Panopticism in The Tomorrow Children
Tea: Government-licensed green tea
After recently playing the Beta for The Tomorrow Children, I kept thinking about the game’s use of visibility of other players and the possible reasons behind this choice. This article will focus on just that. I will look into this choice of game mechanic while using the theory of Panopticism which I will explain beforehand so everyone is on the same page. In doing so I hope to explain why the choice of player visibility is an ingenious move on the developer’s part even though at first glance it might strike you as odd.
The Panopticon is actually the concept of a prison introduced by Jeremy Bentham. It is designed in a circular shape with a watch tower in the middle. Cells line the round walls on multiple levels, but all open towards the middle with the tower being the central point of focus. The idea behind this is that prisoners behave themselves if they are watched by a warden. This state of being watched should be induced without the warden having to be physically present. The watch tower is designed in such a way that the prisoner cannot see whether someone is occupying the tower or not. But since the possibility of being watched is possible at all times the prisoner will behave himself accordingly. This would translate into actions over a longer period of time and the basic power relation of warden and prisoner would change his behaviour permanently. Therefore, only one warden would be necessary for a prison and theoretically he wouldn’t have to be there all the time. The prisoner himself would become his own warden.
– It is worth noting that any actual prisons designed following this principle have not been quite successful in achieving what they set out to do –
This concept was taken up by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. Herein Foucault introduces the idea of Panopticism, a concept similar to Bentham’s prison, but applied to society. The basic idea is unchanged: People will have to feeling of being watched but no certainty of it and therefore change their behaviour and refrain from any activity that would be penalised should one be in fact watching. A great example is London’s CCTV. Cameras everywhere instil a feeling of constant surveillance, but whether someone is actively looking through this exact camera at this precise time or if the camera is even turned on does not matter, since the possibility is always given. Therefore, people will act accordingly and over a long period of time the basic power relation will be, as Foucault describes it, inscribed on the body. Meaning that they way of behaving will turn into the new norm and go unchallenged, a natural reaction and behaviour so to speak. It stands to reason that the cameras aren’t even necessary in London anymore since they have become so well-known and should a person now not be able to spot a camera he would probably assume that he simply cannot find it and still change his actions as if there would be a watching other.
– Also take not of how they are painted the same colour to seamlessly fit the environment –
So why am I torturing you with social theory (aside from the fact that social theory is awesome and people who study such a subject are ultra-cool)? Well, the situation in The Tomorrow Children is very similar to a certain degree, but step by step. The Tomorrow Children represent a parallel society and therefore can be subjected to this theory in the first place, more so even, since most people enter this space willingly and are not forced into it. Yet, this brings the problems of anti-social behaviour with it and if you have played any online game you will know the people that seem to only play to ruin the experience for others. Their actions are to be penalised in this scenario, but it is hard to say how these individuals should be recognised, especially since everyone looks the same. For instance, a player could steal resources from the unloading area and take it to another town. Then there are those people that do not subject themselves to the work ethics of this game, meaning to not strive for a maximum efficiency at all times. Those just looking to reap the benefits by waiting for certain buildings to be constructed by others etc. without contributing anything. Partly this is already countered by linking character progression closely to this work ethic, since exp is only gained this way and to access better equipment the town must be supplied with resources. This does not prevent a laid back approach, however, and in the grand schemed this would be detrimental to the central ideology at play.
– The red matrix-like numbers appear on other players and on you should you enter darkness without a lightsource –
Now applying the idea of Panopticism reveals a genius mechanic at play: By making players phase in and out of the view of others one can never be sure when he/she appears as a visible player in another one’s world. Similar to the warden that may or may not be there the feeling or rather the possibility of being watched exists constantly and one can never be certain of the opposite case. Assuming one does not want to openly appear lazy to other players he cannot just be standing around and be doing nothing or simply waiting for buildings to be constructed. This hold even more true in a defence situation or the following repair session. Players are all working together to defend the communal town against attacking monsters and afterwards repair any damages that may or may not have been caused. Appearing uninvolved is an undesirable state, therefore to be avoided, but since the option to just wait and do nothing exists the game must assure cooperation in another way. By inducing the feeling of constant surveillance and judgement by other players the uninvolved player ideally will change his behaviour. There is no penalty as of now within the game space, like being removed from the town etc. but such methods may well exist in the future release and would complement this idea brilliantly. But other players can express dislike through the use of gestures and other creative means, so a psychological penalisation is definitely within the range of possibilities add a private message function to the mix and one can imagine the consequences of a laid back approach.
– Visbility is only certain if another player is working on something, simply walking around will not show other idle players at all time –
In the long run, this ideology would then be inscribed into the gameplay of every individual player who would simply be productive without questioning his actions in the first place and the constant threat of judging gazes would prohibit him from falling into any other line of thinking. The constant popping in of other players serves as a reminder of their constant presence and cleverly enough the player that would feel this pressure is himself an observer for other players. At the end the prison would not need a warden, since every prisoner would be simultaneously an inmate and a warden. London does not need the cameras as their presence is inscribed into London itself. The Tomorrow Children does not need regulatory measures after a while, since players will take this job themselves and apply power to others while power is being exercised over them by the other players themselves. A closed circle and a perfect machinery.
– I am not implying that this game is indoctrinating you, it is a lot of fun because of these mechanics and not despite them –
This is, after all, just theorising and the final game might completely prove me wrong on this. It was just an interesting thought that came to my mind while playing this game. Should this actually be the case, we can expect the game to work as intended by the developers, only due to the fact that they made the smart decision of not having all players visible at all times. Mind you, this all wouldn’t work if that were the case, since then it would be very clear when a player is alone and the uncertainty of being watched would be missing, ruining the entire situation. With that in mind, I look forward to seeing how this game and its society develops with all the free subjects inside. Knowing that in the end there is no warden, no prison, and no camera, only power.
Image sources in order of appearance:
- https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Presidio-modelo2.JPG (Last date of access: 13.06.2016)
- https://eyesfinder.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/london.jpg (Last date of access: 13.06.2016)
- http://blogs-images.forbes.com/andyrobertson/files/2015/08/the-tomorrow-children-screen-04-ps4-eu-12nov14.jpg (Last date of access: 13.06.2016)
- http://www.theaveragegamer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Tomorrow-Children-Alpha-Test-Workbench.png (Last date of access: 13.06.2016)
- http://www.gamestm.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ps_ex_ss_01_1417689982_1418123371.png (Last date of access: 13.06.2016)