All the world’s a stage: Shakespeare meets video games

KATE SNOWDON / AGGIE
KATE SNOWDON / AGGIE

UC Davis faculty, students create motion-capture game.

Friends, Aggies, Countrymen, lend me your ears. For many, the very thought of performing Shakespeare conjures up memories of stammering through a soliloquy in high school while a room of bored classmates look on. But the UC Davis Modlab, “an experimental laboratory for media research and digital humanities”, has developed a video game designed to take the fear out of performing Shakespeare.

In the game, titled “Play the Knave”, players pick a scene to perform, choose from a variety of stage and actor avatars and act out scenes while a Kinect motion sensor camera picks up their movements and mirrors it on screen. The result is “Shakespeare karaoke,” which allows players to engage with the plays of Shakespeare in an accessible way.

“The idea of using performance to teach Shakespeare is an old idea,” said Gina Bloom, a UC Davis English professor and the video game project director. “A lot of teachers will assign their students a scene out of a play, and the idea is that, by speaking the lines and thinking about how to position your body, you demonstrate an understanding of the play. So this [game] is just using the affordances of digital technology to make that assignment easier.”

Sawyer Kemp, a fifth-year graduate student in English and the installation coordinator of the project, has travelled with the game to various Shakespeare festivals and witnessed firsthand the educational aspect of “Play the Knave.”

“For every time you ask someone to play, five will say no, but every time someone boots it up, 30 people will come watch,” Kemp said. “It’s really validating to see these people who say they’re not an actor and they don’t play video games to tell their friend, ‘Oh, move your arm that way!’ By watching other people do it, they realize they actually do have some kind of knowledge. It shows that they’re engaging and understanding [the] performance.”

Alison Tam, a third-year English major who interned on the project, was present at the game’s installation at the local Davis Arts Center, located on 1919 F street, over the summer and enjoyed watching how the game engages people of all ages.

“It was cool seeing how kids react to Shakespeare,” Tam said. “You usually think of Shakespeare as something elevated and academic. With a game, it’s so democratized that anyone can read or play it, so it gives people a greater sense of ownership over Shakespeare.”

For Nick Toothman, one of the lead programmers of the game and a sixth-year graduate student in computer science, the most rewarding part of the project was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, when he saw the public have fun with something he helped create.

“It sunk in that I’ve done something that people can have fun with,” Toothman said. “That’s the most amazing feeling.”

However, the course of videogame production never did run (completely) smooth. The team has encountered some growing pains during the game’s development, mostly due to a gap between what they would like to add to the game, and what is realistically achievable.

“A lot of the challenges were figuring out what we could offer people in the experience and what we would love to offer,” Toothman said. “We would love to give facial or detailed hand animation a try but the technology is just not accessible right now.”

Bloom said that she sees the game growing in three directions: continuing with the short-term installations that have been set up at various universities and festivals, bringing the game to teachers and then eventually releasing an at-home version.

“There’s some tension between what our budget is and what we would like,” Kemp said. “Eventually we want there to be more customization, like allowing people to change out the costumes or sets.”

But despite the restraints, the team has found that glitches can often be incorporated in performances and utilized to an actor’s benefit. When asked what their favorite scene to perform was, Bloom, Kemp and Toothman all had the same answer: the ghost scene from Hamlet, because of funny glitches that allow players to exercise their creativity.

“At the Utah Shakespeare Festival, these two kids were playing the scene and realized that when you cross the avatars, one of them will disappear,” Kemp said. “One kid took advantage of [the glitch] and he’d creep around and pop up randomly. When you watch the video playback, it would look like the ghost was disappearing and reappearing. I thought it was genius that he was using the system to make the game even better.”

And so, all the world really does become a stage, as “Play the Knave” allows people who do not consider themselves performers a chance to indulge their inner actor, and to engage with Shakespeare’s plays in an innovative and interactive way.

For more information, visit the Play the Knave’s website, http://playtheknave.org.
WRITTEN BY: Amanda Ong – arts@theaggie.org