Political Communication in Digital Horror Games

by Eugen Pfister

This text originally appeared here in German.

London 1918: the Spanish flu claims thousands of victims, hitting the poorest of the city hardest. Whole neighbourhoods stand empty; communist trade unionists and street gangs fight bloody street battles. While the upper class of the West End considers building a wall around their district, Romanian immigrants in Whitechapel desperately fight for survival at the very bottom of the steep social hierarchy. Women are increasingly taking over the work of men, hundreds and thousands of whom are dying in a senseless war, whilst not gaining the same political rights and economic opportunities as them as them. „Vampyr“ (Dontnod: F 2018 / PS4 and others).

Change of scene: In 1960 deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Frightened, we run through the (retro-)futuristic ruins of the former megalopolis “Rapture” and become witness to the catastrophic dissolution of a utopian city-state-project, as only Ayn Rand could have dreamed of. „No Gods or Kings. Only Man“ can be read on a banner at the city gates, a city whose goal is to avoid limiting the creative expression of its inhabitants,  politically, socially or culturally, and which is now being brutally destroyed in the struggle of all against all. „BioShock“ (2K Boston: US 2007 / XBOX360 and others).

Another change of scene: a luxurious cabin in the Rocky Mountains, 2015: Eight prototypical (not to say stereotypical) American teenagers have come together for a weekend to commemorate two friends who vanished the previous year, when they successively fall victim to a mythical monster. The land on which the manor now stands was taken one hundred years before from an indigenous tribe. A mine was built on the site and, after a mining accident in the 1950s, the buried miners fall victim to an ‚Indian curse‘. When the miners are admitted to the nearby hospital, however, inquisitive scientists appear less interested in treating them as are in observing them. „Until Dawn“ (Supermassive Games: UK 2015/PS4).

Class struggle, immigration, emancipation, (neo-)liberalism, the processing of US „Indian politics“ and unethical science: these are all topics that we would more likely expect to find in the political pages of our daily newspapers, but which are, in fact,  a „natural“ part of horror games (and films and books of this genre). Indeed, horror narratives are by tradition political (Carrol 1990), even if the gamers may not notice this at first glance. We are too busy surviving in the face of a growing overwhelming threat in the gameplay. At the same time, these political story elements are not hidden from us, we receive them, and, in a way, we even expect them (Pfister 2018a). Now, of course, we could simply claim that these are all „just“ serve as window dressing, interchangeable TV tropes that are used almost arbitrarily, without any deeper meaning, especially since not every game developer wants to convey a conscious political message like Ken Levine. But what if these set pieces were more significant? What if were dealing with outright political statements that (co-) construct our world views regardless of the intentions of developers?

Most relevant surveys carried out in the field of game studies now take political discourses and ideological transfer processes in digital games for granted (e.g. Fernández-Vara 2014, 131-134). Nevertheless, political-historical or political science studies – Tobias Bevc, for example, published on this subject several times (Bevc 2007) – are the exception today. (The recently published monographs „Video Games as Culture“ [Muriel 2018] and „Playstation Dreamworld“ [Bown 2018] should be mentioned here as such exceptions). One reason for this may be the vehement defensive attitude of both the games industry and certain gamers towards the idea of political content in games (Pfister 2018b). Another reason may be the long lived and, at times, almost institutionalized skepticism of historians towards any form of popular culture. This is ironic in that no serious researcher would question the significance of popular culture for our contemporary societies (cf. Huck/Zorn 2007, Görgen/Nunez/Fangerau 2018 or Caso/Hamilton 2015).  As early as 1998, Kevin Banhurst, for example, used his „life history analysis“ of young Americans to trace how they drew their political identity not only from the classic news, but also from pop songs, television commercials, etc. (Banhurst 1998).

In the following, I will therefore examine in more detail the question of why, based on theories and findings from the history of politics and ideas, an analysis of political ideas in digital games is not only useful but also allows new insights into the politics and society of immediate contemporary history. In extensio, however, this can naturally also be applied to other historical popular cultural mass media. So in the following paragraphs I will briefly leave the horror aside in order to reflect on the political dimensions of digital games, independent of genre.

