Proteus Dead Inside | Castronova on Player Piano

A reflection on Vonnegut’s Player Piano

Ted Castronova


The Greek god Proteus changes like the sea. He can tell the future, but only if you can capture him. This is hard to do, because Proteus can change form at will, water to serpent to tree to lion to water. Changing with context: something we all do. Game researchers talk about the tendency we have to carry attitudes and behavior from digital worlds into the real world. This “Proteus effect” occurs when a player given a tall character in a game continues to act like a tall person in real life, for many minutes after the game is over.1 Vonnegut’s Paul Proteus’s world has changed but he hasn’t changed with it, unlike his forebears. He has difficulty fitting into the mold he has been given; he is the black sheep, the one descendent who will not adapt to the age of machines. Proteus is the family name, but Paul doesn’t have the protean ability to adapt.

In having difficulty adapting to a world run by machines, Paul is like many of the people in this book. So are we. Our world has changed, and it keeps changing. In many ways our world is poorly suited to us. What shall we do? Adapt harder? Or try to get out?

Paul tries to get out. Early in Player Piano, he watches as a cat tries to climb over the fence around the factory compound. The feline gets fried by electricity, zapped into oblivion. Adding insult to injury, its body plops down inside the fence; he never got out. Paul has the dead cat delivered to his office.

Paul’s attempts to escape make us think of our own favored escape strategies. For us, getting out is often associated with play and games.

These topics come up throughout the book. Chess games with robots; costume parades; team-building games; bar games. These bring to mind the truism from game studies, that “play” and “game” are distinct concepts. A game is a strategic interaction with scoring. Play is goofing around: any activity that is not serious. They often overlap, but not always. In Player Piano, you have costume parades that are play but not a game. You also have chess games that are not play, because there are careers at stake. You also have games-in-fact that are not labeled as such. The meritocratic assessment system is a game; you can beat it by scoring well on tests. Similarly, there are play-in-fact activities, things not taken seriously even though they are labeled as serious. According to its leader, Lasher, the revolution is only play: not a serious revolution.

When people try to run away from this real world, they often seek escape through the portal of games, or play, or a mix of both. Now, “escaping from reality” in this fashion is considered by most serious people, especially among the cultural elite, as a bad thing. However, J. R. R. Tolkien argued that people who find themselves in prison unjustly really ought to try to get out and go home. So with us: fantasy is an effort to escape from a very bad world. Paul Proteus is trying to get out of his bad world, his machined reality, off to some imagined better place. He fantasizes about himself as a simple farmer. It’s an escape, but a good one. Or at least, a blameless one. For ourselves, we have to ask, how bad must our world become before escaping from it is laudable?

There’s a deeper problem, too. Where is this refuge? For Proteus, it was anywhere outside the machine system. However, his belief in the existence of a viable refuge “out there” was sadly mistaken. He got zapped like the cat. For many people today, the refuge seems to lie in games, the internet, and virtual reality. But is VR the refuge or is it the prison?

Communications scholars say that the virtual is gradually enveloping us. We are not entering it; it is surrounding us. Our waking lifetimes are becoming streams of digitally delivered experience. (When was the last time you felt grass on your feet?) We don’t realize how much of our perceptions of reality are already constructed. What was once the dystopic conjuration of authors and professors is increasingly the “real world.”

How can this happen? Bear in mind that technology never stops; it grows by 3 percent per year, and has done so since the first stone tools. What we call the “industrial revolution” is simply the era in which a person could notice changes in technology over the course of a lifetime. Conrad Heyer was born in 1739 and was photographed in 1852 by a machine he couldn’t possibly have imagined as a child. His amazement was produced not by a new process of technology but by the inevitable working out of an accelerating process that had been thrumming along for millennia and will continue to do so for millennia after Mr. Heyer and the rest of us have long since molded into dust. Three percent of an ever-bigger number is an ever-bigger number itself, so that today the amazing, life-shattering, epoch-making changes come every few years. From the web to smartphones to self-driving cars. It will not stop. Now that the Process has taken control of media, its main goal has become to grab our eyeballs and hold them. It does that best by satisfying our desires, beginning with sex, romance, and meaning. The Machine responds to us; it knows we like the digital, so it keeps giving us more.

