“MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!”[1] Translating Political Anxieties into Zombie in Digital Games.

by Eugen Pfister

The following essay is based on a talk I gave at a conference of the Institute for Cultural Studies and History of Theater at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. It originally appeared in 2020 in this beautiful anthology on the Dark Side of Translation, edited by Federico Italiano. It is released here with the kind permission of the editor and publisher

Translating into Zombie Video Games

The zombie apocalypse in video games has its own perverted beauty. Games like The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, US 2013 / PS3 et al.) , Left4Dead (Valve, US 2008 / Xbox360 et al.) or Dying Light (Techland, PL 2015 / PS4 et al.) immerse us in a mesmerizing dystopia of gigantic collapsed skyscrapers and picturesquely crumbling government buildings. Once-proud cities are now littered with car wrecks and debris, overrun by emergent vegetation glistening golden in the evening sun. With the continuous technological development of increasingly powerful game engines, these dystopian imaginations of our near future become more and more enthralling. The interactive zombie apocalypse has become photorealistic, with an image quality as close to real life as possible. Rendered in high definition, zombies in these games appear on our computer screens as intricately designed walking corpses. Every inch of their crumbling bodies is exposed to us with exhibitory glee. They are covered with purulent and putrescent wounds, showing the human body in the vibrant colours of its different states of decomposition.

Zombie video games are thus a strong aesthetic experience relying on the intricate symbiosis of attraction and repulsion, as described by Noel Carrol: ‘In short, there appears to be something paradoxical about the horror genre. It obviously attracts consumers; but it seems to do so by means of the expressly repulsive’ and ‘horror attracts because anomalies command attention and elicit curiosity’ (Carrol 2002: 33). This aesthetic moment, which Carrol calls ‘art-horror’ (Carrol 1989: 13) and which we have learned to appreciate in popular culture via feature films and TV, is potentially replicated ad infinitum by the required interactivity of video games. Here, we are no longer passive spectators but agents of the story, accountable for the actions of the protagonists in a world in disarray. But what if these zombie video games go beyond having a function as entertainment products, and are more than just a global commodity of distraction and amusement? What if they also communicate political statements through the medium of popular culture, contributing to a global discourse?

Lauro (2011: 128) argues that the figure of the zombie first and foremost serves the narrative of crisis, of cultural discomfort. In this sense, the myth of governmental breakdown is central to the narrative of the zombie genre. The failure of modern states to cope with the zombie threat is perceived as a natural component of the genre, and therefore is not usually questioned by the audience. But why should we begin to question the failure of government? Without it there would be no zombie games. A failing society is almost a basic prerequisite of zombie narratives.

There appears to be a correlation between the proliferation of zombie narratives and the rising number of people who believe in the inability of modern western governments to cope with similar large-scale catastrophes today. As Drezner wrote:

‘The threats to national security are less grave but provoke more uncertainty than during the Cold War. Zombies are the perfect symbol to represent the threats in popular culture’ (Drezner 2015: 138–39).

Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies (https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9780691223520/html)

This growing feeling of unease and uncertainty might explain the growing popularity of the zombie apocalypse theme (Bishop 2015: 39). In the following chapter, I will therefore attempt to draw some conclusions about the nature of this act of representation/communication.

Representations of the apocalypse in popular culture are not new, and they are definitely not an invention of zombie video games. The modern (post-)apocalypse is an integral trope of dystopian fiction, with a long tradition in science fiction films and literature. Our desire for images of empty cities and ruins appears to be insatiable. The fact that we choose to use the very specific terms ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘post-apocalyptic’ to describe these fictional settings indicates, however, that these representations of destruction are not only an aesthetic experience: they also imply a hidden revelation, a message. Not only do the apocalypses of our various religions and mythologies have an educational motif (thus creating good believers), but the same is also true for most of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction in popular culture. For example, Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (Huxley 2005 [1948]) can thus be read as a warning about the politics of mutually assured destruction of the Cold War, and Pixar’s WALL-E  (US 2008 / D: Andrew Stanton)as a critique of consumerism and environmental pollution. George R. Romero, best known for reviving the zombie film in the late 1960s, declared:

‘If there’s something I’d like to criticise, I can bring the zombies out. […] So I’ve been able to express my political views through those films’ (Romero 2010).