When we speak of political communication, however, we need first of all to define what is perceived as „political“. Even if we all somehow assume that we understand the same thing by politics, my previous experience in discussions has shown me that this is rarely the case. The boundaries of the political are too vague. For example, if one uses the most exclusive definition possible: „state institutions such as governments, parliaments and firmly regulated institutional ways of decision-making and implementation.”, then this would limit the search for the political in games to the representation/staging and ludification of classical political actors.  (http://politischebildung.ch/fuer-lehrpersonen/grundlagen/politik-begriff). The search for Valdimir Putin, Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan in games, however, would only be of very limited research interest. NGOs and political interest groups, for example, would already have been excluded by this definition. The picture would remain incomplete.

Nuclear War (New World Computing 1989 / MS-DOS)

In political history, therefore, the term “political’ is generally applied as inclusively as possible. I consider Ute Frevert’s concept to be particularly helpful here, for whom the „manifold power relations […] are constituted as political where the establishment, defense and rejection of unequal social relations is at stake; [they discover] these power relations in a symbolic practice that both prescribes interpretations of meaning and negotiates them communicatively. (Frevert 2006, 163) Above all, then, it concerns the legitimization of power. We are dealing here with a basic prerequisite for our political systems to function, which create meaning primarily via cultural power and via discursive/communicative negotiation processes.

Put more simply, what is it that forces us to comply with all laws, norms and obligations on a daily basis? Why do we obey the road traffic regulations even if nobody is looking? Yet if, for example, political power depends to a large extent on not being questioned, then the importance of a popular cultural production of meaning is already apparent. The more often something [a political problem or constellation] is confirmed for us in the media, the less inclined we are to question its justification. Thus it seems ex negativo plausible that, for example, an increasing loss of trust in political figures and institutions in popular culture is not only a mirror of a „real“ political development, but also contributes to it. In other words: the more often we encounter incapable/corrupt/amoral politicians in film and television, the more we are inclined to attribute this to „real“ politicians.

Senator Alfred Woden in Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment 2001 / Windows)

Although (new) political history has not (yet) dealt with digital horror games, it has increasingly turned to the question of political communication, because „only through communication do meanings or formations of meaning emerge that can be brought together with social structures. (Schorn Schütte 2006, 101) Fragile forms of social order only become permanent and more complex structures „if this stability is guaranteed by the shaping of communication itself“ (ibid.).

Let’s venture a little deeper into theory: If we assume along with Niklas Luhmann that in the past centuries, first in Europe and later worldwide, we witnessed the development of an increasingly functionally differentiated society, that is, the development of highly complex societies organized on the basis of the division of labor then we must also ask ourselves how these highly specialized subsystems (Luhmann gives us as examples „Economic Production“, „Political Enabling of Collectively Binding Decisions“ (i.e. politics), „Legal Dispute Settlement“, „Medical Care“, „Education“, „Scientific Research“, etc.) can communicate with each other. (Luhmann 2010, 200) Who today can still claim to be able to keep track of all economic, cultural, scientific, political, etc. factors, even in a small state, and equally in all areas? Each subsystem has its own semantics, its own „language“, its own values [and culture] if you like. At the same time, the subsystems are not to be understood exclusively, individuals can also be part of several subsystems. A medical doctor, for example, can also be interested in art or teach at the university. The supermarket worker may also be politically active. These subsystems must therefore continue to be compatible with each other despite all their differentiation. For this reason alone, a unifying language and common world-views must exist. But since all subsystems are also part of a common system (our society), there is also a need to enable communication between the subsystems around common value systems. For example, there must be a consensus on the form of government, monopoly of power, freedom or restriction of art and science, legal system, etc.

