Games and Theatre

The following has been adapted from a lecture given by Shawn DeSouza-Coelho to the Drama 200: Theatre and Performance in Context class (prof. Jennifer Roberts-Smith) at the University of Waterloo on the date of April 3, 2017.

“Games and Theatre: An Exploration of Game Adaptations of Theatrical Texts”

What can games tell us about ourselves? What do they tell us about human nature? What relationship do they have with other art forms such as theatre? And, more importantly, what is a game and, ultimately, how do they function?

Though there is no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes a theatrical performance, we each possess an implicit understanding of what many of the components of theatrical performance are. So it is with games. In this light, our penultimate question can be reworded thusly: what constitutes a game? Or, better still: what are the components necessary for us to implicitly understand that we are in fact playing a game? While some will say players, and others will say a playing space (e.g. a board, or a 3-D world), and others still winners and losers, every game designer or enthusiast can agree that one thing games require to be games is a set of rules. This can alternatively be referred to as the game’s procedurality, or the procedures enforced upon players by the game system.

In The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo 1986)…


…Link must replenish his hearts or else he’ll die. In America’s Army (United States Army 2002)…

…the player must defeat the enemy forces in order to win. These are simple examples of rules players must adhere to in order to fulfill the requirements of these games.

But implicit to the question of how games function using components such as rules are the questions of “for whom?” and “to what end?” That is, if we say that games do function through rules, then for whom do games function? And to what end? Here we enter the realm of what Ian Bogost refers to as procedural rhetoric (as argued in his landmark text Persuasive Games), which in itself is a specification of Paul Dourish’s computational rhetoric (see his seminal text Where the Action Is). The idea is simple: if computational programs or games-as-computational-programs are finite systems, then they possess a finite number of components: characters, textures, lighting, sound, input-output interactions, heads-up displays, menus, etc. Each of these components must therefore be selected and defined, and it is the designer who is responsible for that selection, for that definition. But, in doing so, whether the designer intends it or not (and this is important) – whether the designer intends it or not – the designer makes a rhetorical argument using those components. A common phrase in theatrical practice is, “no choice is still a choice,” because to the audience, there is no such thing as the absence of choice in (re)presentation. Every representation is imbued with meaning, is meaningful, because every representation demands interpretation. As such the nature of representation is rhetorical.


Rhetoric has been denigrated over the years because it was initially tied to Greek sophistry and sophistry’s focus is power of argumentation alone. The strict sophist could be arguing that the moon doesn’t exist because the point for him (as it was in the time of Greek sophistry) is the construction of the argument itself, how well the argument is presented.

In recent times, however, rhetoric has become more readily adopted not as a form of argumentation, but rather as a field in which all of our actions, words, and gestures are embedded. Foucault argued that everything is political because every act involves relationships of power (as popular culture is finally waking up to, re: feminism, and even within feminism, intersectionality). So too everything is rhetorical because, as Stanislavski argued, every utterance or gesture whether on stage or in life is the expression of a want, it is an expression of desire (1989). To go back to our previous questions: desire for whom? And to what end? To design an object whether it be a theatrical production or a game is to make an appeal to some audience to a particular end. In order words, to design a game is to make an argument, just as to design a film is make an argument.


And in the same way that the true cinematic revolution came about when film makers realized that it was the camera itself that told the story through its depiction of scene: focal length, angle, depth of field, etc., we are now waking up to the fact that it is through the very rules that constitute the game that the game makes its argument, that the game tells its story.

America’s Army is a great example (an example Bogost utilizes to great effect in Persuasive Games). As mentioned above, the rules of this first-person shooter game state that the player must defeat the enemy forces in order to win. It was developed and released back in 2002 as a recruitment tool for the U.S. military, and possesses an honour system that allows players to increase or decrease in level depending on their actions in the battlefield, i.e., whether or not they follow the Rules of Engagement. Not doing so incurs a penalty to one’s honour/level, and doing so rewards the player with more honour and a higher level. But, there’s something special about America’s Army. The player loads the game and enters the game arena as an American soldier.


