There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned video game to get your fingers tapping and your heart thumping. Theatre and video games may not seem like natural bedfellows, but the best video games tell a story, and theatre tends to do the same. Here are two examples of games working from a charitable perspective and in service of the theatrical art form.
Gaming Means Giving
Challenge: To raise awareness of arts and education not-for-profits in Chicago.
Plan: Create a video game in which players donate points to organizations.
What Worked: Enlisting donor partners.
What Didn’t: Overcomplicated game play.
What’s Next: More mobile apps for the coming years.
Chicago’s Vertical Incorporated, a strategic marketing and visual communication group, was founded in 2002. From early on, the company decided to make annual contributions to arts and education organizations. Today Vertical gives to five different groups—two theatre organizations, 16th Street Theater and Chicago Dramatists, along with Girls Rock! Chicago, the Arts of Life and Snow City Arts.
“After a few years we decided to further call attention to the organizations we give to by making an online game,” says Vertical president Mike Keating. Go Go Santa was born in 2007. The premise is straightforward. Vertical donates a lump sum to the five organizations, and players of Go Go Santa “donate” the points they win to an organization of their choosing among the five. The points translate to a percentage of the pool of money. If a particular organization drums up enough of its constituency to play and donate points, a larger percentage of Vertical’s donation goes to that group.
Today Go Go Santa is so simple even an editor can play, but this wasn’t always the case. A few years ago, Keating admits, “We were trying to do too much with the game. We wanted to promote healthy diets, and so if Santa ate too many goodies it would weigh down his sleigh and he’d drag to the bottom. It was a little confusing.” Game play has since been streamlined. Players, in the form of a Santa icon, fly on a jet sleigh through such Chicago neighborhoods as Bucktown, Chinatown, Bridgeport, Streeterville and Wrigleyville. As they fly, they collect points and other treats (in Chinatown, icons of take-out boxes float in the air, whereas in Bucktown cupcakes drift and dance for the plucking), while avoiding impediments such as lightning, small airplanes and flocks of birds. The game is set to a jovial electro-Christmas tune.
Typically, a new edition of Go Go Santa gets released late in December, but this year Vertical challenged itself to plan in advance. “We gathered back in July and decided to spend time up front and create a multi-level game and promote it,” says Keating. That meant creating mobile applications and launching much earlier, in this year’s case, Dec. 4. “Last year we had around 400 players, but this year we have 4,000 players on iPads alone,” Keating enthuses. When we spoke pre-Christmas, Keating told me the number of people downloading the Apple app was increasing at a rate of between 300 and 600 a day. “We may generate 8,000 to 12,000 users by Jan. 1,” he estimated.
This year Vertical donated $5,000 to the five organizations, and enlisted donations of $500 from DiGiovine Hnilo Jordan + Johnson Ltd., Vertical’s accounting firm, and the Double Door and Metro/Smart Bar, live music venues, upping the total to $6,000. But the cost of creating Go Go Santa is not negligible. Illustration and design happen in-house, while the company outsources some of the back-end coding. “Our developers gave us tremendous discounts on their fees,” attests Keating, who chalks that up to the knowledge that their work goes toward a good cause. This year Vertical’s cash costs for the development of the game was $33,928, which didn’t include staff time or marketing (which runs around $6,000). Keating estimates that “if the game were developed for a for-profit concern, the creation, development and programming costs would equal approximately $150,000.”
While that may be prohibitive for many companies, part of why Go Go Santa has worked for Vertical is that it aligns with the company’s arts-and-education mission. Moreover, a number of staff at Vertical serve on boards of the various organizations. The game’s success is evidence that a for-profit company with a passionate staff can raise awareness for not-for-profits—and turn a technical challenge into a holiday miracle.
Whetting Appetites Cyber-Style
Challenge: Incorporating digital media into the act of theatrical storytelling.
Plan: Create a video game based on a play.
What Worked: Savvy matchmaking between artists and co-producing organizations.
What Didn’t: The lack of a mobile version.
What’s Next: Blurring game/script realities.
In 2008, members of the Black Women’s Playwright Group (BWPG) gathered at a national conference to discuss how to improve their professional lives. At the top of the list was digital media—understanding how to use it and how to incorporate it into art-making. Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and a supporter of the D.C.-based BWPG, attended that meeting, and he, along with a number of other theatre leaders who develop new plays, decided to partner with BWPG in an initiative called the Cyber Narrative Project.
Some five years later, the project—having launched in February 2012—draws support from such institutions as the Joyce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Dreyfus Foundation, and Bloomberg BNA, with engineering support from Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center, George Mason University, Nick Change and FUNRGaming.
Five playwrights were selected to be part of the guinea-pig round, with 10 theatres committed to creating productions with a cyber component. “The idea was to find a natural selection for part of a theatre’s season,” says Karen Evans, president and founder of BWPG. “I remember sitting in on those initial meetings and coming up with a list of writers whose work would lend itself to a cyber narrative,” recalls Miriam Weisfeld, Woolly Mammoth’s director of artistic development. “Kristoffer Diaz loves video games,” says Weisfeld. And it just so happened that Woolly Mammoth and Dallas Theater Center had signed on to produce Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the 2012–13 season.
Powerbomb!, inspired by Chad Deity, was the only video game to come out of the first round of the Cyber Narrative Project, and was developed by students at Carnegie Mellon with input from Diaz. “Kris was extraordinary in trusting the students with his play,” says Weisfeld. Players who beat the online boxing game in advance of the show were entitled to discounted tickets at Woolly Mammoth and Dallas Theater Center, and those who beat it during intermission (computers were set up in Woolly’s lobby) were eligible for flex passes.
Weisfeld estimates a total of 800–1,000 people played Powerbomb! during the Woolly Mammoth iteration of the game, and she believes that number might have been higher had the team been able to implement a mobile platform. “If we do a 2.0 version, it would be great to work with a local university,” says Weisfeld, who notes that Powerbomb! was a great chance for Woolly to familiarize itself with the D.C. tech industry.
“What I loved most about this project,” says Evans, “was how everyone got to do what they do well. The computer tech kids wrote great video game software, Woolly Mammoth got to produce an excellent show, Kris wrote wonderful video content, and BWPG kept the balls in the air and meshed it all together.”
Evans, for her part, looks forward to versions 2.0 and beyond. “The first time, I wanted to pick a play that was totally on its legs so that the playwright wouldn’t have to worry about writing online content and rewriting. But now that we’ve done this once, I’m open to seeing how the video game process can inform and merge with the play itself.”