Even if we set Luhmann’s concept of the functionally differentiated system aside and start simply from the premise that millions of atomized individuals, starting each day anew, are prepared to accept the symbolic power of their democratic states, then the need for a constant exchange about common values and taboos is clearly evident. For the police and the courts to function, an overwhelming majority of the population must „believe“ in the rule of law. Issues of relevance to society as a whole, such as climate protection, refugees, but also questions of scientific ethics (for example, with regard to stem cell research) or questions of gender equality must be constantly negotiated and communicated publicly. This process of political negotiation takes place, in part, naturally in familiar political environments: in parliaments, within parties, and sometimes in specialised subsystems such as science. However, in order for the decisions made here to become binding, they must be communicated to as many of the population as possible in democratic societies (as well as autocratic ones, by the way).

At the same time, the above-mentioned actors and subsystems in democratic societies must also ensure that they (act) in the interests of the majority of the population. A similar idea can be found in Jürgen Habermas‘ concept of the public sphere: In an ideal model, so-called leading and mass media would take over the role of mediating between institutionalized discourses of politicians and informal everyday conversations of voters (see also the concept of „interdiscourse“ by Jürgen Link).

According to Habermas, the „Öffentlichkeit“ contributes to democratic legitimacy by selecting items relevant to political decision-making and collating reasoned statements on competing public opinions (Habermas 2008, 136). However, Habermas was aware that in reality this ideal state is not being achieved. On the one hand, the classical news media, which Habermas has in mind, reach only a limited part of the necessary overall public, and on the other hand they are partly themselves politically active in exerting influence. But what if this necessary exchange partly takes place in our popular culture as well, albeit unconsciously? What if it is an evolutionary step forward in the system as defined by Luhmann?

This constant exchange takes place in several ways: on the one hand, consciously and selectively in democratic elections or votes, consciously and continuously (with a clear hierarchical divide) in news media, and increasingly (at least apparently without hierarchical divide) in the constant exchange in so-called social media and, I will argue, predominantly unconsciously and continuously (and with a hidden hierarchical divide) also in popular culture. Here, the communication channels mentioned differ qualitatively from each other. Temporally and locally limited, situational political exchanges take place primarily in the former, while long-term and (quasi-)global issues are (also) negotiated in popular culture.

Our images of history, but also questions of environmental protection or the legitimacy of our economic model, for example, are increasingly negotiated via popular cultural imaginations in games, television series, graphic novels and other media formats (see also the increased interest in public history). Here, so to speak, a fundamental semantic basis for politics is established. The idea that politics is also negotiated in digital games, cinema films and pop songs would have the advantage that for the first time we would be given a glimpse into what initially appears to be a „more democratic“ process that no longer centres on political and intellectual elites. So far, the demos has mostly only found its way into research in the form of „public opinion“ and „election results“. Often there has been a contradiction between classical politics and public opinion that has not been grasped with the research tools used so far.

The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013/ PS4)

Of course, this model of massive and largely unconscious political communication also presents us with many scientific challenges. For example, in the case of digital games and popular culture in general, we have to assume that, although unconsciously, political statements are also the result of a media logic (in the case of digital games: the influence of marketing departments, historical genre traditions, influence of technology, etc.), so as with the news media, we are not dealing with a „pure“ public sphere. The next problem is that our political systems are still largely national, whereas in digital games, in particular, national borders play a very subliminal and indirect role. However, making genuinely international (albeit predominantly Western European-American-Japanese) political ideas visible can also help us to better understand contemporary political processes, such as the unprecedented international success of authoritarian right-wing leaders.

Now it might seem as if I have moved quite far away from the object of my research I briefly touched on at the beginning, namely digital horror games. In fact, I never really left them behind. Digital horror games must be understood as one component (among many) of a popular cultural communication and construction of meaning. This can happen deliberately, such as when Ken Levine publicly decides to deconstruct Ayn Rand’s hardcore liberalism in a first-person shooter. It can also happen unconsciously, however, when someone „just wanted to make a zombie game“, but at the same time transports political statements about the inability of complex political systems (our governments) to deal with the ‘threat’ of the foreign. Of course, I have to constantly remind myself that digital horror games are only a small part of the picture, and that I do not claim to cover the entirety of an ideological discourse in popular culture by way of them, as they remain limited in scope both thematically and in terms of social distribution.

