Spatialized Difference in Videogames

Tanner Higgin's picture

Maps, Levels, and the Orchestration of Conflict

The notion that maps, and the cartographic processes behind those maps, are functions of power, most commonly imperial power, is a fundamental assumption of critical geography. As the diagrammatic products of territorial struggles between political forces, maps are both representations of the world and constructions of that world. They are ideological imprints that actively shape the relations they purport to scientifically reflect.

In videogames the relationship between maps and politics is even more explicit. Mapping, often associated with level design, is the active manufacture of gamespace. When a designer makes a map they are creating space. The aspect of this process that interests me is how this process of arrangement of space in videogames is yet another site where racial difference is constructed. Space in games, and its active creation through architecture, geography, maps, and sociality, affects the negotiation of identity within gamespace in ways that mimic and exacerbate our current understandings of space and identity. If, for someone like Jeremy Black, maps are plans that simultaneously serve the ends of understanding, construction, and control, then mapping in games is the digital enaction of this relationship where space is not just represented but generated.

Any fan of a multiplayer first person shooter (FPS) has a favorite level. One of the most played levels in FPS history is Dust (or de_dust) from Counterstrike (CS). Designed by David Johnston and released in November 1999 as part of the Beta 4 release of CS, Dust was a quick hit and continues to be played twelve years later. Johnston humbly attributes the success of Dust to luck and simplicity, as well as some inspiration from pre-release screenshots of Team Fortress 2. His more detailed explanation, however, reveals the delicate tuning required to make a popular FPS level like Dust. For example, prior to releasing a level, Johnston would time his movement from each team’s starting point to the middle of the map. The intention behind this testing was to locate sites of conflict and to make sure the locations of clashes were challenging and fair.


While these spaces, such as Dust, are technically “levels” created by designers such as Johnston, they still are commonly (and perhaps even primarily) referred to as “maps.” Initially this might seem to be a misnomer, but the rhetorical conceit of such a term reveals an important function of the game level. Just as critical geography has exposed how maps of physical space are not just representations but constructions of the very spaces they represent, the discursive level/map conflation shows how videogames model and idealize the multiple functions of maps described by critical geographers. When Johnston designs a level he is simultaneously charting it and creating it, and he is designing a level in the interest of managing player movement and conflict. This, in light of the significance of mapping and space to human sociality and difference, opens up a new avenue for the study of how difference is communicated and, as a result, understood by players in videogame culture.

If we, in part, develop our senses of identity and belonging through spatial relationships, then the construction of space in games must be included in these processes. And since games, especially multiplayer games, are so often about competition and conflict, maps are designed to create territorial and geographic differences between players that must conquered through mastery of space.

We can see how games, while seemingly providing sites of free exploration, actually limit the movement of players in order to manage conflict which forms the basis of meaning for many games. We must build on Lev Manovich’s claim that “navigation through 3-D space is an essential, if not the key, component of gameplay.” Drawing from first-person games such as Doom and Myst, Manovich understands games as presenting the “user with a space to be traversed, to be mapped out by moving through it.” As user move through spaces they progress the game both temporally and narratively, unraveling the story and “uncovering its geometry and topology, learning its logic and its secrets.” There’s a clear connection to Manovich’s phrasing and the familiar “fog of war” mechanic of many strategy games whereby maps are covered in a fog that blocks visibility.

As a player moves through the space the fog recedes revealing previously concealed areas of the game map. While the fog of war is an overt example of this function of gameplay, it’s most certainly characteristic of most other games. But if gameplay is just as much about this excavation of space and logic as it is about story, what is being revealed by the player?

Civilization IV “fog”

Just as a player of Civilization moves through the map, rolling back the fog and uncovering geographies and territories to be conquered, players move through the spaces of other games mapping the contested boundaries of space, and the positioning of enemies and allies. Thus, difference, and incommensurate difference, is just as much about spatial relationships as it is about representation. To clarify, let’s turn to Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2) as an illustration of spatial difference.

Racialized Space

So similar in style to its predecessor, L4D2 was met with skepticism by fans who considered it more of an expansion pack then a sequel. One thing that clearly sets it apart from the first game is its setting, post-Katrina Savannah, Georgia and New Orleans. The mechanics, however, are essentially the same. You find yourself in a team of four, fighting for survival against never ending masses of zombies. As far as content goes, we’re not offered much in terms of storyline. We know a bit about out characters from various lines of spoken dialogue, and we’re fed some information about the overall situation—it seems a disease has appeared that infects humans and turns them into zombies.

Left 4 Dead 2 poster featuring the Parish setting

Since L4D2 features black characters in geographic locations demographically and culturally dominated by the African diaspora, it’s not a surprise that it would peak my interest as a critic of race in games.

It’s a bit more surprising that it received a decent amount of media and fan attention scrutinizing the representation of blackness, given the relatively apolitical stance of many fans and popular videogame blogs. The conversation devoted to racial insensitivity in L4D2 was, however, brief and quickly dismissed.

The vehement and combative response by the “gamer” community to claims of racism in L4D2 was, in part, a compensatory overreaction to the much more heated and extended debate surrounding the initial preview trailer of Resident Evil 5 (RE5) gameplay released a year prior at the 2007 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).

Conversations like this are appearing more often within popular videogame discourse, and they are, without question, of importance. But they do not satisfy the broader, and more pervasive, ways that race functions in games. We cannot always rely on this appeal to stereotype and, even in a game like RE5 that clearly has racial stereotyping, there remains other ways in which we can uncover a spatial paradigm of representation that both supplements and moves beyond the paradigm of stereotyping. It’s not simply that Chris Redfield, the hero of RE5, is killing black zombies, it’s how the character is positioned in a post-colonial space with those black zombies that creates the kind of horrified affective response many had to the trailer. The same goes for L4D2 which does not have racial stereotyping, but does map difference spatially.

