This is part of a series of posts in conjunction with GAM 550: Incubation Studio, a graduate level course within DePaul University's MFA Game Design program. These posts will follow my process in incubating a design concept to bolster engagement with performance arts, with a particular focus on how to integrate theatrical practices within digital game spaces.
Over the next several weeks, I will be incubating a design concept that is aimed at improving audience engagement with performance arts (live arts). Throughout this process, I will be utilizing human centered design techniques to better understand and design for audiences relevant to my proposed concept. I will also continue to post updates as I work through the different steps of my design and research process.
My initial thought was that I would like to create a video game that is played live in which the non-player characters (NPCs) are played by actors. Normally, story-driven choice-based games have branching dialogue that is all pre-scripted. Bringing the performance element from traditional plays and acting practices into a game environment feels like an interesting way to inject live arts into a more familiar space for avid game players. The very nature of role playing games already suggests that the player performs a role through the playing of the game. Including professional performers in a game expands on this idea of play as performance and heightens the level of interactivity for the player.
There are a number of examples of live role playing experiences in both digital and physical spaces. LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) immediately comes to mind as a well-documented play style with strong elements of performance. Dungeons & Dragons is another arguable example, as players assume the roles of their characters and interact with each other and their DM, whose level of role-adoption might vary based on play style. Perhaps more interesting are instances of online LARPs that take place in forums or similar digital spaces. I vaguely recall participating in a similar activity with friends when I was in middle school and can assume that this type of thing probably even pre-dates my awareness of it. All this to say, there is a rich history of play that involves role playing with other players and suggests that there is a long-standing interest in performance play in general, but I'm interested specifically in scenarios where professional performers are part of the play space that a player interacts with.
I attended an immersive puppet haunted house a couple of years ago called The Silence in Harrow House, which I feel like may get somewhat closer to the type of experience I'm after. Participants were able to walk around a small enclosed space that was segmented into different sections with walls and other physical obstacles. The puppets were generally life-sized and worn by the puppeteers (the images in the video below may give a better sense of what I mean), and they would interact with one another and the participants without actually using any words. At one point, a performer gave me a hand-written note before running away, for example. For my game concept, I'm thinking that actual dialogue will be a bigger focus for the types of player-to-performer interactions, but I'm interested in the way that The Silence in Harrow House used sound and space and body language to create an immersive, loosely interactive experience. We weren't allowed to take videos or pictures during the performance, but the following video is the show's promotion trailer:
The Role of Design Research
My goal in using design research for this project is to make something that resonates with at least a small audience of players and offers a conscientious means of participating in performance arts during COVID times and beyond. Human centered design, which I will be using in incubating this concept, places a strong emphasis on interviewing and understanding people who may be affected or impacted by the use of a product or technology.
While it's true that conducting interviews can provide invaluable insights into how a design will be received and how it could be used, I'm also looking at my interviews as a type of co-designing process, bringing those most relevant to a design into the creative side of production. Most everyone is engaged in some sort of design thinking on a regular basis, even without intentionally sitting down to fix a problem or consider efficient or elegant designs. Problem solving is hard wired into us, both as a survival mechanism and as a means of play and engagement. Interviewing stakeholders really does feel like inviting more designing minds to the table. With that said, my next post will detail my process for deciding who to speak with about my design concept, my interview guidelines, and the results and insights that I gain along the way.