The player’s enemies are of course generic terrorist-insurgents. As this is a multiplayer game, these insurgents are controlled by players as well. But here’s what is special about America’s Army: those insurgent-players don’t see themselves as insurgents. They, too, see themselves as American soldiers. And the opposing team? They are the terrorist-insurgents. So both teams in fact see themselves as American soldiers, while the opposing team is the enemy. Well, what does this rule, this procedure argue? What is the story it tells? There are no villains in American’s Army. There are only heroes.

Steering away from the so blatantly political and ideological, even a game as seemingly innocuous as Mabinogi (devCAT 2004) tells a particular story through its rules.


A massively multiplayer online role-playing game or MMO, Mabinogi allows players to create personalized avatars within a fictional world called Erinn, broken up into three parts: Uladh and Iria, with Belfast Island in the middle.


There are also parallel worlds and such, but the above image paints a clear enough picture. Within the game, players engage in very familiar and conventional MMO game mechanics, namely, gaining experience by completing quests, most often broken down into two types: fetch quests, wherein the player must retrieve an artefact or object and return it to the quest giver, or kill quests, wherein the player must defeat one or many enemies at the quest giver’s behest, like this giant spider.


Doing so grants the player experience and with more experience comes the possibility of more quests, and so on, ad infinitum.

Many Spiders.png

Much more pertinent to the discussion here, however, is the fact that there are two branches of quest: side quests, and main quests. Side quests are quests a player can do that do not further a particular narrative the developer has embedded within the game. In The Legend of Zelda I can stop and smash pumpkins all day…


…but that has nothing to do with what is the main quest, namely, defeating Ganon. In Mabinogi, one of these main quests is in fact, the story of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth


…or so the developers of Mabinogi would have us believe.

The plot of Macbeth is well known. Upon hearing the witches’ prophecy, Macbeth reaches too far in a bid for power and tragically ends up losing everything in the process. In Mabinogi’s version, however, at the end of the previous main quest, which was based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare himself assumes the form of Shylock in order to return to the world of Erinn and wage war against a villainess named Morrighan, who is determined to eradicate a whole race of people called the Milletians. The waging of that war is the work of the Macbeth main quest, wherein the player meets none of the characters from Macbeth and the player enacts a war between factions that never existed in Shakespeare’s text or time. So, the obvious question is: How does Mabinogi argue a particular version of Macbeth, a version of Macbeth in which there is nothing remotely Macbeth­-like present at all? The answer is that it doesn’t, not really.

There are certainly connections to be made between the action-oriented combat procedurality of Mabinogi and the murderous warpath Macbeth as a character carves in his quest to be King, to be the strongest, best, etc.


But how does such an action-oriented combat procedurality relate to, say, Hamlet


…the great play of inaction, a version of which Mabinogi offered to players as well? The inability to reasonably reconcile the experience of playing Mabinogi (of attacking giant spiders in the heart of a dungeon with various spells and weaponry for the strict purpose of gaining experience points) with even a cursory viewing of Hamlet brings up the fundamental dilemma with not only game-adaptations of other literature such as theatrical texts, but also of original game narratives as well, and that is: if games argue themselves through rules then these rules should somehow reflect the narrative told through those rules. But for the vast majority of games, this is far from the case.

Hamlet Cinematic.png

What we get instead are, in Mabinogi, cinematic sequences or cut-scenes depicting a Hamlet narrative that serve as rewards for the player’s ability to engage in other gamic activity such as killing giant spiders in a dungeon; Hamlet is a story told through a passive viewing experience as opposed to gamic interaction. Mabinogi’s version of Macbeth doesn’t even have these cut-scenes. What this game does instead is simply trade on both Shakespeare and his text’s names in order to round out it’s four-chapter main quest arc, which includes Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice, each of which provides the player with the same procedures as Macbeth


…namely, fetch artefacts, kill enemies, gain experience, and repeat. This can be likened to the act of brushing one’s teeth because it’s the same action whether one does it with Colgate or Crest. One just makes it a bit more palatable, a bit more pleasant.


