Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Video Games

Proposal by

Eren Ileri


Academy of Fine Arts Vienna
Doctor of Philosophy/PhD
Supervisor: Doz. Mag. Dr. Assoc. Prof. Axel Stockburger
Second Supervisor: Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Alexandra Ganser

Table of Contents

  1. Working Title

  2. Description of the Dissertation Project

  1. Central Research Questions and Aims

  2. State of the Art

  3. Research Methods and Design

  4. Timeline

  5. Bibliography

  1. Working Title

Cyborg Astronaut:

Disembodied Masculinity and the Imagination of Outer Space in Contemporary Video Games

  1. Description of the Dissertation Project

Outer space travel and exploration are backbones of science fiction since the early days of the genre. Since the 20th century and increasingly in more recent years, issues such as interplanetary travel, outer space colonization, human enhancement and the use of, or conflicts with, artificial intelligence in the context of outer space frequently appear in popular science fiction and digital video games. The cultural and societal significance of space exploration and the imagination of outer space has been the focus of many research efforts in recent years (Cockell, 2016; Dickens and Ormrod, 2016; Geppert, 2018; Messeri, 2016; Rieder, 2008, Westfahl, 2012). In the field of game studies, researchers have begun to acknowledge the posthumanist dimension of digital games (Boulter, 2015). However, in the realm of the critical analysis of science fiction, the cultural imagination of outer space in digital games remains underresearched and posthumanist theory has been largely absent in this context.

Outer space travel occupies an increasingly important place in today’s world and in our visions for the future. Imagination of outer space in science fiction has had, and continues to have a profound impact on the ambitions of real world space exploration, together with our general understanding of outer space. In the cultural production of outer space, reconfigured and rearticulated disembodied masculinities play a major role. Therefore, analyzing how the spacefaring humans, their bodies, and their positioning against non-human entities in outer space are represented in contemporary video games is vital in the field of game studies. Through an in-depth critical trans-disciplinary analysis of video games, this PhD project will examine how disembodied masculinity operates and what role it plays in the construction of the “final frontier” idea in digital game narratives and mechanics. To accurately analyze the issues of disembodiment in the context of depiction and experience of outer space travel in video games, this study will develop a philosophical framework which incorporates theories of critical posthumanism. By employing this framework in the analysis of video game case studies, this project’s main research questions are:

  1. How can the novel representations of disembodied masculinities, which appear in digital games engaged with outer space exploration, be analyzed within a framework derived from posthumanist theory?

  2. In what manner is the disembodiment of masculinity and race manifested in the cultural production of outer space in contemporary science fiction video games?

  3. How does the cultural production of outer space look like in digital games from 2010 until present? How is the notion of the posthuman related to the cultural production of outer space in contemporary science fiction video games?

Posthumanism, Disembodiment and the Cyborg

To be able to establish my argument, the terms posthuman and posthumanism need to be specified. By posthumanism, I refer to a philosophical framework of critical approaches to humanism, which question human nature’s supposed universality, its positioning as the apex of existence, its rootedness in heteronormative structures and the ardent anthropocentrism emerging from the traditions of humanism (Braidotti, 2013; Colebrook, 2014; Hayles, 1999; Haraway, 2016; Wolfe, 2010). Many different scholars have their own take on the terms posthuman and posthumanism. In “What Is Posthumanism?”, Carry Wolfe defines posthumanism as a “mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon" and "as engaging directly the problem of anthropocentrism and speciesism and how practices of thinking and reading must change in light of their critique” (Wolfe, 2010: 16)[1]. Through a critique of anthropocentrism, I refer in my research to a posthumanism that aims to deconstruct the subject of humanism and replace it with a speculative being of the posthuman, which can embody different identities and attain a heterogeneity of understandings of the world (Ferrando, 2013). Like the antihumanist critique, critical posthumanism targets humanism and identifies its exclusionary anthropocentric subject of the “default” human as inherently male, white, heterosexual and bodily able. In addition to undermining the historical separations between humans alongside race, gender, bodily ability or other forms of normative lines, and between the human and the technological, many scholars are emphasizing a multi-species ecology and reject granting humans a cognitive or emotional superiority over animals or other non-human beings (Alaimo, 2016; Haraway, 2008; Morton, 2013). Amid environmental transformations and crises, theorists such as Colebrook, Alaimo and Morton aim to reconfigure the 20^th^ century anthropomorphic models and displace human exceptionalism, addressing the necessity to develop new models of thinking in response to the ecological catastrophes and destruction (Colebrook, 2016).