Left 4 Dead, Zombies, and the Infected Space

This leads to my main interpretive claim: L4D2, fitting with the historical connections between zombies and slavery, leverages the survival horror genre to create a spatial metaphor for anxieties about colonial history and geographically imposed inequalities.

To put it another way: by understanding L4D2 as creating meaning spatially, we can see how it positions difference, which can be read as racialized difference in the context of New Orleans politics, as an infectious threat spilling out from spaces of exclusion and threatening the national body.

Certainly all monsters function as symbolic others and non-normative bodies on which to map concerns about human difference and displace anxieties about new historical configurations of human ontology. Even so, zombies hold a special significance. Consider Kyle Bishop’s theory that “unlike most movie monsters of the 1930s, the zombie was sired directly by the imperialist system” or, as he succinctly puts it, “the zombie…was a new monster for a New World.” The zombie is an overdetermined metaphor for the physical and mental destruction of the human form within the horror of slavery, conjured within the folkloric traditions of the former colony and current republic of Haiti whose people viewed the lack of autonomy of the zombie figure as a threat to their independence. The trope of rising from the dead, psychically shackled and soulless, was an amalgamation of imagery worked through in voodoo rituals as well as witnessed within slave plantations. And while the zombie resided within Haitian folklore, it made its way to the U.S., most likely, from anthropologist William B. Seabrook’s travelogue The Magic Island catching fire in the popular American imagination.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

One of the places where zombie folklore germinated earliest was New Orleans. Not only was New Orleans one of the largest markets for slaves in the U.S., but between 1809 and 1810 it was also the destination for thousands of refugees fleeing the slave revolts that would eventually transform the French colony of Saint-Domingue into modern day free Haiti. Today New Orleans, much like Haiti, is a product of the mixture of French and African cultures, as well as Haiti’s already unique blend of traditions. Zombies, as re-imagined within western popular culture, became less of an outlet for black terror in the face of slavery, and was resignified more as an anxious doomsday scenario for white culture—a slave revolt that flattens the power structure entirely.

Zombies were mysterious beings, emerging from the “dark continent” of Africa and confronting the western imaginary with cultural practices irreconcilable with “enlightened” rationality. They also served as reminders of slavery’s horrors, haunting whites with their own moral transgressions and the possibility that they too might some day relinquish control.

But why are zombies so popular now, particularly in videogames?

It’s easy to map a crisis of consumer identity as the cause for the explosion of zombie films in the 70s and 80s with the mall scene in Dawn of the Dead as the ultimate metaphor for these cultural influences. The 19th century white terror of slave revolt as punishment for capitalistic enterprise is replaced with a late 20th century dread over a loss of personal control in the face of neoliberalism and consumer capitalism.

More recently, films and games such as 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil series, while not innovating the premise of zombie invasions as infectious disease, have certainly refined it and made these issues, and their associated political critiques, central to the meaning of the zombies. These films and games often, as is best evidenced by Resident Evil, locate zombiefication as the product of covert government and corporate meddling into biological warfare. Here we see the latest permutation of fear over capital’s human costs and the possibilities of retribution from exploited people across the globe.

This narrative convention takes on special meaning when considered in light of the spatiality of L4D2. It is set in a geographical location haunted by slavery and depressed socio-economically. Furthermore, New Orleans is subject to severe environmental disaster. In the racist white imaginary, particularly during Katrina, poor and predominantly black areas of New Orleans, were understood as sites of self-perpetuating crisis rather than suffering from structural spatial inequality imposed by capitalist enterprise originating in slavery and continuing through modern globalized corporate networks of production and exploitation. As a result of this ethical disavowal of responsibility, the economically and socially well off have a tendency to see disasters or hardships plaguing poor areas populated mostly by minorities as disconnected from daily life and isolated—a product of an undisciplined and improperly self-actualized existence. Displaced New Orleanians are “refugees.” Genocide in Darfur is not worth helping. Why send aid to Haiti when the U.S.(i.e. white America) has its own problems?

So while zombie fictions have the potential to incite a critical reflection on shared exploitation within an increasingly unequal division of global wealth, they often serve more as a compensatory distortion of conflict and prey upon the anxieties of the privileged.

Zombie invasions in L4D2 stage a fear of infection escaping the social segregation between privileged and unprivileged, threatening an exposure of those in power to the precariousness of bare life. Thus, instead of acknowledging the truth that, as Giorgio Agamben argues, we are all bare life in a state of exception, zombie fiction maintains a fantasy of difference by staging an invasion, across maintained socio-political boundaries, of racialized contagions of economic, health, and social disaster.

Zombie survival horror can be read in light of this diagram I am drawing, as designing and mapping segregated territories which must be traversed and purified. The cultural meaning of L4D2, particularly the racialized colonial anxieties I am most interested in, emerge predominantly, if not entirely, through the affective experience of spatial relationships. The experience of L4D2 is about surviving movement through the dangerous corridors of stormy New Orleans as hordes of infected zombies spill through the margins, impeding progress and requiring (in the logic of the game) a violent purge of difference.

I hope this begins to demonstrate that if we’re truly to understand games, particularly how games engage with human difference, we must be more attentive to this layer of meaning beyond the representational.

We must understand the racialization of mapped space.


Publication date (from feed): 

Sun, 13 Mar 2011 12:30:32 +0000