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  • Marina Mastros

A New Perspective on Game (Part 1)

Buckle up, this topic is the main reason I started this blog! As a person who's taught improv to hundreds of people over thousands of hours, I've found myself repeating certain things. I'm constantly explaining the concept of "game" to my students in various ways until something clicks for them. Because I'm based in LA, many of my students learned game from UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade). Now they certainly didn't invent game or its use. The service that UCB provided to the world, in my opinion, was coining useful terminology to refer to pattern-based comedy. Being able to call it "game" allowed the rest of us to speak a common language.


Right vs. Wrong Is Irrelevant

And just like anything else that spreads widely, the meaning of game can change and become convoluted. It's certainly understandable. The UCB book isn't a pamphlet; it's 384 pages long. Anything that detailed is bound to leave some students in the weeds. So through trial, error, and lots of repetition, I've developed a simple guide for one way to understand and play game. It's worth noting that I do teach at UCB, and everything written here is just my personal approach. This is not UCB-approved material. Don't march into your next class declaring, "Marina said game is XYZ!" I'd like to keep my job, please!

But it's worth asking: if there's a literal textbook on game, why bother writing more? To me, this is about options. If you've read the book and are still confused, this post is simply another way of understanding the same material. I'm not saying the book is wrong and I'm right. Stop trying to get me in trouble! As they say, all roads lead to Rome. But maybe not everyone wants to climb a mountain to get there. So why not take the scenic route instead?


Forest for the Trees


Imagine you're hiking with someone and you come to the woods. As the story goes, a beautiful forest sprawls out before you, and you turn to your buddy and ask what they think. "It's okay, I guess," they sigh. "What, you don't like forests?" you ask. "I don't see a forest," they reply, "There are trees in the way." Profound sh*t, right? This is what happens to many people who learn game. They're so busy thinking about their game moves, they can't play the scene.

When most students come to me, they think game = the unusual things they do or say in a scene. I think UCB's material is more nuanced, but game is so complicated I can see why students stop here. For example, take the sketch "More Cowbell" from SNL (a reference I've used before). Most students would say the game of the scene is when Christopher Walken says, "I could have used more cowbell." To them, game = anything that contains the word "cowbell." The students also might say that everything else in the sketch isn't game. It's base reality (the who, what, and where of a scene) or "resting the game," a term I'll get into later. Here's this common approach to game drawn out:

I'm not here to tell you this is wrong. If you find it helpful, party on. What I am saying is, this version is typically less useful for students than they think. It can send learners down a more difficult path than is necessary. Kind of like climbing that mountain, remember? They'll raise their hand in the middle of a scene, turn to me and say, "I'm stuck." So if this is a mountain, what's a nice hike? Here's a new way to think about game:

As you can see, the start of the scene until the first unusual thing is labeled "base reality." Again, this is just establishing the who, what, and where of any given scene. No matter what comedy school you attend (if any), they'll all teach you pretty much the same stuff here. I've also labeled everything past the first unusual thing as game, instead of the individual moves themselves. Let me repeat: the concept of game I teach is that every single thing that happens from the first unusual thing until the scene ends, is an essential part of game. I think it's more useful to visualize game as a series of steps, as opposed to repeating one particular thing.

Maybe you're reading this thinking, "Obviously! I've heard all this already." Okay, go off then! We love a knowledgeable reader. But plenty of my students have found this brand new and helpful, so hopefully you can too! I'll get more into this in a separate post, but if you remove other parts of the scene (like resting the game), I think the scene suffers. But don't stress. Let's say you did skip something. Will the scene tank? No. Will it stop being game? No. None of this is absolute. And no, this is not the end of my explanation. In Part 2 I'll break down exactly what happens between each game move in detail. You'll even get more handy charts! See you in Part 2!


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