By this logic, the figure of the zombie ought to be understood not only as instrument of horror, but also as a means of communication. Zombies in literature, film, television and video games do not always represent the same cultural or political statement; they are not one signifier relating to one concrete meaning (the signified) in the logic of semiotics. Instead, I would argue that the figure of the zombie functions as a ‘language’, allowing a multitude of different statements to be made. This is, of course, not a singular phenomenon of zombie fiction, but a common—though often neglected—aspect of our popular culture. Philipp Sarasin has established, for instance, that the fictional figure of the mad scientist is a way for our society to negotiate the norms and values of science policies with the general public (Sarasin 2003: 256–266). This means that the exaggerated figure of the mad scientist also functions as means of communication. It spreads for example the message about the dangers of uncontrolled scientific research (Pfister 2017). The translation of an increasingly hypercomplex scientific discourse into the language of popular culture is a necessary step to enable a public discussion, itself required for democratic political decision-making. This translational moment can also be analysed in video games. This could be understood as an extension of Jürgen Habermas’ understanding of mass media as a public sphere of political communication. In Habermas’ understanding of public communication, mass media allows the public to develop a critical consensus, which he considers necessary for any public participation in democratic political processes. While Habermas was most certainly thinking of the traditional press, this agreement on common values and norms between a (political) elite and the greater public also happens in popular culture (Habermas 2008: 136 and Pfister 2018c).

Popular culture—and in this case video games—should thus also be understood as a translational moment. To differentiate here between ‘communication’ and ‘translation’ is not mere sophistry. It helps us more effectively to understand some of the mechanisms and problems involved. While the term ‘communication’ implies a complete transfer of contents, a translation can be neither frictionless nor complete. As every language has its own logic, one-to-one translation is not possible. The process of translation always changes the statements communicated; it has to adapt the content to the ‘grammar’ and ‘syntax’ of the host language, as I have shown in the case of the figure of the mad scientist in video games (Pfister 2017).

To analyse zombie video games as a translational moment of a political discourse first requires a thorough understanding of how to speak Zombie Video Game. To work out its grammar and syntax we have—in a way—to consciously learn a new language. We have to reconstruct its functions based on our knowledge of other similar languages. To this end, I will refer to the iconography of architectural ruin and human decomposition, or to the history of political ideas of dystopia, to establish accepted meanings. At this point, I cannot ascertain whether a complete reconstruction of the ‘linguistic’ functions of zombie video games is useful or even possible. Understanding the communication of political and cultural statements in zombie video games is a thought experiment. I am, however, positive that this experiment will give us additional insights into the process of (unconscious) political communication in popular culture.

Horror as a Language, Zombies as a Dialect?

While there has been no explicit attempt to study the zombie genre as a language until now, the search for political meaning in the zombie genre is not new per se. Zombie studies is, fortunately, no longer seen as an obscure scholarly pursuit. Legitimated by a constant supply of zombie content in popular culture (Morrissette 2014: 1), it has become an emerging field of research (Perron, Leiva and Archibald 2015; Rath 2014; Platts 2014: 547; Drezner 2015: 137 and Bishop 2015: 38). Zombies have become a ‘current cultural currency’ (Lauro and Embry 2008: 86). Fuelled, among other things, by George A. Romero’s declaration that he uses ‘his zombies’ to express his political views through films, scholars have undertaken close readings of some zombie allegories using the theoretical frameworks of Michel Foucault (Pulliam 2009), Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Carr 2009), to name only a few.

Consequently, the portrayal of zombies in popular culture has since been recognized as ‘politically charged’ from its very beginnings (Backe and Aarseth 2013: 1). While we must assume that all of our popular culture can potentially function as a translation between a political/cultural/social elite and the greater public, horror genres are known to be especially suited to the negotiation of common values and taboos. Relying on the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ horror stories, films and games alike can help us better understand the ‘cultural coordinates’, the ‘symbolic categories and valuations’ (Santilli 2007: 173) of a particular society. Santilli argues, for example, for the relevance of horror to the understanding of moral judgements (ibid.: 178). Horror helps reaffirm the outer borders of our collective identities by focussing on the taboos and the abject (Santilli 2007; Kristeva 1980), both aspects of which are central to the zombie genre. 