And in some cases, mere palatability is almost the point. As we have written elsewhere (see “Shakespeare, Play, and Game”, Forthcoming 2018), when discussing games that make some attempt to represent Shakespeare, there are three categories into which these games fall. They are incidental games, skinned games, and games as synecdoche. Time will be taken to discuss each and give some examples so that the reader can better understand what games can’t do or have yet to do that theatre does and does in spades when it comes to concepts like “Shakespeare” and “theatricality.”

In the first category of Shakespeare games, incidental games, references to Shakespeare are limited to one section or aspect of a much larger game, citations of a larger argument, and are interchangeable with equivalent references in the game. These range from very limited to very extended citations.

In Silent Hill 3 (Konami 2003), for example, the Shakespeare reference is a single puzzle in a bookstore…

Figure 11 - King Lear.jpg

…in which players have to order five plays by Shakespeare identified only by clues in the form of obscure quotations that give no reference to title, character, or plot. Similarly, in Super Scribblenauts (5th Cell 2010)…

Figure 10 - Shakespeare 1:2

…William Shakespeare is one of a number of playable characters, an avatar in the form of the Bard’s iconic image. Mario’s Time Machine (Nintendo 1993)…

Figure 15 - Richard Burbage

…organizes an entire chapter around characters from Shakespeare’s time (e.g. Anne Hathaway and Richard Burbage) and the Globe Theatre respectively. And, of course, Mabinogi extends that principle by offering players an entire fictional world called Avon.


But in all cases, references to Shakespeare are only single gestures among many equivalents, and could be substituted for other references without damaging the overall arguments of the games. Avon, for example, is an add-on to the greater Mabinogi MMO world of Erinn. Once in Avon, a player’s goal is to help Shakespeare complete his plays; but to achieve that goal, they use their avatars to do battle with enemies just as they do everywhere else in the game. Mabinogi’s Avon, then, does not change procedures in reflection of the concept “Shakespeare”, and consequently does not make an argument about Shakespeare; “Shakespeare” is merely one of many interchangeable citations in an argument about something else. Mabinogi’s “Shakespeare,” then, can be understood as one of a potentially infinite number of cultural icons that Maginogi both honours and denigrates by appropriating them and absorbing them into a consistent, unrelated, organizational structure. Within the world of Mabinogi, and all games within this category, “Shakespeare” is merely an incidental example of a cultural icon.

In the second category of Shakespeare games, skinned games, “Shakespeare” is a trope that extends over an entire game, a mechanism for visualizing gameplay, which can function metaphorically in relation to the game’s procedures but does not substantively constitute them. In other words, the concept of “Shakespeare” is no more central to these games’ arguments than it is to the arguments of games that merely cite Shakespeare.

The trope of Shakespeare is parallel in these games to the skin or texture layered over a particular armature in the process of avatar design and animation.


Just as the skin laid over the avatar’s skeletal structure can be exchanged for another skin, the “Shakespeare” trope laid over the procedures of a game can be exchanged for another trope. The category of Shakespeare trope games is the largest category we’ve encountered, and it contains two levels of skins: skins on specific games and skins on common game types.

Skins on specific games, such as Angry Bards (Static Void 2013)…


…tend to construe Shakespeare as a kind of normative discourse against which to make an ironic comparison to the game’s procedures. In Angry Bards, a player takes on the role of a somewhat customizable Bard, equipped with a lute capable of firing musical notes, in a top-down perspective, at wave after wave of oncoming knights and sorcerers. In its source game Asteroids (Atari 1979)…


…the player, in top-down perspective, manipulates a spaceship, and must destroy wave after wave of oncoming asteroids and enemy UFOs. By exchanging the spaceship for a lute and asteroids for knights, the Angry Bards’ imagery invites players to adopt a kind of two-way ironic perspective on the act of killing enemies and the normative cultural reverence for the cliches “Bard”, “lute”, “knight”; but because the game’s procedures have remained stable (shoot oncoming enemy units), this is a means of contextualizing the game’s original argument rather than making a substantively different argument.

Skins on common game types, on the other hand, tend to leverage Shakespeare to authorize their basic argument and vice versa. Romeo: Wherefore Art Thou? (Koko Digital 2013)...

