Play It as It Lays: Video Games Are Reshaping the Mechanics of Giving-And How We Experience Theatre

Article excerpt

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A GOOD OLD-FASHIONED video game to get your fingers tapping and your heart thumping. Theatre and video games may not seem like natural bedfellows, but the best video games tell a story, and theatre tends to do the same. Here are two examples of games working from a charitable perspective and in service of the theatrical art form.

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CHICAGO'S VERTICAL INCORPORATED, A STRATEGIC marketing and visual communication group, was founded in 2002. From early on, the company decided to make annual contributions to arts and education organizations. Today Vertical gives to five different groups--two theatre organizations, 16th Street Theater and Chicago Dramatists, along with Girls Rock! Chicago, the Arts of Life and Snow City Arts.

"After a few years we decided to further call attention to the organizations we give to by making an online game," says Vertical president Mike Keating. Go Go Santa was born in 2007. The premise is straightforward. Vertical donates a lump sum to the five organizations, and players of Go Go Santa "donate" the points they win to an organization of their choosing among the five. The points translate to a percentage of the pool of money. If a particular organization drums up enough of its constituency to play and donate points, a larger percentage of Vertical's donation goes to that group.

Today Go Go Santa is so simple even an editor can play, but this wasn't always the case. A few years ago, Keating admits, "We were trying to do too much with the game. We wanted to promote healthy diets, and so if Santa ate too many goodies it would weigh down his sleigh and he'd drag to the bottom. It was a little confusing." Game play has since been streamlined. Players, in the form of a Santa icon, fly on a jet sleigh through such Chicago neighborhoods as Bucktown, Chinatown, Bridgeport, Streeterville and Wrigleyville. As they fly, they collect points and other treats (in Chinatown, icons of take-out boxes float in the air, whereas in Bucktown cupcakes drift and dance for the plucking), while avoiding impediments such as lightning, small airplanes and flocks of birds. The game is set to a jovial electro-Christmas tune.

Typically, a new edition of Go Go Santa gets released late in December, but this year Vertical challenged itself to plan in advance. "We gathered back in July and decided to spend time up front and create a multi-level game and promote it," says Keating. That meant creating mobile applications and launching much earlier, in this year's case, Dec. 4. "Last year we had around 400 players, but this year we have 4,000 players on iPads alone," Keating enthuses. When we spoke pre-Christmas, Keating told me the number of people downloading the Apple app was increasing at a rate of between 300 and 600 a day. "We may generate 8,000 to 12,000 users by Jan. 1," he estimated.

This year Vertical donated $5,000 to the five organizations, and enlisted donations of $500 from DiGiovine Hnilo Jordan + Johnson Ltd., Vertical's accounting firm, and the Double Door and Metro/Smart Bar, live music venues, upping the total to $6,000. But the cost of creating Go Go Santa is not negligible. Illustration and design happen in-house, while the company outsources some of the back-end coding. "Our developers gave us tremendous discounts on their fees," attests Keating, who chalks that up to the knowledge that their work goes toward a good cause. This year Vertical's cash costs for the development of the game was $33,928, which didn't include staff time or marketing (which runs around $6,000). Keating estimates that "if the game were developed for a for-profit concern, the creation, development and programming costs would equal approximately $150,000."

While that may be prohibitive for many companies, part of why Go Go Santa has worked for Vertical is that it aligns with the company's arts-and-education mission. Moreover, a number of staff at Vertical serve on boards of the various organizations. …