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Video Games, NSA and Drones Collide at Steppenwolf

By Paul Biasco | March 3, 2014 10:03am
 "Leveling Up" is playing at the Steppenwolf Theater through March 15.
Leveling Up
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LINCOLN PARK — The line between the virtual world and the real one continues to blur, and a new play at the Steppenwolf Theater addresses that through video games, drones and the National Security Agency.

"Leveling Up" focuses on three twenty-something roommates who have gamed their way through college and mastered the digital world.

One roommate's skillset with the joysticks in his hands catches the eye of the the NSA's recruiters and the separation between shooting an enemy dead on the screen becomes reality.

The character lands a job at the NSA launching real drone strikes from a trailer in the middle of nowhere Nevada and continues to fight the virtual enemies when he returns home with his roommates at night.

The lines of reality literally blur during the performance thanks to video projectors that flash scenes from first-person shooters such as Call of Duty on the walls of Steppenwolf's theater and later become intertwined with real video of U.S. drone strikes in Iraq.

"You as the audience can't tell the difference between what is an actual drone strike or the video game," said 23-year-old JJ Phillips, one of the actors in the performance. "It shows how someone can really kind of blur those lines very, very quickly."

The play is part of Steppenwolf's young adults programming initiative, and has been a hit for those students in grades seven through 12 who have seen it.

"Building on the themes of last year's Now Is The Time initiative, aimed at empowering youth to take action against violence and intolerance in their communities, we ask the question: when the game turns deadly, how will you play?" said Hallie Gordon, artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

The playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer said all of her plays focus on what it means to be alive at this particular time in human history, and with the moral and national question of the legality of drone strikes making the news on a regular basis this year, "Leveling Up" is no different.

"I think so much of what the internet is bringing to us is really thrilling, but there's also a lot of murky territory about what is real," Laufer said. "What is virtual? What does it mean to have a friend now?"

The millennial coming of age story has its humor, but also serious and very-real moments such as projecting real footage of a drone strike that killed a dozen people including two Reuters photographers in Iraq in 2007. That footage was made public by Wikileaks in 2010.

Laufer, who herself has two kids who are "gamers," began research for the play four years ago, before the NSA was made famous, and during the infancy of public knowledge surrounding the drone program.

She now rattles off names of the unmanned aircraft like second nature: the Reaper, the Predator.

The playwright doesn't seek to answer any questions with "Level Up," but hopes to send audience members home with their heads full of questions.

"I hope that people start seeing things in a way they hadn't before," Laufer said. "If people go out arguing, then I've done my job."

The show runs through March 15, and all tickets are $20.