part 2




Aesthetics of Ambivalence and

Whiteness in Crisis

How a group is represented, presented over again in cultural

forms, how an image of a member of a group is taken as representative

of that group, how that group is represented in the sense

of spoken for and on behalf of (whether they represent, speak for

themselves or not), these all have to do with how members of

groups see themselves and others like themselves, how they see

their place in society, their right to the rights a society claims

to ensure its citizens. Equally representation, representativeness,

representing have to do also with how others see members of a

group and their place and rights, others who have the power to

affect that place and those rights. How we are seen determines in

part how we are treated; how we treat others is based on how we

see them; such seeing comes from representation.1

Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images


Chapter 2 examines constructions of the normative white figure under

duress and, particularly, an amassing crisis in relation to crumbling

On Video Games



dominant Western narratives of progress. In the course of this chapter, I

trace the emergence of an ‘aesthetics of ambivalence’ that has emerged as

a political response to the exhausted masculine types that have populated

mainstream games. The primary game in question, The Last of Us (2013) by

Naughty Dog, portrays a melancholic vision of a post- apocalyptic United

States. But in order to more fully unpack ideologies around representations

of whiteness in crisis and a discernable aesthetic turn toward ruin

as the backdrop for these representations, I also discuss two other iconic

games: Spec Ops: The Line (2012) and Tomb Raider (2013), both of which

feature victimized white protagonists in hostile circumstances. The Last of

Us takes place two decades after an outbreak of an airborne fungal pandemic.

As the fungus spreads in their brains and slowly takes over their

bodies, the infected are rendered progressively more deformed and rabid.

Scrappy factions of survivors operate in desperation, set against a horrific

backdrop of civilization gone feral. In this game, the future is sublime

and bleak and terrorizing, and it won’t be over quickly. Spectacular

inside- outside spaces within the ruins of a once- high- capitalist culture

are imaged as repurposed by humans and largely reabsorbed by nature

(see Figure 2.1). Much of what was once considered so precious is now

Figure 2.1 Joel and Ellie in the remains of civilization. The Last of Us (2013) image

provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive

Entertainment America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


useless, while the simplest scavenged tools (bricks, bottles, alcohol) can

mean the difference between life and death. The Last of Us, as one highquality

example in a plentiful survival- horror genre, taps into the popularity

of zombie and pandemic apocalypse narratives in films like 28 Days

Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez and Quentin

Tarantino, 2007), The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009), Zombieland (Ruben

Fleischer, 2009), The Book of Eli (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, 2010),

and World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013). Even more recent and somewhat

less directly ‘apocalyptic’ narratives like the highly successful reboots Rise

of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011), Dawn of the Planet of the

Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves,

2017) create similar scenarios of whiteness in ruins. Other narratives, like

that of the blockbuster spy- action movie franchise Mission Impossible:

Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011), eschew the epidemic model but create

the conditions for the white hero to become a victim/ underdog through

spoiled master plans, personal failings, faulty technologies and disavowal

from the power structure.

Widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, The Last of Us strongly provokes

discussion of the ethical quandaries arising around the cost of survival,

such as has been explored in the popular television series The Walking Dead

(AMC, 2010– ). The greater collective fear of contagion – of being overrun,

overwhelmed, colonized – and the complex fixation on the extreme survivalist

scenario all resonate in a cultural moment when there is so much

global restructuring, competition and transformation underway. In keeping

with the rapid pace of change, the infected have gotten faster as well.

This chapter undertakes close textual analyses of each of these games,

as mass culture artefacts that are powerful representations of social groupings,

in this case, an embattled so- called ‘majority’. The centrepiece of this

examination, The Last of Us, has become iconic as a beleaguered, mournful

magnum opus. It reflects a cultural moment of anxiety in the United

States as an embattled superpower under the dual pressures of economic

globalization and environmental catastrophe. I have also chosen two other

highly successful AAA games: Spec Ops: The Line (2012) and Tomb Raider

(2013). Both games thematically resonate with the turn that The Last of

Us epitomizes. The paradoxical Spec Ops: The Line has become famous

On Video Games



(or notorious, depending upon one’s position) for upending the conventional

military shooter genre. The white, heteronormative male protagonist

begins the game as an icon of masculine prowess, a super- soldier on a mission,

who purports to be a conventional hero onto which a player may map

themselves. Yet hours of gameplay purposefully test and manipulate the

player’s identification with this character, over time becoming unnatural

and strained, and eventually utterly estranged, as the clich.d ‘hero’ character

gradually metamorphoses into a psychopath. My second example, the

cinematic survival action- adventure Tomb Raider (2013), reconfigures its

iconic white female protagonist Lara Croft from her indomitable superarchaeologist-

adventurer status into a much more vulnerable figure, surely

capable but clearly imperilled. I am keen to read this narrative and its representations

in an intersectional manner alongside The Last of Us and The

Line for several reasons. Certainly, there are conspicuous parallels in terms

of seeking to interrupt the conventional hero image, which is an ongoing

theme of this book. But Lara Croft is also almost universally discussed in

terms of gender, which greatly overburdens readings of the character for

obvious reasons. But, the intervention of considering the revamped Croft

through an analysis of whiteness opens up new possible interpretations

for the Tomb Raider heroine, as well as for an aesthetics of ambivalence

that seems to mark some of the most iconic titles in mainstream games

today. And like both Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us, Tomb Raider

has a narrative of loss, disempowerment or disadvantage – of things going

horribly wrong. A tension exists between the figure and a hostile, brutal or

unrelenting environment. In short, this chapter scrutinizes a moment of

self- consciousness in regard to the interruption of heroic protagonists, as

exemplified by these three dominant games that so strongly feature beleaguered

forms of whiteness.

In the following pages, I paint an image of the complex representations

in The Last of Us, making connections to other forms of mass culture

and considering its key iconographies, its makers and socio- political

context. Then, I consider theoretical connections and comparisons to the

other aforementioned games, in the interest of articulating how form, representation

and affective qualities within each of these games engender a

particularly ambivalent, embattled form of whiteness. This will necessitate


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


theoretical examination of whiteness as a construct. I largely focus on

constructions of whiteness in visual culture as theorized by film theorist

Richard Dyer, alongside critical whiteness studies scholars like sociologist

Ruth Frankenberg and others. Through detailed formal analysis and

careful attention to these paradigmatic examples, this chapter critically

deconstructs the ‘normative’ invisibility of whiteness and how it functions

within mainstream games, particularly at a critical historical juncture in

which whiteness is in crisis. This chapter asks: within the cultural context

of their development and release, how do these mainstream games represent

whiteness? How is whiteness seen in them? And what does this tell

us about the prevailing sentiments in a fraught cultural moment in which

power dynamics are shifting? This should not be confused with unilateral

statements (that I would never make) regarding a group of people that one

might collectively call ‘white’. And this does not have to do with presumptions

of what individuals within that group might be thinking. This has

everything to do with systemic issues of representation and cultural construction

– and the observation of visual politics at play – as it relates to an

ideological construction of whiteness. Such seeing, as Dyer argues in the

epigram, comes from representation, and this chapter concerns itself with

what is seen within dominant games.

We can begin once again by underscoring the importance of thinking

about games as meaning- producing practices.2 Games engage in a politics

of identity through their inclusions and omissions, their complex constructions

and their highly manufactured totalities. It is important to consider

that, when examining any game, its images are all entirely intentional – and

‘images’, once again, encompass visual, aural and textual elements in the

broadest sense. While photography’s presumptive realism has come under

question in recent years due the manipulability of the image, there is still a

sense that the photographic image to some degree connects to something

that existed and was captured by the camera. With digital imagery and

simulations, one has no such expectation of its connectedness to any kind

of realism. As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright explain, in the shift from

the photographic to the digital image, relations to the referent have shifted:

an image generated exclusively by computer graphics software

can be made to appear to be a photograph of actual objects,

On Video Games



places, or people, when in fact it is a simulation, that is, it does

not represent something in the real world. There is no expectation,

in digital imaging, of the camera ‘having been there’ to

document something that really happened, which we see here

and now in the image. Digital simulations of photographs

imitate photographs of real phenomena using mathematical

formulas translated into visual coordinates that approximate

photographic conventions of space. The difference resides in

the fact that the process of producing a digital image does not

require that the referent (the actual object, person, or place) is

present or even that the referent exists.3

So, to an even greater degree than photographic representation, the images

produced in games are completely and thoroughly constructed and intentional.

Even if they are highly naturalistic and display extreme photographic

realism, they are not documents of something that has occurred,

and was recorded. Rather, they are refined, totalizing visions that are

collaboratively developed using software in order to produce a series of

effects. This is not to suggest that unintended interpretations of the image

are impossible; however, it is key to understand that their visual cultures

are purposeful and highly calibrated. Digital media theorist Wendy Hui

Kyong Chun even goes so far as to discuss software in general as ‘a functional

analog to ideology’, calling computers with their software and hardware

‘ideology machines’. She declares: ‘They fulfill almost every formal

definition of ideology we have, from ideology as false consciousness (as

portrayed in The Matrix) to Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology as “a

‘representation’ of the imaginary relation of individuals to their real conditions

of existence.” ’4 According to Chun, the form of software as medium

engages in ‘the very effort of making something intangible visible, while

at the same time rendering the visible (such as the machine) invisible.’5

However, the software theorist simultaneously acknowledges that the analogy

between ideology and software must be understood in all its complexity

– the ‘onion-like’ nature of software, while analogous to ideology,

also has connections to the critique of power that all ideology necessarily

contains.6 ‘By interrogating software and the visual knowledge it perpetuates,’

she posits, ‘we can move beyond the so- called crisis in indexicality


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


toward understanding the new ways in which visual knowledge is being

transformed and perpetuated, not simply displaced or rendered obsolete.’7

Fully comprehending this highly constructed and intentional, apparently

indexical nature of games as software, while also appreciating the

complexity and multi- layered dimensions of them as both ideology and

ideological critique, renders the analysis of games incredibly insightful in

terms of what they seem to make visible, and what they purport to hide.

Rather than assuming the visual culture of games to be a more form

of image- making that lacks the presumed sophistication of filmmaking, art

or theatre, I consider them as complex, fully formed visual media equally

suited to nuanced ideological deconstruction. Video games convey themselves

through the images resulting from the action of the software, but also,

as D. Fox Harrell has similarly asserted, through the ways in which their

software systems themselves contain social values. As he writes, ‘All technical

systems are cultural systems.’8 As the current investigation focuses on the

visual culture of games and their ideological formulations, I will not deconstruct

the specific software systems that have gone into their construction,

and Harrell has already excellently done so. However, it is useful to consider

the playable aspects of these representations – both their affordances and

their limitations – in relation to the worlds they image for their players.

Harrell’s work sets forth affirmative strategies for thinking about how computational

systems can better serve human needs and values. As a computer

scientist, his research and in- depth consideration of the cultural phantasms

that exist within computing systems is invaluable.9 I would assert, on the

basis of Harrell’s interventions, that the software systems of games already

serve human needs – yet they serve some humans’ needs more than others.

