Since 9/11 the intuition of imminent threat has been prevalent in American popular culture. While this has been widely acknowledged in studies of literature and film, the relatively new medium of video games has not been subject to sustained scholarly investigation. I will argue that games provide particular forms of engagement with and perspectives on this sense of threat. They are significant cultural responses to a renewed American exceptionalism that is evident in the American worldview defined in terms of the militarization and securitization of American culture since 9/11. As we shall see, the act of inhabiting the digital hero in many game narratives reproduces this worldview and its exceptionalism in ways that suggest particular tensions in its ideological composition and interpellation.
While sketching the broad gaming landscape of responses to this sense of threat, I will focus on one video game in particular, The Last of Us which presents an ambivalent and often critical approaches to both the interventionism and the insecurity that has come to define the American worldview since the inception of the Global War on Terror. This game partially subverts this dominant discourse through foregrounding questions of agency, particularly the ability to engage in violence and the forms this takes, and the consequences for those who exercise that power.
Following 9/11, various forms of American cultural expression have come to reflect the trauma of this watershed moment within the recent history the United States, and its subsequent upheavals, through the lens of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism, which has been molded through the history of the United States, is no longer a unitary narrative for the entirety of American society, however it continues to inform politics, external stereotypes, and in many cases individual self-perception, among other aspects of American culture. The adaptability of this lens has been the subject of much scholarship in recent years and it remains a core element of the American worldview. This “new American exceptionalist” worldview has been used to justify the expansion of powers of the federal government and a new doctrine of global interventionism. This new praxis, best defined by Donald Pease, remains informed by the larger canon of exceptionalism. The “new” American exceptionalism, as Pease states, is grounded in the historical context of the Cold War and borrows from its rhetoric. This rhetoric has been employed to put forth a vision of an existential threat to America on a par with the perceived risk of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, and the need to defend against such a threat by any means. This has since formed the basis of an argument that justifies and renders rational the most militaristic aspects of this updated worldview and reflects the belief that the United States has the right to preemptively act against a perceived threat anywhere in the world, regardless of national boundaries, and has a duty to do so, regardless of any external measures of legitimacy.
In the digital world of gaming, this idea of an existential threat to an exceptional nation has been widely represented across genres and is a key element within the ludological and narratogical discourse of video games. As Muntean observes, “In a culture suffused with a heightened sense of imminent dread and incalculable dread, meaningful fictional monsters must not only respond to the form of the prevailing cultural anxiety, they must also equal or transcend the depths of its possible horrors.” It makes sense that these monsters Muntean describes can be found within many of these gameworlds and it is not surprising that they often take a zombie form. In the game worlds, while the perceived existential threat takes many forms, it shapes and exacerbates the violent engagement of the player and this is mirrored by the interaction setup through which a player is forced to inhabit a particular protagonist.
Within these games overtly dystopian elements of this trope are foregrounded. In many cultural forms dystopia serves as an instrument of critical scrutiny of the present; it holds up a mirror to the present, by requiring an examination of its values taken to a seemingly logical conclusion. Ian Bogost’s idea of “procedural rhetoric” is useful in analyzing this aspect of these games. Bogost defines this term as the “practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively.” Essentially, digital games are programmed in specific ways that “force the player to make decisions with social and political implications.” This raises inevitable questions of conformity and resistance, but also serves to give the player a rhetorical framework through which to view a gameworld that is just that little bit off, leaving a space for critical distance, in this case, via a dystopian lens. As we shall see, the relationship between violence and agency is differently presented in The Last of Us, based both on their narrative and ludological elements. When this idea is complicated by the threat to survival that is paramount within a post-apocalyptic dystopia, the interactive procedural rhetoric of The Last of Us forces a player to interact with these ideological constructions, forming a discourse that engages with the cultural reality of the operative force of an exceptionalist worldview.
