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Leveling Up


steppenwolf theatre
Leveling UP

Directed by Hallie Gordon

At Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults

Perplexing world of online gamers exposed

Leveling Up (which means developing new online gaming skills) is playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s coming of age comic drama about three 20soemthings who live in a world dominated by online video games. These guys still spend most of their time playing online video games.  Ian (Clancy McCartney) the a champion gamer who makes a living playing online games. He is actively being recruited by the NSA to work in their drone program wherein  his gaming skills can be used in defense of the nation.

Chuck (Jerry MacKinnon) is also an addicted gamer who plays often when he is not dealing at a local Vegas casino. Zander (JJ Phillips) is a handsome,charming loser who is always broke. He is suckered into a multi-level marketing scheme. Zander has a girlfriend, Jeannie (Carolyn Braver) who is thrust into the world of online video games by Zander and Chuck. Her preoccupation with video games threatens her graduation from college in psychology.

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We see these immature addicted poor souls as their lives are dominated by their obsession with these virtual reality games. They seem to blur actual reality with the possibilities on living in the fantasy of online games. Ian thinks online gamers are his friends despite his only contact with them is through the Internet. Zander is so consumed by games that he can barely relate to Jeannie or the real world. Chuck seems to be just marking time until he decided what to do with his life.

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Much of this 90 minute one act is consumed with gamer tactics, terms , and strategies that I found baffling since I have no knowledge of the world of gamers. I found this play confusing and boring but the ‘gamers’ in the audience seem to relate to all the gamer jokes and gamer funny situations.  There is an online sexy scene that finds Chuck seducing Jeannie into a form of cyber sex played out in a game.

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Jeannie is the conscious of group as she questions why Zander doesn’t get a ‘real’ job and why Ian would actually work for the NSA since he could be involved with killing people even though he rationalizes that since he is thousands of miles away, that he doesn’t have any blood on his hands. And he is never really sure if his events and strikes for the NSA are simulations or actual drone strikes. We do see Ian freakout that could be a guilt trip or the effects of being over stimulated with caffeine? But  the play never resolves Ian’s concern since apparently he is so addicted to online action that he stays with the NSA. Ian does live in a world devoid of consequences.

We also see that Zander leaves the group after the scheme blows up leaving him embarrassed and in debt to his friends. I’m not sure that Leveling Up’s message to the young adults that are targeted is  worthy. It is full of street language and ample us of the F-word. While that is not knew to the teens, the play seems to validate its usage.  i believe that theatre needs to uplift language not resort to the lowest usage. Folks wouldn’t allow teachers in a high school to use the F-word so why does theatre do so? Lastly, I’m not sure if the subject of addiction to online video games is adequately shown to be a detriment to the development of youngsters. It sure seems to glorify or rationalize the passionate gamers? I hope I’m wrong about that since I believe that online video games are  dangerous, especially the violent ones. I can hope.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: March 1, 2014

For more info checkout the Leveling Up page at


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