The Panopticon in my Bedroom: The Role of Prison Discipline in Video Gaming in the 21st Century. (Part I and II)

That they warn their players to avoid prolonged use, and to stop play and seek medical care if feeling persistent discomfort (see video of PS4 Health and Safety warning here), rings hollow when one realizes how discipline is implemented to keep players playing continuously.[5] The fact that they could easily institute an “automatic” routine to eject any player from a game when her or his playtime has reached a particular threshold, and don’t, suggests a lack of sincerity as to their concern with their consumers/players/workers.[6]

Even more insidious than physical damage, and perhaps more prevalent in the online gaming community, is the lack of a buffer between younger players and, as Bentham put it, “[persons] considered of bad character.” In my 37 days on the Battlefield frontline, I have heard, and been a recipient of, every form of racist and homophobic epithet known to man (see Figure 40). Moreover, illicit drug use is a popular theme amongst the gaming community and none more so than those who play Battlefield 4.

Figure 44 Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old gamer who was murdered by someone he met while playing an online video game.
Figure 39 Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old gamer who was murdered by someone he met while playing an online video game.

While a 45-year-old adult may be able to navigate and reconcile the gross expletives and vituperative-filled animosity of fellow players, it is not something I would expect a 7-year-old to handle.[7] The same can be said for the over-emphasis of drug use that is pervasive in the game’s culture. Whether I choose to indulge in illicit drugs or not, is based on years and years of experience and maturation, two things that a 13 or 14 year old gamer cannot possibly have. Again, to begin the process of extricating drug use from its ethos, all the game designers would have to do is eliminate player and clan names that are obviously drug-related, and remove any drug use references inherent in the game.[8]

So why won’t they do it?

Because the primary function of the panoptic discipline implemented in the game is not to protect its workers: the players, it’s to make sure they continue to buy and play the game’s successive iterations, and related content. Thus, Bentham’s ideal is both fulfilled and disappointed by the video game-Panopticon. By elevating the aspects of Bentham’s vision that relate to efficiency in economics and increasing profit, they disregard, or otherwise ignore those elements that made Bentham’s design humane and utilitarian.

Figure 45 “... every form of racist and homophobic epithet known to man.”
Figure 40 “… every form of racist and homophobic epithet known to man.”

Which leads us to the last, and in many ways, more important distinction. One of Bentham’s many triumphs was the “reversed” Panopticon contained within all of his designs (Brunon-Ernst, 29). By “reversed” I mean, the role of the public as “inspectors” of the “inspectors”. In other words, even the “governors” and “central-“inspectors” were under surveillance and expected to perform as dictated, and be rewarded, or punished for non- or even inadequate performance. Society was therefore the ultimate and final “governor” according to Bentham.

Figure 46 "The ESRB was never intended to be a regulator of gaming …"
Figure 41 “The ESRB was never intended to be a regulator of gaming …”

Alas, there is little public visibility into the black box consumers know as the video game industry. Like most software companies, they are able to act with relative autonomy and virtually no legal framework to scrutinize and regulate their impact on society.[9] The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB; see Figure 41) was never intended to be a regulator of gaming but rather serves as what Bentham would call, an, “expositor.” They are a ratings agency whose efficacy as far as online gaming is concerned is almost non-existent, and certainly ineffective.

This lack of public oversight has meant that the industry has been allowed to do virtually whatever it wants, including the widespread implementation of a panoptic principle of discipline, designed to increase the efficiency and stability of a workforce in 18th century Belarus. And while they may have succeeded in fulfilling Bentham’s panoptic scheme in ways never imagined in the 18th and 19th centuries, in shedding the “reversed” Panopticon of public supervision, and thereby, exposing its younger players to the risk of harm, they have retained the skeleton and muscle of Bentham’s ideal in their panoptic design, captured its brain in their technological brilliance, but they have clearly lost its utilitarian heart and soul (see Figure 42).

Figure 47 Jeremy Bentham, ca. 1829.
Figure 42 Jeremy Bentham, ca. 1829.

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[1] Bentham continued to work on Panopticon as a theory for government, (the so-called, “constitutional-Panopticon”), but had abandoned panoptic-architectural designs after formulating the “chrestomathic.”

[2] The electrical latencies measured between client and server during active monitoring is typically described in, “milliseconds (ms),” (see Figure 27).

[3] Methods of communication between the “automatic administrator” and player include both verbal and visual warnings as well as commands. In one of the games operational modes, known as Obliteration, players receive verbal commands like, “You’ve got the bomb! Now, take it to the target!”

[4] The Developers of Battlefield 4 recently held a competition, urging their players to score a tremendous amount of XP points online over a several day period. The players had a combined total of 2 billion points. The reward was an unlocked, and thus accessible, software beta version of the latest iteration related to the upcoming release of Battlefield: Hardline (see Figure 33).

[5] Interestingly, this health statement is part of the Playstation 4 disclaimer, accessible thru the console. There is, however, no such warning on the Playstation 3.

[6] There are several known flaws with the design of the controller that can cause injury to the muscles, joints, and tendons in the hands and forearms (see Figure 38 and video of Sony “warning”). One “flaw” in particular, is cosmetic, easy to fix, and plays no functional role in the game (known as “Dualshock”).

[7] A news report from the Daily Mail of November 25, 2014, describes the murder of a 14-year-old boy in the UK who met his killer playing an online video game. While rare, it well demonstrates the inherent dangers in the unsupervised online environment. (see Figure 39).

[8] The point reward for multi-kill events is, “420,” an obvious reference to marijuana use.

[9] The Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assoc. of 2011 established video games as “constitutionally-protected form[s] of expression.” It was a decision that has only further decoupled the video game industry from public scrutiny (

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