On a balmy recent Saturday evening, a roomful of celebrants in fancy dress gathered at an opulent family home in east Orlando. They were there to salute Martin Chase, a web-portal designer whose work had earned him the "Man of the Year" award from an organization named Wirthy Causes International. Well-wishers milled about, talking up the pressing issues from feminism to the Alaskan housing crisis they hoped Chase could help them publicize on the Internet.
But a close look behind the party's chummy facade revealed that something was amiss. Strolling servers dropped and broke expensive-looking glasses with disconcerting regularity. Others admitted to having no idea what was in the hors d'oeuvres they had been retained to distribute. And when Chase finally appeared on a staircase to accept his award, all hell broke loose. A man identified as Taylor Parker hurled an angry challenge from the crowd, prompting a young woman called Max to stagger down the stairs and thank Parker for rescuing her from her kidnapper, Chase. The men scuffled. A Faberge-type egg was broken. And in a development worthy of Scooby-Doo, Chase was finally arrested and charged with everything from Max's kidnapping to murder to attempting to fix the 2008 presidential election.
Fortunately for the cause of digital philanthropy, none of it was actually happening. The partiers were instead witnessing the final scene of "The Game," a four-day experiment in interactive play that had been engineered entirely for the benefit of one Kurt Bauerle, an Orlando lawyer and self-styled seeker of adventure. From Wednesday to Saturday, Bauerle had seen his leisure-hour activities guided by a 25-member troupe of actors (or "interactors," to use their preferred vernacular) who had endowed him with the identity of "Taylor Parker" and led him through a twisty narrative they had devised about a high-school reunion turned sinister. It was a complicated, thematically dense story, involving a clandestine meeting at the downtown Amtrak station, a rendezvous with some "seedy gentlemen" at The Parliament House and much haggling over the ownership of a mysterious briefcase. And through it all, Bauerle/Parker the only player not in on the narrative's basic structure had to make behavioral choices that would determine the course of the adventure. However he elected to respond to any given situation, the interactors had to go with it though some choices would clearly make their job easier than others.
"It was an incredible experience, creatively [and] intellectually," Bauerle said a few days after The Game had ended. "I've never been an actor or done anything related to performance like that. Obviously, everyone else was playing a role and I was reacting to what they were doing. But I felt ownership of the narrative, and that was an exhilarating experience."
For that, Bauerle can thank Jeff Wirth, a University of Central Florida instructor who is developing The Game as an extracurricular litmus test of the human animal's capacity for on-the-spot adaptation. Well-known in the field of interactive performance he's been a performer, impresario and consultant for some 27 years, and authored what he says was the first book on the subject Wirth says he's ever on the lookout for "new ways in which to explore and develop interactive performance for new applications." Within that search, he says, "A format that places people out in real-life settings and [inside a] fictional narrative feels like a potentially rich and impactful form."
He describes this new project as influenced albeit not inspired by the 1997 movie The Game, in which Michael Douglas had to run a gauntlet of fictional-but-harrowing experiences in a real-world setting. The difference, Wirth says, is that Douglas' character was victimized by the process, whereas this Game's protagonist who Wirth has generically christened the "spect" is empowered by it.
To so empower Bauerle, Wirth secured the services of not only his 25 interactors including former students and performers with good reputations around town but an additional 20 behind-the-scenes workers who captured the action on digital video and audio, as well as supplying technological props that could drive the story along. All participants were volunteers. So was Bauerle, whose casting as The Game's first-ever guinea pig was crucial. Wirth relied on a recommendation from Florida Film Festival co-founder Sigrid Tiedtke, an old friend who had worked with Wirth a few years ago on another experimental interactive-storytelling project, this one called Joe's Garage. (Haxan Films co-founder Mike Monello was also involved.) Tiedtke knew Bauerle as a patron and supporter of her film festival (interestingly, he's also an organizer of the unrelated Orlando Film Festival, set to debut in fall 2006), and she saw in him someone who fit the definition of what Wirth was looking for: not a performer, but interested in the arts and with a worldview that life should be an adventure.
Bauerle's subsequent indoctrination into The Game sounds adventuresome indeed. He remembers being summoned by a "cryptic" e-mail to 203 Rosalind Ave., only to discover that there is no such address. What he found there was two white chairs and a table with a sign on top reading "203."
"About two minutes later, a big RV drives up," Bauerle recalls. "Jeff is sitting in the back room, and comes out in a suit and sits me down and gives me (again) very cryptic instructions as to what I'm about to get into."
One imagines that Wirth could do cryptic fairly well. Bald, bespectacled and with a near-inscrutable grin, he has the aspect of a friendly android a creature somewhere between Robert Foxworthy's title character in the TV movie The Questor Tapes and Jude Law's Gigolo Joe in A.I. (Not all of that aura of otherness may be innate: Born in Southern California and a veteran of the national performance circuit, Wirth settled here in part to heal from the effects of Bell's Palsy, a nonpermanent condition that paralyzes one side of a sufferer's face.)
With Wirth setting the enigmatic tone, Bauerle went on to navigate four days of high thrills and tough choices. He says he kept the interactors on their toes, at one point refusing to surrender the briefcase and forcing a rapid restructuring of the story's foreseen path. His assessment of his independent strategy is corroborated by one of the interactors, who reports that Bauerle had been a loner who was very focused on "winning" The Game perhaps not realizing that Wirth, according to his own creative philosophies, had set it up in a way that made it impossible for Bauerle to really lose.
But if the spect can't win or lose, what's the purpose of playing? And on a larger level, just what is The Game for, anyway? An answer may lie in Wirth's status as the head of UCF's Interactive Performance Lab, which falls under the rubric of the university's school of film and digital media. Interactive performance may seem to have little to do with film or digital media, but Wirth says that the two are intimately related. The development of digital technologies doesn't begin with tools, he propounds, but with the human element that guides our choices of what to do with those tools. The creation of video games, for instance, depends on an imagination that can conceive of their parameters in the first place. Thus, the need for real-world exercises like The Game.
It's a view supported by Dr. Gregory Ulmer, a University of Florida professor and an expert in new-media "linguistics" whose theories are held in high regard at UCF.
"Interactive narratives put the reader in the position of 'player,' which changes the relationship from that of observer to participant," Ulmer explains via e-mail. "Improvisation then becomes an important element of the skill set needed to read in these circumstances in the sense of having an understanding of the kinds of choices that are likely to be presented within any given form and genre, and how to respond effectively in order to keep the story going in productive ways."
And to hear him tell it, the implications extend far beyond the Xbox: "The principle is that, in a digital culture of instant global communication, action on-the-spot may be a survival skill."
It could also be a heck of an entertainment option for folks with a few days' worth of free time and a certain amount of disposable income to spend on a highly involved activity like The Game. One can't help but suspect that Wirth and his collaborators are mulling such commercial applications of the concept as well. "Test" player Bauerle can envision that scenario under the right conditions.
"I believe there is some commercial viability, because the experience was so rewarding to me," he says. "[Still,] I think it would be a real challenge to try to explain to someone why it's worth it until they've experienced it. After the fact, would I have written a substantial check to participate in this experience? Yes. The challenge for them [would] be enticing people on a prospective basis to write that check without them really knowing what it is they're getting into. Because half of the mystery of it is to not really know."