Dystopian Futures and Alternative Histories: American Exceptionalism in Cold War-Themed Video Games

Regina Seiwald (Birmingham City University)

Video games allow us to explore dystopian futures and alternative histories through interactively engaging with their narratives. These representations of futuristic and historical (re)imaginations raise questions of bias, inaccurate depiction, and subjectivism of the dominant socio-historical discourse and its portrayal in games. Some games appeal to the player's emotions and morality by presenting bi-polar worldviews, splitting the geopolitical landscape into "good" (personified by the US) and "evil" (epitomized by socialist and communist forces). This is achieved through reiterations of a strong sense of what "Americanness" means and how players within and outside the US perceive it. This paper addresses various modes of how this Americanness, American Exceptionalism, and the "myth of uniqueness" (Smith 2013: 114) are represented in Cold War-themed video games.

The games of the Fallout series (1997–2018) depict an apocalyptic future in which the Cold War turned hot and the world was destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The games invoke ideas of Americanness through nostalgic imagery, materialized in remnants of art deco furniture and streamlined cars. Homefront (2011) expands Fallout's focus on survival scenarios with aggression instigated by communist forces. North Korea reached significant strength in the 2010s after the West was faced with economic downfalls and social unrests. The newly established superpower of the Great Korean Republic prospers while former capitalist countries crumble. Set two years after the Korean-American War began in 2025, the game depicts the ideological fight for American values and beliefs, such as democracy, freedom, and capitalism.

Besides these dystopias, I explore alternative history games that focus on the then-future power distribution in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (2001), American and NATO soldiers fight renegade Soviet armies in order to liberate illegally seized territories and bring peace to their inhabitants. The American way is rendered as the only truly liberating one, and one that needs to be fought for by all means. A similar context is depicted in Freedom Fighters (2003). The USSR are the sole winners of World War II and, consequently, many countries have become Soviet vassal states. When New York City is invaded by Soviet forces, an underground resistance forms in order to fight for the country's freedom. Media control and propaganda play key roles in the game, emphasizing the constant presence of communist ideals and their polar opposition to American ideas (ironically conceptualized in a Soviet Uncle Sam figure).

By drawing parallels to American Cold War propaganda in popular media, this paper discusses how stereotypical notions of America(nness) are generated through engagements with material objects, thoughts, and beliefs. This will allow me to show how they affect our understanding of friend and foe images and how they consequently structure our appreciation of the global distribution of political power, through which they characterize an Americanized dystopian future and/or an alternative history.

Imagining a Working-Class Future: Victimizing the "Forgotten Man" in DEATH STRANDING

Stefan Schubert (Leipzig University)

While the reception of Hideo Kojima's 2019 Death Stranding was conspicuously divided, most critics and fans highlighted the postapocalyptic dystopian world that the game imagines and lets players explore as one of its main appeals. Its narrative premise, centered around the (literal and metaphorical) quest to "build bridges" in order to reconnect parts of the world with each other, also significantly related to questions of belonging and isolation omnipresent during the Covid-19 pandemic that begun shortly after the game's release. In this presentation, I would like to connect how exactly Death Stranding narratively and ludically presents its world to a different (intertextual) discourse, that of pop-cultural stories that focus on white working-class men as protagonists and stylize them as victims within their narratives—primarily due to their working-class status. Such pop-culture representations (especially in films) became more popular at the time of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, for instance in Manchester by the Sea (2016), Hell or High Water (2016), and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). These texts could all be said to center on the victimized image of the allegedly "forgotten man" that was so prominently evoked during Trump's candidacy and presidency, fueling a trope that Jack Halberstam summarized as "white men behaving sadly."

In my presentation, I will show how the world and narrative of Death Stranding are built on both long-standing American myths (like the frontier or rugged individualism) and this newer, distinctly American kind of narrative. By paying attention to the game's narrative trajectory, depictions of masculinity and fatherhood, player interactions with the environment, and gameplay elements centered on performing the job of a postapocalyptic delivery driver, I will argue that Death Stranding stylizes the figure of the white working-class male—and the kind of labor he allegedly performs best—as the savior of (dystopian) America. By tracing these tropes and elements, I would like to highlight that the game champions not just any person as the potential savior tying America back together but specifically marks its protagonist as white, as male, and as working-class, tapping into a reactionary backlash similar to the "forgotten man" movies. In this way, Death Stranding ultimately imagines a future that explicitly builds on gamifying and romanticizing monotonous working-class labor.

