Episode notes and references:

“Dystopian Games: Diagnosing Modernity as the Scene of Tests, Trials and Transformations”, article, Tom Boland, January 5, 2023, Sage Journals

Sorry to Bother You, film, written by Boots Reilly, 2018

Half Earth Socialism, book by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettes, game by Son La Pham and Francis Tseng

Red Plenty Games, collective producing political strategy games

Ep. 3 Tom Boland on our modern gladiators and the real world hunger games

Max Haiven: Hello and welcome to the “Exploits of Play”. This is a podcast about the strange and unexpected roles of games and play in our stage of capitalism that just keeps getting weirder and weirder. My name is Max Haiven and I am Canada Research Chair in the Radical Imagination. 

Halle Frost: And I’m Halle Frost. I’m from the platform Weird Economies and we’re presenting this podcast.

Today, our interview is with Tom Boland. Dr. Tom Boland is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University College, Cork. His main research interests are in critique, culture, unemployment, and welfare, though recently Dr. Boland has been interested in the proliferance of dystopian games and media, such as the Hunger Games or “Squid Game.

Max, could you tell us more about Tom’s article, “Dystopian Games: Diagnosing Modernity as the Scene of Tests, Trials, and Transformations”, and why we’ve asked Tom on the show today?

Max Haiven: Well, in doing research for the “Exploits of Play”, this podcast, and also a book I’m working on, which is tentatively titled The Player and the Played, from Financialization to Fascism, I’ve been really curious about the incredible success of a number of cinematic spectacles, notably the incredible success of Hunger Games and “Squid Game.

Hunger Games, of course, being the best selling young adult fiction series, and “Squid Game” being the best seller– I think until this point– the single largest grossing streaming series ever to have been produced, was originally produced in South Korea. And Hunger Games is about the trials and tribulations of an adolescent girl who is recruited to play in these gladiatorial games as part of her community’s tribute to an evil empire that rules over them.

where all of these tributary communities have to sacrifice two of their youth every year to feed the terroristic regime of something called the capital and then squid game is a south korean show about Poor unemployed and heavily indebted people who sort of sign themselves up to play a gladiatorial game again That’s based on sort of sadistic Lethal versions of children’s games.

And I think it’s really interesting that these two stories would become so prevalent in our particular moment. It’s not the first that this has happened. I mean, even beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and 80s, there were television shows and films with this kind of premise. But really that these two should have become huge blockbusters in the early 21st century, I think tells us a huge amount about something we all feel.

And in my theorization that is that we are all trapped in an unwinnable but compulsory game. And the other name we give to that unwinnable compulsory game is financialized neoliberalism. We all feel like we’re forced to play, but yet we don’t really have much of a chance of winning. And I was on the lookout for scholars who have said similar things, much more articulately than I can, and I came across Tom’s work and was really impressed.

In Tom’s article, he thinks through how the Hunger Games, especially, begin to represent various elements of the things that we all experience. And here he draws on the theories of a couple of French sociologists who are really thinking through how in neoliberal capitalism, we’re all forced into these constant tests that aim to demonstrate our fitness, our to not only compete, but really to survive within a neoliberal economy that is increasingly cruel.

So at precisely the moment when social welfare gets cut, when healthcare systems get cut, when our access to education becomes increasingly privatized, when housing becomes a financialized asset to invest in. When almost everything in life makes us feel like we need to be competitors in a high stakes, winner take all game, these cinematic spectacles emerge.

And the thing I like about Tom’s work is, it would be easy to say that these spectacles emerge just as a form of critique, right? They give expression to our frustration. But I’m not so sure that’s true. And I think in this interview, Tom reveals that he’s a bit skeptical to the dystopian work we hope these narratives are doing, do we need to be warned about a system that already embraces and affects us all?

Or do these spectacles give expression to our feelings of angst without the need to actually changing them to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s famous and fateful words about the aestheticization of politics under the Nazi regime.

Give us a story about how you came to be working on the, on the topics you’re working on now, starting with a kind of childhood experience of games and play and what and what you learned from games and play. 


Tom Boland: One of the first things that really got me interested in sociology or in society was when I was young, I used to play Dungeons and Dragons.

And when I played Dungeons and Dragons back in the day, you know, it was just myself and my brother. So there wasn’t, there wasn’t a competitive thing against each other. It was very much a kind of storytelling role play kind of thing. And in order to make that work imaginatively, in a way you had to think about society, about like, ‘Well, if you do this or if you do that, how will people react?’

Or if you become the king of, you know, the west or the east or something like that, well, what happens to the north and the south and how, how would they react if you invade your neighbors or something like that? So, you begin at first to think about society by thinking of other worlds and imagining how it could be.


Max Haiven: Yeah, it’s amazing that we’re these days in a renaissance of Dungeons and Dragons again, largely thanks to the pandemic and the affordances of Zoom and people being able to play on Zoom, but also since we’re going to be talking about popular television to the incredible success of “Stranger Things”.

That’s this show which became a huge blockbuster where the kids are playing Dungeons and Dragons.  


