Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Videogame Shakespeare: Enskilling Audiences through Theater-Making Games

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Videogame Shakespeare: Enskilling Audiences through Theater-Making Games

Article excerpt

Since 2008, when Michael best surveyed the field of Shakespeare video games and reported just a handful of fairly unsuccessful experiments at the border between Shakespeare education and gaming entertainment, the field of Shakespeare gaming has exploded. (1) There are currently dozens of video as well as board and card games about Shakespeare's life, drama, and theatrical culture. Although very few scholars have paid much attention to them, they are worth closer analysis not only for scholars of adaptation studies and popular culture, but also for scholars of drama, theater history, and performance. (2) To be sure, most games simply trade on the bard's cultural iconicity, using theater to sell games (or products advertised on free gaming Web sites), but increasingly theater proponents have reversed this strategy, using games to sell theater. In addition to the many commercial games available for personal computers, smartphones, and iPads, games have emerged on the Web sites of esteemed heritage institutions for Shakespeare, including the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario and Shakespeare's Globe theater in London. (3)

Whether driven by financial profits or a mission to keep the classics alive (or both), Shakespeare-themed games aspire to have cultural impact and arguably have a good chance of doing so. As they expose a broader public to Shakespeare theater, they hold out the hope of luring a younger, hipper set into patronizing the theater arts by making uninitiated audiences more comfortable with Shakespeare's plays and theatrical performance in general. But what can games do for Shakespearean theater that it cannot do for itself? Insofar as many Shakespeare consumers tend to think of the plays as hallowed artistic objects to be watched quietly and respectfully, theater-themed games can leverage the interactivity of gaming to draw out the interactive qualities of Shakespeare's plays. They can turn Shakespearean theater into (or reveal that it already is) a game audiences might play. Surprisingly, few games actually manage this feat, however, and my essay explores why certain games struggle more than others to translate the phenomenology of theater into gaming.

I focus on a genre of theater-themed games that ought to be well poised to simulate and express the interactivity of theatrical performance: games that turn their players into creators of theater (actors, dramatists, theater managers, or designers). What I term theater-making games can be distinguished from what can be called drama-making games, in which the player essentially inhabits or controls a Shakespearean character; in drama-making games, the gamer does not impersonate the character in the guise of an actor, but rather becomes the character usually to change its outcome in a dramatic plot. (4) We can also distinguish theater-making games from another, even more prolific subset of Shakespeare games I would describe as scholar-making games, which center on trivia, turning the player into a student of Shakespeare and his theater. (5) Unlike scholar- or drama-making games, in which players for the most part consume someone else's fiction or historical data, theater-making games invite players to feel for themselves what it is like to put on a play, in all its diverse facets.

Despite their promise, theater-making games struggle to enskill successfully their users in the experience of theater, and I argue that this is because of an incompatibility between the bodily mechanics of theater-making the games represent and their own game-play mechanics, which call for largely untheatrical gestures such as pushing buttons, flipping cards, moving counters, and so forth. I suggest, however, that the presumably distinct physical experiences of theater-making and game play can productively be brought to bear on each other if game designers take advantage of new technologies in immersive gaming. As a case in point, I'll conclude by discussing a Shakespeare videogame that I am currently helping to design with colleagues at the University of California, Davis. …

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