Audience as Actor

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Theater is often described in terms of two schools, that of Aristotle and that of Brecht. The following is an extremely brief and simplified description of the differences between the two:

Aristotle Brecht
Traditional, Orthodox Divergent, Subversive
Appeals to emotions Appeals to thought
Catharsis Empowerment
Immersion and escapism Distance and critical evaluation
Assumes a rational order Assumes chaos
Actor merely fills a role Actor is aware of their actions

The most essential difference between Aristotle’s philosophy and Brecht’s is that Aristotle believed theatre is best for educating and controlling people while Brecht believed theatre should empower and drive people. Brecht’s ideas of theater were expanded on by Agusto Boal in his work Theatre of the Oppressed. In Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal discusses the barrier between the audience and the actors. The goal of Boal’s theatre is to tear down this barrier and transform the audience into “spect-actors”, the ultimate empowered audience.

Most video games today operate on Aristotelian themes. Games are considered escapism, and therefore inherently cathartic. The player is literally placed into a new, simulated world so the game is therefore immersive. However, there is a unique aspect of video games and how they relate to the audience that lends video games an inherently Brechtian quality.

Both videogames and theater create a simulation of reality that is separate from the reality of the viewing audience. In a video game you can directly interact with the narrative or the world of the game, while in theatre the audience is usually thought of as passively viewing. Ironically, this freedom also makes the power of a videogame audience more limited than that of a theater audience. When you are a member of an audience to a play, the actors are forced to respond to you. When you shout, cheer, boo, or watch in stony silence, the actors perceive this and it alters their performance. How you watch changes the performance, and can even affect the narrative.

The audience can even interact more directly, for example if an audience member hurls a beer bottle at the actor on stage, that actor may duck and shatter the illusion of a separate reality from the audience. In some forms of theater this relationship is even more overt, and the audience is directly called upon to participate. However, you cannot “force” a videogame to change its narrative from what has been programmed, nor can you force it to acknowledge your moods or responses while playing. Throwing a beer bottle at the TV will disrupt and end the narrative, but it will never change it. In this way, there appears to be a fundamental difference between the audience of theater and the audience of videogames.


But what if the videogame audience is more equivalent to the actors than to the audience in theater? In theater, the actor creates the narrative and moves it through time. They act as an intermediary between the writer/director and the audience. Without the actor, a play is just a script. In the same way, someone playing a videogame is taking the programming script and moving it through time. A player taking on the role of Mario, Link or Pac-Man is the videogame equivalent of an actor taking on the role of Hamlet, Othello or Garcin. As the audience, a player has no power, but as an actor the player interprets and drives the narrative. The game cannot respond to your moods and emotional responses to the performance, but the game does respond to how you play your part. Throwing a beer bottle at the TV is not the same as throwing it at the actor, it is closer to the actor dropping the mic and walking away.

If the player represents the actor, then who is the audience? On some level, the player plays both parts, acting as the audience and interpreting the narrative and themes even as they perform as the actor. By pure chance, a video game audience operates in the role similar to that of Agusto Boal’s “spect-actor”. But can a game be designed in a way where there is a definite division between actor and audience? The recently released Nintendo Wii U offers an interface that could be used for just such a purpose. While many Wii U games use the same wiimote motion control as the Nintendo Wii, the new console also offers a tablet-style controller with a touch screen and synchronized display with the TV. This allows multiple players to play from completely different perspectives and interact in ways that haven’t been possible before.


A simple, non-narrative example of such a game would be a Mario-style platformer. Player 1 would control Mario in the traditional manner, with a traditional control pad or wiimote. Player 2 would have access to the gamepad, whose touch screen would show a map of the level and several options. Player 2 watches Player 1 play and has the power to alter the game. Player 2 can choose to insert enemies, obstacles, power-ups and goals into the game. While in some cases the game would devolve into Player 2 simply torturing Player 1 with impossible challenges, or Player 2 operating in “cahoots” with Player 1 and making the game pointlessly easy, there are ways to design the game so that the best results for both players will come from when they work together and allow each other to construct and overcome challenges and stories.

An ancestor of this style of gaming can be found in Mario Galaxy, a popular game for the original Nintendo Wii. While the game itself is only single player, at any point in the game a second player can pick up a second remote and control a small cursor on screen. This cursor cannot affect gameplay in any way other than one single factor. If the cursor passes over a “starbit” (the tiny collectables that act as currency in the game) then it will automatically zoom to Mario and be collected. The second player can do this whenever they want, or stop at any time without any effect on Player 1’s gaming experience. This “drop-in” gaming was largely derided as pointless by traditional gamers, but was surprisingly successful with the non-gaming. Non-gaming children, spouses, family members and friends could join their game-obsessed loved ones and take an active part in their experience rather than just passively watch them. While the action of gathering starbits was simplistic compared to the actions taken by the Mario player, it was intuitive enough and built on enough basic human psychology (get the shinies!) to draw people in. Being a “drop in” experience meant that they were not tied down to the time frame of the primary player. They could do actual important work in between the fun, light gaming sessions.


