For many there remains a stubborn and irrational fear of looking at the common roots videogames share with other art forms. Call it a lingering inadequacy complex—an anxiety over being seen as inadequate when the creative scope is widened from fun and quirk to issues of love, identity, moral dilemma, and death anxiety. These have been the emotional fixations of art yet they’re subjects videogames remain hesitant to address.
Games may not always be interested in art, but art is becoming more and more interested in games. Such is the case of The Wii Plays, a collection of short theatrical works that take their thematic inspiration from 12 Wii games. The production comes via Ars Nova, a Manahattan-based theater group that writes, stages, directs, and performs in its own plays.
You won’t find a Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or GoldenEye riff here. Instead the stories derive from games most fans would rather steamroll into oblivion. Alien Monster Bowling League, Bob the Builder: Festival of Fun, Burger Island, and Barbie Island Princess. Games like these are directly responsible for the stereotyped shovelware that’s larded the Wii’s game library, forming an apocryphal corpus that only the lowing casual player could be tricked into buying.
Yet it’s these mundane games that provoke some of the most memorable scenes in The Wii Plays .The performance opens with a variation on Wii Sports Tennis. Two former lovers cross paths in a coffee shop one morning and their nervous small talk transforms into a competitive exchange of brags. The man is engaged, which the woman happily tops when she says she’s married, and to a French yoga instructor no less. As they trade jabs the thwack of a tennis ball sounds, adding an obvious but apt emotional layer to the idea of competition. Playing against other people is never just about winning; there is always a personal subtext. Our egos come from desirability, which is easiest to fluff up through winning at some thing.
In the Burger Island scene a stoned 40 year-old manager keeps interrupting a young teen trying to close out his register so he can go home. The manager is caught up in a stumped fantasy of youthful adventure that’s somehow withered into a fast food career. It’s the teen’s last day before leaving for college and he winds up confessing he never thought of any of the people in the Burger place as friends. Right on cue, the manager brings out an absurd but touching pirate sculpture he’d built out of soda cups and fry containers—a fond and hopeful parting gift for the kid who’d just finished dressing him down.
Videogame developers have become increasingly adept at literal representation. They can invoke settings, historical moments, and recreate the tinted cinematography of movies. Yet there is rarely a sense of why the thing being represented deserves attention. As a collection of dramatic scenes The Wii Plays is lightweight and airy with just a slight, bitter aftertaste of human failings. But it’s a serious challenge. Dramatic performance has been with us as long as the idea of gameplay, and yet those who are committed to the former can find some poignant human experience in something called Burger Island.
The growth of videogames in the last several decades coincides with the proliferation of computers and internet technology in every part of our lives, from streaming videos on cell phones to the small computerized motor in electric toohbrushes. It’s been easy to forget ourselves in the wonderful fantasy of what the next technical step forward might be. 256 colors led to 3D, visual operating systems later evolved into multi-tasking, and button presses soon turned into full body movement.
But the further along things get the more unavoidable the old questions become, the ones we can only conditionally answer. Did my life matter? Was the person next to me really my friend or just putting on a show? What will happen to me in the moment I begin to decline, when I can’t compete anymore? What will I be if I lose? These questions pass from generation to generation, leaving behind a small record of the shape and color of the relative conclusions we were able to come up with in our time. Think of The Wii Plays then as a band of devotees to the old guard trying to pick up slack for the avant-garde, who sometimes run so quickly ahead they forget where they’re going.
The Wii Plays runs at the Ars Nova Theater through February 12.
Michael Thomsen has written about videogames, sex, and animals for ABC World News, Nerve, n+1, IGN, The Faster Times, The Millions, Gamasutra, The Escapist, and Edge. He lives in New York City.