Play’s the Thing: Recess on Theatrical and Virtual Playgrounds (Extended Blog Post)

Play. Just that one word can communicate so much. The first image that comes to mind for me personally is that of children playing with each other outside on a sunny day without any other care in the world.

I’m sure we would all agree that this behavior is just fine for kids, but what if all anyone ever did was play? Applied to fully developed adults, the word takes on the connotation of frivolity – a waste of time. So often, this association between irrelevance and play diminishes the importance of everything associated with the word. But do we ever really stop playing? Should we? The two biggest examples of playing for me relate to playing on the stage and playing an online video game. Though from opposite ends of the historical spectrum, both harken back to our desire to play, perform, and to be present with each other, just like outside at recess.

Coming from a theater background, I can’t help but see playing online video games through the lens of performance. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova, a Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington, notes how “everything we’ve learned about games and online environments says that people have an almost irrepressible desire to construct little models of people and places and display them as an extension of their own being” (Castronova 51). To me, that’s performance, and that’s play. I think we recognize, from an early age that most of our relationships, to each other and the world, are constructs. Since they exist only because we allow them to, we have no problem constructing new environments and new expressions of ourselves to inhabit them, and in fact, I think we need to. However, since these new models are smaller-scale, and generated by individuals instead of a societal consensus, we call these smaller worlds “play.”

When we’re kids, we’re allowed to fully engage with this world-creating desire that we have, but as we get older, the realms of expression get tighter and more specified. In order to fulfill that need that we think goes away when we “grow up,” many turn to video games. Some turn to theatre.


While there are other places people can turn to, they are limited. I think that these two seemingly distant fields are two of the most open and fulfilling outlets for our incessant need to play and perform. In Digital Performance, academic and actor Steve Dixon explains how “interactive works encourage a playful, childlike fascination for the pleasure of cause and effect, where a simple hand movement or facial grimace causes a domino effect, a ripple through time and space that directly affects and transforms something outside of oneself” (Dixon 598). Our drive to affect the world around us sometimes gets muddied by the restrictions we’ve all “agreed” on, and so we seek out other worlds that we can impact the way that we choose to.

Before I get into the details about the relationships between the theater and video games, it’s important to note their shared vocabulary. While of course there are differences, a seminal link between the two worlds lies in the language. Dixon explains how “theater terminology was freely adopted by game designers, including ‘setting,’ ‘player,’ and ‘character’; …while other emergent acronyms such as IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) were drawn directly from acting and theater practice” (Dixon 601). While this seems like an obvious point to make, marking these linguistic parallels will help in discerning the close ties and sharp deviations between playing onstage and online.

When you boil down theater to its most basic parts, you get a performer and an spectator. Both online video games and theater ask us, as players and observers, to believe fully in the reality of some other world that exists only because we have agreed that it does. Both accomplish this similarly by pushing us to forget the larger world we have agreed exists by drawing us in together. The famous Russian acting theorist, Constantin Stanislavski, explains in his book, An Actor Prepares, how “in order to get away from the auditorium you must be interested in something on the stage” (Stanislavski 70). While, indeed, concentrating on “something” on the stage, or on your computer screen, does help to forget either the auditorium or your bedroom, I would argue that more specifically, full envelopment comes from an interest in the other people in the same space as you.

In a theatre, the most effective actors keep their attention on the other actors onstage. The audience’s attention is on the actors inhabiting another world but in a shared space. Though a video game does not place the actor and spectator in the same room, Dixon argues that “video games are not live in terms of their technological ontology, but they operate responsively in real time and certainly appear live from the perspective of the player-character, arguably far more so than plays or films, since they demand rapt attention and lighting responses” (Dixon 620). While a large debate about the differences between “live” and “mediatized” performance raises interesting questions, the key link between the two mediums lies in their ability to allow us to collectively inhabit new world where we can continue to play throughout our lives.

While online gaming and stage performance offer similar outlets for our need to play, key differences involving the nature of the player herself complicate a clear comparison between the two. Some, like Castronova, believe that:

If we let the horizon stretch out far enough, artificial intelligence agents – robots that control the nonplayer characters in the video game world – will become excellent actors. Sure, they are completely cheesy right now, but soon we can expect acting at a community-theater level…and finally good enough to be cast in the glorious dramatic narrative that your own playing with always be… (Castronova 46)

However, this notion completely ignores the important quality in acting that nearly all theater practitioners have staked their careers on, that the actor must act honestly and be truly present. How could a computer program contain such a complex set of thoughts and emotions that its behavior could truly imitate the experience of interacting with another human being? While graphic quality may improve to the point of indeterminacy from reality, and programmers may enter more and more responses to various inputs, robots can never replace the shared human experience that allows us to create worlds together.

Sorry Data…

Although robots may not fill that role, other humans putting on new costumes in a virtual environment may just fit the bill. Arguing against Castronova’s assumptive trajectory for digital performance, Nick Montfort, an associate professor of digital media at MIT, differentiates between the actor and the “interactor” who plays a video game. He argues that “the interactor actually is not playing a character in any usual way. That is, it is not at all useful to consider that the player character is played by the interactor in any literal, typical sense of play: not in the dramatic sense, not in the gaming sense” (Montfort 139). He explains how in a game like Monopoly we think about playing the game and not playing as the little metal piece.

I really feel like I WAS the thimble!