As one of the most popular and critically acclaimed games of 2013, The Last of Us , sold over 3.4 million copies in the first month of its release. Defined by a fast paced, personalized, violent system of gameplay that does not sanitize horror, it engages with resonant motifs of violence and survival to examine the challenges of living within a post-apocalyptic America. Through the game's narrative of the journey its two protagonists undertake, and the situations they encounter, this theme is explored. While this is in certain respects quite a conventional narrative structure it is made distinctive in part by the less conventional foregrounding of gendered agency. Within the gameworld of The Last of Us, there is only one form of agency that matters, the ability to engage in violence, and this mirrored by the interaction setup which determines the protagonist a player must inhabit. This shift from a familiar ideal of law and order, to the quest for a survival in a virtual world gone wrong mirrors the rhetorical underpinnings of the War on Terror, and has led to the uptake of a kill or be killed mentality expressed through the changing attitudes towards justice in the United States coded within matters of choice and agency, especially as these pertain to violence.
Set within a ruined America following the effects of a viral outbreak that turns its victims into something akin to zombies, the game focuses on two characters and their relationship as they travel across the country to develop a cure. The first of these protagonists, Joel, connotes the damaged father figure archetype made famous in classic Western films like The Searchers. Having lost his own daughter in the chaos following the outbreak, he has lost himself in the struggle to survive since. Ellie, whom he is hired to take across the country to a hospital where her blood can synthetize a cure, grew up in the sheltered conditions of an orphanage in occupied Boston, and begins the game as a very much a child in a world of wonder. This is mirrored by the ludology of the first half of this game, in which a player interacts with the gameworld through inhabiting Joel’s character, while seeking to progress through the narrative while protecting Ellie. However, as the game progresses and their journey effects them, her persona changes as she comes of age in a world where the only moral goal is survival. Ellie is forced to claim her own agency as a result, and through that act, she makes a unique ludological transition becoming the primary playable character.
Bonnie Mann, writing on gender and American exceptionalism, argues that the dominant forms of gendering within American culture are processes of establishing and assigning worth or merit. “Put too simply, they are personal/social/material processes which produce the stigmatization and abjection of women or those made to occupy the social position of women, as well as a social recognition and exaltation of men or those who occupy the social positions of men.” Joel fails in his traditional gender role in his inability to protect his daughter during the opening chaos of the outbreak. This serves to set Joel up as a character in need of redemption, but not for the sins he has committed while trying to survive, as they are acceptable under the exceptional state, but for his failure as a patriarch. It also serves an important role in justifying the game’s ludology. While a post-apocalyptic setting is enough to justify the level of violence apparent within it, the ability of Joel, and therefore the player, to kill with such ease, can only be explained to the player via his personal history. The core of this games ludology, the violence, would not resonate with a player without the understanding that this is something Joel has been doing to survive for some time.
This also serves as a critique of the role of sovereign masculinity within the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror. As Mann notes: “The regime keys into the aspirational life of the masculine subject through stories of humiliated manhood redeemed by hyperbolic displays of agency, and through spectacles of such agency. The nation then “borrows back” a sense of the reality for its “manhood” from the people. National manhood is produced as the justification that keeps the population on board, at least on board enough, to allow the action to proceed.” Joel is trapped within his own guilt for the failure to save his daughter, much like the American psyche is haunted by the failure to protect the sacred, now violated, homeland. This is expressed via the game’s ludology through the redemptive act of killing the enemy to protect Ellie, or when the dynamic is reversed late in the game, through their mutual violence towards the same end. As a linear narrative experience, The Last of Us’ character development follows a path that sees Joel slowly regain his humanity via the paternal vehicle of his bond with Ellie, and illuminates Ellie’s gradual change from child wandering the ruins to hardened survivor prepared to take on what the world may send her way. For Joel, this allows him to reassume his earlier role as a father, but for Ellie it offers a critique of the gender hierarchy of the new American exceptionalism. From a ludological perspective, this is expressed through afore mentioned changes in character the player inhabits, moving from Joel, to Ellie, and back to Joel as it progresses. This moment of change within Ellie, where she embraces her own agency, is triggered by Joel’s incapacitation due to a fall during a skirmish in a hospital. Ellie is thereby forced out into the world, to search for supplies, hunt deer, and find medicine to treat his infection. It also marks the moment where the player changes from primarily inhabiting Joel, to becoming Ellie.
