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Ruin, Gender, and Digital Games
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Hail, solitary ruins! holy sepulchres, and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments—sublime contemplations. What useful lessons! What affecting and profound reflections you suggest to him who knows how to consult you. When the whole earth, in chains and silence, bowed the neck before its tyrants, you had already proclaimed the truths which they abhor, and confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, had announced to man the sacred dogma of Equality!

—C. F. Volney, The Ruins, 1791

Ruin, broadly defined as the decaying remnants of abandoned or destroyed physical structures, is a common aesthetic across many modes of artistic expression, including paintings, photography, literature, and cinema. It is perhaps not a surprise, then, to see similar ruin imagery appear as a common motif in the emerging medium of digital games. Indeed, ruin aesthetics serve as the primary setting in many popular games. The proliferation of such imagery across such a wide range of media reflects an apparent human fascination with ruin—a fascination that has been revealed by the few attempts to dissect it as quite complex and varied across individuals, cultures, and time periods. One of the many themes that emerges from such an analysis is the idea that the destruction of physical structures is paralleled by, and symbolic of, the destruction of social structures, thus associating ruin with liberation and freedom. Edensor alludes to this when he describes ruins as "spaces in which the interpretations of practices of the city become liberated from the everyday constraints which determine what should be done and where" (2005, 4). In this interpretation of ruin, it follows that if such physical structures were built by and stood as monuments of a masculine-dominated society, then the ruins of these buildings symbolize the destruction of that society. These ruins then become a space that offers freedom from the same gender-oppressive institutions that once permeated them, and thus sites of empowerment.

These associations of ruin with freedom from social constraint play out in artistic re-creations of ruin as well. During the French Revolution, the Jacobin association of physical destruction with social destruction played out in much of the art of its time, which was "full of a joyful destruction of monuments" (Goldstein 1977, 144). Modern postapocalyptic films often tie together ruin imagery and freedom from social constraints. For example, the film I Am Legend (Goldsman et al. 2007) juxtaposes images of a ruined city with images of the solitary survivor freely looting stores, hitting golf balls off the wing of an F-15 and driving at breakneck speeds through the city streets with an assault rifle. These connections frame ruin as an icon of resistance and subversion; in turn, what is being resisted depends on what the ruined structures are taken to represent or to have once represented. Since digital games frequently use this aesthetic, it is not unreasonable to suspect that this thematic association may echo into these virtual worlds of ruination.

The interactive nature of digital games makes them a more complex medium to analyze than traditional media. Instead of simply consuming the medium, players are given a participatory role in the creating it. Kirkland (2009) suggests looking at video games as texts, while emphasizing the unique nature of the texts as games. Calleja suggests in his Digital Game Experience Model that digital games should be looked at more as "aesthetically designed experience" (2007, 4). Most agree that it is important to take into account the partially user-generated nature in any kind of meaningful analysis, and any analysis of ruin and gender in digital games must acknowledge this. At the very least, the messages about gender communicated through and in connection with ruin imagery must be looked at in terms of both the visual setting of the virtual environment and the potentially gendered nature of the gameplay—in the actions afforded, encouraged, discouraged, and denied to the player.

Ruin as Subversion

In trying to specify what is meant by the term "ruin," some make the distinction between...