Theatre Review: Leveling Up, a Play about Video Games

Three 20-something dudes live in an apartment and spend all day playing video games, occasionally joined by their bubbly girl friend. The best gamer of the lot, Ian, takes a job with the NSA involving assassination drones, but can he separate reality from fantasy? This is the question playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer returns to throughout the 90-minute production of Leveling Up.

I saw this play back in March at the Hippodrome Theatre in Gainesville, Fla. This post is not so much a review of this specific run of the play (I’m not really that into theatre so I don’t have the vocabulary to convey what makes one performance of a script better than another), but this post is rather an analysis of the mixed messages present in Leveling Up.

Spoilers full-steam ahead!

Synopsis

The story is centered on four characters, each a different type of gamer. Ian is a professional gamer and spends the majority of his day playing MMORPGs. He gathers high-level loot and sells it online for fat stacks of cash. Chuck is a blackjack dealer in Vegas and plays games competently. He’s calm and easygoing, but spends all his free time in-game. Zander is a loud, crass, frat-boy-esque freeloader who doesn’t pay rent and plays games casually but not with any real skill. Finally, Zander’s girlfriend Jeannie is the most “normal” (and I say that because I think she’s intended to be the character we relate the most to) and is currently finishing up an undergraduate program in psychology. She plays games with the boys but likely doesn’t engage with the hobby outside of their company.

The beginning of the play establishes quite clearly that these three guys are supposed to be losers who spend all day playing “fake” games. They don’t have much of a future, and Jeannie constantly presses them to do something with their lives. Conflict is initiated when Zander logs into Ian’s MMO account (apparently Ian shared his password with him) and sells some fancy item on eBay for $12,000. Ian flips out because that item is actually worth $30,000+. Zander pays Ian $10,000, keeping $2,000 for himself, but promises that he’ll pay Ian back. Yeah right.

While the friends make fun of Ian’s career, he retorts that Zander has nothing going for him as he is without a job and Ian pays his share of the rent. Zander promises that he can get a job.

Zander eventually gets a job selling some sort of health supplement, but before he can get the product he has to sign-up five other people and charge them a deposit. The other friends clearly see that this business opportunity is a pyramid scheme, but Zander refuses to hear them out. Ian, too, wants to show that he can get a “real” job. His gaming abilities are recognized by the NSA, who hire him to work for their drone program.

With this set-up, the story follows these four individuals over the course of several weeks, and we watch the ups and downs of their careers. Ian explains to his friends that he doesn’t know if the drone missions he conducts are real or not. Half the time they are simulated so that the soldiers don’t know if they are actually killing people. Initially this provides him some solace, but as the story progresses, Ian becomes destabilized when he can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Zander eventually gets the money for his business scheme from Jeannie’s college friends, but as soon as he turns it in to the company, the company ditches town and he never hears from them again.

The play also has a romantic subplot involving Jeannie and the three guys. Zander is her boyfriend, but Chuck and Ian like her too. Chuck and Jeannie engage in some cyber-sex-like activities in an online game, which they both feel guilty about. Ian, once he’s descended into mental instability, assaults Jeannie and practically throttles her on the couch.

Eventually, the boys decide to put their games behind them. The play ends when they “go outside” for a burger.

Fantasy vs. Reality

Leveling Up is strongest when it explores the false dichotomy of fantasy vs. reality. In both the play and in contemporary American society, games and virtual realities are seen as “fake” and life outside of the game is considered “real.” Not only is the physical world privileged as “the real world,” but it is assumed to be more important than anything that happens through a computer screen. Leveling Up begins by reinforcing this split between realms, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that life in the real world can be fake, and life in the digital world can be real.

For example, in the beginning of the play, Ian’s friends make fun of him for spending all his time playing MMORPGs. He says, though, that he’s not just playing with virtual characters, but that there are people on the other side of the screen, real friends with whom he has connections. He knows these friends very well, and he says that these friends count on him to be in-game to complete group missions. These friendships yield real benefits for Ian; he makes his living playing these games with them.

Contrast these digital friendships to his friendship with his roommate Zander. Ian and Zander might occupy a physical space, but they aren’t exactly close friends anymore (it is suggested that they were better friends at one time). While Ian can count on his digital friends to show up to work on time, he cannot count on Zander to even pay rent.

The cyber sex scene between Chuck and Jeannie also reinforces the idea that things that happen in the digital realm are real. Chuck introduces Jeannie to a Second Life/Sims-like game where they design their own characters, create lives for them, and dress them up. Chuck dresses Jeannie’s character up in something risque, which Jeannie is uncomfortable with, but Chuck insists that it is not Jeannie wearing those hooker boots, but “Daphne,” her character.

After her character is dressed, Jeannie begins playing the game with Chuck. Jeannie tries talking to Chuck verbally about the game, but he insists she type everything out with the keyboard. That’s how her in-game character talks to Chuck’s in-game character. As there is no computer screen for the audience to look at, the audience has to imagine what exactly the characters are doing. It’s heavily suggested that Chuck’s character is trying to put the moves on Jeannie’s character. At first Jeannie feels conflicted about this, as she does have a boyfriend and this feels a little like cheating, but Chuck convinces her it’s “just a game.” The two friends type away furiously at their keyboard, all the while getting sexually stimulated by whatever their characters are doing in-game.

