Creating & Performing Digitally: Avatar Adventure

Avatar Adventure

Images from Avatar Adventure

Solo Performance Project at Arizona State Univeristy, May 2020

Performance Concept

What does theatre look like when a cell phone becomes the site of performance and the script develops from two-way audience-performer communication? Avatar Adventure is a proof-of-concept performance that attempts to answer this question through asynchronous participatory digital theatre.

The premise drew inspiration from early pandemic lockdowns and capitalized on an audience’s desire to be free of their own homes. Players (as I viewed the audience participants) viewed an introductory video that provided the basic story structure: Kristina (the avatar character) has been falsely imprisoned in this place and needs the audience’s help to escape and get to her friend Margot who will get her to safety. Simultaneously the warden has issued orders to the staff to find inmate 031986 (Kristina) and return her to her quarters. Players then have the choice of which side of the story to play – help Kristina to freedom or return her to captivity. The players use the app Marco Polo to communicate with Kristina by giving her directions on how to get to the destination they choose for her and can play for up to three days before Kristina will remain “stuck” wherever they last left her.

This piece explores aspects of audience agency, care and empathy, and dis/orientation while appealing to greater accessibility for interactive performance that is fully responsive to audience suggestion. Avatar Adventure invites an audience into collaboration with the performer to shape their own experience and narrative.

Watch excerpts from one participant’s Avatar Adventure experience.

Reflection on the Experience

Performances of Avatar Adventure catered to each audience member’s suggestion which contributed to increased dramatic tension. Born from a class project, this enabled me to collect both qualitative and quantitative data about the experience that provided clear evidence of each audience member’s excitement around engagement. From my perspective, this performance relied on my improvisational and storytelling skills to actively engage the audience and meet their suggestions with an earnest attempt to carry out their directions. Establishing this “in-good-faith” understanding, the audience-participants, or players, may contribute to building empathy. In a post-performance survey, 80% of players reported feeling a sense of responsibility and concern throughout the game while 60% reported empathizing with the avatar. These numbers prompt me to wonder how this performance form might be further explored and shaped to steer into an experience of communal empathy or open up possibilities for sharing in someone’s lived experience through the privacy and convenience of the viewer’s own home.

What excites me most about the results of Avatar Adventure is the potential for continued audience or community engagement outside of the bounds of a live-theatrical performance. Especially in relation to a theatre for social change piece, I believe that a play by itself cannot provoke an audience into enacting societal change. However, a theatre company, community, or organization might utilize a play or a theatrical experience to highlight, expose, present, or communicate about a social issue, experience, or perspective. Working along these lines, an immersive, virtual performance form could allow the audience to explore the possibilities that proposed social change might present, or experience the world through another’s perspective, or test out a line of action and safely experience the consequences that might occur.

One key element to this format is designing in a level of player control and autonomy that generates a sense that the play experience is fully responsive while keeping the performer safe. Overall Avatar Adventure participants reported a sense of extreme or strong responsivity, but two participants noticed potential threat levels that they had to navigate around:

“I was nervous I might ask Kristina to do something that might go too far or cause her new problems in the storyline (such as an entanglement with the police) because she was so responsive to my ideas.”

– Player A

“I felt it was [responsive] but I didn’t feel like I could really help as much as I wanted to because I wasn’t sure I knew all the rules! Did land mines mean we were both gone forever?”

– Player B

(Avatar Adventure Experience Feedback 2020).

I find the investment of care and concern for me as a real person carrying out these actions to be crucial to the resulting care and compassion that participants felt during play. This might also create opportunities for building communal empathy by allowing audience members who are outside of a particular group experience to sympathetically embody the perspective and lived experience as someone from within that community.