Tom Boland: The show, when I watch it, people interpret things in different ways. When I watched that show, I see the arc of Dungeons and Dragons the whole time, the development and the challenge, and bit by bit it kind of builds up.

This is one of my kind of, ambivalent points. If you begin to look at life as though it were a game, or if you look at life as though it were a drama or a play or something. Well, that kind of helps because you can make sense of things rather than just thinking, well, life is just one thing after another and nothing makes sense.

Everything is sound and fury signifying nothing. But on the other hand, I mean there are some things which you just can’t incorporate into your model of what’s a game or if it’s a player’s drama because they don’t make sense and they’re meaningless. And maybe it can also be problematic or harmful or damaging to ideologically shoehorn everything into a game model or a game view of the world.


Max Haiven: So we’re going to be speaking today, particularly about “Squid Game” and Hunger Games, two incredibly popular cinematic spectacles that have been released within the last decade or so, both of which depicts the protagonists as caught up in a gladiatorial battle of all against all, often facilitated by dominant power structures in Hunger Games.

We of course, have the capital, which is this kind of massive dystopian authoritarian regime, which horrifically oppresses and exploits a variety of sort of internal colonies and then forces their children every year to participate in a gladiatorial battle in the sort of classic bread and circuses mode of both intimidating these vassal states by abducting their children and then also providing a kind of sick entertainment for those same people that they’re oppressing.

And then “Squid Game”, the South Korean Netflix series, depicts very heavily indebted people who are sort of compelled by economic necessity to sign up to participate in a reality TV show. It’s not reality TV, it’s a sort of contest, but a contest being staged, it turns out, spoiler alerts, for a small sort of elite with their sort of sadistic pleasure to watch these poor people compete with one another.

I guess I wanted to begin with, what do you see as the kind of dominant or generally accepted interpretation of these shows? And do you find that satisfying? Do you find that kind of explanation of what these shows mean in this moment satisfying? I mean, talking to people about it and reading reviews of the books, of the movies, of the Netflix series, of these and other similar things, say, “Battle Royale” or “The Maze Runner”, episodes of “Black Mirror” or whatever.


Tom Boland: The general interpretation seems to be that these dystopian visions, they provide some sort of criticism of the system. Of course we all know that, okay, the system isn’t quite so bad as it is in the Hunger Games, you know, I mean we have neoliberalism and we have a drift towards authoritarian liberalism, but we’re not quite at the stage of people being sacrificed live on television— that is not really happening as such yet.

We’re not quite there yet. So it’s interesting. It’s a representation of what could be considered a dire warning and this kind of dire warning serves as reading often for youth and young people. They’re often oriented towards that. Particularly that there’s a whole genre of YA, young adult dystopia.

And the interpretation is that these will in some way or another sensitize us to the problems of capitalism, the abuses of the state, the problem of surveillance, and having been sensitized we’re like, ‘we don’t want things to go too far’ that maybe will prevent them from going too far or something.

And yet, I’m not sure, does that really serve the purpose, the explicit purpose? Because what are we standing up against? Maybe we stood up against Trump in some way or another, but are we going to stand up against the far right as it begins to emerge across Europe again in very frightening, invisible ways?


Does watching dystopian films cause us to take action rather than just burying our head in the sands and hoping that it’ll go away? I suppose that’s a kind of test that we won’t see the the outcome of it very swiftly, but I’m not sure does it really do what it says on the tin, you know?

Maybe we get many different things out of these programs and perhaps we get some sort of feeling because they’re sort of a little bit niche. Okay these are very pop drones that we’re talking about. Often people have this sense of, ‘I watch these. I read these. I know not everybody knows, and therefore, I’ve got the insight track, and I understand better than other people.’

Which would be a bizarrely capitalist sort of outcome, a competitive, consumer oriented outcome to it. I don’t buy that completely either. Maybe it’s something in between those. You could say these are just parables that maybe help us think about our world in certain ways, rather than providing a clear direction for politics, They cause us to ruminate and dwell on these issues.


Max Haiven: When Hunger Games first came out, I remember reading the books to my son, who was at that age at that time as well, and also thinking about the politics of it, and initially being very excited, along with someone like Mark Fisher, who was a big fan of Hunger Games, at this incredible on the nose critique of capitalism.

I mean, the villain is literally called the Capital, and it really feels like it’s something taken from Fanon with this kind of whole apparatus of psychological domination of the colonized areas and the pitting of different territories against each other. And similarly, with “Squid Game”, I think initially I was very excited because even I think the maker of the series sort of indicts capitalism and the particular South Korean form of capitalism.

But I realized around that time, too, that there were other people out there. Who had very different interpretations of those texts than my sort of preferred reading. I remember around the time, I guess, of the aftermath of the Tea party in the United States, and the rise of what we’ve come to associate with the kind of Make America Great Again, sort of, proto fascist, neo fascist formations.

And a lot of people within those communities really associated with Hunger Games as well, because they saw it as the domination of the free individual by this sort of, what they, what they consider to be like socialism, or communism, or sort of woke, the woke conspiracy. To sort of repress the salt of the earth, good people of what in Hunger Games is represented as Appalachia.

