Óliver Pérez-Latorre

Dr. Óliver Pérez-Latorre is Lecturer in the Department of Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain). He is a member of the research group MEDIUM. His research focuses on game studies, critical analysis of videogames and their connections with the social imaginary, cultural studies and popular culture. He has published articles on videogame culture in academic journals such as Games and Culture, Convergence and the European Journal of Communication. He is the author of the book El lenguaje videolúdico: Análisis de la significación del videojuego [The videoludic language: Analysisis of videogame’s meaning] (Laertes, 2012).

Contact information:
oliver.perez at upf.edu

Post-apocalyptic Games, Heroism and the Great Recession

by Óliver Pérez-Latorre


How do dystopian videogames resonate with the social imaginary of the Great Recession? How do they represent heroism and hope? The discursive struggle to define key aspects of the Great Recession, such as austerity, the virtuous ethos for facing precariousness, and rebelliousness, not only occurs in the political arena or information TV programs but also in the narratives of popular culture and videogames. This article analyses post-apocalyptic videogame bestsellers released between 2009 and 2017. Three “utopian enclaves” are identified, understood as discursive frames or referents associated with heroism and hope within these dystopian worlds: (a) “Post-apocalyptic cowboys,” (b) “Back to nature and do-it-yourself,” and (c) “Community leaders, empathy and rebelliousness.” The article concludes that it is important to analyse the representation of these “utopian enclaves” from a critical sociocultural approach.

Keywords: Videogames, recession, discourse, austerity, neoliberalism, dystopia, heroism


1. Introduction

Environmental degradation, economic crisis, global terrorism… In recent years, this set of threats seems to have sparked a trend towards post-apocalyptic fiction, examined in the fields of cultural and videogame studies (Gurr, 2015; Hicks, 2016; Hubner, Leaning, & Manning, 2014; Aarseth & Backe, 2013). In the sphere of videogames, The Last of Us, Fallout 4, The Walking Dead and others have recently become popular, and even “post-apocalyptic comedies” have appeared in the guise of videogames, such as Plants vs Zombies.

Narrative and fiction provide us with safe spaces where we can metaphorically deal with the tensions and anxieties of the present world (Kellner, 1995). But the question is how, and in what ways do these ludo-fictional worlds (Planells, 2015) question today’s society and the contemporary human condition? Post-apocalyptic narrative tends to gravitate towards issues like: What went wrong? How can we survive? What kind of new life and new society will emerge from the rubble? How popular fiction and videogames answer these questions is important because they contribute to constructing the social imaginary through stories that resonate in the social milieu (regarding the notion of “social imaginary” and its relevance for sociocultural analysis, see: Castoriadis, 2013; Taylor, 2004; Kirkpatrick, 2013).

This article examines popular videogames from the years after the onset of the Great Recession (2008-2017) [1] and questions how they influence the construction of the social imaginary of the recession around concepts like austerity, precariousness and models of heroism depicted as virtuous for dealing with scarcity and as a way out of global crises.

We use a cultural studies approach based on the works of Ryan and Kellner (1990, 1995). Therefore, we analyse texts through socially situated interpretations based on the premise that mass culture productions reflect the social and ideological tensions of their day and often fluctuate between conservative and progressive perspectives. This kind of analysis is particularly interesting in times of crisis or social change, since, as Ryan and Kellner (1990: 32) state, “crisis can have two kinds of effects [in narrative representation]: it can promote a regressive reaction, whereby more familiar and secure traditional social models and cultural representations are revived, or it can lead to a progressive attempt to construct new representational codes and social attitudes.”

2. Contemporary Post-apocalyptic Narrative

Post-apocalyptic fiction emerged and found a niche in pop culture after World War II. In this era a series of fears and anxieties over the future of the planet converged: the traumas of war and the post-war period and the new terror of nuclear bombs, which revealed humans’ capacity to destroy life on Earth. To these fears were added the tensions of the Cold War and, in the Western Bloc countries, the fear of communism.

According to Hicks (2016: 4-5), the destructive potential of science and progress, as reflected in Hiroshima and later Chernobyl, marked a turning point in the post-apocalyptic genre, which shifted from the Robinsonian vision, where the post-apocalyptic hero wanted to restore modernity (industrial society, idealization of science, capitalism), to a vision that was critical of modernity. Thus, in the 1950s the “small-town stories” emerged: novels like The Day of the Triffids (1951) and films like The Day the World Ended (1955) offered an idealized view of simple lifestyles, small towns and rural communities.

