Tag Archives: video games

Shakespeare: The Game

This month I’m in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, home to the largest dedicated collection of Shakespeare-related materials in the world. I’m in heaven!


My focus during my time here is on the pre-history of digital Shakespeares — that is, the kinds of stage technologies that pre-date the proliferation of digital adaptations in the twenty-first century. This means that I’ve been looking at programmes from productions like Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, and also ogling over photos of Richard Burton & co. in their groundbreaking ‘Electronovision’ Hamlet in 1964, which used new film technology to live-record their Broadway production and then show it in cinemas across America. Here’s one explanatory diagram of the technical set-up:


More than anything, though, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the collection of interactive Shakespeare games that the Folger holds in its vaults. These games have very little to do with technology per se, but their relevance for my project is in the way they invite their players to be active participants in the making of Shakespeare. For me these board games, card games, and book games herald a form of collaborative and participatory Shakespeare-making that we see today in Shakespeare-themed video games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and immersive, interactive theatre productions. In this sense the games constitute an early history of ‘prosuming‘, a concept developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s to refer to ‘production by consumers’. In the world of creativity and culture, the term ‘prosumer’ is often linked to instances in which audiences become creative practitioners themselves, helping produce the artistic world of a theatre production, video game, art installation, etc. by playing an active part in it.

Most of the games in the Folger collection are from the nineteenth century, some with very beautiful illustrations, although a couple come from the more recent past. I thought I’d share a few photographs here with notes about how the games work and what I think is most interesting about them…

First up are versions of familiar games like Checkers, Memory, and Go Fish, which use Shakespeare not as a crucial part of the game mechanism but rather as thematic/decorative content. So, for instance, you get a typical checker board from 1864 (Shakespeare’s 300th birthday!) that you play exactly as you would a normal one, but you also get to look at Shakespeare quotes and trivia as you do so. Ditto for the 19c. ‘Shakespeare Game of Concentration’ that you play like Memory. This seems like a Shakespeare-by-osmosis approach to me: you’re playing a familiar game that doesn’t rely on Shakespeare knowledge or appreciation in and of itself, but by using Shakespeare quotes and images as filler it tries to instill that knowledge in the process.

The Go Fish-style game is slightly more complicated for two reasons: first, because although the game mechanism works as usual for Go Fish, with players aiming to collect sets of cards that they search for in the hands of other plays, the literary trivia is more foregrounded, meaning that quotes and facts will be read aloud with frequency and inevitably play a more central role. Second, this game from c.1887 isn’t actually Shakespeare-specific, even though his face graces the box that the cards come in. Rather, it includes ‘familiar quotations’ from several ‘popular authors’ (Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow), although it must be said that Shakespeare looms large within the deck. Each card contains several quotations in a different order and players work to collect as many complete sets as they can.

Next up are the board games, the earliest of which really only uses Shakespeare in the title: ‘Wallis’s Fashionable Game of the Seven Ages of Human Life’ (c.1814-26). It’s worth mentioning and illustrating though because it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch! Plus I love stage 29 in the timeline: ‘The Bachelor’, entertained by his faithful cat.

The other two board games are the most modern entries in the collection: ‘The Game of Shakespeare’ from 1966, and ‘The Play’s the Thing’ from 2003. Both invite players to collect Shakespeare cards studded with quotes, facts, and illustrations, and to use them to progress towards the finish line.

Related to these modern board games are the trivia-oriented card games that typically focus on Shakespearean quotes and are often explicit in their educational intent. ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ from the Shakespeare Club of Camden, Maine, in 1901 invites players to ask each other trivia questions and to collect the cards that they win. It also includes several endorsements from Shakespeare academics as to its educative value. The Cincinnati Game Company’s 1901 ‘Shakespeare’ seems to work to similar principles, with Shakespeare quotations and illustrations gracing each card in a deck divided into four suits, but, alas, the majority of its game instructions no longer survive (what is left seems to suggest that you can use the deck to play three different games, indicating perhaps that it’s essentially a regular deck of cards that you can use to play rummy, poker, etc.).