And then similarly, I think that “Squid Game, even though it’s this critique of debt encumbrance under capitalism, and probably comes from a fairly left wing place, also opens itself up to these other interpretations that would militate against any kind of really effective means to confront neoliberalism, maybe actually those interpretations lend themselves to people feeling like they need to join authoritarian movements or associate with a kind of neo-authoritarian politics, precisely in the name of not being delivered into this future.


Tom Boland: I think that you’re really on the money there because these were properly satires of capitalism and yet they’ve become reintegrated into the general satire of the state because so many of those classic dystopias are satires of the state and I often think there’s good reasons for that, if you’re coming out of the period of World War II or well in people like that, of course, it’s like the satire of the state.

Big thing. I think that our imagination, in our popular imagination, it’s not like there aren’t critiques of capitalism or satires of capitalism. “Sorry to Bother You”, which is just absolutely fantastic, critique of capitalism, you know. But, these particular texts, like, I mean, the South Korean debt levels are huge. The connection is kind of obvious. The way in which people are put in competition against each other is very obvious. There’s not even a state. You know, these are just plutocrats who are making this game go on. So it’s unusual that that could be interpreted as anything other than a critique against capitalism, but yet it’s always the critique of the state.

Okay, sure, maybe we should critique the states in certain ways, but there’s nothing There’s nothing more often critiqued by liberalism or neoliberalism than the state, you know, the state is regulating us or in these, as you say, these, these originist, these kind of autonomous movements, these fascist movements, even here with the sort of like, well, the state is, you know, I don’t know, creating this out of the other condition, which would undermine the people and so forth.


Max Haiven: Yeah, and it strikes me from what you’re saying and what we’re talking about here that in these shows as well, they speak to some feeling that we all have, that we’re basically made to do gladiatorial battle against one another. Within a neoliberal world where we can’t really win except by throwing each other under the proverbial bus.

Because they’re sort of fantasies, I mean, in the case of Hunger Games, a dystopian fantasy set far in the future. And in terms of “Squid Game, this kind of like, strange heterotopian space on a billionaire’s island. They don’t give us the actual facts of our world to allow us to make sense of why we have those feelings.

They, in some sense, give expression to those feelings. To take up sort of what you’re saying here, that these texts are not, they might be allegorical, but they’re speaking to many, many different things in a very large, wide, global audience. A set of feelings that we might all experience, but we might experience for different reasons, with different local expressions.


Tom Boland: Some of the things that emerge from Hunger Games, you know, it does have the revolution and the hero, and the hero is always very individualistic and authentic, and the point about Katniss is, you know, she can’t fake it, she must do it for real, it’s her rebellious streak, the whole way through it that’s redemptive.

I’m not saying that’s just The Hunger Games inspired this, but the position, of young women as a specific kind of protest or criticism of power, standing up people like, well, Emma Watson, who is of course famous from Harry Potter, which is an interesting crossover, but then became an important sort of feminist figure, or Greta Thunberg, or those kind of very traditional heroic values, you know.

It’s not so much a socialist revolution, it could be anybody’s revolution, it’s any anti state revolution by the people, and these claims for on behalf of the people, well, you know, in the French Revolutionary sense, you know, we the people sounds good, but when, when the phrase people, you know, on behalf of the people.

Who speaks on behalf of the people? All the strong men, autocrats that are emerging, in populist movements around the globe, always claim to speak on behalf of the people. But by the people, they usually mean, well, people like me, and not the immigrants, basically, and not the queer folks or anything like that, you know. So it’s easily hijacked– revolution, that’s it. And standing against the system or rebelling against the system is quite easily hijacked. The more specific and harder work for the post revolutionary creating of a better society doesn’t make such a good film, you know. I get to see a really interesting, film or book about after the dystopia was crushed, then we all got on to sharing and gardening and things like that.


Max Haiven: It’s true. It doesn’t have that dramatic flair. The endless meetings. I wanted to ask you about something that occurs in both of these, spectacles that I find particularly interesting, which is the blurring of the borders of the game that happens in both narratives and the limitlessness of the game, as well as you point out in your article, that in, I think in both stories, you have this thing where the player thinks they’ve beaten the game, and then it’s only to be revealed that they’re actually in a bigger game.

So, you know, in Hunger Games, I’ve you know, again, spoiler alert, and I think it’s the final book in the series or in the final film, the characters do in fact win the Hunger Games, but then they realize that their revolution is also a game and is also kind of potentially being gamed. And at the end of Hunger Games, Katniss, the main character can’t even tell if she’s in a game anymore and sort of devolves into a kind of delusional, maybe not delusional. It’s a very interesting ending in a certain sense, that I think to its credit really deals with  what the aftermath of being a child soldier would be like. And then in “Squid Game” as well, you have this moment in the later episodes of what I guess is the first season, because I hear they’re making a second season of it, where the winner of the “Squid Game”, it’s revealed that in fact the he’s already in a kind of bigger metagame that’s being orchestrated by the person he thought was his ally in the game, who in fact is the game master.

What do you make of this?


Tom Boland: It’s what makes it so fascinating to watch. Because there’s this sort of explicit game. It’s like here’s a competition. You either have to fight to the death against people or survive a challenge that in the end, the challenge is to kill off everybody but one.

