Spatialized Difference in Videogames

Posted by on Mar 13, 2011 in Articles | 12 Comments

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.


  1. Rob
    March 14, 2011

    I recently came across your post ls by virtue of the Critical Distance blog and wanted to congratulate you on some very valuable critical insights. I thought this post was particularly persuasive and I’m looking forward to reading more of your work

  2. Tanner
    March 14, 2011

    Thanks Rob. I appreciate it.

  3. Mark Sample
    March 14, 2011

    Tanner — you’re working on some extremely important issues here, and they dovetail with many of my own concerns. I’ve long been pondering the source of the prevalence of zombies in videogames (and of course zombies more generally in culture).

    I want to add one turn of the screw to your line of inquiry into race and zombies. As you point out, Kyle Bishop describes early cinematic zombies as “sub-subaltern monsters” that are associated with imperialism and slavery. But these zombies of the thirties, forties, and fifties are almost always singular phenomenon—a single black zombie controlled by a puppet-master figure (who is often white).

    In another essay, however, Bishop notes that the zombies we think of today, the kind seen in Romero’s movies or in videogames, are remarkably different from the earlier cinematic zombies: they are part of a crowd, they swarm, they are contagious, and perhaps most significantly, they are not controlled by an external force; instead they are driven by mindless, instinctual urges.

    So my question about zombies produced through spatialized difference in videogames is how they came to share the most salient characteristics of the two kinds of zombies. Racialized AND part of a crowd? Where was the pivot point? Or maybe it’s not a pivot point so much as zombies have come full circle?

  4. Tanner
    March 14, 2011

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Mark. Although I am a bit shocked at your interest in zombies after all the snarky comments you’ve made about them on Twitter!

    I gesture toward my answer in this post and try and explore it in more detail in the longer chapter the post is derived from. Basically, the way I am approaching it is by examining how swarms of zombies as they appear in L4D or RE5 can be read from a post-colonial and neoliberal perspective as the masses of displaced, and often racialized, laboring bodies living in the “margins” of a wealthy western world imaginary. So whereas the early zombie fictions figure monstrosity as the enslaved singular being (one half of the master-slave dialectic), the privileged now have expanded the scope of exploitation and participate in an economic schema that must constantly generate new markets of exploitation. In the process of this massive industrialized and globalized expansion, there’s far more collateral damage and more marginal bodies (and the same goes for slavery: there are more slaves now than at the height of the slave trade).

    Moreover, I think the transformation of zombies from spell-bound or ritualistically enthralled, to fast and variously modified “infected,” i.e. the byproducts of technoscience, is also representative of this shift from the use of laboring bodies as agricultural labor to the builders of computer components. I think there’s also a correlation between the notion of infected zombies and the health risks of living precariously on the “margins” of toxic modern capitalistic production (e.g. e-waste disposal in Ghana, or, through lack of intervention, the prevalence of AIDs and other diseases in poor populations (which are then viewed as a divine punishment or natural state of affairs by the privileged)).

  5. Nick LaLone
    March 15, 2011

    This is really great stuff. I had played L4D to see what sort of gendered content it had. I was surprised how a game as stripped of narrative as L4D could contain so much communication about the culture the game came from. This piece makes me want to play through L4D2 to see how, if any, changes occurred between games.

    I have wanted to write something about Resident Evil for quite some time in that it is constructed by groups that are not part of the typical White American constructed racism. It is difficult to find pieces in English on race in Japan. I’m excited right now though as the Pop Culture Association’s national conference has several anime/manga sections that seem to have a few presentations on Africa/Africans in Japanese Comic Books.

  6. Mark Sample
    March 15, 2011

    I like this reading of fast, contagious zombies as “builders of computer components.” It’s a reversal (or more like a Möbius flip) of the popular Intel Bunny People from the mid-1990s, those idealized, shimmering, faceless, dancing Pentium II chip builders:

  7. Tanner
    March 15, 2011

    @nick I weekly mourn my ignorance to Japanese language. I am sure there’s tons of great work that needs to be translated on race and masculinity which could provide some interesting comparative studies.

  8. anna
    March 16, 2011

    This is great, Tanner. Really fantastic work! I play L4D2 in a state that vacillates between between horror and terror. I’m curious if you’ve come across in your research how Thomas Jefferson characterized the Haitian revolution as an “infection” that could sweep across the US? Seems like it could be an interesting link between geography, infection, racism, and imperialism.

    Pieces like this remind me how much I want to write about video games (especially the war ones). Too bad I suck at gaming too much to get through them…..

  9. Tanner
    March 17, 2011

    @anna Thanks! I will look up the Jefferson quote. I had not heard that but it fits perfectly. And re: your videogame skill—that’s what difficulty settings are for!

  10. anna
    March 19, 2011

    yeah…I usually end up spinning in a circle shooting mindlessly even on the easiest setting. The only time I played online, my “teammates” were so disgusted that they stomped on my corpse after I died.

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