In the 1960s, authors like Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard played a crucial role in renovating the genre. Dick’s novel Dr Bloodmoney played with the narrative conventions of the genre and ironically depicted the capacity of capitalism and advertising to survive the end of the world. Ballard, in turn, relaunched climate change fiction with The Drowned World. These two authors probed the psychological potential of this genre by exploring not only society but also the post-apocalyptic psyche (Hicks, 2016: 5).

George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, virtually creating a new cinema sub-genre. Authors like Bishop (2014) and Manning (2014) have connected zombie cinema from Romero’s era with a variety of social issues, such as the advance of mass society and mass consumption in the 1960s and 1970s, and the massive fear of the “Other” -- such as communism or, more recently, global terrorism -- that is capable of destroying or destabilising the social order on a large scale. Racial and post-colonial readings of the zombie are also significant, such as Aalya Ahmad’s analysis in “Gray is the new black: race, class and zombies” (Ahmad, 2011).

In the 1980s and 1990s, the cyberpunk genre, often with post-apocalyptic elements, became popular with novels like Neuromancer, films like Blade Runner and comics like Akira. Moylan and Baccolini (2003: 3-4) interpret this as a dystopian reaction, with a nihilistic bent, to the rise of neoliberalism, multinationals and the capitalism of new technologies.

Authors like Gurr (2015), Hicks (2016), Hubner, Lebling and Manning (2014) and Aarseth and Backe (2014) argue that the post-apocalyptic genre has been revived and revamped in recent years and mixed with the current cocktail of social apocalypses: the ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, the economic crisis and the “great recession” which came in the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash.

One or several of these fears and social concerns may be behind the popularity of natural catastrophe films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact and 2012, and the rebirth of the zombie narrative in recent years, with popular transmedia franchises like The Walking Dead. Furthermore, Hicks (2016) highlights that authors like Cormac McCarthy and Colson Whitehead have adopted the genre to pen “auteur” novels in recent years, such as The Road and Zone One.

3. The Great Recession and Popular Media Narratives

Beyond the political discourses and messages from the press and “serious” news, representations from popular media and digital culture also play an important role in constructing the social imaginary of the Great Recession in terms of issues such as austerity, rebelliousness, and virtuous ways of acting to face precariousness and constant instability [2]. Indeed, in recent years there has been growing interest in analysing the representations of the Great Recession in film, television series, reality shows and audiovisual advertising (Banet-Weiser, 2014; Boyle & Mrozowsky, 2014; Brayton, 2012; Kidder, 2016; Negra & Tasker, 2013; Vanderwees, 2013; Oliva, 2018). In the case of videogames, this issue has only been addressed occasionally (Aarseth & Backe, 2013; Pérez-Latorre, et al., 2019); thus, the research background of this study focuses on film and television narratives.

Negra and Tasker (2013) examined representations of the economic crisis in Hollywood films, paying particular attention to what they call “recessionary corporate melodramas,” including films like Company Men, Margin Call and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. They highlight a “resurgence” of the hero’s masculinity through his decline into precariousness. Thus, for the main characters of a corporate drama, like The Company Men, working in a factory as a blue-collar worker is depicted as a regenerative ritual that allows them to redeem themselves and reencounter their masculinity (strength, sexual potency) through scenes with a clear metaphorical meaning (see also Vanderwees, 2013).

In “Hollywood, bike messengers and the new economy,” Jeffrey Kidder (2016) compares two films featuring young urban bike messengers, Quicksilver and Premium Rush, the former pre-recession and the latter post-recession. Quicksilver shows the bike messenger job as a stage in the character’s life, which, though romanticized, is nonetheless depicted as a phase to overcome before achieving upward social mobility. In contrast, in the recession-era Premium Rush, the main character drops out of the middle class as a result of the crisis, but recovers his self-esteem and finds a new existential perspective that revitalizes him in his job as a bike messenger. At the end of the film, the main character does not return to the middle class and has no wish to do so. Kidder identifies a romanticizing discourse of the precariat based on regaining autonomy and individuality/individualism (in contrast to job stability, which is associated with the sense of being ‘just another cog in the wheel’, as well as with the omnipotence of bosses and an alienating sense of subordination). In addition, he points out that the capacity to navigate risk (of precarious work but also, more explicitly, of the city streets on a bike) is portrayed as a key positive trait in the film based on a certain rhetoric of regaining an epic sense of life. This epic sense of life is connected with the protagonist’s near super-hero level of superiority.