That is to say, mainstream games as software systems tend to prop up the

values of dominant culture, by creating fields of possibilities circumscribed

by particular value systems and world views. Other visions become difficult

to image within the scope of a game as a computational system, or are even

altogether annihilated. While, like Gerald Voorhees, I agree there is always

transformational potential in the ‘agonistic incitement of an economy of

motivations, desires, discourses and signs provided by player and game’, the

worlds of games and the contexts that produce them strongly impact how

players receive messages from the games they play.10

On Video Games



Cultural Context: Whiteness in Crisis, Racial

Violence and Games

When an act of violence occurs in the United States, especially when perpetuated

by a young white male, it is quite commonplace that the mass

media casually mention video games – even in cases where there has been

no evidence that the perpetrator actually played them. As I write, the

United States has suffered a blunt force national trauma in the form of a

racially motivated mass killing in an historic black church. On Wednesday,

17 June 2015, just after 8:00pm, a young man described as Caucasian,

clean- cut and in his early twenties entered the Emanuel African Methodist

Episcopal Church in Charleston (also known as ‘Mother Emanuel’), South

Carolina, one of the most historically significant churches in the nation and

celebrated as a core site for the revolutionary uplift of African Americans

since its founding in 1816. After sitting with a prayer group that included

Senator Clementa Pinckney (also a pastor) for almost an hour in the church

basement, the young man pulled a gun from his waist pack and killed nine

African- Americans, including the senator. Three others survived. A suspect,

Dylann Roof, was identified and apprehended within 48 hours and,

almost immediately, information surfaced in the form of testimonials from

acquaintances, as well as from survivors, that he had verbalized his desire

to start a race war.11 Photographs gleaned from the Facebook page of the

accused contained Roof wearing a jacket with flag patches of the former

white- controlled Rhodesia, current- day Zimbabwe, as well as the apartheid-

era South African flag. Then, a website called ‘The Last Rhodesian’,

purchased under Roof ’s name, was discovered, containing 60 photos of the

young man waving the Confederate flag, which is associated with the US

antebellum period and also the secessionist and white power movements

in the South. In an essay in The Atlantic, one journalist summarized the

flag as ‘created by an army raised to kill in defense of slavery, revived by a

movement that killed in defense of segregation, and now flaunted by a man

who killed nine innocents in defense of white supremacy’.12 There were

images of Roof visiting plantations, confederate museums and cemeteries,

of displaying his handgun, and defacing the national flag in various manners

including burning, spitting and trampling. An extended manifesto


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


declared a belief in white supremacy, a tirade of bigotry outlining how various

races eroded the dominance of whiteness around the world, his disdain

for race mixing and his coming into a racial awareness that his ‘superior’

white race is losing ground. The manifesto ended by explicating his target,

Mother Emanuel, as follows:

I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the

ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic

city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks

to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK,

no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone

has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and

I guess that has to be me.13

By Sunday, 21 June, a news story broke indicating that several prominent

politicians including Republican presidential nominees had accepted campaign

donations from Earl P. Holt III, leader of a right- wing Council of

Conservative Citizens and known white supremacist, whose website was

cited by Roof as an inspiration for his radicalization.14

Video games repeatedly surfaced as a cause, among the many commentators

in the first few days of the massacre’s news reportage, even though

no official connection has been drawn between the accused and games.

Of particular note was a mention by Martin Luther King III, son of the

slain civil rights leader, who commented on the Charleston church massacre

on CNN:

When you have kids playing video games all day long, when

you have some of our cartoons [having] violence in them.

When you have movies that are violent, it is no wonder that our

society is violent. We’ve created and accepted a culture of violence.

We must find a way to create a culture of nonviolence.15

It bears mentioning that this racially motivated act of killing, which was

immediately identified as a hate crime – an act with many precedents in

terms of a long and determinedly pre- video game history of racial violence

against African- Americans in the United States – was unquestioningly and

unequivocally linked to games, and by such a notable public figure.16 This

is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it suggests a

On Video Games



dimension of influence, moral corruption and brainwashing endemic to

the medium that has not been conclusively verified by study. But the grim

coincidence of this rhetoric’s resurgence is nonetheless relevant within the

context of a white- supremacist act of violence, when considering constructions

of whiteness in this embattled medium.

Unlike King, I do not wish to suggest a literal connection between video

games and enacted violence. Nor do I believe that the three games in question

have a white supremacist agenda. However, I do want to underscore

the relationship between the overblown language of Roof ’s ‘Last Rhodesian’

manifesto that contained multiple references to the loss of white power in

the supremacist sense, and a more general perception of a decline in the

dominance of whiteness around the world.

This violence occurred within a long history of a ‘disturbing epidemic

of angry white boys and young men participating in the burning of black

churches and the murder of their schoolmates around the country’ outlined

by critical whiteness studies scholar Ruth Frankenberg.17 Identifying

these acts as an extension of fears, Frankenberg identifies several false presumptions

used to argue that white dominance in US society has become

destabilized: civil rights gains, a government that fails to see whites as the

new ‘oppressed’ group, and ‘overcorrection’ resulting in reverse- racism

and unfair gains by non- whites. Indeed, a strong ideological bent in US

visual culture configures whiteness – and more specifically the white male

protagonist – as victim rather than hero.18 Richard Dyer colourfully sends

up these overblown white fears as they manifest themselves in visual culture:

‘in the future, what with the teeming hordes and the remorseless

march of affirmative action, we [whites] shall be the niggers.’19 The games

in question tap into the kinds of deep- seated anxieties that scholars like

Dyer and Frankenberg outline as an extension of a larger cultural malaise.

That is to say, in the following discussion of whiteness in relation to the

games in question, it should be understood that I see whiteness not as

‘invisible’ or ‘empty’ or normative, but as occurring within the context of a

dominant culture that is in fact intensely aware of whiteness, and an entertainment

industry that is likewise tuned in to what will resonate with the

dominant market.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


The Last of Us

The Last of Us presents a scenario steeped in loss, melancholia and an aesthetics

of ambivalence. It tells the story of Joel, a white working man and

single parent, and his pale, slight, blonde daughter, Sarah, with whom he

has a close relationship (see Figure 2.2). It is clear that Joel has long strenuous

workdays and is under duress. He is not well-off and the game clearly

represents him as doing his best despite the odds. Initially playing in the

third person as ‘Sarah’, players wander the domestic space and learn from

contextual clues and secondary characters that their Austin neighbourhood

is in turmoil, and in fact the problem goes far beyond their location,

having spread to both national coasts. An aggressive infection is spreading

that renders those who contract it violent. In the aftermath of a car accident

that occurs in the chaos, the player character role switches to Joel, as

he tries, unsuccessfully, to protect his injured daughter from the pandemonium

ensuing. A soldier who has been ordered to execute the potentially

infected mistakenly shoots Sarah, and she dies in Joel’s arms. Even though

all this happens in the dark of night, her skin and hair give off a soft glow.

Figure 2.2 Joel and his daughter, Sarah, in better times. The Last of Us (2013) ˝Sony

Interactive Entertainment America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog

LLC. Screen shot by author.

On Video Games



In the aftermath of these events, the player is reintroduced to the

primary playable character, Joel, some 20 years later. He is now a smuggler,

and a much more dishevelled, worn-down figure to whom far too

much has happened. We find him in a post- apocalyptic Boston that is a

crumbling police state. The ‘new normal’ is a daily existence of scavenging

and desperation, barter and bribery, limited resources and survivalism.

Alongside a female companion named Tess, who initially acts as a guide

for the player through the perils of the militarized zones and quarantined

areas, Joel grimly traverses the environs. As an action adventure survivalhorror

game, stealth, puzzle- solving and effective utilization of the environment

are key, but the game also uses a crafting system that allows for

the development of weapons from found objects, in addition to guns and

other arms. Killing is a core mechanic, although it is framed mostly as grim

and necessary for survival, rather than spectacularized and heroic. While

it is immediately clear that Joel is resourceful and jaded enough to address

his circumstances pragmatically, he (as the playable character) is clearly

traumatized and endangered. His look and manner are consistent with

mainstream representations of a ‘heartland’ American male: presumed

straight, Caucasian, shortish dark hair and beard, assertive carriage, ablebodied

and wearing a Western shirt and jeans. He doesn’t talk much, and

is acerbic when he does.

Soon after a series of scenarios that function largely as in- game tutorials

on controller usage, and to relay content that contextualizes the aftermath

Joel lives in, we meet Ellie (see Figure 2.3). She is 14 years old, and a

precocious, dark- haired, wide- eyed vulnerable young white teenager who

predictably invokes the memory of his lost daughter, Sarah. Ellie externalizes

Joel’s seriously compromised sense of hope. Protected by a revolutionary

militia called ‘The Fireflies’, who mysteriously deem her important,

Ellie becomes the precious cargo Joel and his partner Tess are enlisted to

smuggle safely away from the Boston quarantine zone. Tess is lost soon

after, and the remaining gameplay mostly consists of Joel’s odyssey to ferry

the young Ellie to safety while trying to fully understand her significance

to the militia. Along the way, Joel and Ellie grow close as they face tremendous

peril, hardship, loss, failures and ethical quandaries.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


In addition to the post- apocalyptic United States backdrop, to which

I will return, key to this narrative are the ‘infected’ themselves. These are

humans whose brains and eventually whole bodies have been overtaken by

a horrific mutation of the Cordyceps fungus, which slowly transforms them

into something uncontainable, violent and monstrous. Unlike the typical

zombie narrative, there are four distinct phases of the infection and therefore

a variety of types of infected: Runners, Stalkers, Clickers and Bloaters.

Runners still retain some human characteristics and seem as though they

are simply rabid and unable to control their impulses toward aggression.

However, they are relatively easy to fend off except if they are able to overwhelm

a player in very large groups. Stalkers demonstrate a more profound

fungal infection and are known for hiding and sneak attacks; they are quick

and deadly. Clickers are stronger than the previous two forms. As they are

more thoroughly infected, they take on a more mutated, horrific form, and

possess the power of echolocation. Their nickname derives from the sounds

they make in order to orient themselves in space. Clickers are difficult to kill,

and even blasting off huge chunks of the fungus may not impair them. The

fourth category of infected humans, Bloaters, are the most fearsome due to

Figure 2.3 Ellie. The Last of Us (2013) ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment America

LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC. Screen shot by author.

On Video Games



their imposing stature and resilience when under attack (see Figure 2.4).

Bulbous fungal growths cover their entire bodies like a kind of armour

plating. Little of their human form remains. To be caught in their grip

means instant death. Bloaters function completely on aggressive instinct,

and are able to lob infectious clumps at the player- character. Even after a

Bloater dies, the fungus continues to grow and spores are released from

their decomposing bodies. I cannot underscore enough the psychological

revulsion these creatures engender: they at once conjure uncontrollability

and phobias around communicable disease. They stimulate dread, disgust,

panic and horror such that it was common to read that the intensity of the

overall affective experience made players take frequent breaks to collect

themselves.20 Unlike the survival-horror genre conventions, the violence

enacted within the game was observed as ‘heavy, consequential and necessary’.

21 In my own playthrough of the game, it seemed that the affective

dimensions of the game were established not merely through horror, but

the interplay between horror and the melancholic. More specifically, these

affective dimensions emanated from the ideological construction of whiteness

as ineffectual, as characters stumble about in the ruins of a patriarchal

Figure 2.4 Joel aims at a Bloater. The Last of Us (2013) image provided by Sony

Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment

America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


order that is defunct and deathly. Faced with overwhelming odds, as well

as the imminent threat of both the infected and the human (see Figure 2.5),

Joel is forced to repeatedly place his own body between this overwhelming

terror and the innocent Ellie, and he does so grudgingly. It is the binary

opposition between whiteness and radical otherness – and particularly the

repeated trauma narrative of declining white masculinity – that comes to

the fore and reconfigures Joel as victim.22

The critical response to the game was overwhelmingly positive. The Last

of Us received a Metacritic score of 95 out of 100 for both its PlayStation 3

and ‘remastered’ PlayStation 4 iterations. It was considered landmark for

its effective AI, photorealism and character development. Many lauded it as

the last great game of its console generation. The Last of Us was proclaimed

by many notable game review sites to be a perfect game, and along with

its remaster, a ‘masterpiece’ of its generation.23 A melancholic and poignant

score by Academy Award- winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla,

combined with the strong storyline and unrelenting scenarios, make for

a great deal of pathos and affective engagement during play. Many critics

Figure 2.5 Joel fights a cannibal. The Last of Us (2013) image provided by Sony

Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment

America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.

