We're Scared Right Now: What Today's Video Games Say About The Moment We Live In

A society leaves behind a pretty decent map of its psychology in the culture it creates. For example, the 1950s brought us a number of science fiction films that remain cultural touchstones to this day. And as any undergraduate student taking a Film Studies 101 course can tell you, a huge number of those movies existed more as a manifestation of that decade's cultural paranoia than as films unto themselves.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is probably the best known of the bunch, and is widely considered to express the fear fostered by McCarthyism and the early days of the Cold War: anyone, it posits, can suddenly be one of Them instead of one of Us. Other well-known movies also express varying kinds of cultural fear: fear of invasion, fear of being disbelieved when the infiltration comes, fear of what horrors a nuclear world could wreak.

Every era has its themes. We saw fear again in the 1980s, as the Cold War settled and a strange new global, technological world emerged. Blade Runner, at least in part, continued to carry the torch that Body Snatchers raised. Films like the Terminator series told us to fear our future. Brazil and the TV show Max Headroom made dystopic living absurd, but no less frightening. And movies like the Alien series left us shuddering to think at what horrors could be lurking both in the shadows without, and the flesh within.

The creators of a work — its writers, directors, producers, and so on — may or may not mean for any particular theme or allegory to come across. But authorial intent only matters up to a certain point. When one stands back and looks at the trend in films released in a given decade, clear trends emerge. Those trends tell us something interesting about the mindset of American society at the time.

Cinema and literature still have their hold on us, and reflect our souls back to us as they always have. But now, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, a new medium is slotting into prominence in the cultural narrative: video games. And looking at the big-budget games scheduled for release in the remainder of 2012 and in 2013, a picture of our worries starts to take form.

The picture our games paint is one of uncertainty and even paranoia. Culturally, we are afraid. We are afraid of each other. We are afraid of our reliance on technology. And we are afraid that the world order we have come to accept is crumbling before us.

Fighting game Injustice takes the sheen of heroism off our superheroes and casts them as dangerous to each other and to the world they live in — and, by extension, to us. BioShock Infinite inhabits the seedy side of American Exceptionalism, and peels away any sentiment that the "good old days" were a golden age at all. Even Star Wars, our most iconic space opera, will be shedding its good-versus-evil, sword-and-sworcery inspired skin and instead focusing on the criminal underworld its universe has tended to gloss over.

But when it comes back around to recreating the body horror of the 1950s, zombies are the dead giveaway. Or the undead giveaway, as it were.

ZombiU and The Last of Us look to be games that play and handle very differently, but that ultimately touch on the same idea: the world has completely gone to hell. At any moment, one of Us could fall. And we won't even have the dignity of staying dead: we'll become one of Them. And the horde of Them is coming for, well, the last of Us.

The apocalyptic survival horror stories, though, have nothing on Watch Dogs for pure paranoia. Seeing the first footage of that game come out of E3, my jaw hit the floor.

Here in an era where we get antsy with always-online games, with constant connectivity, with platforms that want to know who we are, who we're with, where we are, and what we're up to at all times, one game calls out the constant surveillance and integration as both omnipresent and terrifying. And when it takes just enough from the real world that it can convincingly rewrite history, Watch Dogs plays on every conspiracy theory and "but what if..." that lurks in our shadows. Reprogram traffic lights from your phone? Sure! Shadowy figures controlling each other on the street? Why not?

Even our MMORPG worlds, once given over mainly to colorful fantasy art, are starting to ask us to question our reality.

It's not hard to speculate why so many of our games seem, frankly, terrified. Globalization is scary, and old lines are constantly being redrawn. Technology adoption happens at such a breakneck pace that even the most wired among us are hard-pressed to keep up. Old boundaries crumble and strange new ones arise. And of course, the worldwide economic hit that punched the whole developed world in the face in 2008 hasn't helped any of the transitions of the modern era along. Nations worldwide are struggling with high unemployment, which leads to a sense of civil unrest and despair. Goods and services still get traded, but the where and who of their manufacture and sale keeps shifting. And as older concepts of privacy crumble and new ones are still being built, we never know who is watching us or why.

In the midst of worldwide upheaval of a hundred different kinds, paranoia is surprisingly easy to come by.

Happily, we do have a counterbalance for all of the fear, violence and despair bubbling to the top of so many of our big-budget games. There are games out there that still focus on exploration and storytelling, on the mysteries of sound, and on messing with environments. There are colourful romps and quirky puzzlers. And they're out there on every platform.