Several authors have examined the metaphorical relationships between the post-apocalyptic narrative of the popular series The Walking Dead and the Great Recession (Lavin & Lowe, 2015; Rubin, 2014; Sugg, 2015). Barbara Gurr (2015) analysed the pronounced romanticism of the post-apocalyptic hero in contemporary narrative through their depiction as lone cowboys, pioneers riding through the wilderness in austere or precarious conditions, yet at the same time towards a vast horizon brimming with individual freedom and the conquest of new territories: a kind of new American pioneer.

This rhetoric of “regained freedom” as a positive part of the fall into precariousness, along with hero values like autonomy and leadership, lead us to the post-2008 crash neoliberal discourse. Although the road that led to the Lehman Brothers crash is paved with the hegemony of neoliberal thinking (since the Reagan-Thatcher era) [3], analysts like Jamie Peck (Peck, Theodore & Brenner, 2012; Peck, 2013) and Mark Blyth (2014) have drawn attention to neoliberalism’s ability not only to survive the crisis but even to be strengthened by the situation by reformulating itself in the political-economic discourse not as the problem but as part of the solution (see also: Peck, 2014). In advertising, Banet-Weiser examined the neoliberal discourse in Chrysler and Levi’s advertisements since the 2008 crash. According to this author, these ads frame the crisis as an inevitable obstacle in the course of capitalism that individuals are urged to overcome as a moral and national obligation. A narrative of recovery and resilience is created that calls on the US working class to deal with the crisis individually. These ads tell an agreeable story about the crisis that merges patriotism, the myth of the American pioneer and the conquest of the frontier, entrepreneurship and the neoliberal ideal in which individuals must look after themselves (without the need for the Welfare State). As the author concludes, in the era of the Great Recession, for many the most important “product” to sell is capitalism.

4. Analysis of Post-apocalyptic Videogames (2009-2017)

Our study corpus focuses on narrative-oriented videogame top sellers (according to ESA and AEVI sales lists) that depict post-apocalyptic worlds released between 2009 and 2017 and produced in North America or Europe [4] [5]. As a potential discursive counterpoint, we have also included several indie games from the same period linked to this narrative genre.

Following the work of Farca and Ladeveze (2016), in this article we address post-apocalyptic videogames as “critical dystopias.” There are two types of dystopian narratives: the first is the anti-utopia, that is, narratives in which there is no room for hope, where social change seems impossible, and where the main character is incapable of “fixing” a wrecked society or changing its direction (Buinicki, 2016: 731; Sargent, 2005: 155). The second is the “critical dystopia,” in which the narrator offers “at least one utopian enclave or holds out that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with utopia” (Sargent, 2005: 155; see also, Moylan, 2000). As Farca and Ladeveze (2016: 3) claim, critical dystopia “leaves its diegetic characters room for contestation and revolt against the dystopian regime.” These authors highlight that “video game dystopias [critical dystopias] often place the prospect of hope into the player’s hands... The player assumes the role of the dissident and becomes directly responsible for laying the foundations of the better society” (2016: 4). Thus, adopting a broad conceptualization of the term, we approach the “utopian enclave” as a glimmer of hope, a group of people or an individual hero that is shown to be, or hinted at being, capable of improving the world despite everything.

We will now take a closer look at these two traits of most post-apocalyptic narratives: their dystopian dimension vs their (scarce) utopian enclaves.

4.1. The Dystopian Dimension

Videogames like The Last of Us, Fallout 4, DayZ and Horizon Zero Dawn represent the fall of contemporary civilisation and the difficulties of a devastated world through striking post-apocalyptic landscapes spattered with ruins, leaning skyscrapers, the rubble of buildings and dilapidated cars. DayZ offers a particularly raw experience of scarcity, a barren post-apocalyptic world where just finding basic food and medicine is a real challenge. The end of the world is not depicted as epic but monotonous and bitter. In fact, often players end with a “game over” because of hunger or common illnesses.

