Ready Player One!

Let's Play Play
Written by Ben Ferber
Directed by Todd Brian Backus
PowerOut, The Brick Theater, Brooklyn, NY
July 7-18, 2015

According to at least one survey, YouTube stars have greater name recognition than Hollywood A-listers with the under-18 set, who see them as more genuine and relatable: a more literal version of "Stars -- They’re Just Like Us!" Part of the seventh annual Game Play Festival at the Brick, which runs through July 25, Ben Ferber’s Let’s Play Play dives incisively into the corner of this web-based world that focuses on video gaming. It derives its title from a category of what are most commonly online videos in which players layer their own commentary over their video game play. The most well-known current example is 25-year-old Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, who is name-checked in the play's program and guest starred on the two-part 2014 season finale of South Park; otherwise known as PewDiePie, his YouTube channel boasts tens of millions of subscribers and billions of views.

When we first meet the idiosyncratic Flood (Paul Karle), he is contemptuous of such "Let's Play" videos, disdaining popularity and conceiving of his own videos -- the example that the audience sees is a takedown framed as hard-boiled film noir -- as art and speaking critical truth to power. However, his friend and fellow YouTuber Dresher (Jonathan Iglesias), who produces more mainstream material, convinces Flood to join him in creating a new channel in the hopes that, together, they can do this for a living. As the pair find success, it inevitably increases tensions in their relationship and places difficult decisions about integrity in their path. And when they addto the team as editor the female gamer Bayes (Brittany K. Allen), who makes video-game-themed rap videos and has an affinity for old-school games and gaming trivia, the complications only multiply.

Let’s Play Play is steeped in the culture that it examines, as is evident in details such as the actors using the correct controllers for different games, and references to gaming-culture touchstones such as the "Luigi death stare" meme; the user commentary threads, cleverly delivered by anonymous hooded figures lit only by the dull glow of their screens, will be instantly familiar to anyone who has misguidedly decided to wade into most websites' comments sections. These small flourishes give additional force to the big-picture questions and critiques that Let's Play Play puts forth. The effects of the tension between art and corporate capitalism on the trio of protagonists mirror those of the video game industry itself. While Flood slams companies such as EA for releasing games such as the Dead Space sequels that are essentially the same game with minor cosmetic differences, a company’s need to find the path of least resistance to a return on projects that cost millions of dollars to develop isn’t fundamentally different from his and Dresher's need to attract enough subscribers to pay the rent. If games have increasingly become cash-grab clones that contractually limit criticism by reviewers, then Flood and Drescher's programming -- originally pitched as friends having fun talking about and playing games, without any filters -- becomes similarly less authentic, less fun, and less artistically motivated over time.

Subcultures are always eventually mainstreamed and transformed in pursuit of profit, whether it is the music of the Pogues shilling cars, a Sex Pistols credit card, the comic book superhero movie boom, or the growth of video gaming from a niche interest into an industry that rivals film in revenue. Beyond engaging with this inevitability, however, Ferber's play engages with a related side-effect of 'gamers' perceiving threats to an identity that posits them as part of outsider subculture that is paradoxically a multibillion-dollar industry: the insistence by some segments of gaming culture on seeing themselves as a besieged minority sustains a virulent sexism. Literally as soon as Bayes speaks in connection with Flood and Dresher's channel, she is subjected to a torrent of misogynistic abuse by commenters. Her experience shows how easily this kind of attack escalates into stalking, doxxing, and rape and death threats. Dresher tells her that she should, like him, just not read the comments, but it is his male privilege that allows him that option in the first place -- homophobic name-calling, the worst that he receives, is not the same as having one's home address shared publicly.

The cast inhabits Ferber's characters and their flaws with an easy naturalism. Karle and Iglesias demonstrate an engaging rapport as they develop their product, while Allen pulls off the rapid-fire raps with impressive skill and convincingly enacts the fear of too many female gamers. The trio are equally strong as the anonymous commenters, capturing the vitriol of anonymity while creating scores of individual voices. The sparse set -- two beanbag chairs for gaming and a desk for editing, backed by a screen on which gameplay clips from the games under discussion are projected, and the use of lighting and props (controllers, a microphone, various electronic device)s -- results in a production that skillfully weaves together in-person, online, and text interaction.

It says something about our internet culture that even PewDiePie eventually disabled comments on his channel (later to reinstate them under an approval mechanism). Let’s Play Play stages a layered snapshot of this culture in action. It doesn’t condemn gaming but rather lays out both the uplifting and toxic aspects of the pastime and its community, both the joy and connectedness it can create and its deep-rooted conflicts. Both gamers and non-gamers alike will find plenty to enjoy if they say yes to this offer to play. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler

Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.

When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.