When media studies historians look back on our era in 50 or 100 years, the smart ones will realise that our cultural makeup was complex, as has every decade been. Even in the midst of the Hollywood Blacklist, plenty of films brimmed with idealism or became icons of comedy. Even in the midst of fear, flowers of hope and joy grow.

This decade dawned still in the long shadow of 2001, and has largely been framed by war and the nebulous worries of terrorism. But we're only just now heading into the 2013 slate, and we've many years yet to go before 2020 concludes. Call me an optimist: I like to hope that the media coming from the back half of our decade will represent a kinder, more understanding, more relaxed culture, and that such a culture accurately reflects our society.

But until then? Well. I've got zombies to kill.


    Stop breaking the site Kate

    This was brilliantly written. An interesting perspective that definitely gives me something to mull over.

    Bravo to Ms. Cox!

    Why is it that your the only one that actully thinks on this site Kate? As always, a great read. :)

    A good read. But whne i hopped onto kotaku, i was greeted by a great wall of text.

    I usually despise your psuedo psychology and poorly formed arguments Kate, but credit where credit's due, disagree or agree this was an interesting read that was well written and avoided many of the traps you often fall into, the brush strokes in the conclusion might have been a little broad, but hey you're not trying to write a philosophy paper here. Baby steps.

      How pleasantly condescending and vitriolic.

        Write something better- actually, write a series of consistently better pieces - then deliver your "advice". Oh, the irony of someone criticizing another's prose when their own is just ... so ... shit.

          Typical of Kotaku readers. Try to critically analyse something and apparently your being condescending. Talking about someone's work with a critical eye is not vitriolic and honestly, his written piece is about 99% better than any Kotaku piece ever written .


            It doesn't help that it was hopelessly condescending and every single compliment came with a healthy backhand to the face.

            What if someone told you, "I usually despise your horribly cliched, packet-mix cooking, but credit where credit's due: whether or not you think this latest dish is tasty, it's certainly interesting. You didn't foul it up with the usual poor ingredient balances you often do. It might be a little bland, but hey, you're not cooking for the Queen. Baby steps."
            Anyone who says that sort of thing isn't being constructive or complimentary. They're being an asshole.

          And the rather hypocritical and (vicious) cyclical nature of criticising another using conditions you yourself have failed to live up to, thus exemplifying your own attempt at derision and scorn. Unless of course you have a few Pulitzers I'm unaware of.

          While Sam's message could have been better worded to be more constructive, it isn't entirely incorrect

    Careful sam, your in danger of exposing the fact your a no body with nothing inteligent to contribute of your own :D

    I think the arguments regarding the dislocation and fear engendered by the Great Financial Cock-Up are overplayed; historically we're living in a relatively tranquil world akin to the Belle Epoque (but with crappier art). I think the governing spirit of our times is apathy and narcissism, and if computer games as cultural objects tell us anything it is that we as a society would much rather retreat into a colourful world of moderated, trivial self expression than engage with the real one politically.

    I don't believe for a moment that "Today's Video Games" speak of an underlying terror in society. Too many people are playing FIFA12 for that to be true, and even these "paranoid" games are hard to take seriously. I would argue for example that games like The Last of Us fit their story to the game mechanic and not the other way round.


        Congratulations. You have won the game.

    I think I'm more worried about the fact that a lot of the games today suffer from issues of "Me too", "sequelitis" and banal gameplay that amounts to mice tapping on a bar to get the next treat. To the futureman, that's going to say that it was a period of corporate greed, where the aim wasn't to produce a stimulating and entertaining experience but to get people spending money using cheap marketing tricks and manipulation of human cognitive behaviour. On the other side of the fence, it is also going to say that people didn't care what the games were, just that they needed to have them regardless.

    It's a bit of a generalised view, yes, but sometimes the culture surrounding a medium is just as informative as the content of it, if not more, and perhaps a little more revealing of the nature of humanity at the time.

      +1 Ahtaps. As interesting as this article was, I think your perspective would make an even better one.

    I remember some time ago, Adam Sessler said something about how zombie films over time have expressed the nature of the world in which we live in. He argued that the slow moving Romero zombies were akin to the slow but impending danger of the Cold War: the threat is there but it's taking a while to get to us. He then said that nowadays with zombies running all over the place it reflects our fears on terrorism: there is a threat but we don't know when or where it will strike at us and we're constantly on alert. I thought it was a pretty interesting take anyway...

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