But of all these fabulous games, my very favorites are the two that are the most personalized. In ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’, 1892, and ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’, 1866, players select questions relating to their own lives and loves and then choose a number that produces a Shakespeare quote in answer. Both of these are meant to be party games, I believe, with the main thrill being the experience of revealing bits of personal information about oneself in front of a group of excitable and chirpy friends. Many of the questions have to do with the man or woman of your affection: so, for instance, you might choose the question, ‘What are his personal charms?’, and then select the number 3, from which you would get the reply, ‘His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely’. Ouch! While ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’ comes in the format of a series of circular question cards that participants hold, plus the oracle pamphlet from which the most esteemed member of the company reads, ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’ is potentially a more solitary affair, presenting its questions and quotes in book form.

Whatever shape they come in, though, all of these games have been lots of fun to explore and to attempt to unpuzzle. I’ve attracted lots of curious questions from fellow readers in the process–everyone loves a good game, it seems! Perhaps we can convince the Folger to let us throw a games night, with players in archival white gloves. Or, maybe more realistically, one or two of the older games could be digitized for playing online or through an app. Words with Friends Shakespeare-style, anyone?

Call for Papers – Digital Shakespeare

Next year I’ll be co-organizing a seminar on ‘Digital Shakespeare’ for the World Shakespeare Congress in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 31 July – 6 August 2016, along with the fabulous Penelope Woods (University of Western Australia), Siobhan Keenan (De Montfort University), and Suzanne Westfall (Lafayette College).

The WSC happens once every five years and next year’s installment will truly be a special one, given that 2016 is also the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death. The conference theme is ‘Creating and Re-creating Shakespeare’, and our seminar will look at the ways in which digital culture and technology is reshaping both the experience and study of Shakespearean performance today. Registration for the conference, and for seminars, is now open, so if the description below tempts you, please do sign up for our session.



Digital Shakespeare: Audiences and Scholars

The digital age has offered new opportunities and challenges for creators and performers of Shakespeare and has recalibrated the position and autonomy of audiences in performance. The 21st -century technological explosion has also increased the availability of theatrical records and commentaries, encouraging us to contemplate how pedagogy is changing, and how online resources such as Somerset and MacLean’s pioneering Patrons and Performances database may be used by wider communities to reflect on the early Shakespearean stage. This seminar invites papers interested in the influence of digital media and technologies on the modern performance and reception of Shakespeare around the world and/or that reflect on the digital ‘turn’ in early modern theatre history and its implications for future research on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Participants in the seminar might explore the nature and impact of live theatre broadcasting projects such as NT Live, Globe on Screen, or RSC Live; the creative use of digital technology on stage; social media and gaming technologies; the development and value of existing online databases and digital resources for early modern theatre history such as REED (Records of Early English Drama); and the challenges of using /developing online theatre history research resources now and in the future.



Digital Revolution at the Barbican

The first thing I felt when I entered the Barbican’s new ‘Digital Revolution’ exhibit was nostalgia. In front of me were the ghosts of technology’s past, puzzling all the young kids in the room with their bulkiness, squareness, resolutely black-and-whiteness. A monitor where you could play Pong, a glass case containing an original Apple II machine (basically a glorified typewriter), an old Speak-and-Spell from my kindergarten days. The opening display seemed designed to tell to us that the ‘revolution’ had started a long time ago.

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I AM… the revolution.

As it turned out, this was the part of the three-sectioned exhibit I ended up spending the most time in. Partly because I always do this — spend inordinate amounts of time reading every blurb next to every object at the start of the exhibit, and then realize I’d better hurry up if I want to leave before dinner time. But partly also because of the precious familiarity so many of those objects offered. I spent several minutes watching a steady stream of people play the original Mario Brothers game, delighting in the range of ages queuing up and smiling when I remembered which tunnels turned into secret passageways, and where special tokens could be found. I watched the multi-screen multimedia display several times over, gawking at the clips from Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ (the soundtrack to a beloved home video my father made in the 80s), the gameplay segments from Castle Wolfenstein (the very first computer game ever played in our house), the VFX clips from Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings, Terminator 2, and The Abyss (James Cameron was a theme), and the brief snippets of Parappa the Rappa, an animated rapping beagle (which I certainly never thought I would see in a world-class museum exhibit). But I guess that’s the thing about pop culture — you don’t always realize in the moment what is defining the time that you live in.