So you’re in a way competing against people. So it’s clear as day that this is a game, and a deadly game, and you put in the game. And then, then you have the extension of the game, so that even when there’s not an explicit game going on. You end up playing a game without clear rules.


So the game for popularity in the Hunger Games is a very important game, in order to be supported by being sent a gift or something like that. And eventually it becomes very important to kind of garner support when the revolution is getting going to get all of the districts or colonies or whatever they are on board.

So creating this show and the spectacle is very much part of the Hunger Games. And even the love scene between Peeta and Katniss or whatever, is it real? Or is it just for show, or is it just for boats or something? So, and you know, something like love. You know, it can be just a game.

Well, then, you know, the world is very strongly gamified. But yeah, the game outside the game, is life just a game? You know, is politics just a game? There’s a tendency for disciplines to sort of extend their vision of things from what is obviously their purview to life in general. And this can be problematic. Say for instance, you know, there’s markets, there’s economics to study markets, but then if you start talking about the marriage market, well, then you’re taking something which is not really what the market takes for ideas, but there are serious economists who for half a century, Gary Becker especially, talk about the economic way of looking at everything.

And so politics becomes a market, a market for political parties, you know, there’s a market for arms dealers, a market for allies, it’s sort of endless. And similarly with a game, I mean, should we consider the effort to find friends and allies? Is that part of the game? Is politics a game?

Are we making a play for different systems that are playing against each other? I’m not trying to say that this is false or wrong, so much as draw attention to the ways in which there might be certain effects to us beginning to think of life in a particular way. If we begin to think of our own lives, as a game, a game for status, a game for prestige, a game for friends, a game for whatever. If we begin to think of politics as a horse race for votes or something like that and popularity, then what happens? We certainly might lose something along the way there.


Max Haiven: In your article, you present something really interesting, which is thinking about these game spectacles,Squid Game” and Hunger Games, in terms of a kind of modern arc of the ordeal or the test, which has been folded into our neoliberal moments of testing— a kind of obsession with testing, whether it’s forcing children in schools to do constant standardized testing as a kind of disciplinary measure against public education, or the kind of testing of employees.

But, but you speak of it more generally, too, as this kind of sense that through the test there’s some sort of way in which a subject becomes subscribed within a kind of neoliberal world, and that happens through a certain obsession with our idea that we can transform, that we can change. Maybe you could go through first just about this sort of society of tests and testing and ordeals and how they connect to these spectacles.


Tom Boland: Yeah, we live in a world in which we are tested and measured in certain ways. We’re measured as people by our CVs, we’re measured in scholars by our production and there’s a whole range of things that keep track of, how well we’re doing. Are we publishing? Are we being cited?

And, and those journals in turn are subject to the test of– have they got a good impact factor? Or something like that, so there’s not a huge gulf, a difference between being a driver for delivery or something and getting stars every time you deliver, or TripAdvisor and these various ways in which we get given gold stars when we produce well. So we’re constantly subject to monitoring and we engage in monitoring each other. We write reviews on Yelp about things, and it’s like, well, what is with this urg to judge, to make an assessment of things? We live in a world in which we expect things to be reviewed and revised and tested.

And what kind of consequences does that have? Because there was a time in which there was not none of this because maybe there was schooling, but there was certainly much less of it. We were less visible on the internet, on social media.We didn’t have, you know, a page saying, you know, Tom Boland has zero followers or something like that. He must be a jerk. You know, there’s no point– don’t talk to him. He’s nobody. And yes, then the bizarre thing with seeing influence and while they’re there.

An influencer is famous for being famous. They have a million followers, therefore they must have something important to say. But do they? And so there’s a kind of problem, is it worth it?

More if it’s in a popular space or place or even in a popular podcast, does that matter? Also the pressure that that puts on people. We spend our time thinking, ‘Am I doing well in the rankings?’ And ‘What do I need to do in order to do better in the rankings?’ It can become quite dystopian.

Certainly the Black Mirror episode, “Nosedive”, takes this to an extreme in which everybody constantly rates each other out of five for every interaction. And your social credit goes up or down which is dystopian and nightmarish to the nth degree. But the point about that show, is that at the very end, possibly they say, ‘Well, damn it, I’m getting rid of all that’.

I’m not interested in that anymore. But the point of. 99% of the show is something like, well, how does that rating system form you as a person? Does it  make you a ratings chaser because it’s something whereby, often in dystopias we get a sense of, well, upon the innocent people, this terrible system is foisted and they are oppressed and maybe they’re ideologically conned into it or something. But we’re kind of drawn into it and we’ve become part of the whole system, you know, I mean, everybody in “Squid Game competes, you could just say, ‘Oh, I’m not competing’ or you could compete differently or something like that.


Max Haiven: Yeah, I found that argument really convincing and also the argument that you make and correct me if I get this a little bit incorrect, but that underneath. You point out that in both of the spectacles, you have characters who refuse the normative orientation of the game, in the sense that the protagonist in “Squid Game” kind of refuses to participate in the all against all Hobbesian The plot of Hunger Games is in fact, that Katness also to a certain extent refuses and forms alliances that are meaningful in relationships, but they don’t they continue to play the game, and they continue to be sort of transformed by the game.

