Video games are a defining part of mass visual culture. Today over half of all American households own a dedicated game console and gaming industry profits trump those of the film industry worldwide. In this book, Soraya Murray moves past the technical discussions of games and offers a fresh and incisive look at their cultural dimensions. She critically explores blockbusters like The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid, Spec Ops: The Line, Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed to show how they are deeply entangled with American ideological positions and contemporary political, cultural and economic conflicts.
As quintessential forms of visual material in the twenty-first century, mainstream games both mirror and spur larger societal fears, hopes and dreams, and even address complex struggles for recognition. This book examines both their elaborately constructed characters and densely layered worlds, whose social and environmental landscapes reflect ideas about gender, race, globalisation and urban life. In this emerging field of study, Murray provides novel theoretical approaches to discussing games and playable media as culture. Demonstrating that games are at the frontline of power relations, she reimagines how we see them – and more importantly how we understand them.
Read an exclusive extract below…
The Last of Us and Imperilled Whiteness
The impossible, imperilled position of whiteness is embodied in Joel, the bedraggled protagonist and primary playable character of The Last of Us . He is self- consciously normal and ‘everyman’ in his manifestation, possessing neither superhuman powers nor the skills of a supersoldier. He is vulnerable, emotionally shut-down and compromised, definitively an anti-hero. At some point in the narrative, his young partner, Ellie, takes on the protector/provider role after he is seriously injured. Several extended analyses of this game utilize a feminist approach that variously interprets the game as either propping up gender norms or displaying a sense of mourning toward the loss of heteronormative unity.
Commentators observed that this game presented a paradigmatic example of the ‘dadification’ of video games, or in other words an emerging thematic trend toward paternal relations between a primary male character and a younger female character who needs protection. Joel is in many ways a cypher for the so-called American average hardworking man, come to the end of his rope and emptied out of his inherent value in a society that has changed around him.
Dyer’s examination of this male everyman type is best exemplified in his analysis of the 1993 crime drama directed by Joel Schumacher, Falling Down, which describes the events in the day of an ‘ordinary’ middle-class man (to be read as white man) who finds himself at war with the ‘everyday world’ (to be read as the increasingly diverse world) and descends in to a nihilistic meltdown after losing his job, his family and his sense of purpose. In the case of this film, it is exactly the main character’s ordinariness through which the anxieties around the endangered nature of the white man comes into focus: ‘Falling Down’s success may derive from its expression of the state of play in the contemporary construction of whiteness, between a renewedly respectable supremacism, the old everything and nothing-in-particular hegemony and the fear of an annihilation that will be the realisation of our [whites’] emptiness.’ Importantly, the Falling Down model of white masculinity ideologically melds ordinariness and a constructed alterity, something which The Last of Us repeats to excellent effect.
Soraya Murray is an Assistant Professor in the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where she is also affiliated with the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program, and the Art + Design: Games + Playable Media Program. She is an interdisciplinary scholar of visual culture, with a particular interest in cultural studies, contemporary art, digital media and video games. Murray holds a PhD in the History of Art and Visual Studies from Cornell University.
On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space is available now and can be ordered here.