Friday, August 4, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Amy Conway's Super Awesome World' at Summerhall, 4th August 2017

Amy Conway's Super Awesome World reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

For decades we've been told that playing video games will turn us into bloodthirsty, violent monsters with the attention span of a gnat. But what if video games were actually, genuinely, good for you. This is the core of Amy Conway's Super Awesome World, which makes a convincing case that those hours spent blowing away the forces of hell, descending into dark dungeons and repeatedly rescuing princesses might not have been wasted.

We begin with a potted history of Amy's history of gaming. In 1994 she was gifted a NES, on which she lost herself in the worlds of Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda. The crude yet evocative 8-bit graphics were perfect imagination fuel: allowing her to transcend dowdy reality and spend time in a place where your actions matter: where you really can save the world.

The show uses the retro gaming aesthetic to tell the story of Amy's "quest for good mental health". She repeatedly goes back to her time spent volunteering for Samaritans, explaining that she sees each chat as equivalent to a game: you just have to say the right thing to advance to the next conversation 'level'. The audience also gets hands-on examples of the pleasure of play, participating in short, fun physical exercises in which we get to know the people around us.

It's often fascinating, especially when Amy lays out why she thinks gaming is good for mental health. The argument goes that games provide a structured environment with clear, achievable goals and a constant system of reward. This is contrasted with the chaotic and confusing real world, in which the rules are opaque and the goals always shifting. This made me reflect on the benefits games might have given me over the years. I thought of my time with notoriously difficult adventure game Dark Souls, in which death is frequent, quick and generally brutal. But while it's hard it's also scrupulously fair. If you pay attention, approach the game with patience and keep your cool, you can vanquish even the most ferocious monster.

This nicely ties into the games we play through the show, which emphasises teamwork, communication and mutual support. In one, I got a chance to taste a morsel of Amy's work with the Samaritans. She was blindfolded and had to cross the stage with my assistance. Here I was trying to deliver precise and useful advice to someone who couldn't see where they were going, who had placed their trust in a complete stranger and whose fate ultimately rested in my hands.

This is just one example of the care that's gone into making Super Awesome World coherent. The show goes to some pretty heartrending places, Amy eventually her soul and encouraging us to share our most vulnerable moments. This isn't a show about big performances - Amy sometimes seems quite shy on stage - but there's a palpable honesty that pays off gangbusters in these closing moments.

While the show is eager to sing the benefits of gaming, I couldn't help but think of the other side of the coin. I think that artificial sense of achievement video games provide is genuinely addictive - for example, the dopamine *whoosh* of levelling up in World of Warcraft has consigned countless teenagers to an isolated, pallid adolescence. Is there a danger that getting accustomed to a life spent in virtual worlds where you're always the legendary hero makes unfair 'IRL' that much more mentally unbearable? In a video game you can try and try until you inevitably triumph. Reality is rarely so accommodating.

But maybe that's a topic for another show. Amy Conway's perspective on gaming is original and accurate - not to mention that she avoids descending into obscure references. On top of that, obvious care has gone into capturing the 8-bit aesthetic in the on stage graphics and sound (I was particularly pleased to hear the soothing bleeps of DuckTales' The Moon as I took my seat). Super Awesome World isn't always an easy watch, but it's smart and satisfying stuff. Recommended.

Amy Conway's Super Awesome World' is at Summerhall until the 27th of August. Details here.

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