In 2014 I saw a play about video games entitled Leveling Up. In 2015 I saw my second play about video games: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom. The play is by Jennifer Haley and was performed by the Bloomsburg University Players. As in Leveling Up, this play examines the dichotomy between fantasy and reality, and ultimately concludes that video games can dangerously warp one’s sense of reality.
This post is not a review of this specific run of the play—the performances of the actors, the set design, the costumes—but rather, an analysis of the themes conveyed by this work. I’ll also be making comparisons to my review of Leveling Up, since both plays cover much the same territory.
Spoilers abound in this post!
The story follows the lives of several teenagers and their parents. The teens are into the latest video game, Neighborhood 3, a zombie killing game. The hook in Neighborhood 3 is that the game uses GPS to recreate a person’s neighborhood in-game. When the kids go house to house in the game, they are exploring their own neighborhood, protecting their own houses.
The families live in an affluent suburban neighborhood. The parents are largely clueless about what their kids are doing after school, but are concerned nonetheless. Whenever the parents attempt to talk to the kids about their excessive gameplay, the kids blow them off, whine, or run away.
As the kids get more into the game, buzz starts to grow about the so-called “final house.” Some kids are too scared to enter, and quit playing the game. Others, though, press on. The kids collect a variety of weapons, either in-game or in real-life. By the third act of the play, it starts to become unclear when the actors are “in-game” or “in real life,” reflecting how the teens’ dual realities are merging.
It’s never clearly stated, but it seems like the “final house” is each kid’s own house. In-game, the kids must enter their own house and kill the zombies. But because the kids are getting their realities mixed up, they end up killing their parents.
The play ends after one kid in particular kills his mother after she harasses him all night to get off the game.
Fantasy vs. Reality, redux
After rereading my analysis of Leveling Up, I think I could largely repost what I wrote for that play here. N3 is strongest in the beginning, when it shows how faulty the artificial division of “fantasy” and “reality” is. As for the kids, they spend hours playing this game, which to an outsider, might look like a waste of time. But they are socializing and bonding with each other and forming friendships (and in one case, possibly a romantic relationship).
Do they spend a lot of time on the game? Sure. But this seems like a game that has a definite end, and some of the kids realize they are playing it too much. The kids are caught up in a fad. It’s unclear whether it lasts a week, two weeks, or more, but the fad grows and then fades rather quickly. The kids are ultimately engaging in harmless, if fantastical, fun.
While the parents do not understand the fantasy of the game, they are caught up in their own fantasy. They live in perfect suburbia, where every house looks the same and homeowners’ associations fault anybody who steps outside the lawn care guidelines. One of the parents, a judge, is an alcoholic, but some of the characters, particularly the judge’s wife, are too dumb to confront him about it, maintaining the facade of his fantasy life.
The parents are also under the delusion that they have control over their kids. They send their kids to fancy schools that require uniforms, and they try to set boundaries on when they must be home. And yet whatever control they think they have over their kids evaporates as soon as the kids step into the virtual world, where they can do anything.
Leveling Up, in the first half, covered these same themes. That play was also strongest when it pointed out that real life can be fantasy, and video games can be reality.
Like in Leveling Up, Haley comes to largely the same conclusion by the end of N3: the fantasy of video games is worse than the fantasy of real life, and the fantasy is so compelling that it can drive people to murder.
A fundamental question about video games?
I’m not sure if Haley, or Deborah Zoe Laufer (the playwright behind Leveling Up), are gamers. Based on the way the characters in both plays talk about games, and the way the games are conveyed, it seems like the playwrights aren’t exactly enthusiasts of the medium: the characterizations feel close to reality, but off. It seems, though, that for some people (mostly outsiders to the medium) the fundamental question to explore about video games is: what’s the line between fantasy and reality?
For the past three decades, movies and television shows have asked about this line in some form or another. Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) ask these questions. In QuestWorld, seen in The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (1996), sometimes the characters get trapped in the virtual world. The Matrix trilogy showed us that virtual worlds can be more real than the real world. In Sword Art Online (2009) the same ideas from QuestWorld are revisited on a grander scale. All of these stories examine these issues much more effectively than Leveling Up or N3.
As a lifelong gamer, I’m not sure if these are the most interesting questions for pop culture to ask about video games. To me, the line between fantasy and reality seems clear. I recognize the many realities of video games and the many fantasies of reality. In fact, the more I play video games, the line between the two becomes clearer, not blurrier.
And for the many gamer friends I have, it seems they know where that line is as well.
But to outsiders, perhaps this is not only the most interesting line of questions to ask, but also the most vital. After all, how can somebody who spends hours killing something in a virtual world not be affected by it? How can video games not teach people how to kill and destroy? This line of questioning isn’t a casual one either. As a mass communication researcher, I am well-versed in the line of research investigating the effects of video games, particularly in the area of violence. For some, it’s clear that video games do influence people to be violent.
But as somebody with a PhD in mass communication, who’s looked at these research reports, I find the evidence the people get the lines between video games and reality confused shoddy, weak, and overextended.
A better question
This isn’t to say that pop culture shouldn’t explore these issues of fantasy and reality in video games. For some people, these are important questions to ask. But as a gamer, plays like Leveling Up and Neighborhood 3 are asking level 1 questions about fantasy and reality. And the conclusion to that level is this: yes, virtual worlds can be both real and fake, just as the physical world is both real and fake.
Next question, next level, please.
So what are the level 2, the level 3, and the level 4 questions about video games? I don’t have a solid answer yet, but I’ll share with you some thoughts. I think these storytellers, regardless of the medium, are onto something exploring fantasy and reality. It’s just like how all robot stories are essentially about the same thing: what if robots become sentient? What if robots come alive? Can robots become human?
As a lover of fantasy media, and a writer of fantasy stories myself, I have a huge personal stake in the theory of fantasy. For me, fantasy media (and I’m using fantasy very broadly here to mean created works, regardless of whether they feature swords and dragons and magic) are about showing us new worlds. Fantasy stories take readers, viewers, and players to new worlds, and allow them to explore.
One should not engage a fantasy world out of dissatisfaction with “the real world.” Fantasy helps people like me understand the real world better.
Neighborhood 3 sounds like a compelling game, if it were real. Is it really so creepy to have a game where you run around a virtual simulacrum of your own neighborhood, shooting zombies out of your house and the houses of your neighbors? My brother and I did the same thing when we were kids, only in “the real world.” Our backyard and side lot became dozens of different worlds. The playground at school was a multitude of worlds. Fantasy allowed me to see these spaces in many different ways, to see the possibilities of what they could be.
So let’s move past stories that ask level 1 questions about the line between fantasy and reality in video games. Let’s create stories (fantasies) about video games that show the depths of virtual worlds, how virtual worlds can be mapped many times over onto “the real world,” not in an effort to hide the real world, but to expand it.