Theatre Review: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

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!

A suburban neighborhood dripping with blood

Cover of the Neighborhood 3 playbill

Synopsis

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.

~Dennis

Easy LEGO coffee table play idea

Two ideas inspired me recently.

First, I saw The Lego Movie. The movie makes a strong case about how to play with Legos. There are those that build the sets as intended and never alter them, and there are those who make up their own creations. As a kid I was of the first philosophy, but I always wanted to be of the latter.

Second, I read Brick by Brick, an excellent account of Lego’s financial struggles during the mid-2000s, and how the company turned itself around. The author mentioned how Lego’s headquarters features plastic fishbowls full of Legos on every conference room table.

And inspiration came together. Why don’t I have Legos laying around my apartment to motivate me creatively? And why don’t I be the kind of person who makes whatever he wants with Legos?

A simple solution presented itself: buy Legos, put them in jars, and put them on my coffee table.

Starting sets

That night I went to Walmart to scope out my first Lego purchase in a long time. I found this yellow bucket of basic Lego pieces, and this stormtrooper set.

Lego bucket and stormtroopers

The bucket had all sorts of unique Lego pieces, very few standard bricks. This would open up all sorts of fun possi-build-ities!

I got the stormtrooper set mostly because I wanted some minifigs, and four stroomtroopers, plus an abundance of special gray and black pieces, would add to my piece variety.

The stormtrooper transport wasn’t that interesting of a set to begin with. Is this supposed to be a spaceship? Was this even in the movies?

Lego stormtrooper transport

Lego stormtrooper transport

Honestly, as far as Star Wars sets go, and Lego in general, this set just didn’t do it for me. So I felt no shame in building it once, then promptly demolishing it. Not a big leap of faith, to be sure, but that’s something I never would’ve done as a kid!

Glass jars

I then went to Hobby Lobby and bought three glass jars with lids, jars big enough that I could fit my adult hand in. I got some 1/2″ sticker letters and wrote a phrase on each: “IF YOU BUILD IT…”, “PLAY WELL” (the Dutch translation of “Lego”), and “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!” from the Lego Movie.

I roughly sorted the pieces into the jars: flat plates in one, basic bricks in the second, and small, unique, moveable, and minifig pieces in the third.

Legos in jars on a coffee table

And that’s it! An easy project, to be sure, but one that promises a lot fun. The jars sit on my coffee table. Now when people visit, they have something easily accessible to play with. If Legos sit in the closet, they take effort to bring out and build. But if they are sitting in common areas, they invite building.

My first creations

Every few days, I’ll take 10 to 20 minutes out of my time to dump out the Legos and build something small. It’s been a lot of fun so far! Here are some of my first creations. I have very few duplicate pieces in those jars, and so many different colors, that it’s proven a lot harder than I thought to make compelling mini models.

Lego stormtrooper with ice cream

Seen here is the Imperial Ice Cream Cart, along with the Dairy Trooper, who protects the sweet treats with his bubblegum gun.

Lego airplane with stormtrooper

A tiny bi-wing, piloted by a stormtrooper.

Lego airplane from the back

Another view of the bi-wing. The stormtrooper didn’t have proper controls, so he didn’t get very far!

Stormtrooper looking in house

Hey, how did you get in that tiny house?

Stormtrooper eating carrot

Sorry, can’t hear you. Eating a carrot right now.

Lego stormtroopers with carrots

Right Stormtrooper: I just love munching on carrots!
Left Stormtrooper: My carrot’s green and rotten — somebody’s about to get hurt!!

Lego Imperial Flower Car

After his last outburst, it was decided that Left Stormtrooper needs to calm down. He was assigned to the Imperial Flower Cart, and outfitted with the tulip gun. He even turned his helmet into a flower pot: he’s doing the best that he can!

Lego stormtrooper in hot tub

Left Stormtrooper: And why is there a carrot in my gun?!
Right Stormtrooper: Dude, chill. The water’s nice.
(Note the rubber ducky in Right Stormtrooper’s hand)

Lego stormtrooper jetski

The stormtrooper takes a spin on his battle jet ski.

