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  • Governmentality, Neoliberalism, and the Digital Game
  • Andrew Baerg (bio)

Digital games have become ubiquitous in contemporary culture. They have begun to appear on everything from cabinet arcade machines to home consoles attached to televisions to cellular phones. Although the digital game has its forerunners in the non-electronic and early electronic game machines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Huhtamo 2005, 5–10), the first digital games are understood to have appeared in the context of a Cold War military industrial context with Willy Higginbotham’s Tennis for Two in 1958 and Steve Russel’s Spacewar in 1968. However, the digital game does not become broadly popular until the 1970s (Malliet and de Meyer 2005, 23–24). Malliet and de Meyer’s periodization of digital game history locates the birth of the industry from 1973–1977 (25), an initial industry crisis from 1978–1982 (27), and then a second crisis in 1983 that ushers the industry into what they term the “Nintendo Era” over the course of the mid to late 1980s (34). The fact that these authors can outline the existence of a crisis speaks to the popularity of digital games, a popularity they note in the revenues generated by the industry, the increasing number of game developers creating digital games and of course, the growing base of players playing the games as well. This growth continues into the present.

This essay situates this growth by beginning an exploration into a larger discussion of the social history of digital games and the culture in which they were and remain popular. Popular histories1 unfold developments within the industry and point to seminal games, but fail to engage this chronology critically. This project begins to perform this work by functioning in the spirit of Williams’ call for an investigation into the connections between [End Page 115] technologies and the societies and cultures of which they are a part (1974, 3). In what follows, I discuss Foucauldian-inspired governmentality theory and its addressing of neoliberalism’s free market, briefly examine the uniqueness of the digital game and then deploy this theory to map the place of the digital game in a distinct social and cultural context. If, as McLuhan argued, the medium of games faithfully models culture (1994, 235), connecting neoliberalism to digital games may give us insight into both phenomena and contribute to an understanding of the connection between technological and social development.

Neoliberalism and Governmentality

Studies of neoliberalism find their foundation in governmentality studies. The idea of governmentality has its ground in Foucault’s explanation of the concept in his more wide-ranging discussion of power and political rationality. Foucault defines governmentality as “the way in which one conducts the conduct of men” (2008d, 186). In looking at this conduct of conduct, governmentality studies have been particularly focused on the political rationality of liberalism and its more recent derivative, neoliberalism. In his 1979 lecture series at the College de France, Foucault (Birth of Biopolitics) focused specifically on the governmentality of neoliberalism by tracing its roots in eighteenth century liberal thought. During the eighteenth century, liberalism addressed the governmental problematic of discerning the limits of government authority. The primary concern involved not where to exercise potentially unlimited power, but rather whether power should be exercised and to what degree. This shift represents a move toward thinking about freedom as opposed to thinking about power. As such, liberal governments paradoxically produced, managed, and organized freedom (2008c, 163).

This liberalism faded with the ascension of the welfare state and socialism throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. However, a revived liberalism, neoliberalism, reacted against the collectivist and interventionist state after World War II by resurrecting older liberal ideals (Foucault, 2008b). Even as the seeds of neoliberalism were nascent in the work of economists prior to World War II, its primary ideas did not come to be expressed in political parties until the late 1970s, particularly in parties associated with the New Right that rose to power under Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. during this period. Over the course of the last three decades, neoliberalism has become the guiding political rationality for democracies...


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