While this does not shift the overarching gaze of the user towards the world around them, it forces them to interact with that world from a different perspective. Ellie cannot simply overpower enemies and throw them about, but through the use of skill and stealth, she is just as deadly. Forcing a player to change tactics as a result of this, from using large caliber rifles to small caliber handguns, or from a machete or baseball bat to a switchblade, deepens the subversion nature of this section of gameplay with regard to one of the gendered cornerstones of this hyper masculine worldview.
Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the suicide bombings in New York and Washington, D.C. were most often described as acts of “cowardice.” This term constructs a particular lens through which the War on Terror can be viewed, particularly the violence associated with an enemy. Using cowardice as a metaphor for the attacks of 9/11 constructs a gendered discourse of masculinity as a vehicle to help understand 9/11 and as a justification for retaliation. While this is not to say that terrorism is directly related to the idea of femininity, by removing the gender asymmetry that has so far defined the narrative and gameplay for a user offers to complicate the perspective of what constitutes a normative feminine role in a world defined by a perpetual existential threat.
A pivotal scene in the narrative of the game illustrates how the anxiety of survival, and the kill or be killed mentality it has spawned, relate to the idea of gender. As the scene opens, Ellie finds herself held hostage by a group of people who have completely surrendered to the stress of the world around them. Cut off from the protective figure of Joel, Ellie must find her way out of danger, and in the process kill her captor in a scene that is deeply violent, but also personal in nature. The scene requires a player to interact with one of the most violent, most seemingly justified acts, slowly stabbing the captor to death over the space of a few minutes of gameplay. The violence in this scene, while shocking, does not follow the same formulaic construction of gun play that defines the rest of the game for a reason. The ludology of survival, and the acts taken to ensure it with this game, are designed to be guiltless through the characters journey westward. Whether ambushed by bandits or facing a horde of zombies, the question of whether the actions involved are moral or just is irrelevant. The brutal personalization of this scene, and the clear need to kill the man attacking the player, who is inhabiting the body of a 15 year old girl, is a disturbing experience. The shaking of the controller in the hand of a player as the knife enters the body of this enemy or as he grasps at her legs as she tries to escape and the environment burns around them only serves to deepen its impact.
Joel, who has proved himself to be both a brutal survivor and kind hearted savior to Ellie, is absolutely free from any concerns of justice. He is shockingly at peace with himself and able to justify his actions, as fulfilling the traditional male role of protector shields him from such complications. This model of masculinity is collectively represented by the settlement in which Ellie is held captive. The men of the settlement go out hunting, define the community, and hold the women as subservient. They are willing to do anything to survive embracing everything from torture to cannibalism to ensure the security of their community against the existential threat of the infected. When everything is permitted in the state’s defense, any violation of a moral code normally applied to the body of an enemy can be ignored. However, the way in which this is presented to a player is not through a monologue from this villain, or from any of his men. It is spread through a number of different scenes within the game as a player sneaks through their town as Ellie, or rides to the rescue as Joel. This allows the gameplay to work through its narrative, while at the same time not getting bogged down. In that way, Ellie’s captor is shown to be a paragon of the new American exceptionalism; guiltless, hyper-masculine, and prepared to do anything in the service of the preservation of the community.
By requiring a player to slowly kill this person in the most visceral terms in order to escape while playing as Ellie, cut off from the protective embrace of Joel, The Last of Us offers a direct critique of the established paternalistic hierarchy of the state implicit in heightened through the aforementioned disturbing nature of it, as opposed to more enjoyable gunplay this defines the game as a whole. Through this ludological action, Ellie claims her agency through the destruction of the person most responsible for robbing it from her in the literal sense, but also in the philosophical. Imposing her will to reject the worldview and torment of her captor complicates what would more often define this moment where the paternal savior would ride to the rescue. Instead, by claiming this moment of triumph for herself, and ability to employ the violence required to do so, Ellie moves from the traditional role of a bystander to the center of focus. In doing so, this game offers a direct critique of not only the new American exceptionalism’s core concept of the will and right to act, but also its simplistic view of the didactic roles of citizen versus soldier that it employs to control the perspective of the body politic through a rhetoric steeped in the mythology of a violated national honor.