According to John S. Nelson, horror might also function as a primer for political action:

‘Awaken to evils in our midst. Turn to face those shadows, revealing awful forms more human than we had imagined. Unite to track down those troubles, confronting them at home’ (2005: 382).

In Nelson’s logic, this call to action happens via subtext: ‘(S)ymbolism that creeps beneath surface meanings to assault and awaken our minds’ (ibid.: 382). Zombies are therefore not just an interesting historical source that helps us better to understand specific societies and cultures (Platts 2014); they also take an active role in creating parts of our societal reality. In the logic of discourse analysis, they are not only a reflection of reality but also a component in the construction of meaning (Landwehr 2008: 19) and societal reality (Sarasin 2003: 12).

Similarly, Niklas Luhmann opened his reflections on the reality of mass media as follows: ‘Whatever we know about society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media’, and: ‘Even if all knowledge were to carry a warning that it was open to doubt, it would still have to be used as a foundation, as a starting point’ (2000: 1). All information we acquire through mass media, all information translated by mass media, frames our future cultural, economic, social and political knowledge. This means that we are in fact partly socialised through video games (Fromme and Biermann 2009: 120). Our collective identities are a result not only of our upbringing and education, but also of our interaction with mass media, especially when related to the more abstract concepts of politics and society. ‘It is also in the cultural imagery that significant political battles are fought, “because it is here that coherent narratives are produced, which in turn serves as the basis for any sense of community and political action”’ (Grayson et al. 2009: 157).

However, this does not mean that we consciously apply the knowledge gained from zombie games to our everyday life. Zombies are—quite unmistakably—fictional, but they ‘comment and respond to the real’ (Platts 2014: 553). Even in fantastical scenarios, we have to accept some details as plausible that potentially relate us to the game world. In the case of zombie games, we might, for instance, find it believable that there is an antisocial monster hidden inside every man, or a tendency to antidemocratic behaviour within all military organisations. We could also come to believe it possible that our modern western governments are no longer fit to respond adequately to certain exterior threats (Pfister 2019).  Such ‘knowledge transfers’ can function unconsciously because we have been explicitly taught by the game-industry not to expect political content in video games (Klimmt 2009: 68). Particularly in situations of heightened immersion and stress brought about by gameplay, we might lack our usual scepticism towards political content in media. I, however, prefer the term ‘knowledge translation’ to ‘knowledge transfer’. Understanding this phenomenon of political communication as an act of translation emphasises the incomplete, and the corruption of the message through its transformation: its ‘dark side’, so to speak.

I intend to demonstrate that, whereas political myths in zombie video games correlate with some aspects of an actual political discourse (loss of confidence in the democratic system paired with calls for a ‘strong politician’ to take care of the problems, rising xenophobia and isolationism, etc.), it is the logic of Zombie Video Game—its grammar, so to speak—that partly changes the political statements communicated. This means that zombie video games are not a one-to-one transposition of a ‘real’ political discourse into ‘fiction’. By applying game logic to the message, the message itself changes. But, before we focus on the influence of video games, we must reconstruct the rule of grammar and ‘linguistic customs’ of the zombie video game genre. To this end, I will focus on the iconography, the narrative traditions and the game mechanics at play.

An Iconography of Blood and Gore

Video games like Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom, J 2017 / PS4 et al.)depict the zombies in a hyper-realistic way. Through the game play, the walking corpses become more and more grotesque. The games focus on the abject: the missing limbs and sagging parts of their rotten flesh, as well as broken bones. They are covered with repulsive growths, ooze nauseating fluids and show the human body in different states of decomposition. With the proliferation of ever more explicit images, and to counter our habituation to such repulsive images, the zombies in video games have become increasingly absurd: take the bizarrely bloated ‘Boomers’ in Left4Dead (2008), the ‘Floaters’ in Dead Island (techland, PL 2011 / Xbox360 et al.), or the ‘Fat Molded’ in Resident Evil 7 (2017). Such images of increasingly dehumanized bodies apparently break all of our traditional cultural taboos concerning the dead.