Human Machines, Mechanical Humans: Posthuman Subjectivities in DETROIT: BECOME HUMAN

Valentina Romanzi (University of Bergamo)

Detroit: Become Human, Quantic Dream's 2018 video game, was written and directed by noted developer David Cage and is generally classified as an adventure interactive drama (a category also known as "narrative games"). Set in a dystopian 2038 Detroit, where the city and most of the United States are de-facto ruled by a tech corporation, it consists of three interconnected storylines following different androids as they struggle with their predetermined roles in human society. The gameplay consists in making choices that will steer the narratives down customized paths, resulting in different outcomes to each chapter and, eventually, in different endings.

The subject matter of the video game and the chosen gameplay mechanics offer a wide range of insights into the concept of subjectivity, especially with regards to theories about the post- and transhuman. In my presentation, I will: (1) comment on the quintessentially American mood of the game, despite its international development, showing how it retrieves and updates themes that have a long tradition in the American canon; (2) relate features of the transhuman and the posthuman subject to the characters at the diegetic level; and (3) explore how transhuman and, to a lesser extent, posthuman subjectivity invests the player in his/her interaction with the game.

More precisely, I argue that the androids can be interpreted as posthuman relational subjects as understood by Rosi Braidotti (2013), and that a similar process of relational identity can be detected in the human-machine bond established by the player as they determine how the narratives will unfold. Further, leveraging recent studies in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and in eudaimonic games, I argue that the human-machine assemblage could be understood as a transhuman subject. Lastly, I comment on the presence of transhuman elements throughout the diegesis, especially in paratexts such as the fictional Century magazine articles, which describe trends and events shaping the American way of life in 2038.

Cheating Death: Artificial Intelligence and the Logic of Pandemic Culture

Eric Freedman (Columbia College Chicago)

The Last of Us Part II, the second installment in the Naughty Dog video game franchise, was released in June 2020 at a moment when coronavirus cases were trending upward across the United States and the true scale of the pandemic was already well-documented in epidemiological reports from the World Health Organization. While the parallels between the game's viral outbreak and the outbreak in the world-at-large are all too self-evident, the less evident tether that connects the two worlds of contagion is their mutual dependency on what Mika Aaltola (2012) refers to as "politisomatics," a term that describes how the anxieties of the individual are inherently bound to the global polity and its hierarchies of risk, and how fear and risk are translated into material practices and ritualistic behaviors that reify the existing imbalances of wealth and power that undergird public health. The Last of Us (2013) and its sequel remind us that the rules for navigating space during a pandemic require a dynamic assessment of risk—rules that depend on data and are embedded in independently-authored systems that meter tactical thinking and freedom. Pandemic culture writ large propagates a similar world view, as we read and navigate the bodies of non-playable others in a landscape dotted with viral threats. With its focus on The Last of Us and its sequel, this paper examines the pandemic city as a site of organized possibility that is always complicated by algorithmic unpredictability and expression, and designed as an affective socio-spatial encounter with distressed bodies that function as powerful distillations of trauma and regulate player agency. In The Last of Us and its sequel, as players make their way across post-apocalyptic America, traversing urban, suburban and rural spaces, they navigate cities dissected and translated into functional level designs, engineered as informatic environments that propel or hinder movement. While neither game is an open-world experience, these settings provide the player with options on how to proceed, options that are contoured by the environment and the presence of intelligent AI systems that allow non-playable character to analyze playable space and the player's movement through that space. The dystopian plot framework of The Last of Us juxtaposes confining city spaces with the open spaces and potentialities of the natural world. But both spaces are equally threatening, requiring the same skillful navigation and mastery of the terrain and the AI systems. To survive through the The Last of Us, players must occupy multiple intersecting bodies while monitoring the bodies of others. But beyond identification, beyond narrative, as an arena of play the game is a lesson in mobility within a post-pandemic world. The America of The Last of Us is manufactured to control the flow of information and ideas and continuously monitored by the game's AI subsystems as part of an informatic loop that defines the state of play. With its focus on the coded architectures of the game world, this paper reads the post-apocalyptic American city as a narrative space governed by informatic exchange.

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