Panopticism in The Tomorrow Children

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.

CCTV cameras in London

– 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:


5 thoughts on “Panopticism in The Tomorrow Children

  1. Behold! God Michel Foucault has spoken and his word has reached the depths even of fictional game worlds! In fact, his concept of Panopticism fits The Tomorrow Children perfectly and proves once again, what a genius this man is. You might think that in games, where the world, its rules and, also its respective societies are supposed to be fictional, our human nature incites us automatically to adhere to a certain behaviour which we believe to be natural but is, in fact, a mere societal power relation that is so much ingrained into our lives that we don´t even recognise it as such anymore. A truly fascinating field of study.
    Let´s play a bit with the idea: with the majority of people not being conscious of this power relation (as most people won´t have read about Foucault´s theories), do you believe that they will behave accordingly and work on as productive members of society or will they understand that they are mere hamsters in a great, everlasting treadmill that only functions because they don´t break out of it? (Here again we might ask for the possibilities the game offers for deviant behaviour) In my opinion, as proven by reality, most gamers will play on in total cluelessness, rejoicing in their ostensible freedom (they decided to play the game, didn´t they?) while, in truth, emprisoning themselves (on a voluntary basis, I grant that, but how voluntary is it, if you don´t know what you´re getting yourself into) in a complex network of social regulations.
    I, for my part, still don´t see the great appeal of the game as such (I mean, we just saw that its concept can be compared easily to that of a prison) apart from its obvious psychological and sociological interest, then again, why shouldn´t this be enough?


    • A very interesting point you make and yes, I would agree that most people will be unaware of the underlying mechanics at play here. However, here comes game design into the mix: They are far less likely to break out of the hamster wheel the better the game is designed. Furthermore the society is not as infringing as our real-world counterpart meaning that there are no harsh penalties akin to a prison sentence of five year for instance. Entering voluntarily only underlines this and the gain is limited to the in-game world and only has purpose there. Performance studies differentiate between work and play, but here work and play seem oddly merged together into an indistinct bulk, the wet dream of any capitalist society really. Yet since they all enter on a voluntary basis there is the possibility of total neglect of regulations. Perhaps at some point it would prove more fruitful to raid nearby towns rather than go into a mine and we would end up with a dystopian version of the original idea. All of that is a valid possibility. I can understand your reluctance in regard to the entire experience, but it is rather fascinating to me and I will be a participant either to construct the ideal society or burn it to the ground.


  2. The game does not show characters who are idle, unless they are idle while interacting with an object that requires a free space to be available before it can be used, e.g., riding on a bus or driving a vehicle.

    Characters are only visible to others when they perform an action, like picking up or dropping items, or using an emote, or, when another player intentionally tries to reveal them by using the whistle (which has an audible cue, informing the player that someone near by can see them).

    Players can know when they are being observed and avoid being observed in most cases if they so desire and if they understand the rules of the game. However, an observer cannot always know for certain if they are watching someone in the middle of griefing.

    For example, a town with a town hall requires metal to level up the structure. Unless a town is built with specific lines of sight to allow for observation, it might be very difficult to tell if someone who takes a load of metal and does not deposit it in the storage facility is taking that metal to the Town Hall, or if they are taking it to another town. Leveling up a Town Hall is an important function that brings value to the town, but with no way to communicate between players, there’s no way to be sure that an objectively valuable but obscure act can’t be mistaken for griefing.

    Sorry to disagree with your theory, but I don’t think that Panopticism is a valid interpretation of this particular experience.


    • First of all, thank you for your comment and never be sorry for disagreeing, since I love to discuss.
      If players are aware of the mechanisms (and I am not just referring to the fact that they exist, but the specifics behind them) then yes, indeed that would ruin the entire Panopticism-theory, since it would equate the prisoner being aware of the warden’s working hours and when he can be sure to be unobserved. My point, however, regards players that are unaware of the specific nature of these mechanics only their existence. Through time they can probably figure them out via trial and error if necessary if they so desire, but my argument was based on an unaware player subjected to these mechanics. Would you then still disagree based on the fact that perhaps a player looking to “cheat the system” would go out of his way and put work into searching for the specificities of these mechanics?
      Regarding your argument about griefing, I have to agree. My mistake was to think that drop off zone, bus, and town’s hall are not always directly next to one another. I have visited six towns in total during the beta I believe and all of them had these structures arranged this way, so I simply assume this to be a given and fixed arrangement. Mistake on my part so thank you for clearing that up. The consequences are as you pointed out and actions could not be properly judged or even recognised in the first place.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s