Niklas Luhman 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.” All information we acquire in mass media works as a primer, it frames our future cultural, economic, social and political knowledge. This is also true for works of fiction. We are in fact partly socialised in video games. 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.
I aim at locating and deconstructing one specific political myth following Roland Barthes’ concept of “mythologies” in videogames with a Zombie setting: the myth of the “Collapse of Democracy”. Barthes understands the political myth as a message, a narrative, composed of story fragments, dialogue, aesthetics, or in this case game mechanics. These myths are in fact nothing else than political or cultural messages, openly political and hidden at the same time. Barthes argues that political and cultural narratives and symbols operate on a subconscious level. These myths appear to be “natural” and not constructed to such an extent that they are normally not questioned. They are, however, in no way natural, but were formed to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to dominant political, cultural and social discourses. According to Barthes, the myth presents an ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact it is no more than another man-made perspective. Myths are as much a result of political, social and cultural discourses as they influence these discourses by affecting our perspective, our way of thinking. They are doing so on a subtext level and are therefore only rarely questioned. Their strength lies in historical continuities.
One such myth, the “Collapse of Democracy” is central to the narrative of the Zombie-Genre. In almost all relevant videogames, we witness the complete collapse of modern democratic states when confronted with an external or internal threat. This imagined political collapse is always absolute, the executive power has failed to protect its citizens. The police is inexistent, hospitals now lie in ruins and are infested with Zombies. Social cohesion has disintegrated and left place for a “natural state” of brutal anarchy. The breakdown of a democratic executive power has become a “natural” trope of the Zombie genre, and what is more it infiltrates other genres like the Mass-Effect-Series or the narrative of Tom Clancy’s: The Division. We normally don’t question these political messages when encountered in games. And it doesn’t stop here: Influences of these narrative techniques, vocabulary and aesthetics can be traced down to the media coverage of the so called “refugee crisis” in the yellow press. To better understand this myth it is necessary to research its historical origins: Imaginations of ruins were a popular topos of the (German) romanticism and often used to convey a political message. Images of physical decay – gore – on the other hand were used in the Christian iconography of the late medieval times for educative purposes and the narrative of a brutal and anarchic state of nature can be found in the writings of Thomas Hobbes. Whereas the zombie genre is relatively young, the myth itself is not.
Is the persisting popularity of the Zombie genre and the communicated political image of democratic collapse just a symptom of a rising disenchantment with politics or is it its cause?