Lego stormtrooper mecha

This unfortunate stormtrooper had his cappa detated. The Pretty Princess Mecha is a temporary solution.

Lego stormtroopers

Mad Cow fools around with his new battle flyer.

Lego Mad Cow

Look at all those weapons Mad Cow has!

Lego stormtrooper ice cream shop

The Imperial Ice Cream Shop is open for business!

Lego battle pig

Imperial Battle Swine, reporting for duty!

Happy building!
~Dennis

On Permanent Death in the Fire Emblem Series

Fire Emblem is a tactical, turn-based strategy series of games released by Nintendo. The series is over 20 years old and plays like a bigger, more advanced version of Chess. The games contain deep stories and a wide cast of characters. Each character has a different set of abilities, plus a class like Archer, Fighter, Mage, and so forth. Standard RPG mechanics. In each battle you will use anywhere from 9-13 characters on average, though throughout the course of the game you might recruitment 30-50 characters.

One distinctive play mechanic of the Fire Emblem series is permanent death. Once a character dies, they are gone forever. Most video games do not feature permanent death, especially story-centric games like JRPGs. And this play mechanic is quite effective at dividing people into two different camps.

The first group of gamers despises permanent death. These players work so hard at leveling up their characters and get drawn into that particular character’s storyline that they think all of that character development was a waste if the character dies permanently. The only way to “undo” permanent death (excluding the more recent games like Awakening, which let you turn off permanent death) is to reset the game and restart the level. Now, some levels can take 90 minutes to clear, so if a character died an hour into the level, resetting the game carries with it a steep penalty.

The other group of gamers embraces permanent death. This is the camp I am in, and in this post I’ll argue why this is a valuable addiction to the game. To note, most of my experience with Fire Emblem comes from the GameCube release Path of Radiance, though I am familiar with other Fire Emblems as well.

Death is a real consequence

Most action, RPG, and adventure video games feature death. Players kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies throughout the course of a game, and in turn are killed by the enemy. Some games, like the Mario and Sonic series, feature a life-based system, wherein a player has a certain number of lives: once they die, they are resurrected near where they left off. Other games, like the Legend of Zelda series, don’t feature lives (other than the oddball Zelda II) per se, but when the player dies, they still come back near where they left off.

In these games, player death is a penalty for playing poorly. You might lose some progress, and you certainly lose time. But death is temporary. Your character is resurrected within seconds. Death has no lasting effects and is more of a nuisance than a punishment.

Fire Emblem’s death system is quite different. Before examining it further, it’s instructional to pull back to examine how death is conveyed throughout the game as a whole.

Fire Emblem’s story revolves around war, and your band of characters travel across the country or continent fighting battle after battle, each battle bringing you closer to ending the war or conflict. While Fire Emblem’s violence isn’t graphic, it is serious. As far as I know, you don’t see blood, dismemberment, disembowelment, or any gore. You see people hit each other with swords, and when a person dies, they fade away and disappear.

Most of the story is conveyed through text-boxes, so be prepared for reading. But in the reading, the characters clearly state that people die, that the enemy is killing off citizens, that the enemy is torturing people. The game doesn’t have to show gore to convey the seriousness of violence.

Most violent video games always seem unbalanced to me. You as the character slaughter hundreds of people through the game, and yet your character is never permanent harmed or killed. How can one person be so effective, and how can enemy armies be so ineffective? It’s baffling and unrealistic.

Not so in Fire Emblem. Death is seriously conveyed not only for the enemy, but the character.

Permanent death adds tension to the game

When I played through Fire Emblem most recently, when my characters died, I let them die. A couple times I cheated and restarted the map because my main healer died, and sometimes I was forced to restart because my main character died, but other than those instances, I treated each death as a consequence of my poor planning.

Because I knew that death would be permanent, I was forced to play more carefully, strategizing every decision, every move. If I left a hole in my defenses, the enemy would rush through and kill a weak character.

