For decades, video games have had a fascination with the end of the world. Why is it that we find it so enjoyable to play games set in the ashes of our civilisation?

Video games are, in a way, the perfect medium through which to depict the post-apocalypse. If we assume that after the collapse of civilisation everyone will revert to a brutal state of nature, then violence is the natural engine of the drama. And video games are very good at violence.


The fear and the fascination of doomsday

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Indeed, in many video games the actual end of the world is simply an excuse to create a world filled with nothing but repetitive violence against monsters, without any annoying interruption by law enforcement or other social constraints.

So it goes in some of the early video game arcade hits, such as Robotron 2084 (1982), in which a lone hero must shoot his way out of a series of rooms populated by the robots that have taken over, in order to save the last human family on Earth. More eerily beautiful, meanwhile, is the post-apocalypse of British designer Sandy White’s classic 3D Ant Attack (1983), which is set in the walled desert city of Antescher – the reference to the Dutch artist Escher is deliberate.

This place, long empty of humans after some distant tragedy, is now filled with giant ants. In it, a boy and girl enact a wordless love story while evading and throwing bombs at the pitiless insects. It is a masterpiece of monochrome minimalism: a couple of stick figures in an isometric wasteland of grey blocks haunted by the horrible snicketing noise of giant ants. No game since has better evoked the bittersweet melancholy of romance in the face of certain doom.

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Most often, though, the video game post apocalypse is populated by one very specific type of monster: zombies. Apocalyptic fiction through history has often been a dramatisation of the social concerns of the time in which it is composed. The Book of Revelation, for example, assures early Christians that accommodation with the Roman Empire is unnecessary and that Jesus will return.

Zombie video games often pit the might of the military against the zombie hordes, thus portraying a conflict between physical force and an insidious enemy within

And ever since the first of the late George Romero’s classic movies, the zombie is the monster that most uncomfortably reflects modern anxieties about issues from unthinking consumerism to pandemic disease. So it is, too, in video games, where zombies have the added virtue of being enemies that we feel no qualms about killing, whereas depicting human beings of a different race or nationality as deserving cannon fodder is often a politically dubious decision.

Zombie video games often pit the might of the military against the zombie hordes, thus portraying a conflict between physical force and an insidious enemy within, as well as political and sociological concerns. In games such as the Resident Evil (aka Biohazard) series (1996–present), gun-toting special agents battle against zombies produced by a virus engineered by a secretive corporation. This is prevent-the-apocalypse-happening, rather than post-apocalpyse fiction, but the rules are the same: in the areas of infection, all and any shambling human figures are fair game.

More pessimistically relentless is the Ukrainian game series so far comprising Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro Last Light (2013), which are based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s series of novels beginning with Metro 2033 (2005). After a global nuclear exchange, the surviving population of Moscow has moved into the underground metro network and grouped into factions that are at war, along with horrifying mutants caused by the radioactive fallout. This is fast-paced first-person shooter as depressing Hobbesian fable about how humanity learns nothing from near-extinction.

Also foreseeing nuclear apocalypse in particular is S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), loosely based on Tarkovsky’s 1979 film. In the game, a second nuclear accident has  occurred at the Chernobyl site, creating a strange zone of mutants and unpredictable physics. Given present-day tensions over North Korea, it seems possible that more fictional apocalypses in games and other media will once again pivot to the nuclear rather than the biological.

Other zombie games take a more melancholic and pseudo-literary approach, perhaps inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic (but zombie-free) novel, The Road. In the game The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse has been wrought by a mutated strain of the cordyceps fungus – a nice satirical touch, since cordyceps is these days marketed as a super-food with natural powers of cognitive enhancement. The player controls a smuggler named Joel who must smuggle a teenaged girl, Ellie, across the United States to a pocket of human survivors, somewhat as McCarthy’s hero in the novel leads his young son to what he hopes is a place of safety.

The zombie dystopia is often really a utopia from a certain political viewpoint: that of merciless libertarianism

The Last of Us, however, also exemplifies a long-running problem about video games that aspire to cinematic maturity of material while also encouraging the player, from the very beginning, to murder pretty much everyone he or she sees – even if they are not yet infected. Imagine the film of The Road but with Viggo Mortensen replaced by a Rambo-era Sylvester Stallone who kills three people a minute, and the tragic grandeur of the story is somewhat diminished.

But this is only a particularly jarring example of the peculiar truth about so much post-apocalyptic fiction, literary and otherwise, which is that the zombie dystopia is often really a utopia from a certain political viewpoint: that of merciless libertarianism, where strength is virtue and survivalist gun-hoarders had the right idea all along.

More interesting from a sociological perspective is the fact that multiplayer zombie games have also been taken to be psychological laboratories through which we can learn something about human nature right now. This, at least, was one reaction to the very popular hardcore zombie-survival game DayZ (2012).

Its unforgiving realism extends to the possibility of broken bones and the obligation to scavenge for food, water, medicine and all other tools for survival. In this post-apocalypse, players must defend themselves from zombies – but also, more importantly, from other online players. It turns out that uninfected humans are the most lethal threat, prone to killing one another in order to steal their weapons and supplies. The first rule is: trust no one.

In this sociological experiment, it seemed that a merciless game-theory strategy of shoot first, ask questions later was by far the best bet, even as the behaviour of some players offered glimmers of humanistic hope: one, going by the name Dr Wasteland, devoted his playing time to seeking out injured people and offering them virtual medical assistance before they bled to death.

Whether they involve zombies, disease, nuclear fallout or robots, what all post-apocalyptic video games have in common is that they assume that everything is over, permanently. The one thing they do not model or dramatise is social resilience.

Whether they involve zombies, disease, nuclear fallout or robots, what all post-apocalyptic video games have in common is that they assume that everything is over

Audiences over the years have been conditioned to assume that as soon as anything that looks like it might be the end of the world kicks off, that is the end of life as we know it, forever. No zombie games end with the defeat or cure of the enemies and a return to civilised suburban life. Yet that, in reality, is what happens, even after the worst depredations wrought by history’s worst people.

Video games represent many things well (zombies collapsing in showers of gore), and other things hardly at all (the strength of social systems). They assume that anarchic chaos is never-ending, the better to provide a kinetic playground for the gun-toting player.

But Lewis Dartnell’s brilliant book The Knowledge, designed as a manual for reconstructing industrial and scientific society after an apocalypse, offers a different, more optimistic model. Where is the videogame in which a small band of surviving humans patiently rebuild the glories of civilisation?


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