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Author Topic: [Sudden Light] Boal's "Theatre of the Oppressed" and Gaming  (Read 2171 times)
Paul S

Posts: 25

« on: July 04, 2006, 11:02:52 AM »

Recently, prompted by my improv. class, I've been digging into improv. theory in all its surprising permutations.  I've found it quite shocking that many game designers do not rely more on improv. theory when shaping RPG mechanics.  I've found it to be a rich source of inspiration.

Specifically, I've been reading Jeff Writh's Interactive Acting.  I've been most engaged by his overview of the various types of "Interactive Styles" in the first chapter and how these approaches might me harnessed towards game design.  Environmental Theatre seems to be nearly identical to a free-form LARP, while Playback Theatre seems to be improv. biography in action. 

I'm most inspired by Augusto Boal's "Theatre of the Oppressed."  In this type of Interactive Style, performers act out various situations of oppression and ideological power on stage.  After an oppressive situation has been performed once, the performers set the stage to repeat what the audience has just witnessed and the audience is invited to stop the action at any time, come up on stage, and try to enact a different ending to the problem.  This pattern is repeated multiple times, with audience members intervening at different points with various strategies to undo the oppression.  Wirth, when experiencing the Theatre of the Oppressed writes that "by the end of the evening we have reached no ultimate solutions, but we have gained insight and we have plenty of new courses of action to consider.  We adjourn to a nearby coffee shop and heated and passionate discussion continue for several hours after the show" (Wirth 19).

It seems to me that my game-in-progress, Sudden Light, has close parallels with the Theatre of the Oppressed.  I'm most interested in the themes of powerful ideological forces blinding the masses to Truth and following one person's journey towards seeing beyond his or her oppression.  However, I'd like to upend Boal's method; the Theatre of the Oppressed works inductively, demonstrating oppression through a specific situation and allows the audience to work towards seeing larger oppressive ideological forces implicitly.  What would happen if game mechanics hinged on making explicit oppressive ideological forces and following the impact of these forces throughout one individual's life?  Here's my first attempt:

The Truth

The most fundamental question which must be answered by all players is; "what is the Truth of our setting?" Determining the Truth is the basic social and imaginative contract for play, as all themes and system mechanics hinge upon the agreed upon Truth.  The Truth is what the Protagonist will encounter and her reaction to the Truth will ultimately determine her ultimate fate.

The Sublime Guide will represent all aspects of the Truth in the game world and will attempt to awaken the Protagonist to realize and be transformed the Truth.

All Truths should be able to be summed up in a single sentence or two; Truths should not be lengthy philosophical treatises, but rather simple parameters for the game session(s).

Example Truths might include (and there are far too many to include here); "Aliens are real," "God does not exist," "magic is real and is fading from the world," "reality, as we know it, is a dream of a dying ancient god," "utopia can be achieved on earth," "revolution is necessary to ensure freedom," etc.

Some groups many wish to avoid vast cosmological/philosophic questions and concentrate more on stores more grounded in pragmatic, material realities.  In Sudden Light, these sorts of stories are certainly encouraged and groups should scale back the Truth to whatever parameters they are comfortable.  Example Truths for these settings could include, "We should live at peace with one another," "Addiction destroys lives," "Racism is an evil practice," etc.

It should also be stated that it is not necessary that all players personally believe the Truth established for game play.  Challenging and engaging stories could likely emerge from establishing game Truths which stand at radical odds with actual player beliefs.

The group should reach consensus on the Truth before moving onto the next step.  If not everyone is enthused by proposed Truth, the group should place that Truth to one side and collaborate to generate a new Truth which excites and engages all involved.

The Lie

The Lie is what stands in fundamental contradiction to the Truth.  If the group has defined the Truth in a broad cosmological sense,  it is assumed that few believe or know the Truth, while the many are enslaved by corruptive tendrils of the Lie.  To determine the Lie, players should simply ask themselves, "why hasn't the Truth been acknowledged and accepted by the majority of people through time?  Why is the Truth specifically not accepted by the  Protagonist in their current situation?"  Put differently, the Lie is the sum totality of ideological forces dedicated to suppressing the apprehension of the truth by the Protagonist. 

All narrative control and creative parameters for the Mundane GM are derived from the content of the Lie.  Example Lies could include; "Aliens are figments of the human imagination," "God is real and we must fight for His cause," and "Reality is no more than the objective conditions discovered by science."

If the group has chosen to define the Truth in a very small, personal scope, the breadth of the Lie should be scaled back as well, oftentimes in close relation with the Protagonist's specific life issues.  These sorts of Lies would be the collection of personality traits, situations, histories, and rationalizations that keep the Protagonist blinded and enslaved to forces that are often against their best interests.  If the Truth is that "Addiction destroys lives," the personal Lie for a Protagonist might be "I've got my drinking under control," or "drinking is a natural and harmless part of life," or "I'm not an alcoholic."

The Machine

The Machine is the sum total of the functioning apparatuses which keep the Protagonist believing the Lie.  If the Lie is a false Truth, the Machine consists of those individuals, ideas, institutions, cultural norms, and other conditions of the story and setting that ensures that the Lie is believed and the Truth is suppressed, rejected, and/or relegated to the realms of fantasy.

Elements of the Machine should be easy to derive from the content of the Lie.  Institutions are often some of the best fodder to represent functionaries of the Machine.  For example, if the Truth is that "Aliens are real," and the Lie is that "Aliens are nonsense and are easily dismissed by scientific research," a common institution that might represent and aspect of the Machine might be government agencies such as the CIA or the FBI and associated conspiracies theories regarding their activities.  Organized religious groups are perfect functionaries of machine if the Truth has been suppressed of "unorthodox" or "subversive."  Players wishing to explore Marxist themes might identify corporations and CEO's as embodiments of the Machine supporting the Lie of capitalism.

A game concentrating on the personal scope should also scale back the breadth of the scope of the Machine considerably.  Institutions most certainly play a role in the functioning of the Machine, such as organized religion encouraging an abused woman to stay with her abusive husband.  Destructive personal habits, webs of demeaning relationships, traumatic cultural memories, etc., can also me examples of the wheels of the Machine in motion, grinding otherwise well-adjusted humans to conformity and self-destruction.
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