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Awakening in ruins: The virtual spectacle of the end of the city in video games

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With reference to Walter Benjamin’s work on nineteenth-century Paris, and Debord’s work on the spectacle, this article argues that the depiction of ruined cities in video games – as virtual ruins of the present – simultaneously reproduces the empty novelty of the commodity (the phantasmagoria of progress-oriented civilization), and offers a vision of failed progress through counter-spectacle. One means of understanding Benjamin’s dreamworld of modernity is through ruins and rubble – not only as material remnants, but in other visual or artistic forms that might reveal the illusion of progress as a fallacy, particularly in contrast to an urban-focused commodity capitalism. With an emphasis on Fallout 3, Hellgate: London and The Last of Us, and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series this article argues that, if cities can be read as dreamworlds, and films, art and ruination as the means for awakening, then urban destruction in the virtual sphere can provide a counter to the collective dream of eternal progress.

Keywords: Phantasmagoria; Walter Benjamin; dreamworld; play; urban ruins; video games

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Manchester

Publication date: June 1, 2016

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  • The Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds focuses on theoretical and applied, empirical, critical, rhetorical, creative, economic and professional approaches to the study of electronic games across platforms and genres as well as ludic and serious online environments.
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