Staging Shakespeare

Staging Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet Edition) was the working title of the unreleased pilot for the first of a suite of Shakespeare-based games planned by the Gamifying Shakespeare project, a collaborative education-outreach initiative of the Stratford Festival, the University of Waterloo Games Institute, and commercial game development companies based in Ontario, Canada (including, for this game, Industry Corp.). Within the game, players don the role of a Stratford Festival “director” and are tasked with virtually staging (through the manipulation of props, costumes, set pieces, and casting) iconic scenes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on all four of the Stratford Festival’s stages.

Fig 1 Dress and Block

Within the game, a budget meter determines the extent to which players can dress or furnish their scenes.

Fig 2dEvening gown rendering

Once scenes are staged, players are then able to watch and upload them for others to critique. In this “critic” mode, players view scenes and assign ratings in four pre-defined categories of achievement on a four-star scale.

Fig 7 Critic Screen

It was a design choice to disallow commentary on scenes, opting instead for numerical ratings, in order to reduce the potential for the negative exchanges so common in unmediated online forums. Depending on the rating assigned, the game automatically publishes a two-part, pre-programmed review statement for each category of achievement, each part having its own potential for pedagogical application.

In terms of specific goals, Staging Shakespeare was the Gamifying Shakespeare project’s first attempt to increase Shakespeare literacy in a targeted demographic (in this case, eleven to fifteen-year-olds) through game-based social media. In addition, the game was, like Places, Please! and Who Killed Romeo and Juliet?, an attempt on the Festival’s part to develop future audiences for its own and other theaters’ productions. Finally, through its procedurality – the very way in which the player was meant to interact with the system’s mechanics and rule structures – Staging Shakespeare aimed to communicate a basic understand of theatricality: that is, that if you speak words or move bodies or objects in different ways on stage, they mean different things.

While Staging Shakespeare is unreleased, it has proved valuable to the research team as its development raised myriad strategic, logistical, aesthetic, rhetorical, and ethical questions: will we sell more tickets by showcasing the Festival directly in this medium, and by what metric are we able to gauge such an increase in ticket sales? How do we render the Festival’s high material production values in low-resolution images suitable for mobile devices? How should we represent the Festival’s policy of “non-traditional” casting? (Should it be optional for teenagers or imposed by programming? Does it require an explicit, dedicated pedagogical frame?) Is it acceptable to get kids to pressure their parents to buy tickets (in the unlikely event that we should be so successful)? How does the experience of a mobile-game, designed for quick consumption, equip players for the experience of viewing a theatrical production at the Stratford Festival, which in some cases demands three hours of attention? What makes Staging Shakespeare a game worth playing? What makes Staging Shakespeare a game at all?

This final question was perhaps the most troubling to contend with in the development process, as it resulted in the addition of a number of more “game-like” features in order to increase the “gameness” of the system. By game-like features, we refer to those features that either present a virtual analog to a real world game or that adopt more prominent and conventional game design strategies such as achievement systems or task loops consisting of action, goal, and obstacle (see Rethinking ∆Flow on First Person Scholar for a better understanding of these task loops and how they affect the act of play in games). One such virtual analog was a slot-machine that randomized costume selection, thereby supposedly increasing the “fun” of the game (a term immensely contentious in game studies) at the cost of removing the player’s agency as the director of the production.

An achievement system was present in the form a virtual Stratfordian coat of arms. Players completed this coat of arms by staging scenes in each of the Festival’s four theatres.

Fig 6 Coat of Arms

Lastly, one such task loop was the inclusion of a sling-shot in the viewing of a scene that allowed players to hurl bouquets of flowers at the scene unfolding on stage (action) for the purposes of showing the actors adulation (goal), with the occasional tomato cropping up in the sling-shot, which the player was meant to avoid (obstacle). It suffices to say that these additions ran completely counter to the initial pedagogical intentions of the project.

There are currently no plans to continue development on the system.

For a more detailed account of the development and pedagogical implications of Staging Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet Edition) see Staging Shakespeare in Social Games: Towards a Theory of Theatrical Game Design”.