Figure 8 - Jumping To Kill

…is a great example of a skin on a classic 2-D platformer wherein the player dons the role of a character and must progress across 2-D levels filled with enemies…


…only instead of Mario in search of Princess Daisy or Princess Peach (whose original name was in fact “Jumpman” in his first appearance in the original Donkey Kong [Nintendo 1981]) it’s Romeo in search of Juliet. The game is clearly a skin on a classic, well-defined game type. So, as a group, these games seem to be invoking the cultural capital of Shakespeare to legitimize whatever the game is doing anyway: what justifies another 2-D platformer is that it is a Shakespeare 2-D platformer.

Pedagogical games, however, which also tend to fall into this category, generally invert the principle in the sense that they try to use games to legitimize Shakespeare. Daniel Fischlin’s ‘Speare: The Literacy Arcade Game (2007), for example…

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…is a shooter game based on Space Invaders (Taito 1978)…


…the same type of game as Asteroids and Angry Bards, but with a quiz, incidental to gameplay, overlaid. Rather than directly engaging with the concept “Shakespeare,” rather than somehow translating the concept into procedure, games such as this one merely assert that Shakespeare exists in an incongruous context, and by doing so, they argue that Shakespeare just doesn’t have the same cultural appeal that non-pedagogical games seem to covet.

In summary: games that use Shakespeare as a trope to skin something else – whether that be a specific game or a common game type – paradoxically assert that “Shakespeare” is a concept (by virtue of being the principal trope in their image systems) but that the concept “Shakespeare” is less important than others (by virtue of its exclusion from expression in the games’ procedures and hence from the foci of their arguments).

In the third category of Shakespeare game, games as synecdoche, texts by Shakespeare are used as source material for virtual performances in simulations of theatrical production. These games treat the concept “Shakespeare” synecdochally in two ways: first (by means of attributed authorship) as “the collection of texts authored by Shakespeare”, and second (by means of the tropic overlay of Shakespeare on the game as a whole) as “processes integral to theatrical production”. For example, in the board game The Play’s The Thing (Cole, Dean, and Egan 1993)


…the player takes on the role of an Elizabethan actor who traverses across a Globe Theatre represented by the game board, collecting sections of Shakespeare’s scripts. At the highest level of the game, the player performs the collected excerpts. In Shakespeare: The Bard Game (Heffer and Siggins 2004)…


…players are company managers who buy scripts, props, actors, and patrons in order to collect acclaim points. Players can accumulate money by reciting speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. Digital equivalents include Play The Knave (Bloom et al. 2017)…


…in which players speak text from scenes by Shakespeare while gesturing in front of a Microsoft Kinect camera to control an onscreen avatar; it aims to offer, to quote Gina Bloom, the game’s lead designer, “an immersive, embodied experience of staging a scene from a Shakespeare play” (2015). In Places, Please!: Hamlet Edition (DeSouza-Coelho 2015), an unreleased mobile game…


…four players take on the roles of each of the four production departments (Acting, Crew, Stage Management, and Tech) and must work together to perform simulated versions of the real life, individual and collaborative duties required of these departments to ensure the smooth running of the shows. In Staging Shakespeare (Roberts-Smith, DeSouza-Coelho, Malone, Industry Corp et al. 2013)…


…players take on the (anachronistic) role of a director to stage scenes from Romeo and Juliet by manipulating avatars and objects in 3-dimensional space. It “aims to communicate a basic understanding of the fact that if you speak words or move bodies or objects in different ways on stage, they mean different things” (Roberts-Smith, DeSouza-Coelho, and Malone 2016).

Although this category of game makes what is perhaps the most concrete pair of claims about the cultural influence of the concept “Shakespeare” – not simply that it is influential but that it is influential because of these texts and these theatre industry practices – none of the games in the category makes any argument as to how or why, because none of the games organizes its procedures around the concept of “Shakespeare” as construed by the games. In these games, texts are objects not potentialities. And this is what games cannot do, what film cannot do, what a novel cannot do, that theatre can and does and has done for centuries.