And I think one of the things I found really interesting about your article is to suggest that in fact, we might be tempted to imagine that the ideological orientation of these texts is to say, ‘Don’t worry. Even though this looks like a dystopia, you can choose Utopian values or human values over the horrifying scenario that you’ve been trapped in, you can choose friendship and solidarity and alliances, against this kind of, imposition of the war of all against all’. Yet on some level, there’s something else deeper going on, which is that the neoliberal kind of variation on modernity that’s being expressed here is one that insists that we can and we must transform ourselves through the game. 

That transformation is what’s compulsory. And I think many of us imagine the transformation is always temporary. That it’s an unqualified good because of course we don’t want to be stagnant beings in the world, but I think you’re pointing towards something deeper about the kind of ideological expectations and messages that I think are quite important here I wonder if you could just walk us through them a tiny bit again.


Tom Boland: This is one of the reasons I wrote because it was it just seemed there’s scarce a film or a book nowadays in which there’s not a coming of age story or that people don’t learn and see the truth or something like that.

You don’t defeat the big bad guy just by getting a bigger gun. You always defeat the bad guy by resolving your daddy issues or making best friends again with the people you lost touch with. Or one of these personal transformations or something like that. When I talked to colleagues about this paper, the criticism that came back from some people was, or the question that came back from some people was, ‘Well, does anybody really get transformed in Squid Game?’ You know, and I was like, no, I don’t know. Because it’s very much part of the plot of a kind of Western literature– transformation, conversions, road to Damascus. It’s stitched into the way we think about characters, character development. And I thought, well, maybe I’m imposing this on to “Squid Game”. And I’m still unsure about whether this applies very well to “Squid Game”. But I mean, Gi hun, he definitely, you know, he starts off being a gambler.

He starts off quite selfish. And then he eventually, you know, he goes out of his way to aid other players and he kind of begins to make, you know, alliances that are meaningful to him. So there’s some sort of transformation through the game. And then towards the end of it, I mean, when he wins, and it’s a very bitter win, and he becomes, you know, very clearly sort of depressed and retreats, doesn’t make any use of his power.

Great winnings or anything like that, until he realizes again that he has to perhaps have a role or a purpose in opposing the continuance of “Squid Game”, because he sees the old man and he sees the recruiter again. So this is going on, you know, so he begins to find a reason in it. But I mean, whilst those are ambivalent transformations, because it’s not a heroic transformation until possibly the end.

And even then it’s unsure. We’ll have to wait. I hope that the second edition of “Squid Game” doesn’t blow my ideas out of the water, but maybe it will, and then it’ll be good. You’ll have to make me rethink but, most people end up being transformed by the game from participants who are unaware in the beginning that they’re going to be competing to eliminate other people.

They vote to go home and then eventually say, ‘Oh, dammit, I can’t keep this life going by myself. I can’t face the consequences of that. I’ll enter a squid game by preference to this’. And it’s like, wow, that’s a bit of a transformation in itself. And then you see the kind of rather nefarious tactics that come in eventually, you know, in the Marbles game, you know, there’s a complete betrayal of, of supposed friends, which brings forward that kind of sense of performance and playing the game or gaming the game or gaming alliances or something like that, you know?

So if we are transformed by games. And if those games aren’t “good games”—if those games don’t reward things solidarity, mutual care… if the games reward things like competitiveness, cutthroatness, viciousness, dissimilation, lies, deceit, well then we surely would be transformative to those kind of people.

And as you say, if these dystopias in some way or another represent a reading of neoliberal capitalism, well then maybe they’re a warning that the more you get involved in a competitive game, to be the best in your field or to win the dating, scene or something like that, well then maybe that’ll have attendant transformations for your life which are not all necessarily going to be positive they will be transformed into cutthroat competitors.


Max Haiven: I was thinking that in these narratives, you do have these kind of personal transformations, but it would seem, and I feel like I’m just riffing on what you’re saying here, that essentially what they sort of insist that the problem with these systems is that they can be overcome by transforming ourselves.

Essentially, we transform ourselves into more ethical or better individuals, then we can either subvert the game or escape the game or cheat the game or win at the game by other rules. But what’s off the table and somehow in these narratives, perhaps structurally to go back to something we were discussing before because of the way that Hollywood style cinematic narrative is constructed.

There’s never a chance to actually change the game or to refuse the game for all of the game players to rise up together and say like, ‘No, we’re not playing anymore’. There’s many individual heroes who can transform themselves in that kind of building romance sense of, you know, development, but there’s not a kind of collective action that seems possible within these worlds.

I mean, that’s the loser who says that and this is a terminology from Johan Huizinga, like people don’t mind the cheat. You’re allowed to cheat as an individual, but the thing you’re not allowed to be as the spoil sport who calls into it. You’re questioning the game itself.

