Can horror games help us better understand and react better to the coronavirus pandemic? Eugen Pfister, director of research at the University of the Arts in Bern, says yes. Interview.
Since April 2018, Eugen Pfister has directed the research project “Horror Game Politics” at the HKB (Hochschule der Künste Bern – University of the Arts in Bern) where he studies ideology transfers in horror video games with Arno Görgen.
Its aim is to show that video games, as an integral part of popular culture, have not only an entertainment function, but also a communication function. For many people who have no contact with these subjects in their daily life, these dystopias serve as the first frame of reference. “Since most of us have not had personal experience of comparable crises, we must necessarily rely on our collective memory, he analyzes. For this, many of us resort to dystopian scenarios in film, literature and computer games in order to understand and manage the pandemic. ” Interview.
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The Directional Cross: You are leading a research project (Horror Game Politics) with Arno Görgen on ideological transfers in horror video games. General confinement, with a virus lurking outside that can infect everyone, is worthy of a horror game scenario, isn’t it?
Eugen Pfister: At first glance, the scenario shouts “horror game”. Ducks and goats roam the once busy roads, dolphins swim in the canals of Venice. These are images that we know from post-apocalypse games, such as “The Last of Us”. But a central actor is missing: the lone hero, who makes his way through a hostile environment by force of arms. And I think we are all very happy that it is missing.
Does the population, faced with this fear, react in the same way as in horror games?
E. P.: Yes and no. What reassures me personally is that in the face of the pandemic, we are reacting in a much more sensible way than the horror games suggest. The essential difference is above all that our governments – despite all the criticism – have shown themselves fully capable of responding to the crisis. We are not alone, like the protagonists of almost all horror games.
However, cultural differences are also evident. Overall, continental Europe is responding with tough measures and building on the solidarity of the people. In contrast, the United States and Britain rely on an individualistic approach. In this respect, they also correspond much more to the political understanding that we encounter in horror games.
How do horror games, and popular imagery in the broad sense, help people respond better to this threat? Could they unconsciously prepare us for this?
E. P.: Popular culture not only has an entertainment function in our society, but also an information function. Due to a lack of personal experience in crisis management of this magnitude, we therefore resort to virtual experiences from popular culture. Fortunately, they don’t give us any concrete instruction to act, but they do give us a first glimpse of the worst possible scenarios.
Many on social media share images from horror games, what do you think this shows?
E. P.: In the absence of our own experience with these pandemics, words are often lacking. We don’t know how to describe these new experiences. This is why we use horror games as a language to describe the inexpressible.
In many horror games, the danger often comes from closed spaces, like haunted houses, rooms in the dark. While there, with the coronavirus, the danger is outside, invisible. How do you see this?
E. P.: This is certainly true for older horror games. But the most recent zombie games have lost that. With the current pandemic, like in these games, the outdoors, the streets, are dangerous places. Another similarity is evident between the coronavirus and the zombie games. Confidants, friends and family can also suddenly become the greatest danger. The question arises whether we want to react like in zombie games and turn away from our loved ones to protect ourselves by confining ourselves.
In France, Emmanuel Macron explained that “we are at war against the virus”, calling for national solidarity. What is the role of politics in horror games? Are they different from reality?
E. P.: Here we meet a central question of my research. Do we believe in most horror games that try to make us believe that our governments are unable to respond to such threats? Or, on the contrary, do we trust social cohesion? For now, it seems that, at least in Europe, this latter point turns out to be true. The surge in arms purchases in the United States shows a different picture.
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Do you see one or more games that come close to what we are experiencing?
E. P.: Ad hoc, I’m thinking of “Tom Clancy’s The Division” and “The Last of Us”. In the first case, the political system of the United States collapses after a terrorist attack which leads to an epidemic of smallpox. In the second, a mushroom transforms the majority of the world’s population into spiritless beasts. However, a game is missing in which a community of states or even a global community responds jointly to such a crisis.
Finally, a little game advice for this period of confinement?
E. P.: For horror games, I would advise against playing zombie games, even if there are many good ones: and I will choose exotic decorations. Personally, I would recommend “Alien: Isolation”.