When we discuss theatricality or the lived or felt experience of theatre what we’re actually discussing is the concept of ontology as it relates to theatre. The theatricality of something is inextricably linked to its being in the world, but because being is always situated, always positioned within the subjective mind, the experience of theatre we refer to is always our experience of theatre. But this experience is infinitely malleable and evolving within the frame of the theatrical act because our experience of the theatrical act changes the theatrical act itself. And this is because the process of bringing theatre’s ontology into being in the first place is an ongoing work between the participants of the theatrical exchange, the spectators and the performers. In the act of playing a game, however, we are faced with the fixed objects (characters, rule systems, environments, playing spaces, etc.) of a finite system that can only ever yield to us a finite outcome.

In games, we are faced with puzzles, and at heart this is what all games are: simple puzzles. These can be in the form of traditional puzzles like a crossword.


Or they can be the sprawling landscapes of Mabinogi, which contain within them myriad smaller puzzles, for example…


…here is this giant spider with 50000 hit points, and I have this broken broad sword and no potions: How do I defeat it?

The author first encountered this puzzle-like nature of games when he played a game called The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013).


The game is a breathtaking, critically acclaimed, third-person survival adventure, which follows the protagonists Joel and Ellie as they travel together across the post-apocalyptic United States of America in search of a cure for the infection that has wiped out most of civilization.


It’s been called the game-equivalent to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the designers wanted to “try to tell a story about two people and how their relationship evolves over the course of the entire game” (sonyplaystation 2014). And, sure enough, over the course of twenty hours this is what the author got. Over the course of twenty hours he watched Ellie grow to trust Joel and Joel tragically use Ellie as a surrogate daughter after his was lost at the start of the game. It was a touching, expertly-crafted narrative. But this narrative is only what the author received from the cinematic cut-scenes that framed gameplay. In fact, he played the game a total of five times from start to finish, and with each successive time he played the game he found myself speeding through the gameplay in order to get to these juicy cinematic cut-scenes and once more see and hear the story unfold. With each successive play-through, he found that these environments he was allowed to walk through and explore were just big boxes with a finite size in which he could only do a series of finite things. Indeed, with each successive play-through, he found that beautifully realized and detailed enemies weren’t enemies at all…

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…but moving pylons, and he wasn’t Joel or Ellie, but a big arrow carving a path around an obstacle course filled with said pylons in order to enact a preordained solution to a puzzle, the enactment of which had nothing to do with Joel or Ellie or their relationship (see Rethinking ∆Flow on First Person Scholar for a better understanding of the relationship woes between narrative and rules in relation to games and the The Last of Us).

The issue with the puzzle-like nature of games is that there is only ever one solution, and the possibility space of a game (the field of branching paths a player can take as allowed by the game’s rules) is only ever in service of this one solution, a solution orchestrated by a developer who is removed and almost completely detached from the player’s participation in the game once that game has been shipped. In America’s Army it is to defeat the opposing team. In Mabinogi it is simply to continue existing within the world of Mabinogi. In other words, the ontology of the game is fixed in relation to the object on to which that ontology is projected. Much like one can extrapolate and imagine a chair to be something other than itself (say, a rocket ship), doing so doesn’t change the fixed quantity of the chair itself. This is the same with a film. As much as once can argue the meaning of a film ad nauseum, doing so doesn’t change the specific fixed properties of that film. In Citizen Kane (Welles et al. 1941), the word will always be rosebud, regardless what rosebud means.

In Jurassic Park (Spielberg 1993), there will always be dinosaurs…


…regardless of whether or not we can agree those dinosaurs are a metaphor for Alan Grant’s inability to open himself emotionally to a familial relationship.


The theatrical act is different, however because its ontogenesis is based on other participants, not objects.

Ontogenesis is a term from Brian Massumi’s landmark text Parables for the Virtual (2002), and it basically refers to the social field in which an ontology itself comes into being. In everyday life, we unknowingly experience this every moment we are together with another human, even in something as simple as a lecture. We are each embedded in the social field of the lecture, a lecture that is ever-changing, snowballing in some sense, as one person shifts and then another turns and still another looks at the screen or at the lecturer, and he or she in turn take the many sounds of the students’ performances as students and adjusts the level or direction of his/her voice to accommodate or converse and so on and so forth. The reality of the lecture we experience is an ever-evolving result of many participatory individualities, each one having a part to play in it, each one contributing to the ontology of it – our experience of the lecture changes the act of lecture itself.