Nobody likes a spoil sport, but we can accept a cheat. and that was making me think, just to go back to what you were mentioning a moment ago, about the way that these narratives fit within a kind of, cinematic, and dramatic arc that we’ve been habituated to accept. The arc is always fixated on the individual and their transformation, their growth, and it’s very difficult to depict what a collective transformation would happen in, for very similar reasons to the reason why it’s so difficult to depict a post dystopian world where, you know, we’re gardening and having meetings and, you know, transforming in ways that are mutually transformative.

Yeah, I wonder what you think of that. 


Tom Boland: I suppose the question is what sort of transformation are we talking about here? You know, because we have this, we have this long history of thinking about transformations. you convert, you see the light, therapy transformations, you become a better person, or self help transformations that you can, you can change, you can change your inner monologue, or your inner dialogue, or whatever it is, and you can, you can work on yourself, and all this work on yourself kind of stuff.

And I think that, to an extent, perhaps, expect that model of self transformation to somehow or other, you know, transpose or translate. to the big structural kind of thing. But, you know, maybe that’s, maybe that metaphor kind of isn’t, isn’t powerful enough or doesn’t describe what, what actually really happens, you know.

Are we going to change the world through changing hearts and minds in the sort of sense of the transformation you go through an ordeal, you come out as a better person. Is that the way, it’s not a bad thing. We should certainly think about changing hearts and minds and educating and waking up and, you know, these kind of things are important projects.

But are they sufficient to deliver the kind of changes that we expect? There’s a sort of almost, a metaphorical ness about, about our idea of change. When we say revolution— How would we unpack that, and how would we do the detail of that, and what kind of things would have to be rearranged in order to get from our current predicament to a livable and sustainable future?

What sort of things would we actually have to do? We often don’t get the sort of detail on those, because the detail at the moment might be something like, what are we going to do about, about climate change? At the moment, the talk is we must get rid of fossil fuels and phase out fossil fuels.

Well, nobody’s against that and all that, but what would our lives look like after that? You know, what, what sort of transformations or what sort of changes is, you know, we transform our society into a fossil fuel free society. And broadly speaking, people are probably saying, well, that’s great.

Everything will be wind energy or maybe a nuclear energy or something, which just have loads of energy and get to do all the things we used to do. And the underside of that story might be something, ‘Actually, you’re gonna have to change your life in very mundane kind of ways. Like you may have to do less than half of the amount of activity that you do now you may have to work locally, or you may have a local labor market, you may not have a car anymore.’

These things may be no longer possible because there’s sort of ecological limits to these sort. And, we may not be able to have the internet all the time. You know, maybe the, I mean, because the, the amount of, amount of, so those would be sort of, you know, really kind of concrete changes.

You know, but instead we like to think in terms of transformation, everything just glows, and the horizon is reached, and at the sunset, we walk off into the sunset, into a new world, transformed. so, I kind of think that the metaphor of transformation may be, and our expectations for it to be big, and for it to be sudden, and also for it to be mainly about how we think.

And what we say, you know, because, you know, you can find a lot of people who say, well, you know what, I’m not, I don’t want to be sexist, I don’t want to be racist, and say these things, but to actually change these structures that have arisen out of patriarchy and colonialism will involve a lot more Detailed concrete hard work, you know, so, yeah, I sometimes think that, our addiction to the talk of transformation and even our, our, our talk of revolution, you know, is, is, is maybe too fictional a world, you know, but of course these fictions are powerful in a way and can be very useful.

I’m not sure what we should, we should replace them with, but they’re not delivering as such in, in the ways that we might expect them to, or delivery is a lot more slow than that. 


Max Haiven: I wondered if you did want to talk about Sorry to Bother You, because I think it’s actually a really good example.


Tom Boland: It’s interesting, that does end up with a revolution, right? They’re almost like twin tracks in that story. You know, say the Hunger Games, it turns on whether or not Katniss can transform to be a hero and shoot the right person at the right moment or something like that. So her personal heroism is how we get out of books one, two, and three, you know? As far as I recall. Whereas, in “Sorry to Bother You”, you have kind of the corruption of an individual who does well as they win the game of being good at, selling stuff by doing white voice and they kind of manage that.

And then they drift into the world of the billionaires and kleptomaniacs and so forth. And, you know, their story is interesting, but it’s the story of them, them betraying their union, fellow members. And then as far as the spoiler alert here, but it’s the attempt to create horse like workers, which creates the conditions for a proletarian revolution.

So it’s the Marxist notion that the more you render people as alienated labor, the more likely they are to become a revolution class. And that revolutionary class, operates entirely independently of the main protagonist who is undergoing stuff and might learn or something like that.

You know, there’s [00:40:00] nothing much to learn. The union organizers already know what should be happening. It’s plain to see in front of you what we should do. A lot of things, these things are plain and don’t require a good deal of changing of hearts and minds. We need alterations of systems is the way I’d see that.

To give you an example of it in Ireland and probably across the world in different places, we have a problem with housing and rent. These are too expensive. We call this the housing crisis. Everywhere you go, you will find that there are, a really large proportion of second homes that are owned by richer people, you know?

