Fictional real world Play in Film

Life and play mix in Gregor Schnitzler‘s “Spieltrieb”, (i.e., “Gaming Instinct”), Germany 2013
Life and play mix in Gregor Schnitzler‘s “Spieltrieb”, (i.e., “Gaming Instinct”), Germany 2013 | Photo (detail): © Concorde Filmverleih GmbH

People have always played in films, whether in the Western’s poker game, the chess duel or with the modern computer game. Life and play often mix in cinema, acting becomes a masterful bluff and the instinct to play a metaphor for life itself.

Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse – Der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse – the Gambler, 1922) already combined all the types of player in a single person. Mabuse, super villain of the Weimar Republic, is a card shark like the Cincinnati Kid, a stock exchange speculator like Gordon Gecko in Wall Street (1987), and above all – an actor. “All life is a game” is his motto, which he makes good in ever new disguises. And the goal of this game is chaos, the destruction of bourgeois order. The cheerful naivety with which philosophers from Plato to Friedrich von Schiller (“Man is fully man only when he plays”) have praised play is sought in film, with the exception of the sports film and the children’s film, almost in vain.

Play is a serious affair

For play is more than a way to pass the time, a form of lively sociability: the player challenges his luck, seeks competition, wants to beat others. The Western hero pokers the shirt off his back, his other hand on the revolver. Even the humorous grifter farce The Sting (1972) takes place in the milieu of organized crime; clever confidence men, Robert Redford and Paul Newman fake a killing. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), the protagonist plays chess against Death, and in Gerd Oswald’s film adaptation Brainwashed (1960) against madness and loneliness. And in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s psychodrama Chinese Roulette (1976), a sick girl avenges herself against her surroundings by means of a game.

Into cyberspace

It was only the advent of the computer age that first promised the pure, perfect game. Thanks to the virtual world, hackers and programmers became the new, disembodied heroes. With films such as Tron (1982) and The Lawnmower Man (1992), the Pac Man generation conquered the cinema. In these films the border blurs between virtual reality and (fictional) real world. The heroes penetrate into cyberspace; the ideal becomes the maximum extinction of self at the same time as the complete development of all sensory capacities, enabled by new digital effects. The avant-garde film director David Cronenberg has taken the opposite route, but with the same result: in eXistenZ (1999) organ-like tissue serves as a joystick and a port implanted in the spinal marrow of the player as a plug-in. The game programmer Allegra Geller, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is the idol of the masses.

World on a Wire

But the inquisitive players become entangled in the “second life”, get stuck in it, and can no longer distinguish virtual reality and real world. In War Games (1983), a computer game-loving nerd inadvertently hacks his way into the Pentagon and nearly provokes the Third World War. The heroine of eXistenZ is shot down with a bizarre meat gun, which exists only in her game universe. The question whether a physical reality still exists at all is more open than ever at the end of the film. Rainer Werner Fassbinder already posed this question: in his recently re-discovered television two-parter Welt am Draht (1973) (i.e., World on a Wire), people move through a glamorous computer simulation, but the “real” world also turns out to be mere appearance. Highly influential was Matrix (1999), the beginning of a whole generation of science-fiction films that question our sense of reality. How genuine or how artificial is the world that we perceive as real? And what rules must we observe in order to play in it?

Are we still in the Matrix?

As perhaps the quintessential cinematic space, artificial down to the last pixel, virtual reality can no longer be imagined away. There will always be films such as the often berated computer game adaptations of Tomb Raider or Doom. Neither the hopes nor fears that were associated with cyberspace, however, have come to pass. Instead, we may observe a remarkable convergence of more and more “realistic” games and film: thanks to the progressive perfecting of digital technology, games like Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Noire (itself inspired by film noir) resemble full-blown films. The visual abstraction of the “C64-Look”, which created the fantastic charm of the pioneer years, now belongs to the past. Today both films and games resemble less an animated Ludo game plan than a hyper-realistic copy of the known world, or the Matrix, which we take for the latter.

On the way to a game society

Are we already living in a game society? It is at least no longer a mere vision of the future. Social networks such as Facebook have long been changing the rules for forming new relationships. On the digital playing field we slip into roles, become our own avatars, make strategic decisions; the difference between play and life, it seems, is increasingly losing its meaning. Spieltrieb (2013) (i.e., Gaming Instinct), a new German film, reflects this uncertainty: like Mabuse before them, its young main characters want to make life into a game; with camera in hand, they become the directors of their own lives and those of others, a social experiment that has its consequences. But we should not become pessimistic about this. It is exactly the films mentioned that articulate a social will to observe the rules, that remind us of the value of community and the limits of games. At the same time, they play with the pleasure of the forbidden, which has always been a key driving force of cinema. Here play has its proper place.