On Video Games



described the affectively taxing nature of the game, describing it as ‘both

emotionally exciting and physically exhausting’.24 While there were some

complaints that the game ultimately failed to outstrip the male- oriented

narrative, many others hailed the game for its complex representation of

several female characters, including Ellie.25 The scholarly response focused

thus far more on the construction of the relations between the natural

world and human beings in the game, as well as ethical decisions that

the game refuses to let players skirt – though it engenders internal selfreflection

through the difficulties encountered.26

Critical Whiteness Studies and Whiteness

After 9/ 11

My use of the term ‘whiteness’ is not one of simple classification of skin colour,

but a term that has come to define a much more phantasmagoric position

that takes into account ideological dimensions of meaning ascribed

to this complex construction. Whiteness studies, or ‘critical whiteness

studies’, arose from post- colonial and post- modern theory made popular

in the 1970s and 1980s, with a strong surge in the US in the 1990s. As Tyler

Stallings summarized this moment, ‘vocabularies and strategies had developed

based on the notion that forcing the dominant culture to recognize

itself – to name itself, when for so long it had claimed to have no name –

was the first step toward dismantling it.’27 Ruth Frankenberg, in her White

Women, Race Matters, outlines three key facets of whiteness: ‘First, whiteness

is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a

“standpoint,” a place from which white people look at ourselves, at others,

and at a society. Third, “whiteness” refers to a set of cultural practices that

are usually unmarked and unnamed.’28 She goes on to discuss the ways

in which naming whiteness displaces its ‘structured invisibility’, reconnecting

it to complex histories of colonialism, imperialism and assimilation;

it productively racializes whiteness; and it opens up possibilities for

antiracist whiteness.29 There are many and disparate approaches to critical

whiteness studies, most of which are associated with Frankenberg’s

delineations, but which also study other dimensions of the subject such as


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


white privilege,30 the stratification of various groups according to race and

its effects, ontological questions of whiteness, and the connections

between race and power.31 Some see the study of whiteness and white

privilege as a topic that has become dated in a purportedly ‘post- racial’

Obama era. Denaturalizing the normative position of whiteness is

extremely useful for unpacking dominant representations in games.32

While there are numerous intellectual resources in many established disciplines

that engage with whiteness, I focus primarily on interventions

in visual culture, as well as a uniquely post- 9/ 11, and subsequent post-

Obama moment of anxiety in which the stability of white heteronormative

patriarchy is threatened.33

Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be in America. The white majority

has waned in the United States and, along with it, value systems have

shifted. This has been taken up in the popular media, as well. For example,

Hua Hsu in his article ‘The End of White America?’ reports:

According to an August 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau,

those groups currently categorized as racial minorities – blacks

and Hispanics, East Asians and South Asians – will account

for a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2042. Among

Americans under the age of 18, this shift is projected to take

place in 2023, which means that every child born in the United

States from here on out will belong to the first post- white


The perception that something has changed in terms of the eroding of

white dominance has become a site of intense racial anxiety.

The World Trade Center bombings in New York on 11 September 2001,

referred to as ‘9/ 11’, complicated this sense of white racial anxiety further by

traumatizing the public imaginary of white America through, according to

Thomas Ross, the ideological configuration of the victims of 9/ 11 as white

fire fighters and white Wall Street business people caught in the towers.35

Of course, the reality was much more diverse – especially given the international

melting pot of New York. Nevertheless, there emerged a strong

binary opposition between white ‘heartland’ (i.e., straight and Christian)

On Video Games



authentic American families and Arab- looking (i.e., Muslim) men, whose

resemblance to the hijackers of the doomed planes instilled a new fear into

the hearts of white America. The mass media incessantly covered the losses

of families that conformed to the flag- flying, white picket- fenced, white

ideal that came to stand in for all victims of the tragedy. Images of the Twin

Towers collapsing were looped on the news, while pre- existing images of

the towers were scrubbed from popular culture so as to avoid distressing

Americans while the nation healed. If there was any doubt about the global

attack on an American ‘way of life’, this event was politically managed to

effect an absolute nationalist, jingoistic sentiment that has religious, cultural

and racial overtones.36

In summarizing the psychic damage wrought by 9/ 11, Ross suggests:

The White man at the dawn of the twenty- first century faces all

the commonly shared perils of his fellow citizens, the lingering

horror of 9/ 11, the uncertain contours of the War on Terror, but

also and uniquely, he faces the knowledge that an America that

he has always thought of as essentially his seems to be slipping

away in an increasingly multi- racial America.37

This perspective is similarly supported and enhanced by Frankenberg,

who in the same year wrote ‘Cracks in the Fa.ade: Whiteness and the

Construction of 9/ 11’, which connects the nomenclature around this event

with ideological connections to whiteness and ‘narratives of innocence,

goodness, Godliness and strength’.38 Ultimately calling attention to how

‘alongside national self- importance, a sense of entitlement and the actuality

of US military and economic might, is a brittle and fragile sense of

nationhood which easily senses danger everywhere,’ Frankenberg entreats

readers to honour the dead by not imbricating them in false narratives of

whiteness and Americanness.39 Hsu similarly describes demographic shifts

in the nation and the subsequent fear of what Pat Buchanan has called

‘Third World America’.40 Calling attention to an increased expectation of

diversity in entertainment, advertising and the presence of high- profile

success stories such as Will Smith’s Hollywood success as an A- list leading

man, Tiger Woods’ dominance in golf, Sean Combs’ entrepreneurial

empire in the music industry and the general global impact of hip- hop, the


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


author points to the profound sense held by some white Americans that

they are ‘losing control’ of the institutions that were once theirs.

Notable, as well, are the ways in which these kinds of conversations

repeat themselves in times of duress. For example, the fear of a ‘Third World

America’ echo debates that took place in California around Proposition 209

in 1996, which argued for the elimination of affirmative action programs in

state institutions.41 Over the course of the debates that took place around

this proposition, whiteness became constructed as a form of victimhood

that, according to some whiteness scholars, ‘was repeatedly used as a threat

in this campaign’.42 In their introduction to their anthology on whiteness,

editors Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Irene J. Nexica, Eric Klinenberg and

Matt Wray described the political manipulation as follows:

The image of ‘angry white men’– the men supposedly left behind

as women and people of color advanced – was called upon in

many debates over affirmative action and made occasional

appearances in campaign advertisements and journalistic stories.

This figure was both a sign of the putative loser of affirmative

action programs and an implicit suggestion that white men

around the state were seething with outrage, perhaps even preparing

to use violence to defend their interests. Identifying men

who were angry and increasingly unhappy, the term signified

and promoted a white backlash against civil rights gains of the

1960s. It served as an effective means of configuring people of

color (and, to a lesser extent, white women) as an oppressive

group and angry white men as a group who could, would, and

should revolt.43

This is complicated by the fact that whiteness, in an American context,

has shifting associations that fluctuate between: a racial categorization, an

ideology of power relations, a Western term of normativity, an ‘empty’ signifier

for lack of authenticity or ethnicity, a marker of violence and terror

for some, and an extension of an institutionalized and pernicious form of

categorization installed during European colonial and imperialist expansion.

44 This is shored up through visual culture, of which games are now

a part, and it is through analysis of these forms of dominant culture that

insight can be gained.

On Video Games



Insofar as visual culture is concerned, Richard Dyer’s White is most

urgent for this discussion, though the author never specifically addresses

video games. Surveying a broad array of Western image- making practices

such as photography, cinema and print media, Dyer presents a clear- eyed

assessment of images that purport to present ‘nonparticular’ (i.e., white)

identities by underscoring their particularities and addressing the underlying

presumptions that accompany their imaging.45 This text is key for my

own analysis of the three games in question, although, given their playable

dimensions, I expand upon Dyer’s innovations in constructive ways for the


Dyer unpacks the normative and ‘invisible’ nature of whiteness in both

representation and the ways in which the visual is spoken of. While the

film scholar clearly identifies that ‘the privilege of being white in white culture

is not to be subjected to stereotyping in relation to one’s whiteness,’ he

also points out the contradiction that this perceived sense of being the normative,

betrays a persistent and underlying fixation with whiteness.46 Dyer

writes on the representation of whiteness and heteronormativity:

Women, ethnic minorities, gay people and so on are not the only

ones to be social groupings; everyone belongs to social groupings;

indeed, we all belong in many groupings, often antagonistic

to one another of at the least implying very different accesses

to power. The groupings that have tended not to get addresses

in ‘images of ’ work, however, are those with the most access to

power: men, whites, heterosexuals, the able- bodied […] This

must not imply, however, an equivalence between such images

and those of women and other oppressed groupings. The project

of making normality strange and thus ultimately decentering it

must not seem to say that this has already taken place, that now

masculinity, whiteness, heterosexuality and able- bodiedness are

just images of identity alongside all others […] As in all issues

of representation, we must not leave the matter of power out of

account any more than the matter of representation itself.47

The non- particular status of white identity as normal or universal identity

is often perceived of as unthinking or oblivious in its usage. However,

importantly, in his book- length examination of whiteness, Dyer does not


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


let those engaged in so- called ‘normative’ representation off the hook.

Rather than excusing them on the basis of ignorance, he points instead to

the self- consciousness of these representations:

most of the time white people speak about nothing but white

people, it’s just that we couch it in terms of ‘people’ in general.

Research – into books, museums, the press, advertising, films,

television, software – repeatedly shows that in Western representation

whites are overwhelmingly and disproportionately

predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and above

all are placed as the norm, the ordinary, the standard.48

He discusses whiteness in terms of its tremendous instability, the fluidity

with which certain ethnic groups like Jews and the Irish may have held

different positions in terms of the colour hierarchy, as a means to police

the privileges whiteness affords.49 Pulling away from a discussion of whiteness

as ‘white ethnicity’, and certainly not white nationalism, he instead

deconstructs whiteness itself and conceives of how it can be possible to

go about ‘making whiteness strange’.50 Covering a history of the term –

in accordance with several cited venerated scholars including Winthrop

Jordan and Martin Bernal – Dyer finds the modern origination of the term

‘white’ to be connected to the American colonies, and deeply imbricated in

the Christian tradition.51 It is all innocence, purity, cleanliness, beauty and

ultimately a form of absence. Of course, as he further explains, these are

not without their underside: ‘the lure of the ideal is also, often imperceptibly,

haunted by misgiving, even anxiety. Not only is whiteness as absence

impossible, it is not wholly desirable. To relinquish dirt and stains, corporeality

and thingness, is also to relinquish both the pleasures of the flesh

and the reproduction upon which whiteness as radical power depends.’52

Interestingly enough, the logical outcome of the ideal of whiteness is ultimately

unattainable and self- annihilating.

The Last of Us and Imperiled Whiteness

The impossible, imperilled position of whiteness is embodied in Joel, the

bedraggled protagonist and primary playable character of The Last of Us.

