Learning from Horror Games

In our SNF-Ambizione research project “Horror-Game-Politics” we aim to show that digital games, as an integral part of popular culture, have not only an entertainment function but also a communication function. It is part of our popular culture that we as a society exchange our common values, our taboos and world views on a daily basis. Naturally these ideological statements are often exaggerated beyond recognition in fictional settings. Faced with dragons, zombies and mutants, we forget that we are also dealing with real-world issues such as freedom of expression, autocracy and environmental protection. So for many people, even without any prior exposure to such issues, first mental frames of reference can emerge.

@Srsherdian1 on Twitter (11.04.2020) URL: https://twitter.com/Srsheridan1/status/1249033092704227328

It is precisely this transfer process between the virtual worlds of games (as part of our popular culture) and our everyday lives that we are now witnessing during the Corona pandemic.  In the face of new challenges, we tend to resort to our own memory in order to correctly identify dangers and develop coping strategies. Very few of us in Western Europe have had a personal experience with a comparable crises of this magnitude. Hence we must draw from our collective memory. Which potential dangers should we prepare ourselves for and how? This means that many of us are compelled to resort to dystopian scenarios in film, literature and video games, both to understand the pandemic (and the dangers it poses) and to cope with it.

Naturally, we never adopt specific world views and instructions from game worlds verbatim. Our collective reaction in Western Europe gives cause for hope in this respect, as we are fortunately still far from the collapse of law and order as in “The Last of Us”. In Great Britain and the USA however, the situation is rather different: Here as there, individual freedom is often considered a higher value than solidarity (with all the implied restrictions). So far, only in the US has there been an increase in fire arm sales, while governmental measures have been adopted in almost all European countries and are well received by the majority of the population. So even if we do not necessarily adopt all “lessons” from post-apocalyptic game worlds, horror games can paint a “worst case” scenario that reminds us of what we must avoid. Also, dystopian game scenarios offer a language to formulate our feelings and fears. On Twitter, one can find examples which use Resident Evil, Walking Dead and Silent Hill as references that convey the dark atmosphere that we are experiencing now for the first time in our real life.

@sighcuster on Twitter (19.03.2020) URL: https://twitter.com/sighcuster/status/1240679476343775234

This is not a fundamentally new phenomenon. In earlier centuries we turned to the Bible in the face of unknown threats. Pandemics became the scourge of God. At the same time people were given an instrument to actively protect themselves by following the rules of the Church. Modern dystopias generally do not offer such clear instructions for action – until recently, toilet paper did not play a role in zombie games. But they convey values and world views that can serve as a framework for our attempts to understand the world we live in. In a US-American tradition, ideological statements in video games often stage the individual as the last resort of hope and tend to negate collective action. Such ideological transfers – the individualistic paradigm e.g. – translate in our world into irrational hamster purchases and nationalistic “us first” slogans.

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Eugen Pfister

Eugen Pfister leitet das SNF-Ambizione-Forschungsprojekt "Horror-Game-Politics" an der Hochschule der Künste Bern - HKB. Er forscht zu digitalen Spielen als historische Quellen (spielkult.hypotheses.org).

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