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Lecture Library

Rules and Position in Social Play
by Survey of Interactive Media

by Brian Flory - Play and games, while providing important opportunities for the socialization of behavior throughout the life course, are pervasive, and can therefore also be explicit and implicit tools of ideologies and power groups. Such games can be undermined, but only with difficulty.

In the opening scene of The Target (2002), the pilot episode of David Simon’s seminal Baltimore crime series The Wire, the witness to a murder explains the circumstances leading to the victim’s death, capped with his closing statement that you “gotta [let him play]. This America.” We can see from the final shot of the scene, however, of Snot Boogie’s corpse, that the games aren’t always pleasant. Indeed, many characters throughout the course of The Wire refer to the overall drug trade and the constant contests with the law enforcement and other drug gangs as “the game,” and themselves as “players.” It’s significant, too, that children are significant characters in significant ways in the series, ranging from MacNulty (Dominic West) teaching his kids to “fade and follow” (tail a suspect) (Lessons) to the project kids learning the drug trade in season 1, or going to school under the tutelage of former detective Pryzbylewski (Jim True-Frost).

This reflects the sociological sense of play and game as important stages of social development. In the play stage, young children learn to imitate others and take on particular roles (cop or drug dealer, for example) (Mead). But play and games do not end with childhood, and indeed, adult interactions are often framed as competitions either through linguistic metaphor or social structure. The Voigt Kampff sequences of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), for example, can easily be conceived as a sort of game that the possible replicant plays against the investigator - in the clips presented here, Leon (Brion James) or Rachael (Sean Young) against Holden (Morgan Paull) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) - the prize for victory being assimilation into human society. Indeed, Mead argues that it is not in play, but in game that a child first imagines itself assuming someone else’s viewpoint, more fully becoming a differentiated individual. Here Leon and Rachael attempt to represent themselves as human with varying levels of success (in part because Rachael believes she is human). These are particularly illustrative examples because of the other childlike qualities of the replicants.

It is worth discussing here that the two Voigt Kampff tests administered in the course of Blade Runner differ in one important way: the gender of the participant. Leon, masculine, ends the interview with a gunshot, while Rachael, feminine, flirts with Deckard throughout her interview, which later results in their romantic entanglement. Leon’s violent reaction is provoked with questions about his mother, whereas when Deckard asks Rachael how she would react to encountering a nude picture of a woman, she responds with, “Is this testing whether I’m a replicant, or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?” Though a sharp and perhaps warranted retort, the comment nonetheless underlines that the Voigt Kampff test, designed to provoke specific emotional responses - sympathy, rage, etc. - may not be tailored for the specific social position of the participant (though it is possible that had he continued long enough in the test, Leon would have been asked about a male nude).

In these results, too, though, we can observe the varying degrees to which Leon and Rachael move into Mead’s game stage. Leon is unable to assimilate into human society by imagining himself in another’s position. When he asks why he would be in the desert at the outset of the turtle question, for example, he demonstrates an inability to imagine himself as such. This culminates in the moment he is asked about his mother, something replicants don’t have, and he explodes in rage, unable to pretend otherwise. In contrast, Rachael cannot help but imagine her in a social position other than that which her replicant heritage grants her, as she’s been implanted with the memories of her creator’s niece. She is much hard for Deckard to detect precisely because she is totally assimilated into a social role other than replicant.

Such gendered differences in play are not only the result of socialization, but themselves socialize, according to Barrie Thorne's "Borderwork Among Girls and Boys." From a very young age, children not only learn what is acceptable in their peer groups from boys and what is acceptable from girls, but they are rigorous in testing their playmates for approved responses, just as Deckard tests Rachael. Like the Voigt Kampff, this takes the form of games, such as "kiss-and-chase," "cooties," and others.

In any event, the Voigt Kampff test provokes specific emotional responses in order to gauge the humanity of its subject, which begs the question of whether it accounts for the gendered position of the subject, when gauging these responses. While the question of whether socialization or inherent biological and psychological traits determine various masculine and feminine behaviors is still unresolved, it is very difficult to argue that particular behaviors, including emotional responses, are not heavily coded masculine or feminine, thus skewing the test results based on gender. Obviously, this is only one of the most obvious flaws in the rules of the “game” in question. Such disparities might easily exist along lines of ethnicity, or other factors as well.

In fact, ethnic lines are examined, bent and twisted through the course of The Wire in the context of the drug game, along with various other socio economic factors. Lessons, as discussed above, makes these differences particularly apparent. Yet MacNulty’s kids are just as subject to their socioeconomic position as the kids of the projects, even if from our position as observers, their outcomes seem more beneficial to their general well being.

Julian Bleeker argues in Getting the Reality You Deserve that Blade Runner - and with it, dystopic cinema in general - deploys ethnicity as an insurmountable marker of difference. This connects in uncomfortable ways, I think, with the history of Jim Crow racism, particularly institutions designed to restrict voting access such as literacy tests. Likewise, the Voigt Kampff is a test that presents the possibility of integration for replicants into human society - pass the test, pass for human - but the film suggests the test can’t be passed at all, just as literacy tests were often impossible, but administered selectively to ethnic or racial undesirables.

It is only when one approaches the stratospheric wealth of Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) of David Fincher’s The Game (1997) that one can tailor a game experience to one’s particular social position (though in van Orton’s case, it’s the company producing the game that tailors it for him, based on his diagnostic tests). Obviously, such options are available to only a select few, and an argument can easily be made that even they are limited through socialization and habit to particular responses. Still, it’s apparent that the more resources one has, the more in a position of power, the more one can adjust the rules of the games that determine one’s success or failure in gaining and maintaining that power.

Blade Runner, however, presents one last avenue of escape. Deckard, in Ridley Scott’s Final Cut (2007) of Blade Runner is himself a replicant, and as in every version of the film, he helps Rachael escape. The duo are likewise allowed to escape by Gaff (Edward James Olmos). Deckard, with intent or otherwise, has positioned himself socially such that he has sufficient influence to overcome the stigma of being a replicant. According to his boss Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh) “If you’re not cop, you’re little people!” By assuming a social role normally unavailable to his kind, Deckard manages to overcome these restrictions, and play the game from the other side of the table.  The trap that must be overcome, however, is that replicants can’t be cops in the first place, so before one can exploit the rules to overcome a social stigma, one must find another avenue through which to escape the structure of rules of play and game.


Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Thorne, Barrie. "Borderwork Among Girls and Boys" _Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School_ Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

The Wire Opening Scene by David Simon (showrunner) (2002) The opening scene of the pilot of David Simon's "The Wire" establishes some of the underlying themes of the series. Here, the witness explains that he was compelled to let the deceased Snot Boogie play, because "This America," even though it resulted in his death. Uploaded by Brian Flory.
Blade Runner Voigt Kampff Leon by Ridley Scott (1982) Holden (Morgan Paull) administers the Voigt Kampff test to Leon (Brion James) to determine whether he is human or replicant. When he presses Leon for details about his mother, Leon drops his deception and murders Holden, revealing himself to be a replicant after all
Blade Runner Voigt Kampff Rachael by Ridley Scott (1982) Blade Runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) interviews Rachael (Sean Young) in order to administer the Voigt Kampff test to determine if she is human or replicant
The Game diagnostic by David Fincher (1997) Michael Douglas takes a series of physical, emotional and psychological tests as preparation for the start of his "game"