A talk from Beta Public Presents (2016).
Most people, when they think ‘cooperative’, think of the genre or the mode – co-op as opposed to competitive. Time Crisis. Gauntlet. Charades. If cooperation is ‘the act or process of working together to the same end’, then the end in these cases is beating the game, or an opposing team, together.
But the goal, in fact, need not be overcoming an obstacle – Minecraft and improv are great examples of when the joy of cooperating to create things is the main draw. Although one also might define the lack of gigantic My Little Ponies in the sky as an obstacle to overcome.
But what if the ‘end’ towards which we are cooperating, as players, artists and audiences, isn’t either of those things?
Let’s start with party games, or local multiplayer – games for which there are interior mechanics of success, but also this exterior mechanic: each player’s physical presence. It’s a success that everyone is in the room together! And importantly, a live experience! Just like now!
And with live experiences come the negotiation of bodies. Games of Smash Bros. and Mario Party function best if we cooperate with the unspoken rules of non-interference. No pushing, no stealing controllers. No screenlook in Goldeneye. No Kirby. Roughhousing games like JS Joust and Jelly Stomp aren’t cooperative games, but they require cooperation to ensure the physical safety of players.
Scottee’s Party Piece reflects these mechanics: he solicits a short performance or feat from each audience member, and gently choreographs an abstract, cooperative, improvised cabaret from this material. Mamoru Iriguchi’s Karaoke work functions similarly, and I struggle to think of a better example than Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere, in which audience members fulfil specific roles in a functioning town, with a day/night cycle, elections, a post office…basically it’s Animal Crossing, but in a theatre.
I think it’s no wonder that team-based gameshow formats from the 90s – like Knightmare or The Crystal Maze – are making a comeback in the form of ‘interactive theatre events.’ When cooperation is at the heart of games and performance, it brings us together, and forces us to confront each other’s physical liveness.
If this all sounds like people ‘having a nice time together,’ you’re right. This is why I think ‘cooperation’ is so rarely thought about with regards to theatre. If every character cooperated, there’d be no Hamlet, no Three Sisters, certainly no Glengarry Glen Ross. Plays would be either be rudderless or fascistic – everyone would get along!
But it only sounds like the enemy of drama. Because, as anyone who plays games will know, people can be shit. Their desire to be cooperative rubs up against their ability to effectively do so – no matter how much they want to help, they are able to fail – and failure creates drama. A character is always playing a game, but their skill determines their successes – and the combination of players and their skill levels makes the difference between a tragedy and a comedy.
And to perform this game well – to act effectively and affectively – requires loads of cooperation. Real acting is a complex negotiation – two or more people playing a high stakes game, each competing to convince the other of something, both cooperating to convince the audience of something larger. And none of it works unless they agree to cooperate with the rules of the production, and compete at their best level. Acting = esports?
Contemporary performance shakes even this assumption. The work of Forced Entertainment and GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, which incorporates misunderstandings from long rehearsal days, raises the destabilising question of whether the performers are working for or against each other. I’d argue there’s a strong line of connection between this kind of work, in which comedy and drama can be found in the misheard or mistaken, and co-op games with highly emergent behaviours – like Magicka, or heist game Monaco. The objective is cooperatively achieved, but the margin for player error (or betrayal) is dramatic, and hilarious.
In a much larger sense, we encounter cooperation every time we see a show or play a game, because we make assumptions about how these things should engage with us, and how we should behave. We are told where to sit, the action takes place in front of us, we will receive something readable. We will give as much attention as we can, we will applaud at the end, there will be an end. Nothing is out to hurt us.
Things become really interesting when this contract is brought into question, or broken. Sometimes this is about ethics: in Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged the audience are asked to cooperate in a series of acts which debase a performer through cunningly referenced cultural and racial stereotypes. In Louise Orwin’s A Girl And A Gun, an unrehearsed male guest performer must decide whether or not to participate in certain acts that might be read as misogynistic. In these cases the desire to achieve the performance’s ‘goal’ rubs against the performer or audience’s desire to perform their personal ethics – the piece does not cooperate easily.
I think video games are still beginning to negotiate this sticky territory – a player’s moral agency is a difficult thing to confront – but they are more successful in altering their mechanical contracts. A classic subversion of player control can be found in the Psycho Mantis sequence in Metal Gear Solid, during which the first controller is ‘taken over’ by the psychic enemy; Undertale subverts the mechanics of turn-based combat, providing alternatives to ‘Fight’, like ‘Cheer’, ‘Flirt,’ and even ‘Pet’. In theatre, Tim Crouch’s The Author suggested that its audience could interrupt the play with questions, could object – the play rolled on regardless, leaving many feeling disoriented, disturbed, betrayed, and thrilled.
And it is during these subversions – when we question who is playing along, who is performing, and what we’re doing when we’re involved in either – that we can reach real moments of liveness.
I have a distinct memory of when my understanding of ‘cooperation’ shifted. Years ago, I played this online Flash game, that involved moving a single black pixel around a small screen. You could move left and right, and jump a very small distance in the air. In the top right corner, unreachable, was the goal. The game was played by clicking to ‘suicide’ your pixel – it would die and fall to the ground, and that would be your turn on the game done. No retries, only one life, ever. But the game recorded where you left your pixel. And you could watch other people play the game, using the dead pixels of you and previous players as stepping stones to reach the goal.
I remember watching this game proceed, with players dutifully throwing their bodies into the shape of a black ramp, rising up the right side of the screen. All was going well, everybody playing together, until somebody started a wall, right in the middle. Some pixels jumped over, but some jumped on top and increased the height of the wall, so none could pass, until another faction of players were building a new ramp to climb over that wall, then a new wall was built, and so on and so forth. All it took was one pixel out of place, whether it was a mistake or a question or an act of malice or dissent, and suddenly there was drama.
So thanks for your cooperation. I’m really glad nobody just stood up and started talking at the same time as me, but that would’ve been cool too.