On Video Games



He is self- consciously normal and ‘everyman’ in his manifestation, possessing

neither superhuman powers nor the skills of a supersoldier. He

is vulnerable, emotionally shut-down and compromised, definitively an

anti- hero. At some point in the narrative, his young partner, Ellie, takes on

the protector/ provider role after he is seriously injured. Several extended

analyses of this game utilize a feminist approach that variously interprets

the game as either propping up gender norms or displaying a sense

of mourning toward the loss of heteronormative unity.53 Commentators

observed that this game presented a paradigmatic example of the ‘dadification’

of video games, or in other words an emerging thematic trend toward

paternal relations between a primary male character and a younger female

character who needs protection.54 Joel is in many ways a cypher for the

so- called American average hardworking man, come to the end of his rope

and emptied out of his inherent value in a society that has changed around

him. Dyer’s examination of this male everyman type is best exemplified in

his analysis of the 1993 crime drama directed by Joel Schumacher, Falling

Down, which describes the events in the day of an ‘ordinary’ middle-class

man (to be read as white man) who finds himself at war with the ‘everyday

world’ (to be read as the increasingly diverse world) and descends in

to a nihilistic meltdown after losing his job, his family and his sense of

purpose.55 In the case of this film, it is exactly the main character’s ordinariness

through which the anxieties around the endangered nature of the

white man comes into focus: ‘Falling Down’s success may derive from its

expression of the state of play in the contemporary construction of whiteness,

between a renewedly respectable supremacism, the old everything

and nothing- in- particular hegemony and the fear of an annihilation that

will be the realisation of our [whites’] emptiness.’56 Importantly, the Falling

Down model of white masculinity ideologically melds ordinariness and a

constructed alterity, something which The Last of Us repeats to excellent

effect. Dyer ultimately summarizes the film as ‘an allegory of the death

of the white man, or at any rate, the white man as endangered species’.57

Teetering at the mouth of this gaping emptiness, Joel of The Last of Us demonstrates

a similar disorientation, but it comes in the form of a deathwardlooking

melancholia that is staved off by the purpose of protecting Ellie

against a hostile environment.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


There are many meaningful essays on the connection between photographic/

filmic technologies as media of ‘light’, the visual culture of the

luminous white woman, and the white man’s muscles as depicted in cinema.

However, for the sake of this analysis, the connection Dyer draws

between whiteness and melancholia or death at the end of empire interests

me most. Deconstructing the ideological roles of white women and

white men in the imaging of European imperialism, he asserts that man

embodies colonial expansion within many of these narratives. Likewise,

white women specifically embody the fall of empire by complicating the

scenario with sexuality and heterosexual duty that interrupts the fundamentally

masculine and homosocial relations taking place. White women

constitute a sexual drain on the male imperializing spirit, and possess the

potential to betray white men through their relations with non- white men.

And they demonstrate a conscience around empire that generally weakens

the will.58 In his enumeration of these tropes in relation to his specific televisual

object of study (the 1984 British TV series The Jewel in the Crown),

Dyer uses descriptors like ‘ineffectiveness’, ‘lethargy’, ‘desolation’ and ‘nondoing’

to capture the affective qualities of whiteness – specifically white

female positionality – at the end of empire.

In the case of The Last of Us, this is exemplified in the glowing white,

blonde Sarah (daughter of Joel), whose life is lost in the game’s inciting

incident. The ineffectual role Joel played in protecting his child is presumably

the origin of his bitterness, and this psychology becomes transferred

onto Ellie, a surrogate young white girl. Although Ellie has more agency,

Joel repeatedly refuses to permit her a weapon, and persistently adopts a

protectorate role. In one scene, for example, Joel comes across a bow and

Ellie asks to use it, proclaiming, ‘I’m a pretty good shot with that thing.’ Joel

responds, ‘How ‘bout we just leave this kind of stuff to me.’ Ellie protests:

‘Well, we could both be armed. Cover each other.’ Joel admonishes her: ‘I

don’t think so.’ Given that it would be fairly difficult to shoot oneself using

a bow and arrow, it is more likely that Joel wants to spare Ellie the traumatizing

experience of killing. The various fatherly shielding gestures enacted

during gameplay emphasize this (see Figure 2.6). For example, when

crouched together in a cover position, Ellie often nestles under Joel’s arm.

Similarly, while standing, he protectively places an arm across her body

On Video Games



like a barrier against harm. She is also represented as physically diminutive

next to his strong stature. She represents purity, cleanliness of spirit,

a normative sense of beauty. Joel’s reticence for Ellie to have the agency

to kill (by possessing a weapon) throughout the narrative strongly signals

his desire to preserve that innocence. Eventually this dynamic shifts, but it

comes late in the game and only when it is clear that Joel cannot complete

objectives singlehandedly.

Describing the specific role of white women in the colonialist fiction,

Dyer asserts that they:

voice a liberal critique of empire and are in part to blame for

its decline. Because of their social marginality and because,

when they do do anything, they do harm, the only honorable

position for them, the only really white position, is that of

doing nothing. Because they are creatures of conscience this

is a source of agony. Yet it is an exquisite agony […] Women

take the blame, and provide the spectacle of moral suffering,

for the loss of empire. For this, they are rewarded with

a possibility that already matches their condition of narrative

existence: nothing.59

Figure 2.6 Joel protects Ellie. The Last of Us (2013) image provided by Sony

Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment

America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


In an uncanny reflection of this very conundrum, Ellie’s character, who

is born into the post- pandemic space, moves about within the flickering

embers of Western culture as an embodiment of innocence – that is, in the

absence of her actual usefulness as an agent of society’s redemption and

cure, she is instead ideologically over- determined as an externalization of

conscience, as Joel’s last grasp of his own humanity, and as a youthful figure

who symbolizes the very possibility of a future. For much of the game, he is

configured as protector, and she occupies the role of a resourceful kid who

needs defending. Her expressions of wonder the first time that she walks in

the woods, or sees an old record shop, point to a sense of discovery and a

freshness in her perspective that Joel lacks. Yet, increasingly she constitutes

a liability for Joel, in that she causes him to deviate from a self- serving routine

that has kept him alive. Gameplay reveals that her role is ultimately to

do nothing. And of course, true to Dyer’s characterization, she ultimately

saves nothing. In this case, Joel shares the blame for the downfall of culture

through his refusal to allow Ellie’s brain matter to be harvested in the

pursuit of a cure. While she is unveiled as a kind of sacrificial lamb, this

actual role goes unfulfilled, due in no small part to Joel’s unwillingness to

let go of her. There is an argument to be made, as well, for the connectedness

between the imaging of the ruins of empire and the female figure.

According to Dyer, the female figure often operates as the embodiment

of a critique, while simultaneously being configured as the cause of the

downfall itself. Joel is, after all, imperilled by his growing attachment to a

girl who holds the keys to humanity’s survival – and who will force him to

face insurmountable odds.

This is connected, as well, to the notion of a crumbling phallocentric

order that is embodied in the ruins within which the primary player characters

move. Spaces of play, as simulated civilizations, become symbolic

extensions of the patriarchal law; only, in this case, that civilization is completely

broken. And, as a by- product of the system’s having become compromised,

other orders become possible. Even the mundane act of imagining

other possible uses of the objects strewn about in the destroyed landscape

invites new ways of thinking about what the space should be. Describing

architectural structures and urban planning as symbolic ‘monuments of a

masculine dominated society’ Evan Watts argues that their ruin is a ‘space

On Video Games



that offers freedom from the same gender- oppressive institutions that once

permeated them, and thus sites of empowerment’.60 Watts analyses this

through several games, most notably the remains of the underwater city of

Rapture in BioShock (2007), arguing that in a larger sense, even though the

new social order arising from the game is ‘horrific’ and dystopian, it at least

reveals the heteronormative order to be socially constructed and therefore

malleable. He identifies the relationship between ruined physical structures

and social structures that exist in various media, and in games as well, the

frustrated ‘ “masculine” satisfaction accompanying gameplay mechanics of

dominating one’s environment using violence and aggression’.61

This holds true for The Last of Us as well. In the first case, the violence is

almost always desperate and off- balance. Beyond scripting and the story’s

arc, this is also deeply embedded in the game mechanics. With the jerryrigged

weapons and need to constantly scavenge around for anything that

will help, one does not feel the power of fetishized weaponry, technological

dominance or masterful kills. As a construction, Joel configures whiteness

as fundamentally desperate and in crisis. As one critic observed: ‘Because

of the do- it- yourself crafting system, Joel never felt too strong or overpowered.

I had just enough supplies to make what I needed in almost any given

situation […] but the nerves start kicking in when you know your supplies

are running out.’62 The scrounging, in other words, is neither glamorous

nor glorious. Protracted scenarios of scavenging for anything at all that

will aid the characters in their survival, heightens the sense of desperation

fundamental to the experience of gameplay.

Scavenging in the game is key to a critique of failed capitalism, which is

also an extension of the critique of a white hetero- patriarchal order that is

now in ruins. One of the key characteristics of hypercapitalism is the splitting

of objects from their literal use- value. Advanced capitalism invests objects

with meaning that may be thoroughly detached from their actual usefulness.

The survivalist scenario presented in The Last of Us reinvests objects

with their practical function, against a backdrop where the ruins of hypercapitalism

possess little value except as they may be repurposed. In the second

case, as I will show, the militarized male supersoldier trope is frustrated.

Rather than enhancing normal human capabilities, in The Last of Us one

always feels the limitations of too little ammunition, not enough places to


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


hide, the fallibility of the body, the necessity of collaborative effort and the

vulnerability of everyone involved.

One possible reading of the Last of Us, as an extension of the apocalyptic

narrative of contagion or zombies, is that the foe (virus/ undead

attacker) represents the externalization of an inner threat by making it into

a targeted enemy that can be identified, isolated and destroyed. For example,

in speaking about the role of the infected in another massive franchise,

Resident Evil, media and culture studies scholar Derek Burrill writes:

In Resident Evil, the true antagonist is the virus. The virus is an

oft- used nemesis in videogames from similar genres (such as

Parasite Eve or Syphon Filter), as the virus serves as an internal

threat, playing on general cultural fears of HIV, Ebola, and

other physical dangers, while it also manifests itself as an external

threat in the form of some infected physical presence. This

enables the player to overcome representations of internalized

struggle and weakness through virtualized, external physical

destruction and violence.63

This suggestion of the transfer of an internal or nebulous fear into an object

that can be isolated, controlled or ultimately killed is made within a larger

discussion of the performance of masculinity. However what is enacted

again and again in The Last of Us – as a kind of technology that is engaged

with – is a traumatized, frustrated white masculinity. Keith Stuart of the

Guardian made several insightful observations about the genre, most notably

that a heroic sense of masculinity is off- balance in these games:

there’s no coincidence in the sudden onslaught of dystopian fiction,

which has affected movies and literature as well as games.

We’ve seen these spikes before and they usually reflect and

explore wider sociopolitical fears. The rush of ‘50s sci- fi flicks

about mutated insects and invading aliens came out of postwar

fears about the atom bomb and communist revolution;

and the slasher films of the seventies processed the global economic

downturn, the collapse of the patriarchal nuclear family

and the rise of feminism’s second wave. Our current obsession

with zombies and failed utopias is arguably driven by the gristly

meat of 24- hour news coverage: fears of pan- global diseases

On Video Games



like avian flu, the over- population of the Earth, the financial

collapse of 2008 and mass uprisings like the Arab Spring. Our

sense of certainty has been decimated over the last five years –

the world is once again a weird, unpredictable and violent

place. Video games are reflecting this. But they are reflecting it

through a very particular prism.64

Attenuating the analysis to consider how this is manifested in games

about the zombie- apocalypse, Stuart picks up the thread of the dystopian

representation as it is played out in a flurry of high- profile games like

Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, State of Decay and The Last of Us.

While the scenarios themselves might have continuity with the history of

these types of narratives, the protagonists are compromised, flawed and

decidedly unheroic:

In the past, these characters tended to be assured action heroes;

men fighting for a just cause against irredeemably evil

enemies. But in current titles that is all getting muddied. Lee

[The Walking Dead], Booker [Bioshock Infinite] and Joel [The

Last of Us] are damaged men, victims of the violence they

have perpetrated on others. Lee has killed his wife’s lover and

ruined his own life in the process; Booker has been destroyed

by his involvement in murderous military campaigns, Joel has

had to become a sociopath to survive 20 years in a devastated

America. These guys aren’t heroes like Master Chief or Marcus

Fenix; they’re scarred, vulnerable fuck- ups, barely functioning

as reasoning adults anymore.65

One scholar went even further, describing the nature of the aforementioned

representations as tantamount to visualizing the end of heteronormativity.