The digital was once the place of escape from reality, but now it has become part of the reality from which we are trying to escape. The result is a conflict, a shock, like that of a man bursting open the door of his cell only to find that the beautiful park outside the jail is simply another kind of prison. The feeling in that moment is a panic, an overwhelming urge to get out that is not accompanied by any idea about where to go. Paradox arises: People desperately seeking to avoid assimilation participate instead in mass acts of homogenous nonconformity—tattoos, tattoos all shouting, “I want out of here!” with their sable bloody lips. But where is “out” and how will we know when we are truly there? Where is the refuge? The postmodern world insists that there is no outside. Construct is all. There is nowhere to flee. The biting of the tattoo needle is just another shock we feel as the electric fence is wound ever more tightly around us. Zap! Just like Paul’s cat.

Intellectual Catholics debate these questions but come to different answers. A movement is afoot among us, called the “Benedict Option” after Saint Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century founder of Western monasticism. Benedict escaped from a Rome falling into ruin and created a refuge of hope and humanity. His solution was a communal life founded on the principles of stability, fidelity, and obedience to God. Today’s new Benedictines—inspired not only by Saint Benedict but also by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue—are coming to believe that the best ways of living will survive only if some people separate from the world. Here, “the world” is understood as secular society. And from it there are very clear refuges, at least according to Catholic philosophy. A quick update for those who never encountered it in school: Catholic thought runs from Plato to Plotinus to Augustine to Aquinas to Pascal to the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council, including contemporary popes Karol Wojtyla and Josef Ratzinger. Still-living inheritors include MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. For no very good reason that I can see (is it Holocaust-shock?), this ancient and venerable tradition has been completely abandoned over the last fifty years, as if the allegedly new arguments of the postmoderns had not in fact been heard and set aside hundreds of years ago. Whatever its current status, the ancient and venerable tradition insists that while there is a sphere of constructed reality (money, fashion, honor), there is also a sphere of genuine reality. There are hard truths. Universals. Concepts that are valid but have nothing to do with people. Gravity pulled just as hard before there were people as it does now, and will keep pulling in the same way long after we are gone. Infinity does not exist in our world, but it certainly exists as a concept and will keep on existing whether there are people around to ponder it or not. So too the Good and the Right. So too Consciousness. So too Love. None of these things exist in or emerge from the physical world.2 They exist as immaterial realities or not at all. If there is an “out,” a true reality, it exists in these universal and unchanging physical and metaphysical truths. Call it “natural reality.”

There’s a nod to the importance of natural reality in Player Piano. Paul Proteus has a lovely wife, Anita. The couple has no children. Their life in the machine has left them infertile. This too is happening to us. The protean craving that technology seeks first and foremost to satisfy is sexual. The internet is a vast field of autoerotic possibility. This includes romance; many games now come with the ability to foster and consummate a romantic relationship with partners of choice. There are even baby simulators. Given the growing power of mediated experience, it is fair to ask, where exactly will the babies come from? How many people would rather have a real baby than an almost-real baby that does not cry, poop, or wake up at night? A virtual baby is like a virtual milkshake—not nearly as good, but with no negative consequences at all. If you think people won’t surrender genuine experience for the sake of mere convenience, you haven’t been to McDonald’s recently. The Machine is barren; like the Macbeths, it will become indifferent to the natural and eventually try to kill it.

In Player Piano, the machines do kill Proteus. He ends up like the cat: dead inside, and dead, inside.


1. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailensen, “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior,” Human Communication Research 33, no. 3 (2007): 271–90.
2. I’m aware of the many efforts to show their emergence. I’m just not persuaded by them. See for example Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).