentation with narrative in promenade productions like Sleep No More (which you can thank the A.R.T. for, by the way [hahaha, but seriously it's true]). Meaning-making is similarly tied to exploration and non-linear progression through the world of Dear Esther, or Gone Home, or Yume Nikki, or Lone Survivor (kinda), which are indie games that stand outside the mold of the traditional goal-based game structures. I think it's interesting how theater and games could take cues from one another on ways to engage audience's brains in this way, to wrap them up in the mystery of a strange world, to make them feel as if they're having a wholly unique and "procedurally generated" adventure, etc.

Gone Home is a great example (Dear Esther could be as well but it failed to grab me - I think I'm the only one). After playing Gone Home I just wanted to create the house in real life, and allow people to walk through it just like in the game. Haven't heard of the other two, will check them out.

I went to Sleep No More twice in Boston and once in New York. The Boston performances were at the middle and end of its run, and the NYC performance a few weeks into its run. The competitive quality didn't obtain at either of the Boston performances; by the time I saw the NYC run the sense of competition, of the piece being a scene in the nightclubbing sense, was already well-established. (People were dressing to blend in with the miss-en-scene, the crowds pushing forward to "claim" a micro-scene were intense.)

I too entered gaming via Myst, Seventh Guest, and Shivers, all of which were most remarkable (to me) for there generation of atmosphere. That's what I experienced with Sleep No More in Boston: it felt very much like being dropped into a game, the same way the most successful of those games (for me, the ones with little time pressure and no shooting) have felt like dropping into a world. I've tried to suss out why the Boston and NYC experiences were so different--could it have been the much more orderly architecture (a school, with hallways and rooms) in Boston compared with the more chaotic maze architecture in NYC? The cultural differences between Boston and New York?