This summer I gave my first presentation at a Keele University conference (Teenage Kicks: The Representation of Youth Subcultures in Fiction, Film and Other Media). It was a great opportunity; the speakers covered a wide range of media from different time periods and some of them even had cool hair, plus I got to be the “games guy” for the weekend. One of the things that interests me about videogame culture is the way that subcultures we’d normally associate with fashion and music get incorporated into character designs and game promotion. So I spoke primarily about goth and punk imagery in games themselves and in the promotion surrounding them (like the Meet The Gamers ad campaign by GAME). Admittedly I probably tried to cover too much. So here’s some of that ramble as it relates to goths and gaming.

Subcultural iconography has existed in games for as long as developers could render pixellated humans. Gangbangers, punks and bikers all appeared alongside each other as enemies in the beat ’em ups of the late 80s and mid 90s, and more recently there’s a resurgence of the Mad Max style salvagepunk aesthetic in post-apocalyptic and dystopian games like Brink, Borderlands, Rage and Bulletstorm. It’s also worth noting the existence of goth and punk archetypes in geek culture more generally. For example, in tabletop RPG Shadowrun, “black trenchcoat” and “pink Mohawk” refer to play-styles which are respectively stealth and combat focussed. Punk and goth archetypes sit at either ends of a scale, where anti-authority ideas are expressed through different ratios of espionage and explosions. Researchers Guay and Arsenault have noted that videogames and Heavy Metal have a long and interwoven relationship, both in terms of causing moral panics and in influencing each other stylistically (2012) and there’s a pretty sweet video where Louis-Martin Guay shreds along to various videogame soundtracks at a conference on rock music. These cross-media relationships are interesting, especially since representations of Black American subcultures in games are often criticized as inauthentic portrayals made by a predominantly white industry (see Leonard, 2003) while games like Brütal Legend are seen as sincere expressions of love for heavy metal.

Subcultures and Stereotyping

The “trenchcoat mafia” responsible for the shootings at Columbine were described by the BBC as sharing interests in “guns, Nazis, the military, the Internet, rock singer Marilyn Manson and goth-rock culture.” Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the more recent Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, was described by the British Daily Mail as a “Goth loner” who was “obsessed with video games”. Fans of either videogames or alternative forms of music are generally quick (and perhaps right) to dismiss this sort of coverage as scaremongering attempts by an adult establishment to stereotype youth culture and blame it for societal problems with much deeper and older roots. Although casual titles are making gaming more of a mainstream activity, hardcore games are still what people tend to think of when games are mentioned. Violent games and violent music are both presumed to be harmful by large sections of the adult population, especially in America, where parental concerns have led to the lobby funding of research to find out the “effects” of gaming. All of this aside, it would be wrong to completely dismiss the idea that certain types of media might have a special appeal to the more alienated and solitary amongst us. Mikolaj Dymek has argued that these negative stereotypes actually reinforce hardcore gamers’ own self-image as  rebellious outsiders (2012, p39). Gamers complain about the goth loner stereotype but there are plenty of titles which revel in it too.

‘STFU and talk about some games already…’

corvoOK, calm down. There’s definitely a current of gothic aesthetics in games with dystopian narratives, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that these games are often single player. The near-future cyberpunk of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or the Orwellian steampunk of Dishonored both exemplify a use of gothic aesthetics and (anti)heroes which resonate with the Goth subculture’s emphasis on the alienated individual in a hostile, oppressive society. DE:HR’s Adam Jensen and Dishonored‘s Corvo Attano are both brooding, leather-clad protagonists who begin their stories working within powerful institutions (Corvo is a royal bodyguard while Jensen works security for a company dealing in “human augmentation”/bionics). In both cases, the player is led to uncover the truth about the social worlds their avatars inhabit – typical dystopian narratives that recount 1984 and Brave New World.