The visualisation of mutilated bodies and the vivid display of internal organs, blood and bones—in short, gore—is deeply connected to the zombie genre. And while the motif of rotten and corrupted zombie bodies is relatively new, the motif of the decaying human body is not. ‘Blood and Gore’ is not an invention of our modern media society.  On the contrary, we find similar imagery of a destroyed human body as early as the fourteenth century in the Christian iconography of Judas Iscariot. There have been gruesome representations of Judas’ suicide based on a passage in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out’ (1:18).  One vivid visualisation of this bible passage was painted by a pupil of Anthony van Dyck in the seventeenth century. It shows Judas hanging from a tree with a distorted face, a blue tongue hanging from his mouth and entrails exploding from his stomach accompanied by gushes of blood (ca. 1620 / Stift Göttweig). A similar representation can be found in a fresco by Giovanni Canavesio from 1491 in the Notre Dame des Fontaines shrine, as well as the Giuda impiccato by Pietro Lorenzetti in the Basilica San Francesco in Assisi (around 1310).

Pietro Lorenzetti, “Giuda impiccato” (ca 1310) via wikicommons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pietro_lorenzetti,_giuda_impiccato.jpg)
La Brigue – Chapelle Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines -Passion du Christ – Judas pendu. Photo by MOSSOT via wikicommons (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:La_Brigue_-Chapelle_Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines-8.JPG)

Apart from depictions of Judas’ suicide, there was, of course, also very vivid imagery of hell and purgatory using similar iconographic strategies. A well-known example is the Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Here, human bodies are mutilated in every way imaginable: pierced, cut, sewn together, and tortured by perverted creatures. These drastic depictions arguably served a didactic purpose in Christian iconography. They were supposed to attract interest, to frighten, and thus to deter the viewer from committing ‘sins’.

From the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, cadaver tombs or transi (from Latin trānsīre, to ‘pass away’) became fashionable, depicting the deceased as realistic rotten corpses in the state of decomposition. A good example of this is the tomb of Archbishop Henry Chichele at Canterbury Cathedral: ‘The double representation contrasting the figure of the archbishop in his ecclesiastical robes to the dead body below seems to illustrate the contrast stated in the epitaph between worldly power and the degradation of man in death’ (Cohen 1973: 38). Even more impressive in its explicitness is the transi tomb of Cardinal Lagrange, sculpted in 1403 in Avignon as a ‘symbol of the nemesis of worldly glory’ (ibid.: 38). The historian, Johan Huizinga, argues in his monograph that the popularity of such macabre depictions might be explained as a reaction to widespread materialism in the late Middle Ages (Huizinga 1924: 126). In this sense, they were also meant as a warning, a reminder of the transient nature of human lives. A similar iconographic tradition can be found in Kusozu, Japanese watercolour paintings depicting corpses in the process of decomposition: ‘The earliest function of the image of the nine stages was for the pious contemplation on human impurity by Buddhist monks who wished to expunge the sensual desires that disturbed their lives of spiritual devotion’ (Savage 2005). I would argue that our contemporary imagery of zombies reference these historical antecedents, at least on the surface.

L0070292 The death of a court lady and the decay of her body Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images (Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0)

