Can I Be An Authoritarian?: Judging Sensitivity In Interactive Theatre
I’ve recently had reason to think about various possible issues of taste in interactive immersive theatre, in particular around areas often covered by a sensitivity consultant - racism, sexism, and so on. Most of the time, interactive immersive theatre’s too small budget to hire sensitivity consultants and other forms of dramaturge (though I’m available).
Let us assume that the question “is it X?” is important, where X is some form of prejudice or other material we have a problem with.
That is to say, we’re not asking questions like “in historical context, does it matter that Title is X?”
We’re assuming that these are new works that ought to at least care about whether or not they’re X, and then think about whether it’s worth it.
Questions like “that trope ultimately derives from long-forgotten genre Z, which is very X; does it matter if we use it now?” are also beyond the scope of this blog. We’re just identifying how we might identify X.
Where the issues might lie
There are established ways to identify X in conventional theatre and other media. We discuss themes, content, inspirations, and so on. Therefore I’m not going to discuss, for example, identifying X in worldbuilding for a show, as a comment there would apply equally well to a new Netflix show as a new piece of interactive theatre.
Nor am I going to talk about accessibility for various groups. Again, that’s well-covered elsewhere, and while there are aspects that apply especially to immersive theatre, I’m more interested here in issues within the ‘text’ of interactive immersive theatre shows.
Interactive immersive theatre’s specific challenges lie in how audiences behave and are encouraged to behave.
While I’m not going to assert that interactive shows generally actively encourage audience members to engage in acts of horrific bigotry, there are more subtle areas for consideration.
The default list
There is a ‘default list’ of things to keep an eye out for. Loosely modelled on the nine protected characteristics (racism, sexism, homophobia…), plus a few others more variably included. For example, neurodivergence, imperialism, ecocidism, or in a contrasting sort of list I’m less interested in, wokery and propaganda.
The core list is often moderately to well-covered. For all that interactive immersive theatre is overwhelmingly white and male-led, people are at least usually aware that they ought to try not to be overt bigots.
I’ve seen several shows involving characters from periods with normalised sexism, homophobia, or otherwise. Their creators tend to be able to identify these elements and at least think about whether to depict them, how, and how to distance themselves from those positions or attempt to reflect on them critically.
So I would like to take an example from the ‘variable’ part of the list, but one I think most people would (at least publicly) want to agree was important.
Does your show support authoritarianism?
Various options for awfulness
I’m going to form this scale from most extreme to least. It’s somewhat subjective, but hopefully of interest.
I must be an authoritarian
This would be a show that forced audience members to use their agency to support authoritarian acts, measures, and ideologies.
For example, a show where the core play experience involves reporting on suspected spies, ordering troops to impose martial law without any judicial oversight, and use violence to achieve political ends, or a reliance on übermensch-type heroes and glorious leaders, would be such a show.
The actors would play figures who were part of the authoritarian system, keeping order, praising and celebrating it. Depending on period, that might be the police, generals, politicians or otherwise.
The audience interact by being X; in this case, authoritarians. But the same could apply to transphobia, ableism, sexism, or various other objectionable things.
I am encouraged to be an authoritarian
This would be a show that, by default, encouraged audience members to use their agency to be authoritarian. It would guide them, either implicitly by primarily offering authoritarian options, or explicitly by urging them to take authoritarian acts, to take on that role.
The examples of mechanics and characters would be similar to the above. However, such a show might claim that the audience had the choice to argue against the authoritarianism, or try another path, and thus it was not authoritarian.
If a show offers authoritarianism as a viable, rational choice for the audience to achieve their goals, then I would argue it is authoritarian. I would suspect a show of being authoritarian if, by default, its characters and world expect me to support an authoritarian system.
I’m not writing about shows depicting why people accept authoritarianism. I’m writing about shows that go ‘ah yes, but authoritarianism is normal in this context [a claim that very rarely stands up to scrutiny], more quick/efficient [it’s not; people tend to lie about productivity when they fear death if they don't meet targets], sustainable [authoritarian regimes tend to spend huge resources keeping authority rather than achieving public goods], and can be justified in extremis [please, which regime are you looking at?]’.
