Monday, 14 February 2011

Panoptic games

***This blog post contains spoilers. Go play Portal and Metal Gear, then come back and read this.***

I have some recollection of first playing the Sims, and assuming that controlling the lives of tiny little people who I created would be like playing god. But it never felt like playing god. There was no power trip, no sense of responsiblity and no guilty feeling that I had crossed a line that humanity must never cross. It's not that I wasn't immersed in the game or didn't on some level believe that the Sims were real. I did play the game as though there really were tiny little people who just wanted to have their needs met and their goals fulfilled; my rational knowledge that this was all a computer-modeled simulation that could easily be hacked didn't get in the way of my emotional response to the poverty, sickness or loneliness of my Sims. But I didn't feel like their god.

Looking back, I think the reason for this may have been that although I had a panoptic gaze over the Sims, they were not aware of it, and as a result their behaviour was not affected by my gaze. I suspect that if they had looked up at me guiltily after sleeping with their best friend's spouse, I might have felt like their god. They did look up pleadingly at me when their needs were not being met, but they didn't try to bargain with me as they would if they were more aware of my presence. If they had promised some sacred offering that would please their maker (say, the construction of a beautiful garden or the enactment of a ritual orgy) in return for my favour, I might have felt more like a god.

Portal is an obvious example of a panoptic game - you're surrounded by cameras, and the viewer periodically chides you if you misbehave, to remind you that you are being watched. But in this case, the panopticon fails. Maybe it's because you don't want to die, maybe it's because you know that you can disobey, or maybe it's because you have seen glimpses of a world in-game beyond Glados' gaze, but in the end you do disobey and you do wreak havoc. The failure of the panopticon is written in the game's narrative, but I'm still left with the niggling question - what if Glados had understood human behaviour just a little better? What if she had managed to get the world outside of the shiny, white testing areas closed off completely so that you knew you were always in range of her watchful eyes no matter where you went? What if she had offered some reward better than cake? Would you have disobeyed her then? Is it possible to re-write Portal so that the player feels obliged to jump in the fire pit?

It is possible for a panoptic game to exist? Can a game control your behaviour by making you feel that you are under surveillance? Perhaps all games do, without necessarily having the sign of surveillance built into the game world. You know that the game itself is assessing your actions and giving you points accordingly - it's surveying you so that it can reward good behaviour, rather than punish the bad. Games are hard-wired with a protestant work-ethic - the knowledge that your virtuous hard work in the game will be rewarded drives you to spend hours on end on even dull, menial tasks like levelling up. You pursue side-quests that could take hours of your time, just for the fanfare and pat on the head that the almighty algorithm will give you. The 'camera shy' challenge in Portal is an ironic case in point. You spend time and effort seeking out and destroying the sign of surveillance for the reward of your real panoptic observer, the game itself.

An awareness of the power balance of seeing and being seen is key to the Metal Gear series. Your first concern is not being spotted by the guards. If one guard sees you, you are seen by all, thanks to their radio communication, so if you do enter a confrontation you usually try to break their communication device to disrupt the network of connections that comprises the panoptic gaze. After that, you're trying not to be seen on camera, either by avoiding their visual range or by shooting them. So in general, you either avoid the gaze or you attempt to disrupt it. However, this is only the sign of surveillance - the real panoptic gaze is from your commander, who sees everything you do, reads signals from your body that even you are not aware of, and yells at you if you fail, as if dying weren't punishment enough. Snake is always, at the end of the day, a soldier, a pawn and prisoner of an all-powerful governing system that he can never observe in its entirety. Of course, in terms of the storyline, the gaze of his commander is a minor expression of control compared to the fact that the government gave him life, made him who he is and then tried to kill him. But in terms of the gameplay experience itself, the gaze of the government is ultimately more real than the events that occur in the game, because the gaze is the game. Metal Gear Solid 2 was a thrilling shock to the system as I was reminded that the game is in fact gaming me, and I'm just trying to play within its confines to see what I can make of it.


  1. I had many similar thoughts after finally playing BioShock last month. As with Portal, it's one of those rare games that used first-person perspective to its advantage as something confining, and it overtly attempts to address many of the issues you bring up with respect to the panopticon (though its success in doing so is very hotly debated).

    I think, as yet, that our standard vocabulary for human agency may not be flexible enough to account for how players in games are restricted by design. Your freedom is limited by the mechanics and, to a considerable degree, by the designers' intentions—what kind of pathways they deliberately block in testing, and so forth. When there's an observer within the narrative of the game, like GLaDOS, there are really two diegetic levels at work: one governed by GLaDOS as the "designer" of Aperture Laboratories, the other governed by the designers of the game.

    The decision to make you die in the fire and lose if you fail to escape test chamber 19, as opposed to rolling an alternate set of credits, is a deliberate design specification—probably a necessary one to avoid players thinking it's actually over and never discovering half the game. But without the threat of the game being actually over, GLaDOS holding you back is really the designers pushing you forward. So in this case, revealing a puppet master within the narrative is an act of reverse psychology: the player's objective becomes the defiance of instructions, but because that's still an objective, the sense of freedom is illusory.

    Are you familiar with "sequence breaking"? It's mostly associated with the Metroid games, where players break the game's nonlinear design by discovering unintended pathways (often leaving the game space entirely)—but you can also see some evidence of it in the Portal challenge modes, where the best solutions were exploits found by testers that the designers elected not to fix.

  2. I always tended to overanalyze storylines in games like portal (and indeed, other types of fiction) to a point where characters besides the protagonist or player-avatar had motivations corresponding to those of the narrative.

    My interpretation of Portal always involved a lonely and uncertain GLADoS, who has decided on your "subversive" path and the outcome of the final "fight" before you even finish the game. You are her appointed executioner, and she is the jailor who plans to set you free.

    After all, only the most dire of oversights could have led a machine like GLADoS to make the sequence of mistakes leading to the game's conclusion. Much more sensible it was her intention all along.

    To tie this in to the writing here, consider a dominating panopticon controlling the side characters (including antagonists) of a game or story, who in turn obey orders and guide a player or protagonist (typically ignorant of this control) to an inevitable conclusion. A god-like force makes the wizard design a difficult but navigable labyrinth to his castle. An otherworldly compulsion forces him to fight the hero and die rather than fleeing.