Gerald Voorhees writes of the The Last of Us:

trauma and loss are the most frequently recurring ideas. Death

colors the tenor of the game and defines the most poignant

moments of the narrative: Sarah bleeding out in Joel’s arms, Tess

in a pool of blood on the capitol floor, Bill’s lover hanging from

a ceiling fan, Sam and the two bullets from Henry’s gun, Joel’s

incapacitation at the university campus, David stealing the last

shreds of Ellie’s faith in humanity, and of course, the world that


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


died during the open credits and the dream of resurrecting that

world that died with Marlene’s final plea to Joel.

But it’s the death of heteronormativity, heroic masculinity

in Joel’s case and heterosexism in Ellie’s, that some players and

commentators can’t seem to get over.66

The latter part of this observation relates to additional downloadable

content, called The Last of Us: Left Behind, released in 2014. It contains

additional narrative around Ellie, and depicts a same- sex kiss between she

and another young female survivor, Riley. Many hailed this moment as a

‘breakthrough’ for its deviation from heteronormativity that is especially

pronounced in game representation.67

It is true that trauma and loss are foregrounded in the game, as Voorhees

describes. However, what is also at work is Dyer’s theory of ‘white death’:

that is to say, that whiteness has associations with ‘deathliness’68 and that

whiteness is ultimately configured as being dead and bringing death, something

that the film theorist goes on to explicate through his interpretation

of the zombie film.69 There is a palpable sense in which the configuration

of whiteness as purity, otherworldliness, a certain rigidity of body and pallor

begins – for Dyer – to approach the horizon of death as the absolute

expression of whiteness. Through his interpretation of ‘startling images of

white people as the dead devouring the dead’ it becomes clear that, on the

ideological level, whiteness as death results in a kind of inevitable, almost

hysterical catharsis linked to finally capitulating to the horrors of its own

making – something that Dyer identifies as the apotheosis of whiteness

itself: ‘to be destroyed by your own kind’.70 While misery is at the forefront,

more central is the notion of whiteness as endangered and fundamentally

unsustainable, albeit through its own complex machinations.

In the game, this is relayed in all the ways that Voorhees has described.

But, it is also self- contained in the very character of Ellie, the white female,

who is at once the embodiment of innocence to be protected, the bearer

of the moral suffering for the way things have become and the unwitting

cause of the decline of (American) empire. This is illustrated through the

final catharsis of the game in which Joel learns of Ellie’s true importance

from the Fireflies leader, Marlene. Ellie’s purpose, as someone immune to

the fungus, is to submit to an invasive brain matter-harvesting that would

On Video Games



provide key samples necessary to developing a vaccine. Her function, in

other words, is to die. This is relayed in a cut- scene in which Marlene (who,

according to the narrative, values Ellie) attempts to convince Joel of her

moral position. However, after all that he and Ellie have been through, Joel

is strongly bonded to the girl; so he opts to save her.

What follows is extensive combat in which an injured Joel takes on the

Fireflies, in a maze- like defunct medical facility, while locating a sedated

Ellie and snatching her from the operating table before it is too late. In

an upending of all that Joel and Ellie strived for throughout their travails,

our anti- hero must kill everyone who knows of Ellie in order to liberate

her from the burden of her responsibility to humanity. In terms of actual

playability, the player has no choice but to pursue this killing if they wish

to continue playing the game. No ethical option to save or not save Ellie is

offered. The prototypical last stand that Joel engages in, with the limp Ellie

in his arms, is bitter (see Figure 2.7). It evokes the vulnerable body of Joel’s

dying daughter, and this is confirmed when he calls Ellie ‘Baby Girl’ – a

term of endearment he once reserved for his own child. It also generates

ethical questions in the player regarding the pyrrhic victory of saving Ellie

Figure 2.7 Joel attempts to save Ellie. The Last of Us (2013) ˝Sony Interactive

Entertainment America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC. Screen

shot by author.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


at the cost of a possible cure. While the player must be goal- oriented in

their efficient killing of the Fireflies, the context of this bloodbath suggests

that it is highly problematic, and forecloses the possibility of heroism on

behalf of humanity. One may be a hero only to Ellie, and only nebulously

so. After preserving her from immediate physical harm, in a conventional

shooter/ action sequence that culminates with killing Marlene, Joel and

Ellie escape. In a cut- scene, the player sees Joel and Ellie returning to a

small community of uninfected, where it is presumed that they hope to

live. Ellie asks one last time whether it is really true that the Fireflies militia

has stopped searching for a cure, and therefore it is no longer necessary

for her to sacrifice herself to this cause. While it may be true that her brain

matter may not result in a cure (we learn from a found doctor’s recording

that past attempts have not been successful) it is patently untrue that the

doctors no longer want to use her to create a vaccine. Although it is unclear

whether Ellie believes Joel, she acquiesces to his declaration that he speaks

the truth. Thus, the dying of the world is symbolically sealed in a lie that

Joel tells Ellie, out of his weakness for her.

Voorhees locates the difficulty players have in negotiating the value of

Joel’s choice as one that issues from the player’s own relative attachment

to normative heroic masculinity.71 He suggests that the degree to which

the player has a melancholic response to the decision made is directly

connected to their perception that his heroic American masculinity is

compromised by his irrational choice made on the basis of weakness, sentimentality

and selfishness. A much healthier ‘mournful’ response is one

through which the player can see Joel as ‘flawed but redeemable’72 in the

face of highly problematic forms of American maleness. In both cases,

the presumption is that there is an erosion of the normative, to which a

player will undoubtedly have a strong response. This is likely to be at play

to some degree. However, I am less interested in the debate around the

difficult ending, than how the representation of Joel and Ellie – as iterations

of desperate whiteness set against ruin and abolished social structures

– resonated so strongly with audiences (see Figure 2.8). This suggests

a response not only to the individual narrative of the game, but the conditions

or socio- political moment within which that kind of narrative would

be understood as impactful. The most notable of these in US culture was

On Video Games



the re- election of President Barack Obama in 2012, which drew a dramatically

more negative response from Republicans than his first election four

years prior. Among the reactions associated with the news of re- election

were notable paroxysms of anxiety from major right- wing public figures

like Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Donald

Trump and many others, who declared that traditional America had ‘died’,

that they had to take back the nation, or strive to make America ‘great’

again.73 Numerous YouTube videos documenting Republican emotional

meltdowns were circulated. Several reported murders and attempted murders

were associated with perpetrators who specifically named the cause

as distress over the re- election of Obama. There was a small riot on the

campus of The University of Mississippi, located in a strongly Republican

state whose flag still contains the Confederate battle emblem. What was

evidenced was a strong anxiety around the future of the United States, one

that carries with it a racialized encoding of what in the nation was perceived

as being lost. Tropes around imperilled white masculinity in games

clearly reflect this tension. What was as play was a response to a perceived

shift in power within the nation, evidenced in the displays of grief and

Figure 2.8 Joel and Ellie in Salt Lake City. The Last of Us (2013) image provided

by Sony Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment

America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


profound anxiety, but also communicated in forms of visual culture like

The Last of Us.

Spec Ops: The Line and the White Hero


The connection between white masculinity, ruin and abolished social

structures is starkly presented in another major title released approximately

a year before The Last of Us and a few months before President

Obama’s re- election, entitled Spec Ops: The Line (2012).74 While there are

many possible examples of such themes, The Line is notable for the way in

which it mobilizes core mechanics of gameplay, as well as a self- conscious

frustrating of military shooter genre conventions, to interrupt player

expectations and engender ethical self- inquiry around the masculinized

force represented. Designed by Yager Development and published by 2K

Games, The Line received solid though less than stellar reviews compared

to The Last of Us,75 but was critically heralded for its unique interventions

into player- character identification and the ethical conversation it seemed

to stir in players.76 Among its many innovations, the most important of

these was the strategic use of both narrative elements and the core game

mechanic of shooting to strain the relationship between player and the

playable character.

In the primary role of Captain Martin Walker, the player of this thirdperson

shooter must guide a small team of Delta Force operators (Adams

and Lugo) into present- day Dubai, which, in this parallel reality, has been

destroyed by a series of mega- sandstorms (see Figure 2.9).77 In the guise

of the stereotypically rendered white male protagonist super- soldier, the

player must navigate the phantasmagoric space of an abandoned Arab

metropolis that has been swallowed up by the elements, in order to find

the origin of a distress signal from a highly decorated and beloved Army

Colonel, John Konrad, and his missing ‘Damned 33rd’ battalion. While the

mission seems simple, once within the ruins of the city a great number of

challenges face the team: overwhelming natural elements, desperate refugees

and the perils of a defunct urban space. Early parts of the game seem

On Video Games



jingoistic. A smart- mouthed band of brothers and the militarized violence

that it seems to celebrate set the tone. All the myths about the ‘good’ and

‘justified’ American militarized humanitarian vision seem to hold true. As

the game progresses, it begins to call into question the construction of such

a character – as well as a player’s presumptive identification with him.

Reviewers described The Line as the Apocalypse Now of video games

for the many similarities it bore to Francis Ford Coppola’s film from

1979.78 While the setting of the game is the modern- day Arab world, not

Vietnam War-era Cambodia, both the gamic and filmic narratives create

the conditions for a white American normative male character to traverse

a hostile space that takes an increasing mental toll, until the figure

finally unravels. Walt Williams, the Lead Developer of The Line, indicated

that Joseph Conrad’s 1899 anti- colonialist novella Heart of Darkness

constituted a primary source material for the game.79 The same novella

inspired the psychedelic anti- war vision of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and

so the connectedness between these three texts that illustrate the mental

deterioration of a normative figure under the duress of increasingly hellish

conditions makes symbolic sense. In the film’s narrative, which is set

during the Second Indochina War, an emotionally damaged US Army

Figure 2.9 Walker and his team enter Dubai. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) developed

by Yager Development and published by 2K Games. Screen shot by author.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


Captain and Special Operations officer named Willard is assigned a mission

to pursue and terminate a highly decorated Special Forces Colonel,

Walter E. Kurtz, who has become a madman. The journey Willard undertakes

into the remote jungle by river from Vietnam into Cambodia reveals

increasingly intense visions of horror, as he travels deeper and deeper

into a heart of darkness. That the game would be described, therefore, as

an Apocalypse Now narrative suggests an anti- war sentiment generated

through the deeper associations with the two earlier texts, as well as the

game’s own story.

It is reasonable to make this claim, given the strongly inferred relationship

between Coppola’s dominating anti- war vision and the game’s resonant

thematic elements of traveling into a new (Arab) ‘heart of darkness’.

And Williams did reveal the team’s intention to thematically broach the

war- is- hell conversation that has long existed in literature, theatre, cinema

and television, stating, ‘we wanted to make a game in our medium that

spoke to the truth of war just like every other medium had done.’80 But

the game feels much more intentionally focused on critiquing the jingoistic

military shooter than making a larger statement about current military

interventions in the Arab world. In an interview on IGN, a major site for

games and entertainment news, Williams described the ways in which the

game was designed to grate against the player on an emotional level:

‘We wanted that sense that the game was physically opposing

you,’ says Williams. ‘Not simply as a simulation, but also as the

game itself.’ Williams refers to the loading screens, which eventually

stop giving gameplay tips and start reminding you of the

mistakes you’ve made and the damage they’ve caused. Death as

well as progress rub salt in your wounds.81

Constructing an opposition between player and game demonstrates a

self- consciousness toward military shooter genre norms, which typically

lack much self- criticality in relation to what the player is asked to perform

through playable engagement. For example, the player usually assumes the

role of primary character, who is often heroic and whose aims are assumed

to be just or good. A strong identification between player and character is

presumed to aid in effective, immersive and therefore sustained gameplay.