Anecdotally, I can point to several times I have seen people who have never played a videogame in their life and who would never willingly play a Mario game on their own drop what they were doing in order to harvest starbits while watching another player control Mario. This idea was even expanded upon in Mario Galaxy 2, where the second player was given even more to do. In addition to the addictive starbit harvesting, they could gather other items, interact with the environment (by flipping switches, shaking bushes and trees, etc) and even stun enemies to help the Mario player. The same drop-in gameplay was there, and the game was still ostensibly a one-player game, but the game also offered an inroad for a passive (or previously non-existent) audience to become an active participant.

This same dynamic can be applied to other games as well. Imagine a Sim City where Player 1 builds or maintains their urban paradise while Player 2 controls natural events (disasters, crop booms) and cultural forces (fads, unrest). Player 2 does not have to watch the entire gameplay, but rather can enter the room at any time, pick up the game tablet, observe the current situation, and decide what comes next. By doing so, the “audience” player chooses the themes they want to see dealt with. The audience dictates the narrative. At the same time, by controlling the action they take on the role of actor as well, and Player 1 takes on the role of audience in response. The relationship between the two allows them both to create, develop and test moral and philosophical ideas. But can a game be created with even more distinct roles for the audience and the actors?


Using the same Wii U interface we discussed before, let us imagine a massively multiplayer online game where players are divided into groups A and B. Players A each control one character in an adventure-style game. They respond to various questions and conversations from Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and advance the story by doing so. The game contains many different scenarios, and each scenario has multiple possible roles for Players of group A. Some scenarios may even have no NPCs, and a real person controls each character. All scenarios have multiple paths and endings available, based on the choices of the A Players.

Players B watch Players A as they move through each scenario. They may choose to make their approval or displeasure at a specific Player A’s choice known, and the information is displayed for that Player A. For example, if Player A chooses to fight another character, and only 20% of the B viewers approve of this choice, then Player A will see their approval rating dip accordingly.

Player B may also switch between viewing different Player As at any time, allowing them access to more of the story than any one Player A. They may choose to send a limited number of messages or hints to a Player A in the scenario. Player As may choose to ignore these messages or attempt to follow them. In either case they must decide if Player B is telling the truth or trying to manipulate them.

Only Player As may “win” in the traditional sense that they achieve an ending to the scenario, but they are not rewarded based on how the scenario ends or how “well” they solved it. Instead, they are issued points by the B Players. Player Bs may choose to give each Player A a number of points based on how well they think they played their part. The collective group of Bs also vote on an MvP of both the As and the Bs who receives extra points. Player Bs receive a small number of points for participating, but the collective Player As may select a single MvP for the Bs. The MvP system allows for situations where a clever Player B who creates an interesting scenario by fooling and manipulating the Player As and thereby amuses the rest of the audience of Bs will not have to fear arbitrary retribution from the angry As. Likewise a very disruptive B will not be rewarded and only receive the base points.

Points are spent in order to take part as a Player A in a scenario. The number of points needed is greater than the base number of points a Player B receives. Therefore, the only way for a Player B to earn enough points to become a Player A is to either take part in multiple scenarios as a “good” audience, or to be successful in amusing and entertaining your fellow audience. The best way for a Player A to stay a Player A is to be very clever and innovative,thereby entertaining and surprising the audience, or to play their part effectively, thereby creating the most interesting story for the audience.

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One Response to Audience as Actor

  1. Chris says:

    I like the idea that takes the audience, actors and scriptwriters/directors and applies them via analogy to video games where the player takes on both roles actors and audience. You start out the post explaining a dichotomy of theater being Aristotle and Brecht, or control and empowerment, then say video games by nature lean toward Brecht. I was expecting you’d explain how video games similarly empower players through this clever analogy of “audience as actor”. But that didn’t happen.
    You gave a couple of examples where Nintendo succeed in having an active audience where they might be more, which is interesting and reinforces your analogy. Then you have an idea of a new game which sounds neat of player type A’s and B’s which is also based on an extrapolation of the analogy.
    I guess I’m confused as to what the purpose of the post was? Are you using “Audience as Actor” to show games as empowerment or a basis for a new game type and where designers should explore?
    You can say those new types of games are empowering but it might be better to have something there to help me make the connection.
    Anyway you have some neat ideas and it was a clever analogy, good job!

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