Posted by: Stenros | October 2, 2009

Pervasive Games in Films Part V: The Game

The Game-5

This is the fifth part of the increasingly irregular series on films that have inspired pervasive games and play. This time I revisit the film that countless people use to explain what pervasive games are. “It’s like Fincher’s The Game, except for real.” Previous parts: I, II, III and IV.

The Game (David Fincher, 1997)

The Game has probably inspired as many games directly as La decima vittima has inspired indirectly. No other film is name-checked as often by game masters and designers. The film portrays Michael Douglas as a business man with a boring life, who sort of decides to participate in a pervasive game that completely messes up his life. Or so it seems.

The Game-2According to Jenny Wiik director David Fincher’s films Seven, The Game and Fight Club form a thematic trilogy. I can’t find a specific reference to her text right now, but if memory serves, all of these games are about hypothetical art, art that is so extreme that it cannot be carried out in reality. Using serial killing, a game the size of one’s life or a cult as a canvas would be impossible, illegal or immoral – and hence such art needs to be shown in a fictionalized context. Though I quite like Wiik’s take on these films, The Game no longer fits this bill. Though the game portrayed is a bit extreme, it in not impossible.

The real star of the film is the script. Unlike most games portrayed in films, this one makes sense and would – and indeed does – work in the real world. Nothing just happens: we see the hotel key card planted in the protagonist’s pocket, the protagonist brings the surveillance camera into his home, there is a logical explanation how the company knows about the family history and so on. Granted, there are moments when suspension of disbelief is needed, but these are results of “exciting” execution, not a stupid script. For example the shoot-out is a little too well planned with its special effects and at the end the main character just happens to jump from the exact right place. Both situations could have been conducted in a way that would have been completely believable. Also, the preposterous claims (such as using psych evaluation to guess a person’s passwords) turn out to be cons in the film, the female lead is not a prostitute, and there is no fisticuffs or other unnecessary violence in the film (in fact it is the shooting of a gun and killing a person that drives the protagonist literally over the edge). Not having any of these things in the film is almost miraculous.

The Game-3The film, as a piece of popular culture, also ties together so much of the iconography of pervasive games. Some it recycles, some it has inspired. Jefferson Airplane’s The White Rabbit plays twice, there are falling chess boards and shattering jigsaw puzzles, talk of “pulling back the curtain” and “wanting to see the wizard”, the life-sized doll, “fantasy role-play nonsense” and so forth. The game even takes place in the current hotspot of pervasive play, San Francisco. If the game was made now it could not take place anywhere else. But the film was made in 1997 – and seems frankly prescient. The only reference that I have not seen popping up is the miraculous way that playing a game changes one’s perception of reality. “Though once I was blind, now I see” says one of the characters in the film, quoting John 9:25. For some reason the Bible has never rivaled Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as a touchstone for pervasive play.

Michael Douglas had become the icon of a prosperous, wealthy business man with his portrayal of meant-as-a-villain-interpreted-by-yuppies-as-hero Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. Douglas spent the 90’s cashing in on punishing this image: first he was harassed by Demi Moore in Disclusure, then by small hamburgers and golf courses in Falling Down and finally by blurring of life and play in The Game. In the beginning of the film Douglas’ character gets a voucher for the game from his brother (Sean Penn). “What do you get the man who has everything,” muses the brother. In the end the real motive is uncovered: The wealthy business man is turning into a heartless asshole and the brother “had to do something”. This is not pervasive gaming as fun or even as therapy; this is pervasive gaming as an intervention.

The Game-1I could go on about the film, about the business model of Consumer Recreation Services, the brilliant depiction of game induced pronoia/paranoia, the larp-like activity the people the protagonist runs into perform, the surprisingly believable runtime game mastering, the design insights that one gets from the film from keys and keyholes to the abrupt false end of the game as beginning (later used in at least Majestic and Momentum) and so on…

If you are interested in pervasive play and you have not seen this film, you have missed one of the few common touchstones in the field. If you have seen this film when it came out, but not since then, I wholeheartedly recommend revisiting it. I think it has only become better with the passage of time.

Edit: Jenny commented on Facebook that her trilogy-theory was presented in Magasin Brun #1 in 2004. The discussion was about the moral limits of arts. I wasn’t too far off the mark. Also, she doesn’t completely buy the argument that The Game could be staged today. Well, maybe not, but a game very much like it…


  1. […] October 27, 2009 It was a few weeks ago, but a fellow researcher quoted me in his article on film (The Game) and pervasive gaming. It reminded me that it would be fun to write more articles on films and popular culture in […]

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