The dramatization of scarcity can also be found in Fallout 4 and The Last of Us. These videogames require the player to constantly look for objects in order to break them down to create the tools they need, as well as parts they can use to create shelters. Fallout 4 not only makes the player/character experience precariousness, it mixes these conditions with a sarcastic criticism of the American dream: in the cities, we often see the remains of advertising posters with bright consumerist messages in the American advertising style from the 1950s and 1960s.

Horizon Zero Dawn depicts a post-apocalyptic world whose biosphere can only be saved by a biotechnological artificial intelligence called Gaia. In Fallout 4, radioactivity is not only the backdrop of the post-nuclear world but also part of the game dynamic as the player’s character has a contamination variable. The player/character can often unwittingly enter contaminated zones that make their contamination meter suddenly shoot up, which creates situations of suspense and anxiety characteristic of the game.

Likewise, Fallout 4 involves recurring tactical dilemmas between preserving one’s own health and the need to use radioactive food and/or drugs to survive. This reflects a significant aspect of Beck’s “risk society” (1998). In contemporary societies, claims Beck, the goal is no longer to avoid the risks associated with modernity, which have become normalized, but to strategically manage these risks. We have to accept that we must take risks and risk as much as possible without going too far (harming ourselves) to make the most of many of the commodities in advanced societies.

Science and technology tend to appear as factors involved in the origin of the catastrophe that led to the apocalypse, such as nuclear energy in Fallout 4 and robotics in Horizon Zero Dawn. However, certain technological elements are vital to the development of the characters in the post-apocalyptic present, and the characters can even be somewhat dependent on them. This includes highly personalized technological gadgets similar to smartphones, such as the Pip-Boy in Fallout and Aloy’s Focus in Horizon Zero Dawn.

The Walking Dead introduces yet another conflictive element, namely the complexity of moral decisions in a post-apocalyptic world. The game constantly confronts the player with moral dilemmas, suggesting that our moral principles and decisions matter even more in crises or post-apocalyptic scenarios. There is often no clear morally-correct option in the game’s dilemmas, or the game poses tragic dilemmas that do not have a completely positive solution.

On an emotional level, another dystopian element that permeates several of the videogames analysed is the main characters’ lack of family ties, particularly their lack of a mother, or not knowing their mother. The main characters in The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and in the first part of Horizon Zero Dawn are a middle-aged man and a vulnerable girl whom he has adopted as his daughter in order to protect her in the post-apocalyptic world. They thus connect with the core icon of The Road. The absence of a mother dramatizes these young heroines’ disorientation in the post-apocalyptic world, the loss of reference figures in that world and the world’s estrangement from values such as empathy and love.

The enemies are another key element of the dystopian dimension of these post-apocalyptic narratives. It is interesting to look at whether the post-apocalyptic stories promote confronting and annihilating a specific, demonized “Other” in order to survive, or whether they explore the good vs. evil axis in a more nuanced way. Fallout 4 is an interesting case in this regard because in the first part of the story the “synths,” biomechanical androids who look like humans, are framed as the main enemy; however, one of the most faithful allies that the main character finds is a synth. Over time the factions that aim to annihilate all synths at all costs reveal xenophobic and fascist tendencies.

We can also find several zombie narratives that question the Manichean visions of “good and evil.” For example, DayZ is a multi-user online game set in a post-apocalyptic zombie world in which the most feared enemies tend to be other players more than the zombies themselves. A game like Plants vs Zombies projects a sympathetic view of zombies, and includes game modes in which the players can side with the zombies. Left 4 Dead also has a game mode in which human survivors and zombies confront each other, and the users can choose to play with the zombie team with a first-person vantage point (on the sympathetic view of zombies in contemporary culture, see: Bishop, 2014, and Austin, 2014).

Finally, an “enemy” that somewhat surprisingly appears in several of the games examined is large communities or large organized collectives. They are not enemies per se, but they are commonly depicted in a rather negative tone. For example, in The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie, the main characters, come across several communities while on the road, but they always end up finding some kind of problem or conflict in them that makes them prefer to continue on alone. In Infamous, the post-apocalyptic world has a social organisation based on harshly clashing factions that directly make up the main character’s enemy groups. The discourse of Fallout 4 is more complex in this regard: the main character has to collaborate with several factions and occasionally ally themselves with one of them in order to survive. These factions are represented in a nuanced way; however, at the end of the story we can infer that none of the factions represents a clear hope for humanity because of their zeal to annihilate the other rival factions at all costs.