At the same time, the figure of the zombie sits within the realm of terror and the realm of revulsion. The body of the zombie not only symbolises our fear of death but is also abject, tapping into the most basic bodily reflexes that we learned as a species to help defend our health, to recoil from those infected and stay clear of hazardous substances. It is also a symbol of a very atavistic fear of alienation, the loss of control of our body. The human body is invaded and ultimately ruined by nature. The decomposition of the human body foreshadows the decomposition of human society. Representations of ruined cities in zombie games, as well as films and TV series, work on a similar level. Depictions of architectural ruins are an integral trope of dystopian fiction, with a long-standing tradition in science fiction films. Images of political and societal failure communicate the warning to us that even our hometowns are not safe from a similar fate. All that remains of once familiar environments are deserted universities, flooded subways, and decaying offices threatening to collapse at any moment. The key to zombie horror lies not in the spectacular but in the familiar. The prevalence of the ‘non-spectacular’ is key: a motel and a farm in The Walking Dead, a diner and a hospital in Left4Dead (2008), a shopping mall in Dead Rising (Capcom, J 2006 / Xbox360 et al.). The uncanny lies in the alienation of the familiar . Small suburban single-family houses, stereotypical symbols of American domesticity, are no longer the safe haven of the middle class, but are invaded by the other and by nature itself.

The Last of Us. Screenshot by the author.

Images of ruined cities paradoxically develop an impression of peace. They are a resting place in a game environment normally dominated by conflict and brutality. This becomes particularly obvious in a scene from The Last of Us (2008), when the two protagonists meet a wild herd of giraffes in the middle of Salt Lake City. The publishers of these games are well aware of the potency of such images, as shown by a marketing campaign accompanying the release of The Last of Us (2008).This consisted of post-apocalyptic visualisations of well-known European cities: Berlin Central Station, Buckingham Palace in London, The Eiffel Tower in Paris, Fredericksberg palace in Denmark and the medieval city of Avila are all ruins. In Zombi/ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier, F 2012 / WiiU et al.) it is the crumbling Buckingham Palace that symbolises the inevitable demise of the British state.

This fascination with ruins is, of course, not a twentieth-century invention. The ruin was a central theme of Romanticism in the nineteenth century. The interplay between the ruin and nature was central to the way Romanticism functioned, as is evident in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Ruin Poetry’ was a genre in its own right, as was the ruin landscape from the sixteenth century onwards (Böhme 1989). The mis-en-scène of the ruin was not only a moment of self-reflexive melancholy, but often also a conscious political statement. In GermanRomanticism, representations of ruins were intended to function as a critique of modernity and the Enlightenment, but were also used to promote German nationalism:

Caspar David Friedrich – Klosterruine Eldena (ca.1825) (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin via wikicommons: https://de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Caspar_David_Friedrich_-Klosterruine_Eldena(ca.1825).jpg)

The German Romantics, in contrast, shifted their gaze from antiquity to the Middle Ages and to such monuments as the castles of Heidelberg, Weibertreu, and Marienburg and the monastic ruins of Eldena and Sankt Wolfgang. Poets from Brentano and Chamisso to Eichendorff and Kerner regarded them not so much as cultural‐historical treasures for the cultivated few but, rather, as popular symbols of nationalistic pride and future unification (Ziolkowski 2011).

We can therefore establish that ruins function as a warning within these genres. Depictions of the decomposition of the human body are intended to remind us of our mortality and, in particular, deter us from vanity. The same is true for architectural ruins. They are supposed to remind us of the long-lost glory of former empires. Human decomposition and architectural ruins therefore are used to translate a warning concerning the fragility of our identity. 

A Narration of Societal Collapse

Throughout its history, the figure of the zombie has been used as an allegory for slavery, mass-poverty, racism (see here chapter XXX), consumerism (Platts 2014; Rath 2014) and xenophobia (especially towards refugees: Mouflard 2016; Comaroff/Comaroff 2017) and more. In early zombie literature, for example, the figure of the zombie was primarily a metaphor for the alienation of man. With Romero’s work, it became a critique of racism and consumerism, while modern zombie narratives appear to be a comment on the refugee crisis.