This sort of attitude is common in video and board games. Authoritarianism is a fun little option, not a system that denies millions important freedoms while also not, in fact, being particularly effective in most fields of governance.
The audience are expected to interact by being X. The show urges them to do something abhorrent, letting them live within it. That living-within is part of why it’s important to think about interactivity’s unique qualities, of which more in the next section.
I am offered authoritarianism as a viable, rational choice
This show might not offer authoritarianism-by-default, but it’s certainly an option you might consider. You need to deal with civil unrest quickly, the police investigation is taking too long, the suspect isn’t talking.
These shows give the options listed above, plus those of another system. But the audience will not be judged for using them; it’s all just a bit of fun. There might be mechanical trade offs, after all! Often, it’s called an exciting opportunity to explore evil and reflect on it.
Except those reflections are not, normally, very developed. One of my favourite books of political philosophy is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which is a) easy to read, by the standards of political philosophy and b) gives a very straightforward argument for why free speech is important. Among his arguments is the idea that by hearing bad arguments for something, we can rehearse the good ones.
It was at this point I realised I’d fallen into the trap I was about to describe, and I’m going to use it to make a point. The good argument against authoritarianism is that it’s morally abhorrent, invariably involves the abuse of power and the denial of inherent humanity, and limits human flourishing.
It’s not what I’ve emphasised above, which is that it’s also not a very effective mode of government.
The second point is very easy for game theatre to make. The former point is the substantively important one; one that can be made in far more depth. But in the context of game theatre, which is usually meant to be fun in some way, where can we get the nuance?
In particular, audience agency means that any deep idea we might try to build into the mechanics and world has to then be reflected in the audience’s behaviour and discussions. Can we really trust a room full of strangers not to include someone who’s just having a bit too much fun playing a dictator, a racist, a sexist? Of course not. Those people exist in our society, and thus in our audience.
Furthermore, how willing are we challenge audience members? To tell them that they’re wrong for playing the game in the way we designed it? That seems like a fast line towards a rather poor audience experience.
By offering authoritarianism as a viable choice, we’re not reflecting on it in all its richness. We’re instead letting people live in a world where they temporarily gain experiential knowledge that it’s acceptable, indeed necessary, to be an authoritarian.
The audience are able to interact by being X, and get rewarded for it. Similar examples might include shows that offer the chance for a bit of normalised sexism or homophobia - or “we’re being racist now, but then we’re going to discover they’re actually people after all.”
I am offered authoritarianism as a bad choice
This softens many of the blows above. It takes a stand on authoritarianism, and tries to guide its audience to sharing that position.
There’s still, however, the questions around audience behaviour. Will some people choose to be authoritarians anyway, in order to fulfil their fantasy?
That can easily subvert the position the creators want to take (others might mention that it could put a crimp in the day of audience members who don’t feel the same, but I’m more focused on textual questions).
The ‘you can do it, but it’s worse/condemned’ option also sits interestingly within the promise of interactive theatre’s meaningful agency. If it’s an option, should it not be viable?
If it’s an option, are we thus condemned to a false neutrality where we place game-logic above our moral logic? Where we must present both sides of whether authoritarianism works, and our position against it is “it’s perfectly practical, but some of the characters will tut at you?”?
Perhaps that could emphasise the fact that opposition to authoritarianism is moral, not pragmatic. Though concerns around audience comfort rarely let it go this far.
Whatever their X is, this is where I’ve seen most shows sitting. They keep something in the world, but tie enough consequences for it that it… kind of condemns their X. But not quite.
I cannot be an authoritarian
This is the easiest option. If authoritarianism is not on the table, it invites consideration of the many variations within other options.
But in some contexts, authoritarianism should be on the table, because it’s an accurate reflection of the context. Done sensitively, it could even be a deep and insightful way to explore it.
I cannot offer answers
I am not trying to solve this problem for the sector.
I do not think it is a problem that can be easily solved, given how entwined it is with audience choices and common aspects of our world, and the specifics of a show.
However, I hope that the above does offer some tools for thinking about how a show might engage with a topic, and then wherever it sits, suggest some useful questions.