4.2. Utopian Enclaves: What Kind of Heroism? What Kind of Hope?

Within these dystopian worlds, what kind of behavioural models are depicted as heroic and as capable of improving the situation? What glimmers of hope are offered? Although these “utopian enclaves” are positively depicted in the stories, it is important to analyse them from a critical perspective (precisely for this reason): these elements of heroism and hope, snippets of dreams of a better world and models of resistance are crafted from voluble and sometimes misleading ideological material. They can both reverberate with and confer emotional heft onto genuinely progressive stances, yet they can also reinforce conservative postures, regressive tendencies or even distort rebelliousness (regarding the critical-political analysis of dystopian fiction, see: Moylan, 2000.

“[Sometimes, dystopias] may appear to challenge the current social situation but in fact end up reproducing it by ideologically inoculating viewers and readers against any form of anger or action, enclosing them within the very social realities they disparagingly expose” (Moylan, 2000: 196).

We found three essential discourses of heroism or post-apocalyptic hope in the videogames analysed, which we examine with the critical approach advocated by Moylan: (1) the post-apocalyptic cowboy model, which stresses individualism and family; (2) the “back to nature” discourse; and (3) discourses geared towards community leaders and the value of empathy.

a) Post-apocalyptic Cowboys

Many videogame heroes are solitary or family-oriented characters who mistrust or learn to mistrust large communities as a way out of the crisis. These include characters like Joel in The Last of Us, the main character of Fallout 4 and Cole McGrath in Infamous, who all fit the archetype of the “post-apocalyptic cowboy” that Barbara Gurr (2015) discusses. This author talks about the romanticization of the post-apocalyptic hero as a kind of forlorn cowboy, a pioneer galloping through the wilderness in austere or precarious conditions yet at the same time towards a wide-open horizon of individual freedom and the conquest of new frontiers.

For example, Joel, the main character in The Last of Us, goes from being a humble worker who is wary of risk-taking to a tireless, clever adventurer and protective “father” with a steely personality. Likewise, the main character of Fallout 4 is a parent searching for their abducted child and at the same time a kind of grand conqueror of the Commonwealth, the post-apocalyptic United States where the game is set. These characters are forged into heroes by their acquisition or accentuation of certain neoliberal and patriarchal characteristics, including leadership skills, an extraordinary adaptability to changes and to the ceaseless emergence of new risks, a dominant personality and a conquering spirit, as well as the expression of power through strength and aggressiveness.

The storyline of Infamous is interesting in this sense because it harbours a strong internal contradiction. The story starts with Cole, the main character, in mourning after he placed his personal and family interests before the possibility of saving humanity. However, his “redemption” during the story consists precisely in maximising his individualism, adopting an extreme lone-hero ethos so he can become the saviour of humanity.

Socially, the depiction of the post-crisis world as an opportunity for a great conquest and/or significant individual improvement, foster the two-sided neoliberal discourse of the great recession: (a) entrepreneurship, small start-ups and flexibility and creativity as models for relaunching society; or, alternatively, (b) the worker’s positive attitude in the face of instability and risks, which become opportunities for liberation or personal reinvention (Peck, 2014; Peck, Theodore and Brenner, 2012; Peck, 2013; Kidder, 2016; Banet-Weiser, 2014).

b) Back to Nature and Do-it-yourself

Videogames like The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture have significant ecological subtexts: they idealize nature and the restoration of nature as the fundamental way of rebuilding society. For example, The Last of Us associates nature with moments of relaxation and peace, as noted by Navarro-Remesal (2016) and Farca and Ladevezze (2016), and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture occurs in Yaughton, a small town in the English countryside that is simultaneously the origin of the catastrophe and a bucolic setting where the past can be examined so we can learn from our mistakes.

Moreover, games like The Last of Us and Fallout 4 prescribe the “do-it-yourself” ethos. The game mechanics involve recycling and crafting, the characters/players have to learn how to make their own tools and healing resources. This connects with the popularisation of alternative economic cultures and DIY in recent years, as opposed to consumerist culture (see Conill et al., 2013).