Modern zombie games tell us a gruesome interactive tale of complete political and societal collapse. In these scenarios, political actors are in no position to react appropriately to the threat of a zombie invasion and/or epidemic. However, the moment of actual failure of the state is normally not explained, but presupposed. This is particularly well illustrated by the introductory film sequence in Left4Dead 2 (Valve, US 2009 / Xbox360 et al.), when one protagonist called Coach is reading out an old government leaflet he finds: ‘Wait for official instructions’, which leads him to sneer: ‘Wait, my ass!’ This in turn is followed by a remark from the redneck mechanic Ellis: ‘Kill all sons of bitches. That’s my official instructions’.[1]

Promotional Art from L eft4Dead2 via https://valvearchive.com/archive/Left%204%20Dead/Left%204%20Dead%202/Art/Posters/

Government action, if it is mentioned at all, is ineffectual or downright ridiculed, as exemplified by a short news insert in the intro of Dead Nation (Housemarque, FI 2010 / PS3 et al.), stating that ‘World leaders have again urged the public to remain calm’, while showing pictures of destroyed cities. In some games, the player’s narrative requirements are satisfied by short text inserts, such as in Left4Dead (2009): ‘2 weeks after first infection’.[2] In others, like The Last of Us (2013), the narration is presented in an elaborate expository game sequence. The protagonist, Joel, is fleeing his home together with his daughter in the middle of the night, and later must helplessly watch when a soldier shoots his daughter due to a misunderstood precaution.

 This scene foreshadows the later transformation of the military into a dangerous antagonist. If the military is mentioned in the zombie genre, it is only seldom shown as a considerate helping hand. In other games, it is shown to have failed to protect its citizens, and the soldiers themselves have become zombies, as in Dead Nation (2010) and Left4Dead (2008); or the military has itself become the evil element within the game. In State of Decay (Undead Labs, US 2013 / Xbox 360 et al.), the army does not intend to evacuate the survivors, and instead seeks to contain the zombie threat and try to find the cause of the outbreak. In Dying Light (2015), the Ministry of Defence of an unnamed Middle Eastern government erects a wall around the plague city of Haram and considers whether to totally destroy the city. In The Last of Us (2012), the military performs summary executions of presumed infected citizens. Similar military policies are also suggested by the expanded backstory in Left4Dead (2008). An impotent government and a fascist military are apparently the narrative conditions of most zombie narratives.

Furthermore, it is of vital important for these narratives that the executive power break down completely. Often, order breaks down worldwide (Drezner 2015: 16), as suggested in The Last of Us (2012), Dead Nation (2010) and The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, US 2012-2017 / PS4 et al.). In other cases, it appears to be geographically restricted, as in State of Decay, Dead Island, Dead Rising or Dying Light. But inside the game scenario, the collapse of social and political order has to be absolute: a virtual world without government, political parties, NGOs, police, fire rescue, etc. This is even true of the Resident Evil series (Capcom, J 1996-2017), exemplified by the first game Resident Evil (Capcom, J 1996 / PS1 et al. [original title: Biohazard]), where the players take the role of Special Forces police officers investigating some unsolved acts of cannibalism. Initially, this could be seen as an effective response of the executive power to a perceived threat. Later, however, it comes to light that the police force cannot contain the threat because it has been corrupted by the same evil corporation responsible for the zombie outbreak: the Umbrella Corporation.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games, US 2011 / Windows et al.) is a small indie game by Brendon Chung where the player deploys military units on a 2D map to save citizens. In State of Decay (2013), there are vestiges of governmental authority in the character of Judge Lawton and local law enforcement officers, but the ending of the game suggests that the federal government of the United States itself has failed.

While the zombies are apparently the antagonists of these games, they are not truly evil. They are obeying natural instincts in attacking the remaining survivors. This does not mean, however, that there are no instances of evil in the narrative. True evil is evident in human society in the gameplay. This is also the main theme of the Walking Dead narrative universe (graphic novels, TV series and video games), where every attempt to recreate society ends in brutal autocratic tyrannies. Such narratives thus feed us the image of an inherent evil that exists within humankind itself. This is often inaccurately associated with the writings of Thomas Hobbes, in particular, his book Leviathan (Hobbes 2007 [first edition 1651]). For Hobbes, it is not evil that motivates humanity, but the impulse of self-preservation. If everyone pursued their own desires, the consequences would be collectively disastrous, as shown by the narrative of the zombie games: ‘The state of nature thus becomes a state of war, savagery and degradation’ (Tuck 2002: 69). But where Hobbes argued for a covenant and strong government, to secure peace and allow civilization (Hobbes 2007, 156-166), zombie games propagate a much more pessimistic view of humanity: one in which almost all efforts to recreate society are doomed and only a handful of chosen individuals (among them, of course, the protagonist) show truly ethical behaviour (cf. Pfister 2019). This naturally undermines the belief in the ability of a democratic society to function, and can in extreme cases even fuel a libertarian individualism as lauded by Ayn Rand (cf. Vizzini 2011). In 2015, Brian Merchant wrote in the online journal Motherboard (part of vice.com): ‘The basic tenets of zombie logic also track with hardline conservative principles (self-sufficiency, individualism, isolationism), which have been increasingly forcefully articulated over the last fifteen years’ (Merchant 2015).