The Last of Us takes the trope of dehumanization of the enemy to its logical progression through the inclusion of a truly inhuman enemy. In so doing it digitizes American exceptionalist principles via the protagonists’ journey through a ruined nation, and in doing so, examines contradictions between the commitment central to the exceptionalist mythos and the consequences of interventionism. The figure of the zombie plays a key role in this regard.
As Neil McRobert observes, the social and political function of zombie cinema in the years following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and during the ensuing 'War on Terror' are grounded directly in questions of (de)humanization. “Recent zombie films have established a link between the zombie and the figure of the terrorist or political insurgent, but the concomitant humanization of the zombie figure has complicated this simple association. The post-millennial cinematic zombie subverts its conventional role as representative of the cultural other.” The Last of Us focuses not on the zombie’s sophistication but their lack of agency as a foil to examine the actions of those still living; in particular, its consequences for the subject positioning of the audience. The question is fairly direct in that regard: whether it is the zombie, or the human response to it, which provides the most significant threat. The zombies in The Last of Us lack political motivation, emotional complication, or anything else that would render them recognizable as people and within the gaze of the player serve no purpose other than to be killed as a step along the way to completion of the game. It is this very lack of humanity that serves to complicate the role these monsters play within the game world, and its subversive commentary on the new American exceptionalism.
These zombies, in their lack of complication, mirror the rhetorical terrorist boogeyman of the Global War on Terror. As George W. Bush articulated: “Every nation has a choice to make. In this conflict there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves.” Bush goes on to condemn the terrorists for their “evil plans” and proceeds to classify these terrorists as “barbaric criminals” who commit “murder,” effectively dehumanizing them. These are enemies who do not deserve pity, and certainly do not have rights, due to their nihilism. As a result the state of exception and the right to act against them are activated, and intervention is then justified. Zombies in The Last of Us bear little more narrative analysis, but play an important ludological role.
When telling a story in the form of a video game it’s not simply enough to set up an apocalyptic setting, give its history, and then proceed to insert a player into it. To make it believable, and more importantly, interesting, the horror of the setting must in some way be interactive. Originally conceived by its creators as taking place in a ruined world free of zombies, The Last of Us still functioned as a game in that it presented a series of procedural choices that led to a unitary outcome. However, it was boring. The addition of the zombies to the game, allows for direct interaction with the justification of the destruction of moral and cultural norms that would normally prevent much of the violence present in the game world. This ludological action is exciting, visceral, and often close up to violence –the camera zooms in on an enemy as they are literally in a players face, grappling with them. Beyond allowing for an almost Hitchcockian fear of what will happen in each given moment as a player travels through the game world, it serves to subvert the narrative of dispassionate violence that defines the language of the Global War on Terror.In not looking away from these deeply traumatic moments, The Last of Us personalizes the violence, gore, and horror of combat in a manner not possible through other mediums of expression to subvert the narrative elements of the new American exceptionalism through interactive visual imagery. It’s one thing to watch a drone strike on television, or the death of captive in a video published by a terrorist group; it’s quite another for a player to viciously pull the trigger on the controller of a game as it vibrates in their hands with every impact of the blade on a victim.
The personalization of this violence via the interactive ludology of the game’s design offers an effective way to undermine the common cultural acceptance of dispassionate organized violence condoned by the doctrine of the Global War on Terror. This violence, which is rarely displayed in the American cultural context as anything other than necessary, honorable, and dutiful, is informed by the dehumanization of the enemy. The infected within the game world of The Last of Us are the personification of the idealized enemy of this rhetoric, but more importantly, their destruction is designed to be the most entertaining part of it. Historical enemies such as Nazis or Communists are comprehensible in terms of their economic interests, religious, political or philosophic beliefs. The infected do not hold any beliefs, and it’s not only right to kill them, but it is fun, and as they are inhuman, a player need not feel any guilt. The function they serve runs far deeper than that of a boogeyman within the game’s critique, they serve as a mirror by which to judge the actions of those who are still healthy.