And we don’t just say, well, we’re just going to take those back into circulation. You can’t have second homes anymore. If you have one home, that’s enough. You know, if there is a second family or a second household, well, you might have a case or something like that, but you know, for the state to say, well, we’ll do this. But instead in Ireland, and in many other countries, there’s a housing crisis, and then there’s a refugee crisis, and then you have the far right saying there’s not enough space, when there actually is and it becomes a question of the scapegoating of the migrant.

Wouldn’t it be much more pleasant if we said, well look, it’s these unoccupied houses. They’re all over the west coast of Ireland, these holiday homes, and so forth. But, and you don’t need to change anybody’s hearts and minds even about this. We just can’t do that anymore.


Max Haiven: All right. You know, it’s been a really illuminating conversation, and I wonder if there’s anything that you’d like to talk about that we haven’t talked about yet, or if there are any examples that you can think of of either films or television or even games that you think might move us closer, move us away from that, that kind of hero individualist notion of transformation and towards thinking more structurally and politically about collective and social transformation.


Tom Boland: One of the things about games is it brings people together as such. You actually have to collaborate in the creation of a world, even if it’s a quite simple world of snakes and ladders that you decide that these dice represent this and these squares represent this, you know, and the more elaborate the game is, the more you have to be together.

I was thinking about this recently, because computer games, You know, I mean, there’s, there can be collaborative and connection into those, but they are so much more virtual or so much more, so much more verisimilitude of reality. If you’re, if you’re doing a computer game compared to a war game on a table or something like that, you just, you just, I mean, it’s there, you press the buttons, it’s there, you know.

And the, the orientation of, of just being together and having that solidarity of saying, well, you know, we’re going to amuse ourselves. And we’re going to agree that. For this hour, you know, x equals four or something like that, and whatever it is, you agree upon this reality. So I think that just toot court or tootsweet or whatever, in general, game playing is kind of pro social and quite positive in that way.

[00:42:50] Max Haiven:

There’s an interesting game that was developed by Son La Pham and Francis Tseng based on a book by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettes called, Half Earth Socialism. And it’s a fascinating, it’s a kind of a computer game in which you basically need to, usher through a kind of green transition that’s based on some of the themes brought up in, Vitezian Prendergast’s book, which is quite a radical suggestion that we need a planned economy.

So, again, to go back that there needs to be some sort of state of some form that is going to plan a global economy which of course is the top heresy and the neoliberal romance. I’m not saying I necessarily agree with it as a, as a position, but it has this heretical character to it and then the second heretical claim of the book is that half of the earth basically needs to be rewild. so it would only be a development scheme for half the earth. And I think what’s interesting about that game, even though it’s not gonna please most video game players, because the graphics aren’t super sophisticated, and the gameplay is slow, and it’s very complicated, and the feedback mechanisms aren’t as, as seductive as most video games in 2023.

But what is interesting is that it really does try and ask this question, how would you make a game out of the kind of slow, boring, policy oriented transformations that we would need in order to move to a ecologically just world based on a lot of our Very boring data. like the game is kind of is a game of simulation, more of a simulation than a game in some ways, based on a ton of data that the authors and the game designers cultivated.

And I mean, it’s an interesting game, maybe in the sense also that it, as soon as you play it, it kind of makes you a bit angry because— I won’t spoil what they come across, but like arguments around nuclear power, for instance, the game takes a very particular position on that.

The game is very pro vegan, which is not gonna make everyone happy. So all of those things, I’m just thinking about it as an example. And I don’t know if we’ll get to mention it on the podcast else another time. So I want to hijack the interview here just to mention it as a really interesting example of a kind of a different kind of game, not just thinking about how do you take already existing game dynamics and slap a kind of more progressive message on it.

One that actually forces us to think a little bit differently about like subjectivity, about what it means to me. You know, it moves us beyond this idea that, oh, we just need to transform our hearts and minds and feel differently and speak differently and act differently as individuals, but that we need some sort of, collective agency, cooperative agency, social agency, that usually doesn’t have a place in a popular culture that we consume. 

[00:46:02] Tom Boland: There’s an awful lot of talk about parameters and tipping points. And it almost, you know, maybe it’s just like paid. I play more computer games than I go to COP28 summits, but it almost seems like the dashboard of a whole mega game, you have so many people and it’s like, and so many drivers. If you just do X, then you’d have less Y, if you did something about the Amazon, then maybe you wouldn’t have to do so much about the Tundra or something like that, if you did a little bit of rewilding here or something. When you read books about it, something people say is, ‘Well, you know coal isn’t great, but it’s better than wood’ or something like that. Or, ‘We want renewables, but there’s the problem about the rare minerals and what we’ll do to the world to get hold of these rare minerals’.

And it does feel like, some sort of version of one of those classic games like “Civilization” or “Sims” or something like that. We’re kind of playing a game, “Save the World”, or a game which, as far as some people are concerned, “Save our Current Way of Life”, you know, those may be incompatible games. We may have to change one in order to fulfill the other.

But it’s interesting that the parameters of the game are not that it’s morally wrong, Or that there’s an absolute value whereby you should not behave in an unsustainable way for the ecology. The parameter is the ecology will no longer support you as a system which produces oxygen and water and decent climatic conditions for growth or something like that, or for agriculture or anything like that.

