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Playing in Ruins: Imagining the End of the City in Video Games

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This thesis is about imagining the end of the city in the video games Hellgate: London, The Last of Us, and Fallout 3. Using three interrelated themes – image, space, and experience – derived from the work of Walter Benjamin, this thesis explores the ways in which each of these video games presents a gameworld to the player, through the lens of urban ruination. The focus on urban ruin allows for a novel approach to questions of visual representation, meaning, digital space and the politics of encounter through play and the urban imaginary.


This thesis also argues that video games can be understood as more than systems, procedures or code, focusing on “real world” cities that appear in each game in a state of imagined urban ruination. This discussion considers both real and imagined cities in terms of a vision of urban ruin that is particularly common in 3D and open world video games. The study includes field research in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Boston, alongside interviews with game developers, and experts who work with modern urban ruins (urban explorers, professional photographers and tour guides, and academic researchers). Through visual methods, fieldwork, and gameplay, in-game and actual urban experience in each city is also considered, including autoethnographic notes and vignettes. As games increasingly turn to photorealistic aesthetics of ruination in their depiction of the modern city, they offer vast and dimensional fields of playful encounter, which are built from a pastiche of visual media and urban experiences. Using visual methods, expanded through theoretical arguments around visual culture and the production of space, the qualitative data and empirics reveal that these ruinous cities feedback between the actual cities depicted in each game; images and imaginaries of exploration in the ruins of modern cities like Detroit; and the activity of playing the end of the city in the hypothetical ruins of the future.


The work of Walter Benjamin is central to this thesis – in part because he was an early theorist of media reproduction technologies (especially in relation to cities and encounters), but also because, for Benjamin, the material and abstract ruins of the modern city are fragmented relics that precipitate urban politics in space, altering perception, and pointing the way to resistant possibilities, especially in terms of urban life and experience. Used in conjunction with theorists of media, games and literary and cultural studies, Benjamin’s work underpins the potential that can be detected in video games – but also, significantly, foregrounds the limitations of playful media as mass commodities.


When combined with work in game studies and cultural geography, through the imaginary and space of the end of the city, the games studied here are revealed as potentially subversive media, particularly as they become increasingly spatial, whilst also visual. Simultaneously, their meaning is shallow and subject to spectacular repetition – much like the urban ruins they depict; ruins that, as this thesis uncovers, share an affinity with games that goes beyond the visual, and includes game design and development, urban encounters, and spatial practice and navigation.

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