Corvo, and to a greater extent Jensen, are examples of the hacker-goth archetype we see in cyberpunk media like The Matrix and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This archetype has its origins in William Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, and in cinema it’s often a way of making hacking appear sexier and more overtly edgy in a medium dominated by the visual. Camille Bacon-Smith’s (1999) ethnographic research involving Goths at American sci-fi conventions found an affinity for cyberpunk which stems from the Goth subculture’s romanticisation of solitary pursuits like computing (pp3-4). The stereotype of the isolated loner is one which is celebrated from within, but rejected as a misinterpretation when applied by outsiders.

jackme2luylquJack from Mass Effect fits the Lisbeth Salander mould pretty well. Both are appealingly powerful female characters, although they seem to reinforce the idea that violence doesn’t come naturally to women. In both cases, enjoying violence is explained as the product of childhood abuse, a justification which writers rarely feel the need to make for violent male characters. There are interesting debates surrounding the “sexing up” of Jack for ME3, bringing her more in line with conventional ideals of female attractiveness by replacing her skinhead look with something less extreme (i.e. Lara Croft in bondage gear with an undercut). This is reminiscent of debates around the SuicideGirls brand of “alternative” beauty, and how far women are permitted to go before subcultural edge is interpreted as unfeminine ugliness.

The Darkness and Condemned 2: Bloodshot provide examples of the gothic antihero archetype in contemporary settings shot through with supernatural horror. The Darkness sees Mafioso Jackie Estacado resurrected by a demonic entity to exact revenge on gangsters and corrupt police – a narrative not dissimilar to The Crow (both are adapted from comics). In the two Condemned games (which could easily be accused of “making it up as they go along”) the hero Ethan Thomas follows a typical Lovecraftian narrative arc as the intrepid investigator driven mad by dark forces. Estacado and Thomas both exemplify goth-like antiheroes in worlds where the police are corrupt and therefore valid targets for players to attack – a far cry from AAA military shooters in that respect.

Programming the Disposable Bad-ass


There’s a whole lot more I could say on this topic. I haven’t even touched on cartoonier titles like American McGee’s Alice or the HP Lovecraft and Tim Burton inspired Don’t Starve.  I’ll leave you with the observation that good guy/bad guy distinctions are often hard to make in kill-em-all genres of games. Much like slasher movies, we have a trend where the bad guy is often the coolest, most iconic character who gets featured on the promotional work (see Bioshock’s Big Daddies or the wastelanders in Borderlands) especially when the first-person protagonist is a cipher; a voiceless vehicle for the player to occupy. Linguist Astrid Ensslin (2012, p140) argues that because so many gamers expect combat, games have to be designed around them adopting an ‘eye-for-and-eye moral trajectory’ which might actually be the opposite of their real-life attitudes to violence, and this is achieved by making the player character look and sound anti-heroic and non-conformist (read; bad-ass). It’s a small example of what critics of race in games and other digital media have called “identity tourism” (Nakamura, 2002; Leonard, 2003) the idea that games allow the privileged to temporarily take on the identities of minority ethnic groups without having to genuinely experience any of the stigmatization they actually experience.

The process of making the player feel bad-ass is driven by the combat focus of so many games, something many of us have come to expect without even questioning it.

If the most common game-play verbs are punch, shoot, steal  then games will continue to reiterate popular ideas of who does all the punching, shooting and stealing in society. These may involve a whole lot of misconceptions (hey, you try making a successful AAA game about white-collar crime) but it goes without saying that we can’t isolate them from the broader context of media/culture and treat them as something stemming entirely from one medium. As long as gamers expect to be shooting and fighting, game devs will continue crafting disposable bad-asses, whether they be Los Angeles gangbangers or trenchcoat mafia types.

I’ll leave the dodgy GAME ad to speak for itself.



Bacon-Smith, C. (1999) ‘The Goth Explosion in Science Fiction Culture; in New Directions in Folklore. Vol. 3.

Dymek, M. (2012) ‘Video Games: a Subcultural Industry’ in Zackariasson, P. and Wilson, T. L. (eds) The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future. London: Routledge. pp34-56

Ensslin, A. (2011) The Language of Gaming. Palgrave Macmillan.

Guay, L. and Arsenault, D. (2012) ‘Thumb-Bangers: Exploring the Cultural Bond Between Video Games and Heavy Metal’ unpublished conference paper.

Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, Vol 3. No. 4.. pp1-9

Nakamura, L. (2002) Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis.