Panopticon Pandemonium

This project is building a videogame of Bentham’s Panopticon, supported by the UCL Grand Challenges fund. The project is a partnership between DARE, Transcribe Bentham, UCL Digital Humanities, and DDZ Games.

How can videogames help us approach and understand concepts and developments in history, ethics, and society? Building on successes in creating pedagogical videogames (UCL IoE’s DARE research group and MAGiCAL Projects) and public engagement regarding the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham (UCL Bentham Project, UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, Transcribe Bentham) this project will develop a videogame linked to Bentham research, as a form of public engagement addressing the Human Wellbeing Grand Challenge. Bentham is a totemic figure in UCL culture, yet he remains best known in wider culture through the ambivalent image of the Panopticon. Accordingly, the game will unravel this image, offering a playful exploration of the philosophy and economies of wellbeing in Bentham’s vision and its conflict-ridden legacy, from Foucault’s transformation of the Panopticon metaphor to the current economics of austerity. It will do this through a simulation of the Panopticon penitentiary, a circular ‘Inspection House’ with prisoners’ cells arranged around the outer wall and a central inspection tower. The prisoners would assume they were always being watched, which Bentham expected would modify their criminal behaviour and inculcate a love of work, to avoid the punishment for any breach of the prison’s discipline.

BENTHAM'S PANOPTICONA Section plan for Bentham’s Panopticon

No prison adhering to Bentham’s design has ever been constructed: we will construct – virtually – a working panopticon for the first time. In our game, the planned social benefits of Bentham’s vision – happiness, rehabilitation, work – will be balanced against the Foucauldian functions of discipline, punishment, and surveillance. These conflicting functions will be realised as game mechanics: the player, as Bentham/governor, will manage economies of work, nutrition, and exercise within a virtual panopticon space to limit disaffection (and ultimately riot and pandemonium), promote rehabilitation to benefit society, and generate revenue from prison labour to maximise profit for the prison inspector.


The videogame will build on pedagogies of game-based learning, conveying concepts and information through multiple-route exploration, player/learner agency, and multimodal communication, aiming first for credible, authentic gaming experiences, but incorporating trajectories leading to playful engagements with ideas, archives and research. It will be developed by MAGiCAL projects at the London Knowledge Lab, in collaboration with DDZ games, a London SME. The development builds on MAGiCAL’s experience in producing game tools for engagement with archival texts, (eg Playing Shakespeare, with the Globe; and Playing Beowulf, with the British Library.

The game will be further linked to an Alternate Reality Game consisting of online clues, trails and missions associated with the (already existing) (Panopticam) and selected documents from the Transcribe Bentham project.

The games will raise awareness of Bentham’s vision; promote the research of Transcribe Bentham; and engage interest in related UCL teaching programmes in History, Laws, Philosophy, Digital Humanities, and in the Digital Media, Culture and Education MA at UCL IOE. Target audiences include potential students and researchers, secondary students of History, A Level Philosophy and Economics, the gaming community, and the general public.

The game will be an app developed as a pilot project, incorporating the core mechanics achievable within time and funding constraints. Funding will be sought for a longer programme developing additional functions, from the AHRC, from investors (via UCLB), and from MAGiCAL revenue in 2016. Former MAGiCAL work has featured in an IOE impact study submitted to the last REF – we aim for similar impact here.

The impact of the game will be as a form of dynamic public engagement, a playful interface between archival scholarship and public understanding. We will promote this through our social media presence, and evaluate engagement over a period of 6 to 12 months after launch to understand usage.

UCL Staff working on the project are:

Professor Andrew Burn (UCL Knowledge Lab; DARE)

Dr Tim Causer (Transcribe Bentham)

Professor Melissa Terras (UCL Digital Humanities)

Dr Alison Gazzard (UCL Knowledge Lab; DARE)

Dr Diane Carr (UCL Knowledge Lab; DARE)

Follow the Twitter feed at @PanopticonGame

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