The Delight of Alea
Roger Caillois (Man, Play, Games) identifies the randomness of chance or what he calls “alea” as one of four core categories of games.  In opposition to ‘agôn’ or games of skill that engage players in direct competition, alea involves no skill at all. Both agôn and alea are premised on equality; but whereas equality in agonistic competition is about fairness in the rules so that either player has the same chance of winning, equality in alea manifests in contingency putting the players in the hands of fate or the universe. The player in a game of chance is entirely passive and whatever happens happens. The only determinate action the audience-player makes is the decision to begin to play and then subsequently to end play. In between, active choice is between random, superficially identical options - do you go through the door on the left or on the right? - or the choice is to activate the randomizing mechanism, rolling the dice, or similar. The choice is heartless. As Caillois writes, “It grants the lucky player infinitely more than he could procure by a lifetime of labor, discipline, and fatigue. It seems an insolent and sovereign insult to merit.”  Either the audience-player chooses directly in this kind of desultory fashion or defers choice to a non-human participant.
The morality of gambling as an affront to the Protestant work ethic and possible social damage of addiction aside, it is worth thinking about how choices with unpredictable seemingly random outcomes generate aesthetic understanding since this is a common dramaturgical strategy for shaping participation. How does alea mean? The audience plays the game but we are merely the conduit of fate. We spin the wheel but choice is external; the mechanism is the dominant driver rather than the player. The universe is the playwright. This feeling of passively ‘letting it ride’ can be pleasurable if the stakes are low and the attitude not too existential. Sometimes the effect is a hopeful sense of being safe in the hands of Providence, that things are as they should be. Sometimes, by contrast, being subject to randomness is a desolate peek into the abyss; we are adrift in an uncaring universe. Nothing matters.
In the Dungeons & Dragons themed participatory show Roll Models,  randomness manifests in the repeated rolling of the dice. Just as in the table-top role-playing version of the game, the dice operate in this “live action” version to determine the outcome of an audience-player’s asserted prospective action. “I will cast a spell to throw a magic net on the dragon.” Roll an “8” and you are successful. Roll an “18” and perhaps you not only avert the danger but you may also be rewarded when the dragon becomes a friend and ally. Roll a “4” however and you might find yourself in the net instead. Part of the improvisatory narrative skill of the performer who acts as the ‘Dungeon Master’ host character is to interpret the raw number generated by the dice, translating that information into context-specific (also usually absurd and hilarious) dramatic exposition. Greg Costikyan in his book Uncertainty in Games notes that among the sources of uncertainty (performative uncertainty of player skill, puzzle solver’s uncertainty, hidden information, and so on.) randomness, which many players despise, has some particular strengths, notably “it adds drama, it breaks symmetry, it provides simulation value, and it can be used to foster strategy through statistical analysis.”  Actually, the dice are a pretty good substitute playwright. Perhaps the possible message here is simply a reminder of the unpredictability of the universe. It is a truism that even the best plans, enacted by highly skilled characters might fail, or conversely, the unconsidered shot in the dark by an unprepared novice might succeed.
Humans also introduce randomness into participatory performances. Another way that contingency appears is as a branched narrative or experience. For example, Monday Nights is actually four plays in one. The performance is divided into four strands from the very outset when the first task of each audience member is to inspect the contents of four gym bags. From these autobiographical assemblages, I pick whose team I want to be on. In the moment of choosing, the other three branches vanish. Others will follow those paths but they are closed to me. I can see the other teams across the court but I watch from the outside and cannot access their experience. This melancholic regret of the path not taken is always embedded in any choose your own adventure schema. In Monday Nights, the dominant feeling is a sense of belonging, attachment to my captain and the other audience-players who made the same choice. I am on the red team. Do I wonder what it is like to be on the blue team? Perhaps a little.
By contrast, the regretful wonder of what might have been is the principal theme of Outside the March’s play Love Without Late Fees (Tape Escape). The central conceit is that the immersed audience is running a video store dating service called “Six Tapes to Find the One.” A series of escape room style puzzles activates the branching mechanism. Audience choice is indirect. Successfully solve the puzzle and rent Mr. Holland’s Opus and our couple Matt and Sarah do one thing. Fail to solve the puzzle and rent The Shawshank Redemption and Matt and Sarah’s relationship takes a different track. The effect here of alea in the creation of thirty-two unique endings is to remind us that the journey of a love relationship can indeed feel like an exercise in serendipity. If this or that hadn’t happened we wouldn’t have met. Randomness is a life quality that we recognize. Love relationships are really like this sometimes. And so the flip-a-coin branches replicate a real-world situation. The audience then plays the role of “the universe”; our puzzle games are part of a superior ontological realm that somehow determines the romantic fate of the would-be lovers. This game mechanism stands in as a simplified parallel for the impossible-to-comprehend complexity of the world.
