This year’s National Play Festival playwrights answer Five Questions about playwriting craft and careers.
Arki loves playing war games online. He’s also just beat up his English teacher. His psychologist thinks it’s PTSD. Before long Arki’s hanging out with returned soldier, and Sayf, who runs the best Afghan restaurant in Dandenong.
We talk to Melissa Reeves about violence in gaming, the war in Afghanistan and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The idea of a gamer and a real soldier presenting similar psychological symptoms is gold, where did it come from?
I was looking at our relationship to war back here in Australia when the Iraq wars were being fought, and in particular, in Afghanistan. As the conflicts went on it was as though we all forgot that it was happening and the extent to which we were involved in it. There would be reports in the paper of specific events, and the deaths of Australian soldiers, but it did not impinge that much. So I was looking at ways the war featured in our imaginary, and one of those ways is through fictional representations of war – movies, and war games. It struck me that if a young gamer developed PTSD symptoms, it would be a way of bringing those distant wars, and the repercussions of them, into out living rooms back here in Australia. For me, it was more a metaphor, than an actual suggestion, Arki was a sort of cipher, a body on which the effects of war is reflected, so I was fascinated to discover, through work-shopping, that some groups in America talk about this a a real phenomenon.
Would you call this a war play?
I certainly read a lot about war while I was researching for it, and thinking what it should be about. The initial book I read was Celine’s Journey to the end of the night, which viscerally conjures up the insanity of the first world war. My initial impulse was to try to find a similar voice for the contemporary wars that Australia has been involved in, but gradually I realised that sort of authenticity comes from direct experience, and I moved more into how these wars play out at home – the prevalence of PTSD and suicide, our lack of culpability, and the way war features in our imaginations. Some of the other books that had a profound effect on me were ‘We were not like this before’, a gruelling heart breaking account of the aftermath of war for a battalion of American soldiers in Iraq, and ‘Killing’ by Jeff Sparrow, a Melbourne writer, who talked about how American soldiers use explicit video games as a training tool.
Is theatre a kind of virtual reality? How does the theatre contract interact with the realities in the play?
Yes, I think that’s a good analogy, a virtual reality that we as the audience are immersed in. And I would love to explore this further, to create the digital worlds that Arki and Aaron experience for the audience, and Arkis dream world that opens the second act.
What do you think gamers will make of it?
I have talked to some gamers about whether the ‘real’ strands of Arki’s story stand up to scrutiny, and have had good feed-back. I don’t know what a more general response might be. I certainly want the world of the gamers to be authentic, and would like to play more, as I mentioned before, with immersive and seductive digital worlds. I am fascinated by some of the ideas that came up in the work-shop, like the use of ‘war games’ to treat PTSD, and also, similarly, the radical idea of video gaming as therapeutic and inspiring and connecting for the world.
Do you think you should let kids play combat video games?
This question connects back to the previous one. I don’t want the play to take a moral stance on gaming. I think there are fabulous possibilities in the technology of internet gaming, but I have to confess that personally, I have not let my children, 11 and 16, play explicit graphic killing games like Call of Duty. I find those games disturbing. So I suppose my own reluctance about those games is an element in the play, but I understand that it’s a really complex question as to the effect these games have on children. My play is not really addressing the reality of this question. I want to cast a wider net than that.
Wednesday 27 July, 8.15pm
Friday 29 July, 4pm
Melissa Reeves is a Melbourne Playwright. Her plays include The Spook (awarded the Louis Esson Prize for Drama in the Victorian Premiers Awards, and two AWGIES for best new play), and Sweetown (Jill Blewitt Playwright’s Award). She co-wrote Who’s Afraid of the Working Class which won best play in the Queensland Literary Awards, two AWGIES and the Jill Blewitt Playwright’s Award.