Here, at the ETC, we have a lot of links with the theater. One of the school’s founders is a theater person. Many of our current faculty members are linked to the theater in one way or another. I’ve been thinking about that and it led me to wonder: where is the connection? What’s theatrical about games? I’m not really wondering what’s game-like about theater, because I can’t think of someone I know who went from games to plays. But from theater to games, I’ve seen that leap.
In many ways, games and theater appear to be complete opposites. One is perceived is high art, the other as mere popular entertainment. One is for the educated elite, the other for the uncouth youth. But there are only perceptions and they are mostly inaccurate. Theater can be silly, gross and uncouth. Games can be profound and intellectually stimulating. Still, that’s too broad a connection to account for our faculty members formed in the theater.
Both are a strange hybrid that mixes art, tough finances and business realities, sometimes difficult people and goals that are hard to quantify. But that’s also true of film.
I’m pretty sure that what links the theater and games are their strong reliance on metonymy. For theater, the same physical stage can be used to show a comfortable living room in one play and a street corner in the other. It can be used to show one in one scene and the other in the next. Generally, only a few elements will need to be changed to indicate the difference. A streetlight might be enough to indicate a street. Lights modified to look like they come from a window might be enough to indicate that we’re indoors in a comfortable house.
Games often have to do the same. Two characters moving their hands towards one another can mean an exchange. A colored light can indicate a faction. Positions and movement often do not have to be as natural as one imagines for the game to work, to be an enjoyable experience.
But handling metonymies well takes experience. Knowing how much is not enough and how much is too much for someone who’s new to the experience is not as easy as it seems. It takes experience and a way of framing the elements of the experience, to project what the whole of the work will be like to measure how well each metonymy works. I think that’s why we have so many faculty members who come from the theater. And I also think it’s why the stage and drama are to be taken more seriously than they often are by people in the digital media world. Our work encompasses so much, it’s easy to oversee what we should carefully pay attention to. Let’s not do that.