So it’s interesting that we don’t orient towards these things. Outside of a game frame and a game frame is fundamentally a strategic frame, you know, and strategy is a matter of rationality, efficiency, possibly the making of alliances and so forth, but those alliances again are merely pragmatic and not on a matter of principle.

We play the game taking the risk, most of the time it’ll be okay or something because we don’t have a principled position to say, ‘Well, okay, we’re currently unsustainable, this absolutely has to stop’. We have different principles for why we do different things.

Is there some kind of moral or ethical principle you can bring to inspire people to behave differently? The ways in which we behave with each other interpersonally are subject to particular moral kind of standards. And yet we don’t have them, you know, so therefore we don’t injure each other.

Not just because it’s pragmatically there’s a limit on it or something like that. I mean, why don’t we eat the rich? Or, why don’t we combust when people are past their productive, economic life? I mean, isn’t there an argument for recycling people early or something like that?

We don’t have those kinds of arguments because we have a principled position that, that human life is worthwhile, but we don’t have that principled position for animal life or plant life or ecological life is worthwhile. So it becomes a matter of mere game and strategy. In a way, games are possibly the problem, here.

Is there not an identity, but an elective affinity or a compatibility between a game orientation to the world and a neoliberal orientation towards the world? Like Foucault says something like neoliberalism considers the economy as a game and the state merely is the referee. Something like that might be a problematic philosophy of life that there may be, there’s got to be more to life than games.

Because you know what? In the end we all die, so we all lose in the end.


Max Haiven: I really appreciated Tom’s discussion here and I think it’s very sobering about what is the value of personal transformation? You know, Tom and I are both university professors. We dedicate our lives to sitting in classrooms and hoping we have a transformative effect on students’ lives and on their thinking. We’re both, you know, intellectuals who write papers in the hopes of influencing people’s hearts and minds as he put it.  I think it’s a really sobering and important warning because I feel like at precisely the moment when, you know, if we’re honest, social movements for collective liberation and social justice are at their weakest, or at least very weak on a global stage.

And at the moment, we cannot envision a kind of large systemic change in a moment when it is to paraphrase whoever said it first, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In that moment, it becomes more and more tempting for us to retreat into the unknown. The idea that if only we could change individuals’ thinking and actions, then everything would change.

Now, it’s not to say that we shouldn’t be focusing on that, and it’s not to say that actually games and thinking about games can’t have a huge effect on the individual. And of course, society is by definition, made up of individuals. But I think what Tom’s warning us about is really worth taking into consideration, that at some point we need to think about what some sort of collective will, some sort of collective democratic force would be that we would need to manifest or somehow take control of, that could actually put in place the kinds of things That we will need in order to deal with the major crises that are facing our species and many other species at this moment, whether it’s climate chaos, the future of artificial intelligence, the increasing imperialism that we’re seeing appear, reappear and appear and grow around the world.

I think that the world of games really requires that and I think what’s interesting is to think about if and how games might have anything to contribute to this. I think on the one hand, we have the idea that games are just there— radical games, social impact games— they’re just there to kind of change the thinking of the individual, like you play a kind of interesting game and you’re like, ‘Oh, that made me think differently about the world’. And of course, that’s important. But I think what’s also quite interesting to think about are games that would allow us to come together in new formations and start to try and make collective decision making.

And I want to give a shout out here to, to friends and colleagues in a production, company called Red Plenty Games. They produce a whole variety of really fascinating games. Most of their games are, megagames, which are games that a lot of people, like sometimes hundreds, will come together to play for a period of time.

And they have really fascinating games that they’ve developed. Including, the transnational social strike game, and a variety of others, parts per million and the next five years, all of which really try and bring a bunch of people together to do the kind of collective decision making and, sorts of power struggles that we can really expect.

to encounter in the next few years if we actually want to bring this world back from the brink. and their interest, I think, is not so much in just changing the minds of the players, the hearts and minds of the players who are playing the game themselves. They’re really interested in actually simulating what’s or helping us build the muscles for new forms of collective decision making, that are not by any stretch of the imagination going to be easy, and don’t, unfortunately, don’t just come naturally to humans.

We need to really practice those skills and work at them. Red Plenty Games, highly recommend checking them out.


Halle Frost: Nice, thanks. I mean, you bring up the personal transformation, and this was also a huge part of the interview for me as well. Just thinking about how especially as a feminine person I spend so much time investing and sort of preparing the player that I will be embodying outside in the world, you know the player and the body in which I’ll be playing all of these different games of both capitalism, romance you know all of these things. And we are at this moment of low participation and motivation, even hope within these different social groups. And is that probably just because we’re spending so much time on our personal avatars? I also really loved Tom’s analysis that the personal transformation that happens it’s not motivated from the self. It’s actually the game changing you. So whereas we think that we’re in charge of this personal transformation we’re really not.  The game will change us in order to win it. And that was super powerful for me. So let’s look at next week’s interview. You already set it up so well, but we’ll be interviewing Dr. Mary Flanagan, who among many other things is the founder of a research laboratory and a design studio that focuses on these new games that will teach us. To live and collaborate differently.