This opening historical room gave way to detailed exhibits on the state of digital play in film, video games, and music. I skimmed through the Inception documentary but watched every last bit of the one for Gravity, a film that stunned me in not only in the vision of space that it offered, but in the way that vision made me feel. Something that I hadn’t noticed when I saw it, but that seemed obvious once it was mentioned, was how long so many of the takes were — on average 45 seconds long, as well as an opening 17-minute single sequence. As I discussed in my Donmar Coriolanus review, I increasingly find myself thinking that the long shot is the most interesting, immersive, and involving kind of cinema. Next in the exhibit I started to learn a bit more about Minecraft, a video game phenomenon that I still don’t really understand, and I listened in with many sets of headphones to artists and audiences talking about advances in digital music and music video making. One of the last things I explored in this room was Arcade Fire and Chris Milk’s collaboration The Wilderness Downtown. This project sets one of the band’s songs to an online, interactive music video that asks you to enter the address of the house you grew up in and then features footage of it in the multi-windowed film that follows. It made me wonder if nostalgia-creation is actually a hallmark of some of the most successful digital art — does it mask its own innovation and newness by sending us back into a rose-tinted past? Why do we like photographing things on our very 21st-century phones and then filtering them to look like faded Polaroids from the 70s? Just typing my childhood address into the browser triggered a sense of nostalgia, and it was in equal measures disappointing and reassuring to see that the footage this produced didn’t quite get the location right. Google maps haven’t completely charted our universe.

The Wilderness Downtown

The final room in part 1 was filled with interactive digital art projects, most of which I tried to use and couldn’t quite get — I had moved from the past into the present, and my sense of familiarity had faded. Ditto for part 2 of the exhibit, which allowed you to go into a pop up arcade in the Barbican foyer filled with what they called ‘indie’ computer games — that is, those produced non-commercially. I spent a feeble 10 minutes trying to play a few of them, and wishing my brother were there with me. I’ve never been very good at video games, both in terms of the hand-eye coordination many require, and the patience the more exploratory, world-creating ones demand. For the hopelessly task-oriented among us like me I find it hard to enjoy waiting to figure out what kind of game I’m playing, and so I moved on to part three without much delay.

Getting to part 3 involved going down several flights of quiet, concrete stairs to the very bottom of the Barbican Centre, a kind of compound in its own right. A small group of people clustered at one of the doors, the room behind it usually used as a cinema, and there the ushers gave us a series of instructions — no children under 5, it’s very dark in there, don’t look directly into the lasers. We nodded and trundled past, and then made our way through a darkened corridor with a few sparse words scrolled along it — ‘reach out your hands’, ‘feel the light’, ‘play with others’. As we all padded through I was reminded of my two experiences this year going to Punchdrunk productions, which disorient you at the start in order to immerse you in the world constructed at the end of the tunnel (not unlike a haunted house). The smell of the air also took me back to Punchdrunk — slightly musty, cool and damp.

When we finally entered the main room we saw a dark space before us with about a dozen projectors suspended in the air, shooting rays of light down to the ground. And as we each approached the beams, we found that they moved with us, responding to our touch, swinging away like a tether ball, dividing into multiple strands, and inviting us to explore them through movement. As I (literally) tried my hand at fanning out one of the beams, I saw the air curl and haze in front of me, and I realized the source of the musty smell — smoke machines, no doubt also used in Punchdrunk’s foggy sets. And as with their shows, this was an immersive experience of sorts, asking you to be an active participant in the scene created. The stark difference though was the lack of any narrative. Dancing and playing with the light lasers was more of a sport than a theatrical show — there was no predetermined story, no beginning or end, just movement, response, color. When I finally left the room I was flooded again with overhead lights, and I realized that that was it, that the exhibit was over.

Climbing back through the concrete stairways of the Barbican, I found myself thinking about how fun so many of the displays in the exhibit has been, but also about whether or not there was much more beyond that. They clearly demonstrated ingenuity, innovation, the merging of creativity and commerce, and to some extent the way we use technology to recreate and celebrate the past. But what about art? What was there to make us think harder about what it means to be alive, to be a part of a culture or society, to seek out beauty? To some extent this was present too, in the snippets from Gravity and the interactive lights, which the exhibit blurb said should make us question how much of a divide there really is between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’, between ‘us’ and ‘others’. But I don’t think we can say that such questioning was the main event. That was reserved above all for interactive play, and it made me wonder if this, even more so than the production of nostalgia, is the real calling card of digital art.