On Video Games



Typically, the use of weaponry is hyper- masculinized, highly spectacularized

and cool. So- called ‘militainment’ games often contain jingoistic

elements and present a totalizing vision that advocates for the necessity of

military solutions, as opposed to diplomacy. The Line begins to chip away

at these presumptions, and as the character’s morality and sanity erode, the

player’s doubts, internal questions and emotional response to the carnage

build-up (see Figure 2.10). As one critic observed, ‘as the game goes forward,

it becomes weirder and weirder that he’s killing so many people.’82

Insofar as the game intervenes in the military shooter genre, the subversion

of the core mechanic into a site of critique and internal self- reflection

constitutes the game’s primary intervention.

Williams also articulated how part of the narrative was inspired by

films like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), which spoke less directly

to the horror of war, and more specifically to the psychological and emotional

traumas experienced in its wake.83 This sense of trauma is generated

in the game by demanding a high degree of complicity, through acts

that the player would likely find questionable according to typical shooter

expectations. The player is slowly led from confrontations with nonspecific

Arab hostiles who may simply be desperate people left behind from the

Figure 2.10 The disturbed Walker. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) developed by Yager

Development and published by 2K Games. Screen shot by author.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


mass evacuations, to outright war with US troops who become inexplicably

coded as the enemy, despite their humanitarian aims. For example, in

a now- iconic Chapter Eight of the game, called ‘The Gate’, Captain Walker’s

team is faced with an enemy too overwhelming to defeat in direct combat.

Walker decides that in order to gain the tactical advantage, he will employ

a form of chemical warfare using white phosphorous. This is a particularly

brutal form of attack, which chemically burns flesh to the bone upon contact.

In a cut- scene, Walker’s team protests its use; however, it is impossible

to continue the game without engaging in this excessive cruelty. One may

attempt to evade it, by shooting at the enemy from high ground, or rappelling

down and facing them directly or attempting to use stealth to evade

them altogether. However, there is no viable alternative but to play through

Walker’s choice.

A very sophisticated use of in- game visual signifiers is mobilized, and

it is one that is extremely bound up in a particular expression of whiteness,

deathliness and trauma. The controls for the deployment of white

phosphorous mortars comes into view: a hard- case device with toggles,

buttons and a screen. A camera device is first launched that provides a

hovering bird’s eye view on the killing grounds below. It resembles the

grainy, black-and-white utilitarian look of ‘smart- bomb’ vision that

entered into the popular imaginary through news reportage during the

first Gulf War in the early 1990s, and streamed images of remote warfare,

sometimes likened to video game warfare. In view are small, moving

shapes that resemble troops and military vehicles as seen from above.

Toggling the on- screen crosshairs to line up with targets, one mashes a

button and a mortar is released, resulting in a delayed image of white

clouds spreading across the screen, followed by the sounds of human suffering.

Superimposed upon this is the image of Walker himself, which

appears as a colour reflection on the weapon’s monitor. In this playable

sequence, what one sees is the in- game ‘self ’ of the player (i.e., Walker’s

visage) in a ghostly layer over the remote bomb vision of a chemical warfare

attack. Further, one subsequently learns, upon surveying the damage

and casualties afterwards, that the burned and dying soldiers who are

writhing in agony on the ground were protecting non- combatant refugees,

whom ‘you’ as Walker have also murdered.

On Video Games



This is a catastrophic mistake, and an unconscionable loss wrought

by the excessive and unethical use of force by the ‘hero’ playable character.

Internal fighting within the team flares again when one member (Lugo)

reacts to the horror, claiming that they have gone too far this time. The

question of who exactly has gone too far seems to refer to three things at

once: to Walker and his team; to the game designers, who painfully recall

the recent use of white phosphorous in Iraq by both Saddam Hussein and

the United States; and the United States military itself, which has argued

that it is not in violation of chemical warfare prohibitions on account of the

technical classification of white phosphorous as ‘incendiary’. The cut- scene

envisioning burned women and children, and particularly the charred

and macabre ‘mother- and- child’ imagery that traumatizes Walker and his

team, are among the most iconic of the game (see Figure 2.11). However,

the most striking and brazen image of this scenario actually reveals itself in

the playable targeting of the enemy, using the tools of remote warfare that

bring death from above, while reflecting the face of normative militarized

masculinity back to the player. Whiteness, deathliness and trauma reach

their crescendo in this image. Interesting as well is the experience of playing

this section of the game while occupying a very different subject position

Figure 2.11 Victims of white phosphorous. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) developed

by Yager Development and published by 2K Games. Screen shot by author.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


from Walker. As someone of another race and gender, the faint reflection

of Walker created a jarring interruption of immersive play because of my

inability to map myself onto the reflection. Its sudden appearance provided

a stark reminder of whom the ‘I’ in the game is. The rare first- person view

utilized during this mostly third- person game momentarily confuses player

self- recognition: the mirror reflects back a strange, white male face, which

insists that the player must consider themselves, both in their association or

disassociation from the primary playable character, as military shooter hero.

This image of whiteness, deathliness and trauma is also key in the

game’s blurring of the boundary between super- soldier and homicidal

maniac. The Line indicts the supposed civilizing mission or ‘white man’s

burden’ of protecting the world from degenerating into disorder, darkness

and barbarism. In this, ‘the line’ that is crossed may also refer to the dissolution

of stable white masculinity as it is put into crisis through a racialized

encounter with the other in the Arab world. In a strong departure from the

typical military shooter, in which the playable character has righteousness

on his side, this game generates friction.84 The ‘full spectrum dominance’

demonstrated in the excessive use of force, poorly rationalized missions

and mounting insanity interrupts the core values of such games. And, as I

have argued, as cultural forms of signification, the visual politics of these

images betray an affective quality of deep ambivalence, fear and a perception

of larger ambient anxieties surrounding eroded white dominance in

US culture.

Does the strategy undertaken by Williams and his team ultimately provide

an effective intervention? In his detailed analysis of The Line as an

example of militarized entertainment critiquing itself, scholar Matthew

Thomas Payne suggests that the game may be the industry’s first ‘anti- war

military shooter’.85 He asserts that the ‘discordant feeling’ generated in the

player gives rise to a productive critique of the genre, and, more generally,

the ‘banal pleasures of militainment’.86 Marcus Schulzke argues that the

core mechanics of the game effectively prevent the player from preserving

themselves from the ethical difficulties of the situations The Line presents:

The game shows the potential problems of soldiers entering a

war they barely understand and hoping that good intentions

On Video Games



alone will allow them to produce a good outcome. This dystopia

is therefore one that calls attention to the many evils of

unrestrained violence and military intervention, especially in

regions that are poorly understood. The game mechanics present

these messages forcefully by constraining players in such a

way that they must use violence to complete the game only to

find that victory can be hollow and far too costly.87

Indeed, the cavalier manner in which Walker and his two ‘skilled’ operators

enter into the theatre of their purported search- and- rescue mission,

their persistent demonstrated inability to communicate with the people

they find there, and their patently violent mishandling of the scenarios

they encounter within the narrative, in retrospect, indicates their unpreparedness

for this space. What they have to their advantage is the ability

to kill very, very effectively – and that is all the game mechanics permit a

player to do. However, in terms of a broader and more ethical continuum

of possibilities, the narrative conveys a kind of impotence, an inability to

actually fix anything or save anyone. As Holger P.tzsch similarly asserts,

‘Spec Ops: The Line ultimately subverts the myth of the male, white soldier

as glorious hero and saviour so central to the American and increasingly

also European military imaginary.’88 P.tzsch has connected The Last of Us

and The Line in an essay that considers how the relations between design

features and narrative strategies can create a constructive friction between

genres and their underlying ideological bases.89 However, he ultimately

questions the effectiveness of any critique because the highly artificial construct

of an apocalypse detracts from real and ongoing systemic problems

in the lived world:

The fact that the game [The Last of Us] uses a worn generic

trope – a catastrophic event that over- night destroys all established

institutions and unravels received power relations – and

thus establishes a postapocalyptic context ‘ex machina’ significantly

reduces the critical import of The Last of Us. By taking

recourse to a sudden breakdown of order that is unequivocally

connected to a clear external cause, the game loses its ability

to meaningfully comment upon key tendencies in contemporary

society and politics such as rapid ecological detriment,


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


economic downturns, growing inequalities, or resurgent practices

of warfare at a global scale.90

The same argument could be used to critique the potency of The Line, in

terms of its potential to make any meaningful commentary about the lived

world. Williams himself has side- stepped the notion that the game makes

large socio- political statements, suggesting that instead it is a story about

character and, in a larger sense, a curated emotional journey of a player

who is presumed to be uncritically engaging with military shooters:

[With Spec Ops], we were really trying to shine a light on the

darkness in us as gamers and the types of games we choose to

enjoy for entertainment. WHY we go into those games. We

wanted people to be thinking about the inherent darkness of

sitting down and playing a game where you kill thousands of

people. What does it say?91

However, while many debated the developer’s socio- political intentions,

and the relative effectiveness of its genre interventions, it is more useful

to consider the politics at work in its play, and the ways in which the

game reflects back or seems to galvanize popular attitudes – or manipulate

them in some way. For example, it is seldom asked why the location

of an identified ‘heart of darkness’, recast to tell the story of the descent

of an emotionally compromised Western figure, would be modernday

Dubai. While the game certainly makes an effective critique against

blindly accepting the testosterone- fuelled, excessively violent scenarios

that populate the military shooter genre, in terms of a larger consideration

of whiteness, masculinity and trauma, it is impossible not to notice

the specific site of Walker’s unravelling. Further, one must consider the

function of the playable game spaces in relation to lived world conditions,

which mark those spaces as sites of trauma for the West. For it is certainly

not incidental that an Arab mega- city that thrives in the lived world – in

the present day – would be so summarily represented within the game

space as an apocalyptic space.

The game space of Dubai is a ruin of a global metropolis. Sandstorms

have decimated most of the city, and its remains teem with peril and dread.

Little water exists, and only a few refugees survive in the most desperate

On Video Games



conditions. Nature reclaims highly modern consumerist spaces that were

once lavish and ambitious in their construction and now decimated by

warfare. A strong sense of verticality prevails: one may enter an area that

seems like a flat wasteland and suddenly realize that the sand has covered

whole blocks worth of skyscrapers, which a player can only access through

extreme drops into their depths. Gigantic windows that had inexplicably

survived the city’s destruction may suddenly crack, sending a tidal wave

of orange sand in your team’s direction. Roofs of buildings may seem like

floors until one falls through them, up might suddenly become down.

Objects of extreme indulgence like fancy cars, jet- skis, planes and yachts

litter the landscape like discarded toys. One often enters into interior spaces

associated with leisure and consumerism, but which have been repurposed

as sites of conflict. Decorative lights may still twinkle, hearkening to a better

time, while one engages in full- blown carnage and chunks of burnt flesh

litter the space. The effect is of a phantasmagoric nightmare.

While, as a matter of creative license, we may see the destroyed Dubai

as a manifestation of Walker’s crumbling mental interiority, a politics of

identity clearly influenced the decision to set Walker against a ‘heart of

darkness’ located in the Arab world. Why this particular space? The opulent

metropolis defines a stark figure/ ground relation, through which the

white, Western heteronormative male character is defined against an opposite

or foil.92 The Line does enact the psychological and ethical ruin of a

Western soldier- ideal, whose prescribed role as a white protector against

an Arab heart of darkness is revealed as defunct. Within the game world,

it does launch an inspired and necessary genre critique of the military

shooter. But the melancholic irony of The Line issues from the gulf between

the moral address of the shooter and the ethically problematic space of the

game’s own politics of representation. This is a vision that ultimately shores

up ideological positions around a dichotomy between whiteness and otherness

rather than disrupting them. Therefore, the game’s lauded selfcriticality

should not be confused with its making any statement against

the predominating American view of the Arab world.