This apocalyptic view of society has become omnipresent in the zombie game genre but has, interestingly enough, not had a very long history. Early Zombie games like Alone in the Dark (Infogrames, F 1992 / DOS et al.) and House of the Dead (Sega, J 1996 / Arcade) tell quite a different story. Their zombies are still situated in the realm of the supernatural, in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft and early horror movies, and are confined to single houses and neighbourhoods—Zombies ate my Neighbours (LucasArts, US 1993 / SuperNES et al.)—thus staying much truer to the early history of the zombie myth and its roots in vodou. It is therefore important to note that the modern zombie narrative, which originated with Romero’s use of the zombie genre as political critique, broke with its origins in the realm of magic. A fear of something extrinsic—the supernatural—was substituted by a fear of something intrinsic: the baseness of human beings. 

Press X for Zombie Apocalypse

One could argue that both the iconography and the narration of zombie games do not greatly diverge from similar films and novels and, for the most part, this would be right. The differences from other media become particularly apparent in terms of game mechanics. For a start, games are an interactive experience. They cannot be consumed passively, but require the active participation of a ‘player’. Even linear games require significant effort to progress through the game. This means that we have to actively take part in the action for most of the time. We have to move our avatars, hide from zombies as well as combat them. Thus, in contrast to other media, games provide a sense of agency.

 This sense of agency is almost exclusively expressed by the player’s ability to run and hide and/or to kill zombies. Human cooperation is most often not an option. The logic of video games apparently dictates that all possible stories still have to be thought only in terms of conflict. Armed conflict might at first glance appear the natural choice when zombies are concerned, but this was not always the case. Early zombie myths, in contrast, were much more about hierarchical human interactions and cunning. The majority of zombie games, however, are based on the mechanics of a first-person or third-person shooter. This means the players have to learn how to kill zombies in these games, or learn how to evade them. The focus on stealth mechanics additionally emphasises the vulnerability of the protagonist, which is a central moment within the horror genre. It is when confronted with seemingly endless hordes of zombies that the fragility of the protagonist becomes most apparent. This feeling is intensified by the traditional scarcity of ammunition. Zombie games stress the moment where the player can be overpowered and subject to excessive stress, which culminates, in some cases, in short moments of genuine distress.

Dead Rising—especially for players weaned on Resident Evil—creates the same deceptive feedback loop. Zombies are so slow, so easy to kill, that beating up on them is a deeply satisfying power trip. Downing one, two, three, even four zombies is fun. It’s so fun that the player may fail to notice that, in the time it has taken them to kill four zombies, seven more have appeared to their left, twelve have appeared to their right, and a good thirty or forty may have appeared behind them. The player may turn around, triumphant, only to be staring directly into a vast ocean of the undead. At this moment the player may realize, to their embarrassment, that the ‘stupid’ character they used to make fun of in the zombie film is, in fact, them […] (Weise 2015: 258)

The importance of an overwhelming foe in zombie games means that the actual confrontations are usually programmed in such a way that they can only be mastered after continuous repetition. The ‘death screen’ is a common experience when playing such games. Often, the last image seen by the player is one of a seemingly endless river of zombies running towards the screen. Thus, the players have to learn the game patterns to avoid confrontation, to hide, to sneak and to flee their foes. And they also learn that they cannot rely on the help of others: in single player zombie games, cooperation with virtual allies is usually not an option. The players can only rely on themselves, and they must always stay alert. For the zombie narrative to work in video games, it has to be translated into the language of game mechanics. And, because the simulation of violent conflict is not only the predominant but apparently the only gameplay imaginable in these games, the story has to be told this way: a narrative that strings together stealth and fighting.