Via the player/character’s journey through Yaughton, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture evokes the “small-town stories” of the 1950s. This game, developed by The Chinese Room, mixes the romanticising of nature with an implicit “back to the past” discourse, back to life in small rural towns, the value of “the little things,” etc. This nostalgic rhetoric can also be found in Horizon Zero Dawn, where the main character is a “noble savage” who grew up in the mountains, and the tribe that ultimately has the most positive connotations is the Nora, the one with the closest ties to nature and a simple rural lifestyle.

In any event, nature is a particularly complex symbol in post-apocalyptic narratives, since the idea of a ‘return to nature’ often plays an ideologically ambivalent role in them. The ‘cosy catastrophes’ and ‘small town stories’ in the post-apocalyptic narratives from the 1950s, which Hicks (2016) associates with the idealisation of rural life, can be seen as a manifestation of a component that bisects all post-apocalyptic narrative: the temptations of a conservative-leaning nostalgia or, in Bauman’s terms, ‘retrotopia’ (Bauman, 2017). However, the return to nature can also be interpreted with a progressive bent, as part of a look towards the future marked by ecologism, the culture of recycling and anti-consumerism (cf.: Bramall, 2013).

As we pointed out before, post-apocalyptic heroes such as Aloy (Horizon Zero Dawn) and Fallout’s lone survivor combine the return to the basic and natural with a (re)appropriation of new technologies: Aloy’s Focus, an augmented-reality device, or Fallout’s ‘PipBoy’. In summary, these games seem to suggest taking the path to what Hicks (2016) has named “retromodernity”:

“… Retromodernity here is more than nostalgic; it reflects a forward-looking perspective that understands a life without oil as an inevitable future that will call on technological innovation and new social formations” (2016: 159).

Thus, post-apocalyptic videogames reflect certain tensions and dilemmas characteristic of contemporary society, between promoting a ‘retro-modern’ ecologist and communitarian utopia or a nostalgic urge to return to and ‘take refuge’ in more traditional/conservative social models and lifestyles.

c) Community Leaders, Empathy and Rebelliousness

Empathy and solidarity are transversal values in the post-apocalyptic heroism of many of the videogames analysed. For example, empathy and the necessity to create a community to survive is a key issue in TellTale’s The Walking Dead, although this is often put under pressure through dramatic tensions and moral dilemmas. Even lone heroes such as Joel in The Last of Us and Rost in Horizon Zero Dawn forge strong, empathetic bonds with the girls they adopt: Ellie and Aloy, respectively.

In Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture the player/character does not struggle to survive, rather they must explore the village of Yaughton, where all the inhabitants have disappeared due to a mysterious incident, and gradually reconstruct the story of what happened. As the players try to disentangle the mystery, they gradually discover the private dramas of some of the village’s residents. Thus, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s gameplay is essentially a dynamic of empathy.

Sometimes, we find post-apocalyptic heroes who become community leaders. Fallout 4 is an interesting case in this regard, yet it is also contradictory. In Fallout 4, there is a subplot of creating a community of survivors and the game’s settlements can have different functions and nuances depending on the decisions the character makes concerning building, strategy, roleplaying or faction alliances. However, the official strategy guide of the game itself highlights a transversal component of managing productivity and human resources, in which the player ends up acting, to a significant extent, as an “entrepreneur” [6].

Horizon Zero Dawn depicts Aloy as a community leader through her ties with the Nora tribe. She is also a leader with a rebellious component, with certain similarities to the popular Katniss from The Hunger Games: they are both (white) women, extraordinary hunters, and have special qualities for leading emancipatory movements in defence of oppressed collectives. However, Aloy is nonetheless a messianic heroine, the “chosen one” of the Zero Dawn project, so the communitarianism in Horizon Zero Dawn (and in The Hunger Games as well, to a considerable extent) is characterized by strong individual leadership and a cult of personality. Therefore, the game discourse does not fit easily within the ideals of participative democracy and horizontal organisation of contemporary social movements that emerged from the economic crisis, like Occupy Wall Street and 15-M (Castells, 2012). So is there actually anything resembling Occupy Wall Street and “We are the 99%” in the post-apocalyptic stories we have analysed? The answer to this question may seem ironic.