The impossible-to-comprehend logic of the universe made manifest in games of alea is adapted in Foreign Radical to comment on the Kafka-esque arbitrariness of bureaucracy, specifically the all-powerful surveillance of border control. Badgered by a maniacal game show host, the audience-players are compelled to answer revealing questions with public actions, dividing ourselves into four corners of the room based on yes or no responses. “Have you watched online pornography in the last twenty-four hours?” “Have you signed a petition critical of the government?” “Do you use encryption to mask your internet use?” “Do you own a pressure cooker?” The answers to the questions are not random; they are autobiographical confessions. But the consequences of the answers are random. Based on their answers, certain members are banished out of the room. Is this a reward or a punishment? Do I want to go there or stay here? The underlying value system is purposely opaque. We are at the mercy of a game we cannot comprehend, unsure if we are winning or losing.
Beyond game structures that mimic the contingency of choosing this or that to create meaning, the basic situation of audience participation is a prime source of randomness. In her list of reasons that drive participatory art, Claire Bishop notes that not only does participation create a more egalitarian or democratic base for creative engagement, there is an aesthetic benefit in the greater unpredictability of input via audience contributions. The benefits from greater diversity of randomness as well as the pleasures of surprise and serendipity are held in balance with reduced coherence resulting from less artistic control. Participatory works built as a series of one way gates or are “on rails” manifest relatively low randomness and relatively high control. One way to provide guardrails is by providing the audience-player with a script. In the case of shows like Red Phone and Plays2Perform@Home (both produced by Boca del Lupo, Vancouver), there is literally a script. In Red Phone, the audience-player enters a standalone red telephone booth. Inside the booth is a teleprompter-style screen and a red telephone handset. Talking to another audience-player in a second, somewhat distanced phone booth, the two of you perform a scene, voicing dialogue. Within the tight parameters of the scripted task, each version of the experience looks (at least from the outside) nearly identical. Meaning lies in how the players, now transmuted to actors/characters, collaboratively navigate both the fictional relationship unfolding line by line in real time and the real-world partnership of smoothly making a thing together.
Works that incorporate improvisation, by contrast, feature high randomness and low control. Dice are not the only source of alea in Roll Models. Although there is a traditional audience, four audience members are invited to become role players. Each one creates a fantasy-adventure style character; they are paired with an actor who plays that character and who is effectively their live avatar. Through their role-play quest, the players make choices and declare their intentions, (with success or failure determined by the dice) the actor-avatars are challenged to realize those actions. In this way, Roll Models centrally locates the values the randomness of audience input as the catalyst for its core understanding. Costikyan notes that not only are endings uncertain in games (unlike in drama) but the journey to that ending is also uncertain. “Uncertainty is in the path the game follows, in how players manage problems, in the surprises they hold.”  It is precisely that this grappling with uncertainty is the source of pleasure in Roll Models. The audience-players are randomness generators; they are part of the game mechanic generating ‘friction’ for the actors. They are basically more sophisticated dice in human form. The appeal of the show then, and indeed its raison d’etre is to generate joyful laughter not only at the absurdity of the ad hoc plots but in the virtuosity of the actors as they frolic in unpredictability. In the secondary audience, we thrill to the successful struggle in their performative acrobatics to respond to the unexpected twists of the plot and to bring it all together (somehow) in the end. Their victory over the obstacles of alea is our delight.
 Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games, Translated by Meyer Barash (Urbana and Chicago, University of Chicago P, 1961), 19.
 Caillois, Man, Play, and Games, 17.
 Roll Models was presented 18-26 August 2021 in City Park, Kingston ON. The show was conceived and performed by Alicia Barban, Joel Blackstock, Tyler Check, Callum Lurie, and Sayer Roberts.
 Greg Costikyan, Uncertainty in Games, (Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press, 2013), 86.
 Costikyan, 13.