Panem et circenses: Bejeweled, Fun & Politics

by Tobias Winnerling*

 

 „All things considered, it looks as though Utopia were far closer to us than anyone, only fifteen years ago, could have imagined. Then, I projected it six hundred years into the future. Today it seems quite possible that the horror may be upon us within a single century. That is, if we refrain from blowing ourselves to smithereens in the interval.“
– Aldous Huxley: Brave New World. With an introduction by David Bradshaw, London/Stuttgart 2000, S. 32.

Fun is said to unpolitical – or better, to be apolitical: Without any necessary connection to anything political. Eugen Pfister has just argued in this vein in his discussion on the political dimension of games. Games like Bejeweled – which do not carry any conscious political message – may easily be seen as unpolitical therefore apart from them being a more or less direct emanation of the sociopolitical circumstances of the time of their making. If all these little games would be political, the word would be depleted of its meaning. To my mind however this does not go far enough. Of course, if everything is political, nothing is political anymore, that’s how the argument can be carried further. And what is constructed with the ultimate purpose of delivering pleasure is not made for the political arena then, because it has neither meaning nor purpose of a grander design; it does not care about People, Society, Economy, Truth, Justice or other values or goals politics are supposed to be directed at. But I would like to suggest that what is at hand here might really be case of categorical confusion.

When the speakers of the ’68 generation in Germany claimed that “Das Private ist politisch”, “Everything private is political”, they didn’t mean that everything private should be inspired by a political impetus – although their subsequent sayings and doings much too often, and boringly, suggested otherwise. They called for attention to the fact that although not everything in society is propelled by a political impetus, everything happening in society has a political dimension because it directs or averts energies to other fields of endeavour, including the political field. This is the root cause of the famous Roman politics of panem et circenses, bread and games: as long as you keep the populace well fed and entertained, you divert their energies from participating in the political arena. Today this political dimension receives much less attention than 50 years ago, most likely because first of all the shadows that ’68 cast still lingers on the concept, overshadowing its contemporary significance by over-historicizing it – and, at least to my view much more importantly, because the debates about privacy and its connection to politics dwell too much on the other book. The data harvesting done by the big Tech companies almost instantly triggers recollections of George Orwell’s “1984”, and the debates are geared as to hinder Facebook & Cie. from becoming Big Brothers. But, at least in the case of Digital Games, the book of the hour really is “Brave New World”. A world where those in power do not coerce their populace into obeisance, do not police their every steps, because they don’t need to – because the people love their servitude. They are well fed and entertained even better, and more they do not need. In this brave new world, nothing private is political – everything is pleasure, and pleasure is apolitical; and therefore politics don’t exist anymore. And should anyone have a fit of feelings non-compliant to the general atmosphere, he or she can take a benevolent drug without side-effects that unfailingly makes happy again. The whole of society is on the red pill.

“Hug me till you drug me, honey / Kiss me till I’m in a coma / Hug me, honey, snuggly bunny / Love is as good as soma”
– Tiamat: Love Is As Good As Soma (2002)

So the question is: what is really as good as soma? Or could be? To me, Bejeweled seems a step in that direction. Perhaps Digital Games do take the issue to the next level: without even the need to resort to drugs. Or maybe they – at least some of them – have already become drugs: the WHO decision to include Gaming Disorder as an official addiction points in that direction. We are well fed: Frederik Pohl’s 1954 vision laid down in “Midas Plague” is, at least in the leading developed economies, about to come true in the next few years. But we are not content; no, not enough. Bread we have, now give us games! Games the like we never saw before. And we will never turn our eyes away from them again, then.

Utopia is coming: be afraid! Be very afraid. Or the day might come when we all will be happy ever after. And that’s an eminently political issue, for it heralds the end of all politics. And that’s a game we shouldn’t play. Remember: even “1984” ends with Winston raising his glass to Big Brother for at the end of his special treatment he finally realizes that he loves him. So keep an eye on the political dimension even of those games that do not have any political impetus, for they are legion.

*Tobias Winnerling ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Lehrstuhl für Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. Er ist Gründungsmitglied des Arbeitskreises Geschichtswissenschaft und Digitale Spiele, interessiert an Kulturgeschichte, Geschichtstheorie, Geschichtswahrnehmung, Religions- und Wissensgeschichte vom 16. Jahrhundert aufwärts und hat deswegen eigentlich keine Zeit mehr, selbst zu spielen – muss also darüber schreiben.


Bild: Техника – молодёжи 1953-04.

Empfohlene Zitierweise :
Tobias Winnerling, „Panem et circenses: Bejeweled, Fun & Politics“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/1599> 14.02.2017


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