To conclude, let us look again at certain trends in the representation of zombies, as discussed above: zombies depicted sympathetically, as in Plants vs Zombies, and the possibility for users to play as a zombie in games like Left 4 Dead. Ultimately, this connects with a broader cultural current in recent years involving empathy with zombies, as examined by authors like Bishop (2014) and Austin (2014). It connects with zombie comedy films like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Fido (2006), with dramas depicting impossible love between zombies and humans like Warm Bodies (2013), and with the motto “We are the walking dead” from the popular comic and television series, and their iconic scenes showing the characters covering themselves with zombie entrails. Most importantly, it connects with the contemporary phenomenon of “zombie walks,” groups of (generally young) people who gather, dress up as zombies and walk around the city together. Bishop (2014) and Austin (2014) suggest that this trend of empathy with zombies is somehow related to the precariat and the recession. This signals an interesting shift in the symbolism of the zombie, in the sense that zombies have gone from being commonly used as an allegory of unbridled consumerism to being hyperbolic victims of austerity and the precariat. In fact, in recent years there have been explicit signs of this semiotic shift in political activism, such as some “zombie walks” organized by Occupy Wall Street in which some of the participants dressed up as zombies, wearing t-shirts with slogans like “We are the 99%,” “Occupy the living” and “United for a better world.”

5. Final Considerations

We have seen how post-apocalyptic videogames offer narrative experiences that are metaphorically connected to the concerns and problems of today’s society, and they do not do this so much by expressing monolithic ideological views but instead by projecting social tensions and contradictions. As Celestino Deleyto said, the essential purpose of stories (and here we can add videogames) is not to offer solutions but to dramatize conflicts (2003: 167).

Thus, the “double hermeneutics” of cultural studies (Ryan and Kellner, 1990; Kellner, 1995), which suggests analysing the potential articulation of conservative or socially regressive discourses and progressive elements in popular culture, is one interesting vein to follow to address the analysis of dystopian videogames, which often combine a criticism of worrying drifts of our current society with a sketch of “utopian enclaves.”

However, as this article shows, the critical analysis of “utopian enclaves” must be addressed with particular attention: for example, in dystopian videogame narratives the character who symbolizes rebellion and/or struggle for social alternatives may also feed/reinforce certain negative stereotypes or dissonances regarding key rebel movements in the real social world (a certain tendency towards violent action, leadership based on the cult of personality, romanticization of individualism). Similarly, a hero associated with the idea of back to nature and ecological values can also ambiguously or ambivalently project tendencies towards a nostalgic-regressive look back at the past. Thus, the representation of “utopian enclaves” in dystopian worlds is an ideologically thorny realm, yet one that is particularly fertile for cultural analysis. It can be conceived as a dialogue between the creators’ hopes and dreams and the analyst’s methodological scepticism, with the contradictions of the contemporary world as the backdrop.



This work was supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (grant number CSO2014-56830-P)



[1] Different terms have been used to refer to the international economic crisis that followed the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008. ‘Great Recession’ is particularly common in the United States, while ‘global financial crisis’ and ‘economic crisis’ are more common in Europe. In this article we prioritize the term "Great Recession" because, unlike the other expressions, it does not explicitly mention the economy, and we focus here on the socio-cultural drifts of the economic crisis more than the economic issues themselves.

[2] On austerity, precarious labour and the social and socio-economic consequences of the financial crisis, see: Castells et al, 2013; Standing, 2013; Peck, 2013, and Blyth, 2014.

[3] Based on Foucault’s work, neoliberalism is understood as a governmentality, a way of steering the ‘conduct of conduct’ of individuals in which cultural institutions and media discourses play a major role (Burchell, 1996; Foucault, 1991; Rose, 1998). According to neoliberalism, collective well-being should be achieved through the sum of the actions of individuals and companies that try to maximize their own individual well-being. Neoliberal governmentality has been accused of legitimizing inequalities since it does not take the structural causes of inequality into account given its focus on individual freedom.

[4] For a detailed review of the concept and history of post-apocalyptic narrative, see: Gurr, 2015 and Hicks, 2016.

[5] Entertainment Software Association (ESA): http://www.theesa.com/about-esa/esa-annual-report/. Asociación Española de Videojuegos (AEVI): http://www.aevi.org.es/la-industria-del-videojuego/los-videojuegos-mas-vendidos/. These associations are from the United States and Spain, respectively, two countries with a high videogame consumption and both very affected by the financial crisis, which made their sales lists particularly significant to our research.

[6] Bethesda (2015). Fallout 4 -- Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide. DK/Prima Games; pp. 242-247.


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