The truly dangerous enemies within the game world of The Last of Us are not the zombies who have overrun the world, but the survivors who remain within it. When caught in the gaze of the inhabitants of the city of Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie are little more than one more threat to be removed, either to secure their resources, or as a preemptive act of self-defense. These people may still be alive, but for all intents and purposes they are the true threat to the player during gameplay. Within the games ludology, the zombies, while terrifying, are blind. This makes physical contact with them, the only way in which they can truly injure a player’s character, far less likely. Therefore, they are by design easy to avoid, kill, or at least run from. They fail to work co-operatively, simply forming a mindless mob. They are also defined by relatively simple unit operations, with a simple gunshot or stab wound being enough to bring one down.
By comparison, the human survivors bearing guns, explosives, knives, and other weapons as they work together in groups in an attempt to capture Ellie and kill Joel offer a far more dangerous challenge for the player. These groups, who have resorted to every perversion imaginable to survive the threat that surrounds them, have been left with little choice but to embrace the darkest parts of their nature. Ludologically, this is presented through the dialogue of these enemies as overheard by the player when sneaking past them, or via the interactions between Ellie and Joel as they walk through rooms where they have stored the shoes of the other victims of their ambushes. The banal horror of these moments helps this game to suggest a question; is it the zombies or the response to them that’s the greater threat to the way of life these people once had?
If zombies serve as the personification of the ever present enemy of America, then these survivors represent a militaristic response to them taken to its logical conclusion. They do not serve as a commentary on American military forces themselves, but the socio-political impact of dominant cultural discourse that shifted to embrace a worldview that is dominated by the presence of an existential threat. One of the most controversial aspects of the operative effects of the new American exceptionalism has been the acceptance of forms of violence previously prohibited, including torture. In the game world of The Last of Us, where every potential interaction with another person or the world around you risks survival, it’s easy to justify the use of any tactic imaginable. As Ruth Blakeley states: “images of (potential) terrorists as ticking time bombs posing an imminent threat to freedom lend themselves to the appeals for legitimacy of those fighting the ‘War on Terror.” She elaborates by pointing out that assigning identity creates the idea that torture is justified and legitimate in its use, because the consequences of not using it could result in a horrific attack by the ‘evil’ enemy. Within this game, the majority of survivors encountered have embraced this. The Last of Us not only asks a simple question through its gameplay, how far one should go in the name of security, and what price a society pays as a result, but also presents a dark, dystopian vision of America’s answer to it.
Through its thematic and ludological elements, The Last of Us offers an effective critiques of the militarism that sits at the center of the new American exceptionalism through the presentation of distinctive choices and agencies within dystopian game worlds. However, no two games’ critiques function in the same way. While others such as Fallout 3 offer a less personal commentary focusing instead on the contradictions between America’s perceived values and the military actions undertaken since 9/11 that sometimes stand in opposition to them; or embrace the total absence of the critical eye like the popular Call of Duty series. The ideological component of these competing narratives interpellates a player into their chosen form of the American worldview, which is then narrativized and dramatized. However, the ludology of this choice also raises critical questions as a player must find the meaning of American exceptionalism in a world seemingly devoid of it, and play out its sometimes horrific consequences.
The Last of Us takes a novel approach, seeking instead to personalize the impact of the violence that defines the operative force of the new American exceptionalism. Through its insertion of themes of gender, dystopia, and zombies into its gameplay it has a player confront the inherent nihilism of a worldview that defines the enemy as nothing more than mere monsters through the seemingly realistic violence. The Last of Us subverts this view. One does not shoot an enemy down range and watch them fall, or merely move a knife across the screen to kill them for them to respawn in a few moments as in Call of Duty. The act of killing is personal, visceral, and realistic in the extreme whether killing the zombies that serve to give the game world its history, or the survivors who have surrendered to the savagery surrounding them. By inserting a player into this imagined space they are forced to confront the reality of such violence.