Vampyr (Dontnod 2018 / PS4)

Nevertheless, I would argue that horror games are particularly suited as a starting point, because the „horror genre“ has been well researched in film, literature and increasingly also in digital games (e.g. in Perron 2009 and Perron 2018), even though there have not yet been any specific research on digital horror games in terms of  political history.  The aim of our research project is not to prove whether politics is also partly negotiated in popular culture and digital games, this is rather the original motivation and premise for the project. For the time being, we shall limit the projectto producing an inventory of clearly identifiable political statements and a first impression of their frequency and distribution from the standpoint of political history or actually the history of ideas (see following blog posts). Therefore, our research project is concerned with the syn- and diachronic search for political statements in a temporally limited sample that may not have been perceived as such at first glance. The aim is to create a catalogue of dominant discursive statements, should one emerge. It is always exciting when, at certain points in time, certain statements suddenly appear more frequently and colonise other genres.

Based on this catalogue – and here we come to the core of our project – the rhetorical design, the political language in horror games is to be explored. This is not a straightforward task.  On the one hand, the communication of political content in popular culture is almost a commonplace in science. On the other hand, from my experience, the possible effects of political transfer processes qua popular culture are almost always doubted by people outside the scientific community. The idea that we unconsciously come into contact with political content frightens us deeply, because it questions us as autonomously acting participants in a society. Our aim with this project therefore, is that a manageable but at the same time concise insight into one aspect of popular culture can help to make such processes more comprehensible.


Literature:

  • Tobias Bevc (Hg.), Computerspiele und Politik. Münster: LIT Verlag. 2007.
  • Alfie Bown, The Playstation Dreamworld. Cambridge: Polity.  2018.
  • Noel Carrol, The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge 1990.
  • Caso/Hamilton 2015: Federica Caso und Caitlin Hamilton (Hg.). Popular Culture and World Politics: Theories, Methods, Pedagogies. E-International Relations 2015.
  • Fernández-Vara 2014: Clara Fernandez-Vara. Introduction to Video Game Analysis. New York: Routledge. 2014.
  • Frevert 2006: Ute Frevert, „Neue Politikgeschichte“. In: Joachim Eibach, Günther Lottes (Hg.). Kompass der Geschichtswissenschaft. Göttingen: UTB. 2006.  152-164.
  • Görgen/Nunez/Fangerau 2018: Arno Görgen, Greman Alfonso Nunez und Heiner Fangerau (Hg.). Handbook of Popular Culture and Biomedicine. Springer. 2018.
  • Habermas 2008: Jürgen Habermas. Ach Europa. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 2008.
  • Huck/Zorn 2007: Christian Huck und Carsten Zorn (Hg.): Das Populäre in der Gesellschaft. Systemtheorie und Populärkultur. Springer 2007.
  • Luhmann 2010: Niklas Luhmann, „Gesellschaftliche Struktur und Semantische Tradition“, 187-221 in: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Ideengeschichte. Basistexte. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag 2010.
  • Pfister 2018a: Eugen Pfister, „Der Politische Mythos als diskursive Aussage im digitalen Spiel. Ein Beitrag aus der Perspektive der Politikgeschichte“. In: Thorsten Junge und Claudia Schumacher (Hg.), Digitale Spiele im Diskurs. Hagen. 2018. URL: http://www.medien-im-diskurs.de
  • Pfister 2018b: Eugen Pfister, „Keep your Politics out of my Games!“ in: Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/1566> 08.02.2018.
  • Schorn-Schütte 2006: Luise Schorn-Schütte: Historische Politikforschung, Eine Einführung. München: Campus. 2006.

Recommended citation : Eugen Pfister, „Political Communication in Digital Horror Games“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1062> 11.05.2020.


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