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Welcome to Leveling Up

by Hallie Gordon

Dear Friends, Over the past couple of months, I have tried very hard to get interested in video games. This has been my quest, if you will, in preparation for this show, as I am not by nature a gamer. I have played Bioshock with my son, I have felt the stress of killing and being killed by a zombie. The staff at Steppenwolf even put together a video game party for me with three televisions playing Grand Theft Auto, the other Mortal Kombat and, on the lighter side, Guitar Hero. I have played Call of Duty, Mario Cart, Candy Crush (which is now ruining my life),Mine Craft and a number of others. The most extreme foray on this quest has been buying an Xbox console for my kids (and, let’s face it, my husband), all in a sustained effort to better understand and connect to the world of games.
I’m still trying… but I mostly find myself ill-equipped to handle the multi-tasking of the controls and the narrative of these games, many of which I find a little dizzying in their complexity. But I watch a little in awe as my 12-year-old maneuvers gracefully and intuitively through the virtual dark worlds of aliens, zombies and superheroes. As I do the dishes, I’ll hear him in the next room, talking on his headset to his school friends as they play Mine Craft. They collaborate across space—building ever-more elaborate worlds and fighting off Creepers. He plays well with his friends, in a sprawling, pixilated world of their own manufacture. In fact, at the Steppenwolf gaming party, I saw a lot of people play well together, my staff included. There is something about playing video games that brings people together in a way I confess I had not expected. I have definitely learned that gaming is not so isolating as I had taken it to be.
On the surface, Leveling Up might seem to be about gaming, but for me it’s actually an intimate and very human play about growing up, forging your identity and understanding that your actions can often have very real consequences—the backdrop for which is video games and the culture of gaming. This play is not about “video games are good vs. video games are bad.” Taken to extremes, everything can be bad for you. But the play does examine how a group of kids use video games as a crutch to such an extent that real interaction becomes difficult and even painful without a controller in hand.
The other side to this story is a look into our present and future relationship to warfare. The generation sitting in these seats watching this play will have a very different sense of war and its implications than we do right now. The play asks “What are the emotional consequences of creating real chaos and death while seated comfortably in an air-conditioned room hundreds or thousands of miles away, while listening to orders over a headset? What happens when we remove all sense of personal danger from the conduct of war, but are still able to kill ‘enemies’ by the score? Do the choices that war demands become easier when we’re able to rain down fire and death by toggling a joystick?” Though the play cannot fully answer these questions, it does offer a peek into this emergent and evolving series of questions about how we fight wars. Leveling Up represents a new slice on the question that Steppenwolf for Young Adults is asking this year:

"When the game turns deadly, how will play?”