Taken together, this video game use the ludological tool of choice within a narrative framework to confront the rhetorical, dispassionate footing of the War on Terror by taking it to logical, and inevitably dystopian, conclusions. In these game worlds, violence is ever present, as is an existential threat to the player from a faceless enemy. Enabled by their ludology and informed by their narrative these games provide a unique form of engagement with and perspectives on this sense of threat.
 Angeliki Tseti, « Richard Gray, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11. »,European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2012-2, document 2, Online since 01 July 2012, connection on 24 March 2015. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/9844
 There is a large body of work on American exceptionalism and its many historical iterations, for the purposes of this part of the dissertation the version as articulated by Pease will be used as a base of analysis.
 Ibid. p. 245
 Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge: MIT
 Ibid. Pg. 45
It should be noted that that as a of 1/20/2016 no scholarly articles on The Last of Us could be found within Google Scholar
 Mann, Bonnie. “American Exceptionalism: the Gender Factor”. http://www.e-ir.info/. Published March 23rd, 2014. Accessed: Mar 11th, 2015. http://www.e-ir.info/2014/03/23/american-exceptionalism-the-gender-factor/
 Egan, D. R. (2002). Cowardice. In J. Collins & R. Glover (Eds.), Collateral language: A
user’s guide to America’s new war (pp. 53-64). New York: New York University
Press. Pg 53
 Ibid. Egan. Pg. 54
 McRobert, Neil. "Shoot Everything that Moves": Post-Millennial Zombie Cinema and the War on Terror. Textus;Sep-Dec2012, Vol. 25 Issue 3, p103
 Bush. George H.W. Transcript of George W. Bush’s Address to the Nation October 7, 2001. CNN.com. Accessed Jan 1st, 2014. http://edition.cnn.com/2001/US/10/07/ret.bush.transcript/
 Ibid 62
 As Deans discusses; the “sanitized lexicon” used in reporting news on the first Gulf War. He argues that certain vocabulary was used in “substitute for the brutal facts of combat.”
 Deans, Bob. “The Sanitized Lexicon of Modern War.” Newspaper Research Journal 12. 1 (1991): 10-12. Web. cut: These weapons are employed in a controlled manner to “dismantle networks,” with “surgical precision. This creates a neat picture of global interventionism, and avoids describing the reality of the destruction caused by these airstrikes.”
By using this set of “soft words… [to describe] hard combat” a delusionary image of warfare can be created, free of any form of suffering Ibid. 67
 Rather than using the word “drone,” which may have negative connotations, speeches by major American figures tend to use other names. Koh mentions the “unmanned aerial vehicle” and Obama and Brennan often speak of “remotely piloted aircraft”, removing a further association with drones.
 Obama, Barack. “The Future of our Fight against Terrorism.” National Defense University, Fort McNair. 23 May 2013. Speech. Web.
 Koh, Harold. “The Obama Administration and International Law.” Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law. American Society of International Law, Washington DC. 25 Mar. 2010. Speech. Web.
Carpino, Zachary. “Terrorizing the Terrorists: Reconstructing U.S. Policy on the Use of Torture in the Global War on Terror”. Global Security Studies, Fall 2013, Volume 4, Issue 4
 Ibid. 75. The employment of these tactics has been the subject of much analysis across various disciplines, but for the purposes of this analysis, it serves as an example of how an existential threat can inspire the embrace of extreme forms of political violence. As Carpino states: “While developing a plan to bring down the network responsible for 9/11, the Bush administration recognized that GWOT enemy combatants taken into custody would create an inevitable dilemma in regards to where these prisoners would be held, and the conditions of their treatment. It would need to be addressed if the combatants should be considered prisoners of war (GPWs), or if they fall outside the Geneva Convention’s Article 4 of the 1949 Geneva Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. ”The most common justification for the use of these forms of interrogation relate to the ticking time bomb scenario, in which imminent danger justifies the use of them in order to save lives.
 Ruth Blakeley. “Why torture?. Review of International Studies”. 2007. 33, pp 373-394. doi:10.1017/S0260210507007565.
 Ibid. Blakeley