From The Atlantic:
Computer games, like movies, music, and television, are part of our culture and often reflect our fears and worries—especially about the end of the world. And I’ve been playing them for years.
Nuclear War and Zombies
Computer games get a bad rap among those who do not play them. People associate them, at worst, with adolescent violence (despite lack of conclusive evidence for that theory) or, more benignly, with creepy nerds in Mom’s basement, yelling into their headsets and jabbing at keyboards while wiping Cheetos dust off their glasses.
Well, I am a happily married 62-year-old professional, and I play computer games. In fact, I have been playing them since the dawn of the personal-computing age. Yes, games are part of the escape from reality that my colleague Megan Garber wrote about in her cover story for the March issue of the magazine, but they’re also a perfectly reasonable hobby.
Still, you might ask why a grown man with a busy life—or, you know, any life—would waste precious hours in front of a screen. At the risk of handing a rationalization to students who have not finished their homework, I will say that I not only enjoy the process of playing but also find that games enhance my productivity rather than destroy it. I play computer games for the same reason I play golf: The engrossing requirement to complete a set of objectives clears my mind. When I return from the golf course or close the game program, my brain has been shaken and cleared like an old Etch A Sketch, and I’m ready to work again.
Even pointless games can be relaxing (especially if they’re visually pretty), such as the “loot and shoot” adventures in which you kill something and take its money or possessions, over and over again. And sometimes, you just want to roll your army over some hapless Roman commander or drag space bandits through an asteroid field. But my favorites are the games that have intricate plots, because many of them are cultural markers that reveal what fascinates us—and more important, what scares us.
Back in the 1980s, for example, Americans wrestled with fears about World War III. So did games. I have spent my entire career studying war and nuclear weapons, and for me, roaming around in a destroyed world is much like going to horror or disaster movies, or reading fairy tales (which are really scary if you think about most of them): It’s a way of processing fear.
Consider Trinity, a 1986 text-based game. (Early computers had no serious graphics capability, so these games instead required you to read quite a bit and then issue commands and solve puzzles.) In Trinity, nuclear war breaks out at the beginning of the game; the player escapes through a portal and must tumble backwards through time all the way to the Trinity nuclear test site in 1945 in order to sabotage the first atomic bomb, thus preventing the nuclear-arms race and the eventual war.
Thematically, this was not exactly a game for children. Nor were the many games that followed it, including the 1988 classic Wasteland, in which the player must lead a team of Desert Rangers through the ruins of the Southwest to discover the source of a new threat that could finish the job of annihilating humanity. These games followed a spate of Cold War movies and music shot through with nuclear anxieties, such as WarGames, Red Dawn, The Day After, and Testament; you could play Trinity or Wasteland while listening to “99 Luftballons,” by Nena, or “It’s a Mistake,” by Men at Work, and spend a cozy afternoon traipsing through Armageddon. (Nuclear war is back: One game studio just released a highly detailed nuclear-conflict simulator, but I haven’t played it. Yet.)
As the nuclear threat receded and threats to our health, such as AIDS, began to dominate our fears, pop culture—including games—spoke to those fears. Biohazards became a dominant theme in gaming, with mad scientists and big corporations mucking about with our DNA, weird pathogens, doors to alternate dimensions, or even the gates to hell itself, all in the name of profit, while unleashing freaks and mutants on the rest of us.
The granddaddy of the biohazard-genre games, Resident Evil, was released in 1996 and led to several more games and movies; the first motion picture in the franchise debuted in 2002 and was followed by five more sequels and then a 2021 reboot. Last month, HBO premiered a new series, The Last of Us, based on a highly regarded game of the same name. It is set in a world where a fungus has turned most people into crazed zombies, and so far, like the game, it’s a hit.
. . . .
It is natural to be fascinated by the ramifications of global catastrophe, but the best games present the player with difficult moral choices and awful, sometimes unavoidable dilemmas.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to F. for the tip.