Philip K. Dick, “The Game-Players of Titan” (1963): The Life of the Ruling Class

The standard hero in a Philip K. Dick novel is a member of an alienated middle or professional class.  Often these people are functionaries or technocrats of state or, more commonly, corporate interests.  They are rarely people who have power in their right, but neither are they from the very bottom.  Yes, there are more working class figures peppered throughout his novels, but by in large we seen society from the educated middle, serving various forces in power.  On the face of it, the characters in The Game-Players of Titan are much more powerful.  They remind us immediately of the capitalist class of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, playing games with the mortgages, pensions, retirement funds, and bank accounts of the rest of us.  The stakes of these games are high.  They drove millions from their homes and jobs and squandered a generation of national and private wealth.  Yet, from their perspective, they lost little.  Even if they lost a million here or a million there, they still could come home to a children and home well-tended by immigrant workers, dinner parties, nights at the opera, and massive back accounts.  For them the losses were abstract, and fungible.  Their endless wealth ruined any possible perspective they could have on value.  The Game-Players of Titan opens with a game of Bluff.  The stakes of the contest?  Nothing less than the entire city of Berkeley and the identity of his future wife (they also swap wives as a function of the game).  The setting is a stunningly familiar model of the global (late) capitalist class.  Their massive wealth, massive power, complete indifference to the damage they cause, they inability to notice their own psychopathy, and their loose sexual morality predicts the nature of the late capitalist elite.  On this last point, not really mentioned by Dick, we should always recall the high divorce rate among the elite as they condemn the family values of the working poor.  (See Was Bill Cosby Right by Michael Dyson and Yo Mama’s Dysfunctional by Robin Kelley.)


The Game-Players of Titan is a condemnation of the values, lifestyle, power, and indifference of the ruling class.  Now I should say that most of the Earth is depopulated in the novel, creating the context of low states, but it seems to me that from the perspective of the ruling elite there are not that many people who actually matter.  Their gaze obscures the vast majority of us.  Living in gated communities, moving around cities by helicopters or limousines, attending exclusive parties, and opening night receptions the elite can go through life without an awareness of the very existence of most of us.  Dick uses the science-fiction tool of low fertility and dwindling post-apocalyptic populations to suggest how the “game-players” see us.  If a couple tens of millions of the underclass disappeared, it would barely register within the gated communities.  It may not even affect the cost of labor, a detail they have long ago passed onto middle managers.  So what do we know about these game-players in the novel?  First, they cheat when they can using pre-cogs to gain advantage over others.  Second, they are often massive users of drugs.  Third, they are sexually promiscuous despite having an institutionalized system for wife swapping.  Fourth, they carry on irrational grudges over the ownership of property that they cannot ever dream of getting a handle on (the protagonist’s loss of Berkeley, for instance).  They are delusion, degenerate, and disgusting.


Our two worlds.  Gated communities and slums.

Our two worlds. Gated communities and slums.

The game players have internalized the values of capitalism, competition, and power in all aspects of life. “But marriage had always been primarily an economic entity, Schilling reflected as he steered his auto-auto up into the early-morning New Mexico sky.  The vugs hadn’t invented that; they had merely intensified an already existing condition.  Marriage had to do with the transmission of property, of lines of inheritance.  And of cooperation in career-lines as well.  All this emerged explicitly in The Game and dominated conditions; The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before.”  They have institutionalized liquid relationships while justifying the system with capitalist logic.  This is not to say that they are not correct about the original purpose of marriage, but while most of us still believe in love and commitment and all that stuff, they have already remembered that marriage is simply another business proposition.

The Terran game players are not the only center of power.  The “vugs”, the benevolent overseers of The Game, and essentially the distant rulers of Earth also exist and from time to time interfere in the affairs of the humans.  They play a role of moderating and regulating The Game. Much of the plot of the novel deals with the interactions between the game-players and these “vugs,” including a resistance movement brewing against their rule.  We do not have the equivalent of the “vugs” in our world, and we should probably be thankful for that.  Our resistance to the game-players in our world must from below, from outside of the gated community.  If it comes from above, it promises only more domination.