The expression of a white heteronormative hero who is not all- knowing,

not all- powerful and whose lack of understanding proves to be a liability

appears in both The Line and in The Last of Us. And, as I will discuss below,


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


it resurfaces in Tomb Raider in the transformation of the unflappable

action hero Lara Croft from an adventurer into a much more vulnerable

and human survivor.

Tomb Raider, Whiteness and the Female

Heroine in Peril

It is worth considering womanhood in particular in relation to the ideological

category of whiteness. The revamping of the representation of Lara

Croft provides a paradigmatic example from the same cultural moment

that can be used to problematize constructions of whiteness in relation to

race and gender. Tomb Raider (2013), developed by Crystal Dynamics and

published by Square Enix, is an origin story in which the player meets a

youthful Croft on her first expedition. Unlike the Lara Croft of previous

games, the hyper- sexualization of her body is notably toned down: while

still clad in her iconic tank top, she now wears long pants and her breasts

seem (finally) more proportional to the rest of her body. She is inexperienced,

though she already possesses the obsession with ancient cultures

and is adventurous in the pursuit of this knowledge. Croft displays much

more vulnerability and falters in her confidence. This is conveyed through

body language, dialogue and the learning curve the character faces in the

playable aspects of the game (see Figure 2.12). It is telling that one of the

most iconic characters in all of video game history underwent such a radical

reinvention in this particular cultural moment.

Scholars and critics tend to consider the Lara Croft character exclusively

from the perspective of gender. Indeed, despite her popularity with players,

her highly contested formulation has become somewhat of an icon for virtually

everything that is wrong with the representation of female characters

in games. Likewise, the conventional use of a generic white male protagonist

has also come under scrutiny, resulting in interventions in character

development that seem to embody but then break with type, such as the

aforementioned examples of The Line and The Last of Us. Anne- Marie

Schleiner contests the feminist critique of Croft, declaring her ‘a product of

the mechanization of bodies; her fetishized synthetic beauty resides in her

slick and glistening 3D polygons, evolved from clunky robotic forms into

On Video Games



attire more appropriate for the information society.’93 Presenting a broad

array of possible readings, Schleiner advocates for the subversion of gender

categories by appropriating and hacking the iconic Lara.

In describing female hypersexualization in relation to Tomb Raider and

other games, Jon Dovey and Helen Kennedy assess that, ‘the visual imagery

in many mainstream games seems to be entirely ignorant of the critiques

that have been made of these stereotypes in other visual media and appear

to import some of the worst examples in an entirely unreflexive and uncritical

way.’94 Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins outline the problematics of

Croft as a character purported to be liberated and capable, while pandering

to chauvinistic teen male interests (‘tits and ass’, as they put it).95 They ponder

the potentialities of transgender identification made possible through

the male player’s engagement with a female avatar.

Helen Kennedy, in her definitive 2002 essay, ‘Lara Croft: Feminist Icon

or Cyberbimbo?’, considers the diverging interpretations of this iconic character,

in terms of what she calls ‘gendered pleasures’ that occur as a result

of play. She surveys the broad array of feminist responses to the polarizing

figure of Lara Croft, and importantly attends to the possible transgender

Figure 2.12 Lara Croft under duress. Tomb Raider (2013) ˝2013– 16 Square Enix,

Ltd. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Inc. and published by Square Enix. Image

courtesy Square Enix, Ltd.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


readings of relations between player and character. Additionally, she

underlines the avatar’s uncanny vacillation between her objecthood as a

heteronormative sexual fantasy figure, and her complete lack of a defined

sexual identity. ‘In the end,’ she concludes, ‘it is impossible to securely

locate Lara within existing feminist frameworks, nor is it entirely possible

to just dismiss her significance entirely.’96 For her, feminist theory must

turn its attention to games, while keeping in mind the computer- mediated

particularity of their forms.

There is also an array of responses that interrupt the notion that Croft

should be read through gender representation. Most notably, Espen

Aarseth’s comments on the figure of Lara Croft contradict the dominant

feminist critiques that occurred early on. Invoking that ‘invisibility’ deconstructed

by Dyer, he suggests that playability changes the terms of engagement

and that, relative to game mechanics, the avatar is best thought of

as transparent: ‘the dimensions of Lara Croft’s body, already analyzed to

death by film theorists, are irrelevant to me as a player, because a different-

looking body would not make me play differently […] When I play, I

don’t even see her body, but see through it and past it.’97 The game studies

and electronic literature scholar attempts to wrest video games from narrative-

based interpretation, identifying them as self- contained forms – a

‘new material technology’ – as opposed to a continuation of story (with its

attendant representations) in interactive form.98 In more recent research,

Esther MacCallum- Stewart has returned to the subject, surveying the history

of responses to the iconic character, while taking into account Croft’s

reinvention by a female writer in the 2013 reboot. In this essay, the author

does mention the heroine’s race briefly, identifying her formulation by lead

graphic artist Toby Gard as the ‘Hispanic Lara Cruz’, before she became the

British aristocrat Lara Croft.99 But ultimately, MacCallum- Stewart focuses

on the lack of nuanced discussions beyond gender, and the general scholarly

neglect of fans, players and game culture producers who help shape

her possible meanings. While there is no shortage of debate around Lara

Croft, her whiteness remains greatly under- theorized.

Whiteness and femininity are both at play in Tomb Raider (2013).

Particularly during the first portion of the game, many of the missions

focus on Lara as unprepared, overwhelmed and in serious jeopardy. Dyer

On Video Games



discusses the notion of the heroine in peril in relation to visual pleasure,

which although related to exhausted tropes of female passivity in cinema,

directly relates to the reinvention of Lara Croft as a woman who is

resourceful, yet out of her depth, ambitious but inexperienced and imperilled.

100 Writing on the cinematic desperate heroine, Dyer observes:

Heroes in jeopardy do something about it; heroines don’t. And

the pleasure we are supposed to get from seeing these sequences

is that of a woman in peril. We’re supposed to get off on her

vulnerability, her hysteria, her terror. In the way such sequences

are put together, we are encouraged to take up a traditional male

role in relation to the woman, one that asserts our superiority

and at the same time encourages us to feel the desire to rape and

conquer. We are superior because we either know more than

her (we know that psychopath is there but she hasn’t spotted

him yet), or because we can see what any sensible person would

do but she, foolishly and pathetically, doesn’t.101

This is an extension of his discussion around the fundamental inactivity of

the white woman, particularly under the conditions of images of imperial

expansion, such as was discussed in relation to The Jewel in the Crown.

Dyer proceeds to make plain the ways in which the viewer of the sort of

rote imagery he describes is presumptively encoded as heterosexual male,

and that this constructed male gaze oscillates between that which is tantamount

to a rapist (who sees the unsuspecting heroine’s unprotected flesh

from a privileged and predatory vantage point) and a saviour (embodied

in the rescuer who comes to her aid).102 Characterizing this ‘tendency’ in

cinema to be organized around what is thought to exemplify heteronormative

male sexuality, Dyer sees this impetus as putting women in their place,

‘as objects of a “natural” male sexual drive that may at times be ridiculous

but is also insistent, inescapable and inevitable. Such representations help

to preserve the existing power relations of men over women by translating

them into sexual relations, rendered both as biologically given and a source

of masculine pleasure.’103 Lara Croft’s whiteness accords her a kind of

purity. Her adventurer status aligns her with the colonial vision of the white

explorer in an exotic land, while her white femininity paints her somewhat


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


as a victim, but simultaneously as the critic of – or even the cause of – the

downfall of empire. Within the third- person perspective of the game, the

player is then cast not truly as Lara, but as an omniscient invisible entity

who must protect the endangered Lara from an assortment of possible


In Tomb Raider, Lara’s deaths are illustrated in various startlingly gruesome

forms including impalement, butchering, being crushed by boulders,

gunned down, stabbed, torn apart by wolves, shot with arrows, hacked

at, strangled and burned.104 In addition to their gory detail, they notably

depart from earlier iterations of the Lara Croft franchise, which paint the

heroine as much less fragile, and have a much stronger focus on puzzlesolving.

Still, this revamped Lara received critical acclaim, and contained

many of the same elements of adventure and discovery the franchise is

known for.105

Simon Parkin of the Guardian pointed out the darker, more desperate

tenor of the reboot:

Incrementally, she [Lara] stops cringing in the bushes and steps

into her role of a heroine modelled on the aristocratic British

explorers of the early 20th Century: pioneering, fearless, cultured

and somewhat standoffish. We watch as she loses innocence

at the hands of experience.

In contrast to the previous titles then, Tomb Raider is a

game about loss as much as it is about discovery – even if that

loss is generally only expressed in the storyline, not the systems.

It’s also a game about survival, in a way the previous games were


Survivalism and loss, as well as the identified theft of innocence, thematically

figure into Tomb Raider in a way that feels very much like The Last of

Us. In this case, the female form of whiteness is cast against the backdrop

of a mysterious Pacific island called Yamatai, filled with hostile inhabitants

who are cult followers bent on female sacrifice to their Solarii Sun Queen.

Separated from her shipwrecked crew, Lara must learn to navigate the terrain

alone and, increasingly, defend herself against both the elements and

the obsessed, deranged islanders. As opposed to an unflappable heroine,

On Video Games



she is the underdog, initially the victim, and must quickly learn to handle

herself in the unrelenting environment. She is no daredevil, as she unsteadily

negotiates the perils around her. Scavenging, again, plays a strong role

in the playable elements of the game. Players must search for tools and

parts that allow Lara to find and upgrade weaponry, and otherwise provide

the means for survival. Like The Last of Us, the urgency around finding

what one needs, if even in small amounts, feels dire. In addition, the

discovery of clues, artefacts and documents that unveil additional knowledge

of her location and her attackers provide narrative complexity. Like

Walker in The Line and Joel in The Last of Us, the scenario presents another

traumatized form of whiteness, although in this case, one that interestingly

vacillates between the visual representation of a vulnerable female

figure and the urgent drive to protect that playable figure from harm.107

The plentiful desperate grunts and cries that Lara emits as she navigates the

dangerous terrain expresses this to great effect. It also resonates in small,

animated touches such as the way she grasps an injured arm while her

character awaits your next move.

In a brief playable cut- scene that received much media attention, a male

scavenger abducts Lara, physically intimidating her by suggestively rubbing

a hand against her thigh. A representative of Crystal Dynamics initially

described this scenario as an attempt to abduct and rape Lara, but the language

around this was quickly amended to indicate that there was no sexual

assault represented. However, the scene is decidedly gendered, and the socalled

‘pathological situation’ that was intended to indicate physical intimidation

and fear conveys a strong affective sense of impending sexualized

domination (see Figure 2.13).108 Thus, the dynamics of simultaneous predator/

protector that Dyer notes in relation to the embattled heroine is embodied

in the player’s interaction with Lara as a vulnerable woman to be looked at,

and also a victim to be saved. Certainly, she is not passive to the degree that

Dyer describes in relation to earlier cinematic representation. She finds her

agency and transforms into the figure that we recognize, the indomitable Lara

Croft. But she too is an embattled figure, set against the backdrop of an uncivilized

place, and cast in the role of the victimized other while mobilizing a

visual politics of whiteness that largely goes unacknowledged in analysis.


