Power Glove: Biopower and Video Games in The Three-Body Problem


NES Power Glove licensed by Wikipedia Commons


by Liam Title

June 2018

(UBC Arts One LA1, Dr. Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins)


One of the key concepts discussed in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is that of biopower. Loosely defined, biopower is “the disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population,” with these practices constituting how “organization of power over life [is] deployed” (Foucault, 139). Given this definition, a significant aspect of biopower’s depiction in Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is in the titular virtual-reality game of “Three Body”. Though a depiction of the alien society of Trisolaris, the Three Body game (which I will hereafter refer to as 3B so as to avoid confusion with the novel) is both built and intended for usage by humans. As such, biopower’s manifestation and influence within the human populations of The Three-Body Problem may be considered through 3B. The three main respects in which 3B reflects Foucault’s conception of biopower are in the game’s sculpting of bodies as machines, its aim of encouraging life, and its hierarchical nature. Altogether, these factors illuminate digital media’s ability to accentuate and transfigure the forces of biopower when given the correct conditions.

In Part 5 of History of Sexuality, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Foucault explains that “one of the poles [of biopower] centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, [and] its integration into systems of efficient … controls” (Foucault, 139). These features of biopower delineated by Foucault characterize 3B’s control method, body-based computational process, and underlying purpose and development structure. For instance, the body’s “integration into systems of controls” is made plain through the device of the “V-suit,” the literal system of the game’s control which requires the body’s integration into it. Wang describes the V-suit as “a very popular piece of equipment among gamers, made up of a panoramic viewing helmet and a haptic feedback suit” which the user must wear to interact with the game (Luo, 81–82). This technology has power over bodies in the most direct sense, and to an extreme degree. As opposed to the player simply pushing a stick or pressing a button to control a character, the player is the character—their movements are the character’s movements, their sensations are the character’s sensations. The barrier between the real and the unreal is all but entirely eliminated, allowing the player to be disciplined, rendered docile, and forced to obey the rules. The suit causes “the player to experience the sensations of the game: being struck by a fist, being stabbed by a knife, being burned by flames, and so on” (Luo, 82). Additionally, the removal of the suit “immediately [causes the player’s ID] to be deleted by the system” (Luo, 96). This results in Wang deciding that he “couldn’t [remove the suit]” despite the bodily discomfort he experiences (Luo, 96). As such, there is an “omnipresence of power” between the player and the game, wherein biopower is not purely the “structure” of the game’s power over the player, or the player’s over the game, but rather the “self-reproducing” effect of the symbiotic relationship between the player and 3B (Luo, 93). Just as Foucault notes that “[p]ower is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere,” an increase in the game’s “control” of the player supervenes upon an increase in the player’s control over the game (Luo, 93). Though the body of the player is thoroughly enveloped by 3B, like a hand in a glove, it is still the hand which dictates the movements of the glove. In merging the player’s body with that of the game, an omnidirectional flow of biopower is intensified.

An element of 3B that is perhaps even more closely related to biopower is the game’s usage of bodies as computational units to solve advanced problems. This is most evident in the usage of  “‘at least thirty million [common laborers]” as a means of performing “mathematics using human wave tactics’” (Luo, 209). As user “Von Neumann” explains, “three soldiers form a computing component. It’s a type of gate … We can form ten million … and then put the components together into a system. The system will then be able to carry out the calculations we need’” (Luo, 209). In this system, named Qin 1.0, human bodies are reduced to a mass of logic circuits which must be optimized, the pure efficiency of their functionality the only concern. Von Neumann comments on the construction of the computer, demonstrating this fact: “‘When we built that part, we found that we didn’t have enough soldiers. But … the work done by the elements in this component is the simplest, so we trained each soldier to hold more colored flags. Each man can now complete the work that initially required twenty men. This allowed us to increase the memory capacity’” (Luo, 215). Though it is important to note that the soldiers are likely AI rather than the avatars of real humans, thereby limiting the extent to which Qin 1.0 acts as a true example of human biopower, the significance of this aspect of the game is found in its ability to influence the real world perspectives and actions of the players. For instance, one of the top players that Wang meets with reveals that he “‘conducted a test [of the Qin 1.0] with more than a hundred employees at [his] company’” (Luo, 228). While he seems to have dismissed the idea after testing it, saying that “‘even if [it worked], a computer made of people would probably operate at a speed slower than manual computation,’” this statement may contain a subtle endorsement of the concept—were the “computer” to operate at a speed beyond that of any regular computer (as it would in Trisolaran society), it is entirely possible, or even probable, that the employer would continue to utilize the process, subconsciously swayed by the representation of biopower within 3B.

Furthermore, the model of computational biopower in 3B can be observed to act as a template for the game’s strengthening of biopower among the actual human societies depicted in The Three-Body Problem. This is to say that, while Qin 1.0 is only a simulation, the underlying purpose and development structure of 3B as a whole is modelled precisely along the lines of the Qin “body computer.” As conceived by the Earth-Trisolaris Organization, 3B organizes people into a larger group so that their physical capacities may be exploited to serve efficiently, yet obediently. Xu, a police officer investigating the game, states that “Many from all around the world participate in [its] development. Their collaboration method seems similar to popular open-source practices … But they’re definitely using some very advanced development tools” (Luo, 202). In essence, the technological complexity of the game arises as the result of the combined efforts of large amounts of manpower, directed towards a singular goal. When Qin Shi Huang comments that “‘together, they can produce such a complex, great whole … a large number of men yoked by severe discipline can … produce great wisdom when bound together as one,’” though he is referring to Qin 1.0, he could equally be speaking of 3B itself (Luo, 218). Moreover, the game is developed in order to indoctrinate people into the ETO, with its primary purpose to generate the units of obedient recruits necessary to further the organization’s force. Accordingly, 3B drives towards an ever-expanding control of the population, reinforcing the patterns of biopower.