Translating Political Anxieties into Zombie-Language in Digital Games

Through a comparison with antecedent or diachronic ‘languages’, i.e. post-apocalyptic fiction, Christian iconography and action video games, we can conclude that zombie games, their recreational function aside, are particularly adept at communicating collective warnings. Thus, they translate collective anxieties into popular culture. In the last ten years, the breakdown of a democratic executive power has become a natural trope of the zombie genre, in video games but also in other media. We do not normally question this when we encounter it in games. Why should we? It belongs to the genre of the zombie apocalypse. We feel it has always been this way, but this is not the case. The idea of total social and political breakdown is a new quality that zombie games have acquired, disguising itself as something historical and inherent to them. There are two kinds of translation here:

1.  The political statement of systemic collapse is not only a translation of a ‘rising tone of scepticism about democracy’[3] but potentially also an influencing factor of this scepticism. This process of translation from public anxiety to popular culture goes both ways.

2.  Through the translation of the zombie narration into video games, zombies lost much of the original conscious political message that they had in the movies of George Romero, for example, and became a myth in the sense of Roland Barthes (Barthes 2014 [1957]: 209–272 and Pfister 2018b). I believe the main problem lies in the fact that, in contrast to all other media, open political themes, political messages and statements are still taboo in video games (Pfister 2018a). Due to this apolitical paradigm, zombie video games have become an empty discursive shell waiting for content. This void has automatically been filled by the very successful myth of systemic political failure.

The Last of Us. Screenshot by the author.

I argue that this was never a conscious act. Because zombie narratives have been so successful, we produce more and more of them and try to copy this success. But if we do not invest time in a proper story, we just copy the framework, which then itself increasingly becomes the content. This means that these zombie games increasingly communicate the image of overstrained governments and the futility of all forms of human cooperation or governance, without the previous underlying messages which critiqued racism or capitalism. Without a specific societal target to be critiqued, there is also no longer hope for a solution. And what we learn, by constant repetition, is that in the end we can only trust ourselves. A rampaging individualism is being enabled by traditions of game design, and the heavy reliance by game developers on the simulation of violent conflict in video games.

Ludography:

Alone in the Dark (Infogrames, F 1992 / DOS et al.)
Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games, US 2011 / Windows et al.)
Dead Island (techland, PL 2011 / Xbox360 et al.)
Dead Nation (Housemarque, FI 2010 / PS3 et al.)
Dead Rising (Capcom, J 2006 / Xbox360 et al.)
Dying Light (Techland, PL 2015 / PS4 et al.)
House of the Dead (Sega, J 1996 / Arcade)
The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, US 2013 / PS3 et al.)
Left4Dead (Valve, US 2008 / Xbox360 et al.)
Left4Dead 2 (Valve, US 2009 / Xbox360 et al.)
Resident Evil (Capcom, J 1996 / PS1 et al. [original title: Biohazard]),
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom, J 2017 / PS4 et al.)
State of Decay (Undead Labs, US 2013 / Xbox 360 et al.)
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games, US 2012-2017 / PS4 et al.)
Zombi/ZombiU (Ubisoft Montpellier, F 2012 / WiiU et al.)
Zombies ate my Neighbours (LucasArts, US 1993 / SuperNES et al.)

Filmography:

WALL-E  (US 2008 / D: Andrew Stanton)

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iqid90JR6BY (30.11.2017).
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVW8MNy82rE (30.11.2017).
[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/06/why-do-democracies-fail/530949/


Bild:  The Last of Us, Screenshot by Eugen Pfister

Empfohlene Zitierweise : Eugen Pfister,  „‘MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!’ Translating Political Anxieties into Zombie-Language in Digital Games“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/3193> 23.02.2022



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