Aesthetics of Ambivalence and Whiteness in Crisis


Conclusion: A Trauma Narrative of Whiteness

The overwhelming absence of a discussion of whiteness as core to each of

the aforementioned games points to a larger, understudied area in playable

media. Namely, whiteness operates in duplicitous ways as both a

universal expression of humanity – which has ideological consequences –

and as a specific form of identity politics that goes unrecognized as

such. ‘The combination of extreme whiteness with plain, unwhite whiteness,’

Dyer explains, ‘means that white people can both lay claim to the

spirit that aspires to the heights of humanity and yet supposedly speak

and act disinterestedly as humanity’s most average and unremarkable


This undertaking is not about simply deconstructing these specific representations

and naming a bias that exists as a form of intellectual catharsis.

Rather, it seeks to understand the power at play in these pervasive images.

These three games, though inclusive of many themes and dimensions, simultaneously

reveal a set of concerns related to a social grouping of heteronormative

whiteness, particularly in relation to navigating a scenario of

Figure 2.13 Lara accosted. Tomb Raider (2013) ˝2013– 16 Square Enix, Ltd.

Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Inc. and published by Square Enix. Image courtesy

Square Enix, Ltd.

On Video Games



losing power and dominance. These are the ‘aesthetics of ambivalence’ of

which I speak, affective qualities that trade on notions of the white male

normative hero, but which in fact betray a larger form of whiteness that is

deeply in crisis, desperate and which strategically mobilizes itself as a form

of otherness. It is a whiteness that appropriates the moral high ground of

victimhood through its embattled status as a form of alterity, even while it

trades on itself as normative.

If we suspend the idea of these games as representing the normative and

consider how they are in fact the expression of a particular group, and if we

can make the whiteness of these games ‘strange’, it becomes possible to see

several things. In the first case, it reveals a trauma narrative of ideological

whiteness that repeats itself unendingly in the innumerable fear- based narratives

of contagion, besiegement, apocalypse and the crumbling of civilization

(see Figure 2.14). Second, it becomes clear that, rather than merely

a strategy for representing a universal form of humanity, these games in

fact fixate on whiteness, even while proclaiming themselves as nonparticular.

How can both of these function simultaneously? How can whiteness

possess the ordinariness of universalism, while also assuming a traumatic

narrative of alterity and disenfranchisement? This double- signification

Figure 2.14 Joel battles a hunter. The Last of Us (2013) image provided by Sony

Interactive Entertainment America LLC. ˝Sony Interactive Entertainment

America LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.

connects to the effort to preserve whiteness from denaturing it to the point

that it becomes specified (and therefore non- dominant) rather than universal.

This is mobilized, at least in part, by a representational logic ordered

around the normativity of whiteness, and a phobic response to difference.

Expressions of whiteness appear again and again in games as both normative

and under duress, unremarkable and exalted, deserving of, and denied

that which was deserved. That is to say, these games must be understood as

the visual politics of dominant culture and, therefore, at the time in which

they were made, an expression of the totalizing logics of whiteness.


  1. 日本的历史对人民思想的影响。
  2. “道义”是指类似于人情的概念。“忠”是指对上司,将军忠心。“孝顺”对父母孝顺。
  3. 日本人基本只孝顺父母,将父母灵牌放在家中。对祖先的孝比较少。
  4. 日本人认为人性本善,所以不需要规定一些美德什么的,比如中国的“仁”。
  5. 在明治维新前,日本人对道义和忠都非常看重。明治维新后,对人民进行洗脑,让他们认为忠更为重要。
  6. 武士时期,阶层和中国一样是“士农工商”,士代表武士阶层。
  7. 缴刀令,让除了武士的人上缴武器,限制了武装革命。
  8. 日本人认为精神足够强大的话,可以战胜肉体上的需求,比如饥饿。
  9. 日本人对于耻辱十分看重,所以在战败后对战胜者态度180度转变,他们认为这样可以抵消他们的耻辱感。
  10. 美国人认为人总会牺牲,但日本人鼓励忠和道义不能两全就自杀来抵消耻辱。
  11. 军国主义是因为明治维新后,军人不可以靠关系升职,必须从底层做起,所以军人很多都是底层出身,虽然爱民,但是也使军人没有氏族制衡,力量发展太极端。


(484) 932-8512



  1. amd买的位置太差,不看大盘,臆想太多。
  2. fb一直都在跌,这股票最近很弱,止损后感觉超卖了,已经补仓。


  1. 多看大盘,有回调迹象切记一定要跑。
  2. 快速跌一般都会反弹,反弹到高位时市价全抛。




  1. 真实性,这个消息是否真实?
  2. 依赖性,股价对这个消息的依赖程度如何,若是依赖程度高,那影响力也更大。
  3. 刻意性,有些消息是刻意制造出来的,消息只是给个导火索,给股票涨跌师出有名。
  4. 时效性,这个消息是长期影响?还是短期影响?

















真实性:25 ->0






交易记录 8/24




  1. 心态炸了绝对不操作
  2. 跌4个点就抛


  1. 大盘走势很简单,主要看牛熊还是震荡。
  2. 大盘消息,主要看政策,汇率等直接影响股价的消息,分辨利好利空。
  3. 个股消息,看企业消息的重要性,分辨利好利空。
  4. 个股走势,主要看牛熊还是震荡。


(713) 988-9760





  • 我在4月15日左右给LRC下了个0.69的订单,然后LRC短暂冲上6.9的时候把我的单子成交了。这笔交易是成功和幸运的,因为LRC拉升后马上回落到了6.3左右。我这个时候没有选择补仓,而是选择了空仓。


  1. 短视,当时以为这波行情不会维持太久,很快会再跌下去。
  2. 惰性,没有详细分析市场,懒于计算下订单和做决定。
  3. 贪婪,总想着一次多赚点,希望价格继续往下跌。



  • 同时下的单还有在126左右卖出LTC,这个交易也不太理想,主要和上面LRC的差不多,相比起LRC的是更加短视。
  • 在之后的是一个成功的单,在EOS拉升到11.5的时候卖出一半EOS,并且在10.6的时候接回来,成功点主要有3:
  1. 高卖,涨的时候卖,而不是在跌的时候止损。
  2. 准确预测会跌,价格拉升后及时卖出。
  3. 有耐心,卖出后价格还是继续拉升了,忍住了没有在高位补仓。


  • 之后在BTC冲击9000失败,回调的时候卖出了一半BTC,全部的BCH还有半仓EOS。这笔交易又是失败的,原因有2:
  1. 低卖,在跌的时候卖。
  2. 状态差时交易,在晚上睡觉前交易,心理状态容易受波动,加上疲劳,所以做出了错误的交易。


  • 今天的EOS反复交易也十分失败,本来以为抄了一波底,没想到后面又来了两波大底,这次的交易失败有3点:
  1. 交易频繁,来回交易送手续费,内心迷茫+混乱。
  2. 恐慌,跌的时候卖。
  3. 没耐心,焦虑,等回调等不来就买了,一跌又卖。





(347) 601-4064

  1. CS有两种人,一种是纯粹的数学家,一种是只想写出有意思软件的黑客。
  2. 你觉得你有“良好的设计感”和你实际是否具有,不存在相关关系,甚至可能存在负相关。
  3. 创作者不同于科学家。
  4. 有一天,你终于觉醒了,认识到错的不是黄色,而是这个社会。
  5. 能一起谈论“异端邪说”的人并且不会气急败坏的,是志同道合的人。


  1. 华尔街(Wall Street)的名字由来:最初纽约是周围唯一有城墙的城市,是拿大木桩子围起来做的简易城墙。后来城墙拆掉,旁边的那个空地先是作为军事集合的空地,后来因为交通堵塞,就做成了十字路口,这条路因为就在城墙旁边,于是取名华尔街(Wall Steet 墙街)
  2. 纽约最初叫“新阿姆斯特丹”,由荷兰统治。后来荷兰被英国打败了,就割让给了英国统治。当时正好是英王查理二世的弟弟,约克公爵(Duke of York) 的生日,于是将新阿姆斯特丹改名为新约克郡(New York),作为送给约克公爵的礼物。
  3. 当时的荷兰人爱钱,他们把银行,保险等很多业务都聚在一起,以便于经济发展,华尔街因此也有了荷兰人喜欢赚钱的精神。
    1. 郁金香泡沫,也就是第一个记载下来的金融危机就是荷兰人搞出来的
    2. 很多股票交易方法, 如卖空,对敲。都是荷兰人发明的。
  4. 纽约在独立战争前货物出口量并不是第一,但是战后4年人口就恢复到战前水平。
  5. 独立战争时(1775爆发)的问题:
    1. 大陆会议签发借据强行征用物资,引发严重的通货膨胀。
    2. 发行“不兑现纸币”,也称大陆法币,并没有价值。
    3. 并没有正式的证券交易活动,没有监管。
  6. 亚历山大·汉密尔顿(Alexander Hamilton),美国开国元勋,财政部部长。1772年来到纽约,独立战争后他试图做三件事情:
    1. 他寻求一个完善的联邦税收体系,保证国家有一个稳定财政来源(此前联邦没有征税权)。
    2. 他想用美国政府信用做担保,以优厚的条件发行新的债券,去偿还旧的国债,以及战争期间几个州的债务。
    3. 按照英格兰银行的模式建立中央银行,来代替政府管理金融并监管国家的货币供应。
  7. 为了在议会上通过偿债法案,汉密尔顿做出让步,使纽约失去了成为首都的机会。
  8. 作者认为美国政治史基本上可以看作是汉密尔顿主义者和杰斐逊主义者之间的一场旷日持久的战争。
  9. 早期美国银行和交易所成立时间表:
    1. 北美银行(Bank of the North America)                                    1782  费城
    2. 纽约银行(Bank of the New York)                                           1784   纽约
    3. 费城证券交易所(Philadelphia Stock Exchange)                  1790   费城
    4. 汉密尔顿的中央银行-美国银行(Bank of the United States)   1791   费城


  1. 美国联邦政府成立(1789)
  2. 没什么特别的




  1. 连续拍卖开始变得火热。

第五章 南北战争

第六章 伊利铁路股票投机战

  1. 德鲁和“船长”范德比尔特的伊利铁路股票投机战暴露了许多问题:
    1. 股东可以随意增发股票,破坏市场平衡
    2. 股票流量,总量不透明
    3. 官员贿赂严重,一是因为收入太低,二是因为贿赂得到的利润很高。
  2. 在伊利铁路股票投机战后,金融周刊建议了以下几条法律:
    1. 除非经过2/3股东同意,否则董事会无权发型新股;
    2. 现有股东对发行的新股具有优先认购权,新股必须公开发行,并且必须给予足够长的预告期;
    3. 所有上市公司都必须在信誉良好的金融机构保存其所有流通股票的总量记录,并随时接受任何股东或者以该股票为质押向该公司提供贷款的主体检查;
    4. 上述要求同样适用于发放股息或者为其他目的发行的所有股票;
    5. 违反上述的任一条款都属于犯罪行为,将要受到惩罚或被处以罚款。
  3. 这些条款成了美国《证券法》的基础。
  4. 当时并没有实行这些法律,因为政府还没有责任监管金融市场。
  5. 因为腐败严重,所以立法机构也没有主动改革这个可以带来许多灰色收入的体质。
  6. 纽约证券交易所和公开交易所合作颁布这些条款,因为这些条款不影响他们赚取佣金。
  7. 他们还加上了:
    1. 任何新股发型都必须提前30天同志交易所。
  8. 大部分公司都执行这些条款,但是伊利公司拒绝执行,所以被赶了出来。后来伊利公司答应遵守条款才又重新挂牌交易。
  9. 1869年,公开交易所和纽约交易所合并。
  10. 1871年,取消股票拍卖,交易所的席位变成象征性的了。

第七章 黄金操纵案-73年股市崩溃 1869-1873

  1. 黄金操纵案
  2. 73年股市崩溃,因为借贷,银行倒闭。

第八章 1873-1884