A secondary component of Foucault’s theory of biopower is his identification of its highest function as “to invest life,” rather than to kill (Foucault, 139). As Foucault says, “the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (Foucault, 138). These principles of biopower are exhibited in twisted fashion through 3B, though untangling the web of motivations and goals behind 3B is no simple task. The “members of the ETO [are] not of a single mind,” fractured by “divisions of opinion” into “Adventists” and “Redemptionists” (Luo, 318). While it was the Adventists who first developed 3B, it is also stated that the game could “be said to be the cradle of the Redemptionists” (Luo, 320). As such, 3B lacks a singular set of ideals that define its ultimate purpose. Yet, across these varying ideologies lies a uniting aim: to submit to Trisolaris, and in providing the Trisolarans a new home, nurture the lives of the Trisolarans. As Foucault describes, “what was demanded and what served as an objective [of biopower] was life, understood as the basic needs … The ‘right’ to life, to one’s body, to health”  (Foucault, 145). Thus, the ETO’s desire to preserve the lives of the Trisolarans represents the discipline of biopower exerted upon humanity, but warped towards the satisfaction of the needs of a different species. The members of the ETO cry: “‘The world belongs to Trisolaris!’” (Luo, 251). The founder of the ETO, Mike Evans, recalls conceiving of a similar form of this conviction as a teenager: “‘When I was thirteen, my father asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to save lives…. I only wanted to save a species near extinction. It could be a bird that wasn’t very pretty, a drab butterfly, or a beetle that no one would even notice’” (Luo, 307). While 3B is not responsible for having initially created these sentiments, it is crucial in providing these beliefs a method of mobilization, allowing for them to be effectively set into motion and brought to fruition.

A third principal tenet of biopower that Foucault notes is that “such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in murderous splendor” (Foucault, 144). This is mirrored in the high-score system of 3B and the game’s intent as a class filtration mechanism. The in-game ranking of civilizations in 3B is a particularly noticeable aspect of biopower’s “measuring” effect. At the end of each game, after a civilization advances to a particular point before being wiped out, the game states the length of the civilization’s duration and mentions its accomplishments. It quantifies and ranks civilizations based upon this level of success, stating, for example: “The long night lasted forty-eight years. Civilization Number 137 was destroyed by the extreme cold. This civilization had advanced to the Warring States period before succumbing” (Luo, 109). Players of the game assimilate the leaderboard system of record-setting and record-breaking into their understanding of the game. For example, user “Mozi” observes that “the shortest-lived [civilization] got only halfway through the Stone Age, but Civilization Number 139 broke a record and developed all the way to the Steam Age” (Luo, 141). No player plays in a vacuum: their performance is constantly judged against a metric that, in placing certain civilizations above others, incentivizes a single-minded drive towards improvement.

Like many other aspects of 3B, the high-score system is not confined solely within the game—it seeps into reality. This is firstly evidenced when Wang initially encounters Xu. “As soon as the car started, [Xu] whispered to Wang, ‘Professor Wang, your reputation in [3B] is very high’” (Luo, 201). Wang notes to himself with apparent astonishment: “Somebody mentioned [3B] in the real world!” (Luo, 201). When Wang is invited to a secret meeting of elite 3B players, the true function of the rankings is hinted at by Pan: “‘You’re just like I imagined. [3B] is intended for people in your class…. To play it well requires knowledge and understanding that ordinary people do not possess…. Everyone here is an excellent [3B] player. You have the best scores and are devoted to it’” (Luo, 226). It is no idle coincidence that 3B consistently results in the players of the highest social classes reaching the highest degree of achievement, and consequently being selected to join the ETO. The ETO’s aim is to increase its own control and strength, rising through the ranks of the macro-level world hierarchy, surpassing governments, corporations, and other institutions. An organization possessing these aims has no use for “ordinary people,” members who cannot be harnessed to further this goal. As such, this outcome is deliberately encouraged by the game designers.

Therefore, with 3B offering a manifestation of the body as machine, a means to foster life, and an intensification of structures of appraisal and hierarchy, the game acts as a uniquely potent means of both representing and reinforcing biopower. However, though undoubtedly an especially technologically advanced game, the qualities which allow 3B to act as a reinforcement of biopower are not necessarily entirely tied to the game’s technological advancement. In fact, to the contrary, the game’s association with biopower partially emerges as a result of aspects of design that may be considered relatively commonplace in modern video game development. These attributes include a focus on player immersion through bodily control, a depiction of human society through a computational model, and a system of player hierarchization and qualification, among others. This is not necessarily to say that The Three-Body Problem suggests that video games that include these elements are inherently harmful or dangerous. Rather, The Three-Body Problem sheds light on the techniques by which the distinctly interactive qualities of video games can both intensify and be influenced by the phenomenon of biopower.


Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vintage Books, 1990.

Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem. Trans. Ken Liu. Tor Books, 2014.