Eventually the roommates return and Chuck and Jeannie hide their keyboards and turn the game off, instantly feeling guilty. Some days later, Chuck and Jeannie talk about the incident and both feel guilty about it. Even though Chuck and Jeannie did not “do” anything with each other “in real life,” their in-game characters engaged in something approximating cheating. Even though it’s “just a game,” the two know that they crossed a line.

In several ways, then, Leveling Up shows that things that happen in-game are in fact very real and have real consequences. These scenes are brilliantly contrasted with Zander’s storyline involving his pyramid scheme. Zander is selling a real physical product from a real company, and he recruits real people to give him real money to buy into the scheme. No part of this storyline takes place inside a video game. And yet, when it is revealed that the company was indeed a sham by snookering Zander, Laufer once again turns the fantasy/reality dichotomy on its head by showing that things that happen in the “real world” can in fact be very fake and false.

But Laufer undercuts her own message

The first two-thirds of the play expertly examined the realness of fantasy and the falseness of reality, while also showing that virtual worlds sometimes are just fantasy and sometimes the real world is more important (like when you need money to eat). I had a lot of sympathy for all the characters, and thought that if these people were real I might even be friends with them. I am not at all bothered by the amount of games Ian, Chuck, and Zander play, nor do I find their behavior and lifestyle immature and childish. But that’s not the impression I got from Leveling Up. By the last third of the play, it seems that the playwright really believes that these boys are immature and does everything in her power to undercut their storylines.

As mentioned, Ian is involved in a drone assassination program (he verifies target coordinates or something). We barely see him at the job before he has a mental breakdown. He doesn’t know if the people he’s helping to kill are actually real or not, but after some time working for the NSA, he assumes that at least some of those missions had to be real, and he must be somehow complicit in the deaths of others, including civilians. At this point Laufer seems to be saying to the audience, “See! I told you video games were bad and now look what’s happened! Ian is a wreck because his view of reality is dangerously skewed.”

But is that really how it would happen? Maybe. But the gamers I know are all very much grounded in reality. While some people can get addicted to video games, Ian doesn’t seem to exhibit those symptoms. Yes, he plays a lot of games, but he’s playing for a purpose. He’s making money off those games. I wouldn’t call him addicted in the same way I would’ve call a professional athlete addicted to exercise just because they spend their career exercising all day.

The end of the play is by far the most baffling and contradicts the message of the first part completely. As I said, Laufer did an excellent job showing how the fantasy/reality dichotomy is too simplistic, and yet by the end, she seems to be saying, “But seriously, the real world is still more important than the fantasy world.” Ian quits his job at the NSA and is once again grounded in reality. Zander gets some sort of job, I can’t remember what. Jeannie finishes school, and when Chuck asks if she wants to play that Second Life game again, she’s like, “No, that’s alright. I don’t really do that anymore.” She makes it sound like either a huge period of time has passed or she really got over that gaming fad fast.

By the end, she invites the boys to leave the apartment and have real food, a real burger, in a real restaurant. The play finishes when the characters go outside (even though it’s been shown countless times that they do leave the apartment for work and school). Chuck looks over their basement gaming hole smugly, as if thinking to himself, “Now we’ve outgrown all these games. Time to get busy living in the real world.”

But what’s so wrong with games? Why did the characters have to abandon their hobby, and in Ian’s case, his livelihood?

How do non-gamers perceive this play?

That’s one question I asked myself over and over again as I watched this. In the showing I attended there were about 100 people in the audience, and maybe only 20 were college-aged. More than half were senior citizens (maybe loyal theatre patrons?). When they look at these characters and the way they play games, do they sympathize with them like I do? Or do they judge them as worthless young kids who really are wasting their lives with these games? Did the non-gamers in the audience leave with a newfound appreciation for gamer culture? Of course I have no way of knowing, but considering the play’s “moral,” I have a suspicion that for some people this play reinforced negative stereotypes they held toward gamers.

Just for comparison’s sake, I looked up a couple reviews of the play by others in Gainesville who had seen it. I have no idea who these writers are and what their relation is to video games, if any, by the way they describe these characters confirms that at least some people left this play holding negative stereotypes about gamers (emphasis added):

  • “Make no mistake. The Hippodrome Theatre’s new production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s ‘Leveling Up’ is not an onstage episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ Rather it is a tragicomedy that will put you in stitches and then make you feel a bit tacky for having laughed at these wretched descendants of Peter Pan’s lost boys.” (Cunningham)
  • “That Ian’s ‘people’ are mostly the disembodied voices of other gamers he interacts with in his virtual wars seems irrelevant until he takes the NSA job, becomes a drone operator …” (Cunningham)
  • “The Hippodrome Theater’s second play of 2014 transports you into a three-bedroom apartment where the only guiding light appears to be that emanating from a television.  And that is fine with the three young roommates — video gamers who stare at the TV endlessly, with a zombie-like existence for endless hours. (Sanford)

In the end, Leveling Up began as a great and much needed look at the differences between fantasy and reality, and the inherent contradictions in both, yet ends with a halfhearted attack on the value of gaming and a defense of “real life.” I am glad I saw the play, but the play’s execution reveals that society still has a ways to go before gamers aren’t automatically judged as mindless zombies disconnected from the real world.

~Dennis

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