Sometimes this happened, and then I would get worried. The enemy would attack, and maybe I would be just so fortunate that my character would survive with 1 hit point. These moments were incredibly stressful, as I had to sidetrack the overall goal of the mission to instead protect and reinforce my party. There were some maps that a certain group of characters spent several turns just running away from the enemy, ever out of their reach, until they got close to a healer.

Permanent death adds challenge

For somebody who’s been playing video games as long as me, over 20 years, not many games are really “challenging” to me. Of course, many games have a “Hard” mode, but Hard modes aren’t more challenging intellectually: they are usually just more tedious. Your characters do less damage; the enemies do more damage; therefore, it takes longer to defeat something. But permanent death adds challenge in several ways.

First, it makes the game more challenging in the short-term. On each battle, I have to think how to best position my soldiers so nobody dies while still accomplishing the mission (sometimes within a certain time limit).

Second, permanent death makes the game more challenging in the long run. What if somebody really important dies? I might still finish the map, but that person’s absence will make future maps more difficult.

For instance, in my most recent playthrough of Path of Radiance, I lost a second healer, Mist, in her first battle. This meant I had to rely on a single healer for almost 10 missions until I finally recruited another . At one point I had no mages, so my distance attacking was severely limited. Another one point I had no thieves, which made one level with tons of chests and doors more difficult than it needed to be. I went a very long time with no axe-wielders. So the deaths I incurred really affected me in the long run.

Even worse, in many levels I couldn’t even bring the maximum number of units on the field. Like I said, in each map you can bring 9-13 or so units onto the battlefield. Any extra units sit the battle out. Many times the map would allow 13 units, let’s say, and I only had 11 to use.

Death forces you to care about your characters

When I lose a character, I’m not just at a tactical disadvantage. Over the course of the game, I start to really care about the characters, especially the ones that have been around for a long time. I develop emotional connections to them, and I’m sad when they go. For instance, I lost Titania, Ike’s adviser and mentor of sorts, midway through the game. Her character was definitely my strongest person, and she was defeated in one blow by a boss. She had been with me since the beginning, and her absence was felt on the battlefield.

Sometimes I lost players as soon as I recruited them. In these cases, I didn’t have time to develop an emotional connection with them, but their loss still affected me. It made me feel like a bad leader, like I was treating my recruits as war fodder.

On the the final level, I lost my main healer, Rhys, halfway through, which made things extremely difficult. He had been with me in every single battle in the game, all 30 missions, and died at the end. He was so close to seeing the end of evil and the return of light to the kingdom, and yet he couldn’t make it. His death made me think about war, and how sometimes soldiers will serve throughout the majority of the war, and yet still die on the edge of victory. How many Revolutionary soldiers died right on the cusp of America winning independence from Britain? They never got to see the fruits of their labor, and that’s a melancholic tragedy.

The only problem with permanent death

While permanent death fundamentally changes not only how Fire Emblem is played, but also how the player relates to the game and the story, it’s not a perfect play mechanic, at least in Path of Radiance, the game with which I am most familiar. The biggest problem is that most deaths are never acknowledged in the story. Whatever dialogue that character was supposed to have just get dropped out. In a few cases, really important characters remain in the story (like Soren, Mist, and Titantia), but are too injured to battle.

The only acknowledge of character death comes from Soren, who gives Ike a summary of each battle. Among other things, Soren will tell Ike which characters were recruited in battle and which were lost. And that’s it. Ike has no reaction to the deaths of anybody, which is a really shame. The designers should’ve at least made a short epilogue for each character when they die, just to provide some closure. In the course of my most recent playthrough, I lost 17 characters. I had 35 people in my party total (out of a possible 46). I lost 50% of my force over the course of the yearlong war, yet deaths were rarely acknowledged in the story.

Other than this minor gripe, permanent death is a play mechanic I really enjoy. Loyal readers, do you know of any other video games that feature permanent death, and if so, how does that play mechanic affect your enjoyment of the game?

Game on
~Dennis

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