When applied to video games, the person has little control of what the player character does, and so operates within the constraints of the character that the game designers have decided. Instead of merging ourselves and experiences with a pre-written script to produce a living character, Montfort claims that “The interactor does little more than steer and sense. The author, not the player, is the one who decides when the player character will cry” (Montfort 141). But doesn’t this somewhat apply to theater as well? Like a game with a preplanned course of events, an actor on stage cannot deviate from the words and actions dictated by the script. However, it is true that a video game does not require you as a player to become emotionally invested like on stage, in that Montfort is correct. However, while not a requirement, a digital stage does maintain the potential for much of the same investment that allows us to play in our created worlds in a theater.

The acclaimed actor and acting teacher/theorist, Sanford Meisner, developed an acting technique rooted in real action. As he put it, “the foundation of acting is the reality of doing” (Meisner 16). This necessitates a synthesis between what is really happening for the human being in the space and the role they are playing. Instead of simply pretending to “do” the instructions of a script, the actor must really do them, allowing him to fully inhabit the character and the world. As the gamer, this would mean “doing” the actions that your “player character” performs. The obvious limitation here lies in the game player’s inability to actually “do” many physical things required for the in-game character. In her study of the use of digitally created personas, or avatars, Beth Coleman an Assistant Professor of Writing and New Media at MIT proposes that “the primary purpose of using an avatar is to conjure presence. They mark our sense of being there together when we are physically apart” (Coleman 117). This notion allows the possibility of Meisner’s real action even when not physically present. If we reorient our understanding of “doing” to interpret moving, speaking, and listening as clicking, typing, and reading, then we can begin to understand how applicable acting techniques like this become in terms of how online games allow for total envelopment and play.

Such a work out.

It is important to distinguish between a predominantly narrative or mission style video game, where a player may not become as emotionally invested in the world, and a more socially constructed environment. Montfort’s ideas about simply steering the character applies much more readily to a single-player game where the protagonist is clearly defined and controlled by the game dynamics. Instead he suggests that “creating a good player character within an interactive fiction world involves putting this character in a situation that is motivating for the interactor – but not giving the interactor an actual dramatic script or a role to play” (Montfort 140). In the case of social online games like massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs), the ability to share the fabricated space with other humans and observe their behavior operates more like what Montfort describes, but in so doing, departs from a commonly held requirement of theater – the script.

We don’t need this…

While continuing to play within the confines of the game’s code, open form games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest allow each player an amount of agency as opposed to following a pre-planned plot. The difference between a narrative game and an open, social game is much like the difference between a scripted play, and one that allows for improvisation. Keith Johnstone, a noted acting instructor concentrating on improv, expresses how “in a normal education, everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it” (Johnstone 15). His methods allow for a complete openness to what is happening in the moment – always saying “yes” and accepting what you are given in a scenario. This is much like a video game. Though you are rarely given the chance to say no in a game, most players would say yes regardless, because if they did not, why play? Whether finding reality in the freedom to write your own story as we socially play or by recognizing our co-presence with others inside a virtual or created environment, our ability to fully inhabit these worlds rests on our agreement to construct new playgrounds together.

As I touched on briefly earlier, the audience represents a major aspect of theater and performance. It’s easier to compare the playing of an actor and of a gamer when limited to just the stage – thinking only about what that the actors do. However, the audience plays an essential role by imbuing the performance with the vitality of immediate contiguity. Canadian dramatist Roy Mitchell, in his book on Creative Theatre, that “the audience shares a play in its making. The theatre lives in its moment of consumption. It has no life before or after…It is never a living thing until it is shared” (Mitchell 5). Again, the idea of the shared exchange between us, whether that be between two actors, an actor and an audience, or a gamer interacting with another gamer through avatars, underlines the importance of community to the existence of theatrical and digital worlds. Castronova notes that “the big difference here is not that people feel very immersed, it is that they feel immersed together” (Castronova 36). Instead of simply existing in an imaginary land by yourself, the presence of other human beings validating that experience by interacting with you affirms space in the same way socialization affirms our “real” world every day. The other actors on stage and the spectators watching from their seats all reinforce the actor’s presence in this reality.

But how does audience play into an online video game? In a game, the player is both the actor and the audience. As Dixon states, “the audience is the participant, the participant is the player, the player is the character” (Dixon 601). Because the avatar representing the player exists separately – visible to the player as he navigates the space – the character is constantly a subject of observation, as well as action. In her study of cyber sociality, Lori Kendall claims that “people participating in online communication usually have less information available about the composition of their audience than people in face-to-face interactions have” (Kendall 126). This may be true from a social perspective if the “audience” members are understood to be the other people online. However, in the context of a game, the other players behave more like the other actors in a play, meaning that the only real spectator of the gamer’s performance is also the player herself. Thus, the gamer utilizes “online communication” to act out her part with the other players, but actually has an infinitely better understanding of herself as an audience than actors performing to a hall of faceless silhouettes.

From the moment we let ourselves believe that we are too old to play like children, we instantly find other ways of playing – more adult, appropriate, and contained. We try to say that it’s for the sake of art, or to blow off steam from work, or that it’s not play at all, and should be considered hard work. I think it should be considered hard work, but that doesn’t mean we are not playing. When we call everything outside of our “mutually” understood world “frivolous,” and try so hard to hide our need to interact with each other and perceive our world on our own terms, I think it’s time we fixed something. Maybe it’s okay to ring the bell every once in a while and go out to recess.


Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.

Castronova, Edward. Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Coleman, Beth. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Dixon, Steve, and Barry Smith. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Downes, Daniel M. Interactive Realism: The Poetics of Cyberspace. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Book, 1979. Print.

Kendall, Lori. Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Meisner, Sanford, and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.

Mitchell, Roy. Creative Theatre. New York: John Day Company, 1929. Print.

Montfort, Nick, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Second Person: Role-playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Nardi, Bonnie A. My Life As a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. Print.

Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979. Print.

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