Check your bestiaries: Politics of Monsters in Video Games (Monster show hits the road, part 3)

In March 2019, I made a trip to several U.S. cities. At most of the stops, I was promoting my book Gaming the Iron Curtain, which has little to do with monsters, although it is about transgressions – namely the transgressions between the Soviet bloc and the West in the 1980s. At the same time, I was also presenting new monster research from the GTA project, and picking colleagues’ brains for ideas and inspiration. Like last year, I co-organized a panel at the SCMS (Society for Cinema Studies) conference, which took place in Seattle this year. My co-chair Sarah Stang and myself put together four papers by a transatlantic group of scholars speaking about representations of monsters in contemporary video games.

Sarah’s talk, entitled Witches, Hags, and Crones: Old Age and Female Monstrosity in Video Games, provided a critique of the ways in which video games remediate sexist and ageist tropes through the design of hags, witches, crones, and other kinds of elderly-appearing female monsters. She drew theory from critical feminist work by authors like Vivian Sobchak, Barbara Creed, and Erin Harrington. As examples, she talked about hags in Dungeons & Dragons, water hags and grave hags in The Witcher 3, as well as the Three Crones in the latter game. Sarah explained that the Crones are particularly nasty examples of the intersection of ageism and sexism, as they make sexual advances towards the main character which are framed as revolting and grotesque due to their monstrous appearance and old age. Finally, she looked at Flemeth from the Dragon Age series, one of the more interesting and perhaps nuanced older women characters in mainstream games.

My talk, On becoming a monster: BioShock’s “splicers” as computational others, was based on an article that will soon be published in a “Manufacturing Monsters” special issue of the journal Nordlit. Looking at BioShock’s most frequent enemies, the deformed and aggressive ex-humans called splicers, I investigated the relationships between the production and design process and monster representation. I argued that video game enemies are “always already monstrous” by virtue of being computer-controlled automata. Splicers were designed to be “agressors”, and originally supposed to be represented as B-movie monsters. After the tone of the narrative changed and they were re-designed as human-looking creatures, an elaborate back story was devised to explain why they lost their humanity.

Darshana Jayemanne‘s talk was called Monstrous Internationalism and Racial Fetishism: Monstrosity and Race in Shin Megami Tensei and World of Warcraft (and Bloodborne). Darshana’s point of departure was theory of fetish, notably by William Peetz. Darshana pointed out the repetition in monster design, and the reduction of groups of races to singular signifying objects. This helps players recognize monstrous characters and track their actions (the notorious ‘weak spots’ of boss monsters) and recreate them outside game space (the recreation of salient features in cosplay). At the same time, this monstrous fetishism rehashes the logics imperialist international trade.

Stephanie Jennings presented a paper called The Monstrous American South, According to White Liberals and Resident Evil VII. Released in the U.S. just four days after Trump’s inauguration, the game entered a media landscape in which many Americans were desperate to assign blame for Trump’s political ascension. Stephanie critiqued the ways in which the title paints a stereotypical (and at time nonsensical) picture the American South to provide a backdrop to a zombie horror game. The game’s main “monsters”, the members of the Baker family, exemplify discourses that paint the South in uniform brushstrokes: “white working class,” rural, and uneducated people. Stephanie also commented on the many missed opportunities in the game’s narrative, such as the half-baked commentary on environmental issues surrounding salt mines.

The other thing I did in Seattle besides conferencing is that I visited the Living Computer Museum. I did spend a lot of time marveling at old machines, but I also managed to find a Plato terminal and play DnD, the first computer role-playing game adaptation that first appeared in 1975. The monsters in this game may be the first computer game monsters ever! Interestingly (but not surprisingly), they are the most detailed images in the game, and there is plenty of them. In many ways, this was a game about monsters. Check out some images below!

 

 

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