Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Interview with a Playwright: Walt McGough

Welcome to the 39th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival!  It's an exciting time: the plays and artistic teams are confirmed.  Auditions have begun. Event planning is underway.  We hope you will check our website and blog for updates, latest backstage news and added special events throughout the festival. 

We will be posting a series of interviews in the weeks leading up to the festival from this year's talented playwrights. Walt McGough, whose timely Non-Player Character lays bare the darker side of gaming, was the first to sit down with us.

BAPF: What drew you to explore the world of gaming and its culture? 

Walt McGough: I've been a pretty avid gamer for just about my whole life; I'm pretty sure that I can still play Mega Man 2 just by sense memory alone. Games have always been one of the major ways that I unwind in what little down-time I have. I'm a particular fan of open world role-playing and strategy games, which is a problem because I tend to have a pretty addictive personality and so when I start a game with too many things to explore, I'm in constant danger of just disappearing down the rabbit hole completely and never resurfacing. (The closest I've come so far was the year that I spent living by myself in Chicago, with an original Xbox, a copy of the Elder Scrolls game Morrowind, and a cheap Chinese restaurant right across the alleyway from my apartment. It...wasn't pretty.)

As far as gaming culture is concerned, I've always followed it avidly, but from a bit of a tangential position. A combination of personal finance limitations and parents who actually wanted me to see the sun occasionally when I was growing up meant that I never had the most up-to-date gaming consoles or computers, and so I had to spend a lot of time playing games that were a couple years out-of-date. When new ones that I was excited about would come out, I would play them at my friends' houses, or (and I actually did do this) force my friends to describe them to me, at length, with much detail. My inability to play most games when they came out didn't stop me from staying up-to-the-minute on all of the various news and developments and new releases, and that's continued into my adult life even though I still have to be very choosy about the games that I spend my time with. I've spent a lot of time learning and reading about games that I'll never actually get to play, covetously. It's my own special brand of masochism, I guess.

As far as what made me want to address gaming and games culture in a play...I tend to play around a fair amount with genres of all kinds in my plays. I have a comic book-style play, and a spy play, and a post-apocalypse play, etc. It's never a really conscious decision to write things that way, but given my interest base and my desire to play around with what's possible theatrically, it just kind of pans out.

So I'd been thinking for a while about what a play about video games could look like on stage, and then gaming had a sort of cultural flashpoint moment a few years back, with the #gamergate "movement" flaring up and exposing a lot of the massive obstacles that women in the games industry and gaming culture face on a daily basis. It's really not much different at its core than the issues women and minorities face all over in society, but when it happens in the sphere of gaming culture it tends to mostly happen online, which means there's no real filter and there's a lot more...I guess "passion," would be the word? No, wait. Not passion. "Awfulness." That's a better word.

Anyway, when GamerGate was really heating up, I just remember being riveted to my computer, following the whole horrific mess of it all, and feeling like it was finally time to write a play about video games, because I finally knew what the conversation I wanted to have about them was. I wanted to talk to audiences about the very real and pertinent cultural issues that are present in the world of video games, but also show them why so many people from all different walks of life love games to start with, and want to fix them.

BAPF: In gamer parlance, non-player characters can be unknown or an "agent" in the game. Did this "otherness" 

​ resonate for you?

WM: Hoo boy, did it ever. The fascinating thing about games culture is that it's always been viewed (and continues to be viewed, by many) as a sort of monolithic thing: awkward white guys between the ages of 12 and 30, sitting in their mothers' basements and doing nothing but play the newest games.

But that mental picture ignores the fact that, especially in recent years, the field of gaming has become filled with an almost infinite diversity of narrative approaches, styles, and agendas, and there are just as many different people playing video games now as there are games for them to play. That's just about always been true, of course, but the more stereotypical, Platonic ideal of the "gamer" is the demographic that most mainstream games have been pitched to for decades. So for a lot of people who don't fit that mold, whether due to their gender, or their race, or any other number of reasons, there's a sense that you're being forced to look at this thing that you love through a glass window: you're not actually allowed to consider yourself a part of it.

I can't imagine how dispiriting that experience must get sometimes, for someone who loves games but finds themselves not allowed to claim it as a part of their identity. (I mean that literally: I can't imagine it. I'm a straight white guy. Every mainstream thing has been made for me pretty much my whole life, and I can identify with it as I see fit. I'm very much ready for that to stop, because it's boring as hell.)

The trouble really arises when you factor in that gaming is pretty much the only art form that actually started off as a competitive medium. The only reason that Jumpman is rescuing a princess from a gorilla in Donkey Kong is because the programmers needed a thing for players to look at while they scored points. The stories serve the competition, and the medium is the message, and so for a lot of people who play games, there is no "gaming culture" without a competitive drive. That can translate into a constant need to be THE BEST at everything about a game, from the playing of the game to the consumption of the game ("I'm gonna get the best version of this game and the best system to play it on and I'm gonna buy them all on the day they come out before anybody else and that means that I'm winning!!!!!"). For people with that mindset, the inclusion of more and different types of players and stories can be perceived as an honest-to-God threat, and that can cause some really ugly pushback. That fact was very much on my mind as I started in on writing the play, and it found its way into the title.

BAPF: NPCs are often defined as characters controlled by the game for players to interact with, as opposed to player characters which are controlled by whomever is playing the game.  From a theatrical perspective, 

​how did this inform your approach?

WM: It really shaped the central conflict, I think: Katja (the main character) is an aspiring game designer, and has been deeply in love with gaming her whole life. During the course of the play, however, she finds herself pushed out to the periphery, and continually victimized by others simply for trying to claim an agency and control over her own story. She finds out that a lot of the people she interacts with don't actually view her as anything but a part of their own personal stories, and her struggle to fight back against that and claim her own, central role in her own life is the driving action of the play. Plus, a bunch of it is set inside of a video game, and so we get to see her cast spells and do badass spin-move attacks on fantasy monsters. So that's cool, too!

BAPF: You were quoted as saying "Realism, by and large, doesn’t exist. Nobody actually thinks they’re looking through the invisible wall of a house. This is a good thing, because it means you get to decide how the rules of your world work."

​ What did this mean for NPC specifically, and your work in general?

WM: I personally don't like writing plays that attempt to emulate or be super-true to reality in their style, because I just know that it's never going to work. Nobody thinks it's real, or that the events of a play are actually happening. You're not fooling anyone. The audience has already consciously decided to pretend that they're invisible while they watch your play. They're on board. So, to my mind, if they've already come that far, why not bring them a little bit farther, as well.

I'm a big fan of plays that invite the production team, directors, designers, and everybody else in on the world-building, and provide a lot of opportunities to create something new and fun and exciting that nobody's seen before. The specific style is always going to change to fit the story, because at the end of the day, that's all you're doing: you're telling a story with everybody involved all at once. It was easy to get that kind of imagination and sense of play into NPC, because video games inherently have that to start with, so it was really just a matter of figuring out what's possible and what isn't in a real, physical space. I'm sure that there's plenty of calibration left to do in rehearsal, so that I can really make sure I got the math right.

            BAPF: Walt, thank you so much!  This was fascinating.