The casual is political

„Gamification as a prime example of Foucauldian governmentality“

by Robert Heinze*

[The following text was written in response to  „Keep your Politics out of my games!“  as well as the impromtu reply by Tobias Winnerling.]

„If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade.“

– Jane McGonigal: Videogames for a Better World, TED Talk, 2010.


Games, as all popular media, are a diversion. That doesn’t mean they can’t convey political ideologies, as Eugen Pfister has argued. And even the fact alone that they are a diversion makes them political, Tobias Winnerling answered. As part of the culture industry, they remind us of the old roman saying of panem et circenses, or, to (horribly) paraphrase Adorno and Horkheimer: Kratos in the games gets his beating so that the players can get used to the same treatment. The significance of casual, short-time diversion in a society characterised by fragmentation of private time and the blurring of the border between work and leisure is obvious; as is the relevance of Winnerling’s argument about the political role of such a diversion. But the influence of casual games on our society goes further.

Game mechanics established through casual games have seeped into new modes of governmentality, ones that use these techniques to encourage real-world behaviour changes in people. The cycle of quick gratification, collectibles and point-scoring, competition and recurring challenge has entered into Human Resources departments, air travel and shopping bonus programs, apps (especially diet, fitness, or learning apps), and social media. Though the discussion around „gamification“ as a buzzword has somewhat waned, its applications have only become more widespread, and the recent enthusiasm for the actions which masses of people playing Pokémon GO could be coaxed to (the game was used, among others, to bring volunteers to animal shelters, register voters, and sell pizzas) shows that the ideas behind it are far from gone.

Gamification systems are older than the name; most well known are the frequent-flyer miles. Although some have argued that gamification goes much farther back in history (Fuchs 2014), widespread use of gamification is connected to the rise of specific techniques of self in the neoliberal era. People constantly collect and compare data on their weight, muscle mass, miles run or driven, geocaches discovered, Payback points or miles collected to get a product for a buck cheaper or sometimes even just a plastic card in another color. These are point collecting systems, full with leaderboards, achievements, little bonuses and lootboxes, and timed challenges that reward customers with some real (small) bonuses, but also employ virtual techniques of gratification like shiny animations. What differentiates them from Bejeweled? Only that they have an ulterior goal. Bejeweled is designed to keep you playing; in gamification systems, the same mechanics are used to keep you buying at the same shop or using the same airline. But increasingly, casual game mechanics are also used to produce new behaviour; not just to artifically produce brand loyalty, but to change how people live.

This makes gamification a prime example of Foucauldian governmentality, particularly as it is connected to current biopolitics. In a society that increasingly individualises risk and destroys institutions of social solidarity, it is no surprise to find one of the main applications of gamified systems in the health sector. Here, these systems combine the effort to change individual behaviour through feedback cycles, reward and competition with the useful collection of massive amounts of data on the person’s health. Sports apps detailing miles run, calories burned, heartrates measured, hills climbed and so on are wildly popular amongst bikers, runners and hikers. The most radical become part of a „quantified self“ movement that takes the expression of body function through numbers to its logical extreme. Though highscores and leaderboards are elements of videogames since the arcades of the 1980s, the following decade (when first personal computers, then consoles became the majority gaming devices) saw many games abandoning such comparative mechanics. Social gaming has brought them back in full force, and in Steam’s numbercrunching and achievement-unlocking, gaming itself has become gamified in return. Casual games, one might thus argue, far from being a simple distraction or a purely technological development, are deeply connected to new regimes of governmentality, neoliberal body/biopolitics and individualised societies that, as seen in the discussion around insurances employing fitness apps to promise bonus programs, individualise responsibility and essentially abandon their original idea of shared risk and solidarity.

This is just a relatively superficial comment on the question of games and politics, and the topic would need to be explored much further, but I do think when looking for the connections between video games and larger political and social processes it is worthwhile to go beyond analysing political communication in games. Though classic media reception questions remain an important part of the analysis of video games as any other medium, we can and should also take circulation models for mass media into account and search for connections between larger societal developments and the way we consume everyday media such as casual games.

*Robert Heinze ist Assoziierter Forscher am Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes africains, américains et asiatiques (CESSMA) der Universität Paris VII-Diderot und an der Universität Bern. Er arbeitet eigentlich an seinem Post-Doc-Projekt zum kommunalen Transport in afrikanischen Städten, kann sich aber seit seiner Diss nicht von der Mediengeschichte und Fragen der Repräsentation von Geschichte in populären Medien lösen. Er wünscht sich eine SimCity-Version, die die informelle Ökonomie in Städten des globalen Südens modellieren kann, so dass nicht jede Stadt am Ende zum Idealbild einer US-Grossstadt wird.


  • Fuchs, Mathias (2014): Predigital Precursors of Gamification. In: Mathias Fuchs, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino und Niklas Schrape (Hg.): Rethinking Gamification. Lüneburg: meson press.

Bild: Техника – молодёжи 1953-04.

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Robert Heinze, “The casual is political. On Gamification“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <> 11.04.2018.

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