Bop-It, Charles Baudelaire, The Unconscious

Hasbro’s childrens’s game ‘Bop-It’ has been a familiar feature of family Christmases since the first version of the toy was released in 1996. Today, the Bop-It series includes a game for the Nintendo Wii and a new iPhone app. The jist of Bop-It is that you follow a list of commands that the device makes relating to different buttons, pull handles, twisting cranks, spin-able wheels and toggle switches on the toy itself. The Bop-It machine commands, ‘twist it’, ‘pull it’ or ‘flick it’ for example, and you have to complete the action within a given time. Meanwhile, a ticking sound and a beat accompany the ‘fun’, creating a tense atmosphere and driving you into a livid frenzy. Some child research institutions have looked into the game as something which ‘mimics social behavior ’ but what does Bop-It really show us about our social conditions?

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(The Original 1996 Bop-It)

It seems to recall the idea of Charles Baudelaire, a writer interested in what he thought of as ‘modern life’ coming into being in the nineteenth-century. In his poem ‘The Sun’ he describes the experience of living in the modern city as being like that of a fencer, constantly fending off different elements of life which attack or shock the individual. The stanza reads:

When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 

The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 

I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 

Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 

Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 

Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

Baudelaire’s idea, which has been picked up by the philosopher Walter Benjamin, is that as a modern subject you can are constantly under attack from social and cultural forces which you must defend yourself against. One can see this at work in Bop-It as the player fends off the various demands that the machine places, and indeed this is the way in which the game has been discussed as a ‘mirror’ of social life.

Yet, is there not also a difference between what Baudelaire describes and what happens in Bop-It, something specifically modern about the experience of Bop-It which takes this one step further?

In Baudelaire’s idea of the fencing modern subject, as we see in the poem above, the subject struggles against exterior forces, defending himself and struggling to articulate himself in the fragmented world of modernity. In Baudelaire’s view of modern life the subject has at least some kind of agency, which is in tension with the forces imposed upon it, whereas in Bop-It something new is recognized; that the list of actions that you carry out come not from within you but from elsewhere, from a commanding voice from outside which instructs you, and which you follow unquestioningly. As such this mirrors a modification made to the concept of ‘the unconscious’ in psychoanalysis; the unconscious is not to be thought of as something ‘within’ you but as something outside, dictating the way you behave.  

To re-apply the model of Bop-It as a mirror of social life, it is not that Bop-It prepares children (even in the most jokey way) for the difficulty of being yourself in the face of the conditions and demands of the modern world, but rather that Bop-It prepares the you to follow a series of instructions that you conceive of as your own desires and enjoyments, but are in fact commands from without.

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                                  (Newfangled Bop-It)

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