Most of the presentations at last week's CHAT Festival in Chapel Hill featured blue-sky scenarios of emergent digital gaming technologies enhancing the collaborations in humanities and the arts. So it's interesting that two opening regional stage performances centering on digital technologies—one affiliated with the festival, the other an independent production—presented visions of the future that were significantly more dystopian than the rest of CHAT. What's even more ironic: The most knowledgeable—and direct—critique of those specific technologies was contained in the production that had no connection to the festival.
The influence of computer-mediated social interaction continues to grow in our society. When an entire generation becomes too dependent upon such digital identities and interactions, Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, the independent production at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater, asks what will happen when those relationships achieve primacy, and computer games take on more reality and meaning than ties with family and friends?
It's telling that in playwright Jennifer Haley's dark, satirical drama, our narrator is known only as The Walkthrough. He's something of a Rod Serling stand-in, particularly as portrayed here by Byron Jennings II, and he advises teenagers Chelsea and Blake (Mary Guthrie and Lucius Robinson) as they move through a world where digital simulation can no longer be distinguished from a nonvirtual reality.
Why is that so difficult? Among other things, the computer game they're playing starts using GPS technology to map their game world into a duplicate of the suburb where they live. And after the software accesses various municipal databases, the "zombies" the kids are supposed to kill start resembling people in the neighborhood.
In short, Neighborhood 3 indicts the very core technologies that were being celebrated last week in Chapel Hill—so-called serious gaming applications programmed to be increasingly interactive with the real world. In doing so, it offered, under Jeff Storer's direction, a suggestion of what the Rwandan genocide might have looked like if the Hutu militias had gotten access to such technologies—along with a pointed reminder that the authors of future atrocities will likely have them at their fingertips.
Perhaps inevitably, director Joseph Megel's Virtual Performance Factory, an episodic compilation of 14 short scripts by six noted playwrights, which was produced for the CHAT Festival, seems less cohesive in comparison. Playwright Keith Glover's Perpetrator tries to ask what ethics apply to the behavior of players in first-person shooter video games, but it gets bogged down in the hard-boiled clichés of law enforcement TV shows. When it splits between video segments and live performance, Jeanmarie Higgins' Slide Show lets Thaddaeus Edwards' and Sean Casserly's characters consider the audience as the real art exhibit on display, in a surprisingly touching, tender and funny script about the beginnings of love. But Christine Evans' interconnected quartet of scripts uses a series of child's paper cutouts to demonstrate just how dangerously malleable the technologies under consideration can be. In her military-industrial version of the future, even the homeless have virtual neighborhoods. Here's hoping you're never relocated to one.
Neighborhood 3 and Virtual Performance Factory both make the point that the effects of digital technologies will be limited only by the imagination—and the ethics—of their users. Both shows provided a needed counterbalance to the more excessive gee-whizzery being chatted up locally last week. In all, it's enough to qualify them as cautionary tech manuals for a few potential daemonis ex machinas coming up. No, it's not the safest world to be in. Welcome home.