So too in the theatrical act, ontogenesis functions in the same way: the theatricality of the act is born of an ever-evolving relationship between performer-as-human-agent and audience-as-human-agents. We react or respond to the new experience of a play, we are changed, we see others change, the change in them in turn changes our understanding of them and of the play, performers respond to the changes in us as the performance proceeds, and so on. This is theatricality, and for all of the lip service we give games on the topic of interaction and interactivity, they cannot replicate it because at heart games are still closed systems. As infinite as a game like Mabinogi can seem with its plethora of landscapes, alternate worlds, equipment, avatar customizations, etc., to play the game only takes a few minutes, namely, the time it takes to learn the rules, because only in rare cases do the rules change throughout the game. When the rules do change, it can be very unexpected as a player, borderline theatrical, but it never quite makes it. To use an example from The Last of Us, over the course of the game, there are numerous moments in which the player, playing as Joel, encounters an environmental puzzle of a platform that is too high to traverse alone.


Whenever Joel reaches such a platform, a trigger pops up on the screen and, when the player presses the designated button, Joel braces against the wall with his hands on his knee, vaulting Ellie up to the platform. Ellie then either struggles to pull Joel up or finds some alternative method of helping him (e.g. a ladder). Late in the game, shortly after a particularly climactic sequence in which Ellie brutally murders a man who is attempting to strangle her to death, the player reaches a high platform, presses the on-screen trigger, but nothing happens. Joel braces against the wall, hands on his knee, expecting Ellie to come (as do we, as players of Joel), but she doesn’t. Instead, Joel stands upright as the camera rotates towards Ellie, sitting on a bench, clearly distraught.

the ladder

Joel then calls out to her, reminding her tenderly, “Ellie. The ladder, c’mon.” In that moment, something unexpected happens, a kind of theatricality where the game seems to change in relation to my participation within it. But, it’s an illusory one because the moment is only experienced as unexpected on the first play-through. Indeed, the player only experiences themselves as active agent the first time around. Then it becomes repetitious…

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…just another part of a closed system, just another part of a puzzle with a single direction designed to be followed many years in advance. In the theatrical act, however, though the text is fixed, the words set (and thanks to copyright laws, with enough time even those are not necessarily set in stone), the act of bringing a theatrical work into being will always be an open system.

But to adapt a theatrical text like Macbeth to games isn’t to say that it ipso facto betrays Macbeth as a theatrical text, as an object possessing specific content: characters, dialogue, plot, etc. (though Mabinogi is clearly guilty of this in trading in on the name of Macbeth and providing nothing of its content). Again, we go back to our original questions: if game designs are arguments, expressions of desire, then we have to ask desire for whom and to what end? The author believes games don’t intend to adapt Macbeth as a theatrical text at all, but rather, game designers desire the player to experience the text but leave the theatre out of it. The problem with this is three-fold:

The first problem is the question of taking Macbeth as a whole when theatrical texts are explicitly designed to be a single part of something much greater. If we take as our foundation the idea that there is no Macbeth unless in performance, then is it even possible to adapt Macbeth while leaving behind its theatricality?

The second problem is that even if we assume games are adapting a single part of a greater whole, how does one translate something as two-dimensional and linear as textual content into three-dimensional, non-linear rule systems, into procedures meant to be enacted in time and space?

The third problem is that games are still in their nascence, and game technology is as well. We spend so much our time just trying to get machines to even speak to one another in the first place. And such specialized skills and equipment are required to build even the prototype of a game let alone to realize our wildest dreams of a fully immersive Hamlet on par with such games as Mabinogi or America’s Army or The Last of Us, that one has to wonder, as a humanities scholar, presumably possessing none of these specialized skills or equipment, is it even fruitful to attempt to answer these questions in any practical way at this point in our history?

In relation to this final question, the author is hopeful. Indeed, if the history of technological progress has taught humanity anything it is that eventually the process will be simplified, the grammar of the gamic language so universally accepted and recognized, that anyone with a laptop and a couple of hours of free time will be able to build the ideal game through which to make their arguments. It is for that time that we must continue to think through these questions.


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