Since the 1970s, the poststructuralism of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes among others and the works of Deleuze and Guattari, alongside the developments in techno-science, biology, psychology and other sciences had a profound impact on the conceptualization of the posthumanist critique. In one of the earliest accounts of posthumanism, the necessity to challenge humanism is addressed by Ihab Hassan: “We need to understand that the human form -including human desire and all its external representations- may be changing radically, and thus must be re-visioned. We need to understand that five hundred years of humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call post-humanism” (Ihab Hassan, 1977: 843)[2]. For Braidotti, the humanist definition of the human defines difference as pejoration and subjectivity is equated with universal rationality and consciousness, associated with masculinity and European civilization. Otherness is in turn characterized as its negative, representing irrationality, immorality, femininity and non-westernness (Braidotti, 2013). Hayles’ posthuman view "privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life" (Hayles, 1999: 2)[3]. In her version of posthumanism, the body is seen as a prosthesis which one needs to learn to manipulate, and as a result “extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born” (Hayles, 1999: 3)[4]. As opposed to the Western humanist tradition, she recognizes human consciousness not as the center of the human identity, but merely as a side effect of a larger evolutionary process, and consequently her posthuman view rearticulates the human being so "that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (Hayles, 1999: 3)[5].

The posthumanist critique remains the location of many debates. Some scholars argue that while challenging humanism, posthumanism can paradoxically embody a continuation and amplification of the human, in what Colebrook calls a nihilist potential of “ultrahumanism” (Colebrook, 2014). This seemingly contradictory defense of the humanist subject is embodied by countless examples of popular digital games, as I will discuss in more detail in the later sections of this proposal.

Posthumanist critique is informed by the development of new technologies by humans that fundamentally affect their condition, as Wolfe notes, when he writes, “decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore, a historical development that points toward the necessity of new theoretical paradigms, a new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon” (Wolfe, 2016: 16)[6]. Some scholars argue that by the beginning of 21st century, humans are taking the next step in their evolution and it is being enabled by the use of i.a. cybernetic technologies which lead to the creation of a hybrid between “machine and organism”, as in Haraway’s definition of the cyborg: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” (Haraway 1991: 150)[7]. Hayles stresses the dual meaning of the cyborg as both technological and discursive: “cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings and narrative constructions. […] Manifesting itself as both technological object and discursive formation, it partakes of the power of the imagination as well as of the actuality of technology.” (Hayles, 1999: 115)[8]. As in Hayles’ observation, the cyborg is both a definition for living entities and science fiction constructions. They are the site of speculative displacement of the traditional boundaries and instability often exemplified by the paradoxical masculinity of cyborg representations in science fiction: “Cyborgs incarnate two contradictions of masculine identity. First, they combine phallic masculinity and body permeability. Second, they contradict sociobiological constructions of paternity and maternity. That is, the cyborg’s multiple acts of penetration (of self or, more destructively, others) offer no promise of procreation; instead, they reiterate the cyborg’s own indeterminate self-identity. […] If, as Butler persuasively argues, ‘gender attributes are not expressive but performative’, cyborgs offer imaginative sites for more radical performativity: nothing in a cyborg is essential” (Fuchs, 1993: 281)[9].

While recognizing the necessity for a new discourse for the undeniable condition that is caused by technology, informatics and economic networks, some scholars oppose the separation of “the human” from the human body, or warn about misconceptions of disembodiment (Colebrook, 2014; Hayles, 1999), which can also be traced back to both imaginary and real life accounts of the cyborg. For Colebrook, “critical posthumanism reacts against the idea that the body is nothing more than contingent hardware or a vehicle for an intelligence or humanity that is primarily informational; this counter-technophilia is more critical of the residual humanist (or Cartesian, or rationalist) assumption that ‘we’ have now arrived at a point in history where technology might overcome the body” (Colebrook, 2014: 168)[10]. Regarding a positivist understanding of the technological human evolution and visions of human enhancement, the distinctions between posthumanism and transhumanism are often conflated, and mistakenly so (Miah, 2007). With transhumanism, I am referring to a futurist ideology and a philosophical movement which aims to overcome the human body’s limitations and thereby enhance its physiological and intellectual capacities. Transhumanism is often a dominant ideology in the realm of science fiction and this condition conceivably represents an “extension and intensification of traditional humanism rather that its refection” (Bolter, 2016: 2)[11]. According to Bostrom, transhumanism’s roots are embedded in rational humanism of the enlightenment and it directly derives from "ideals of human perfectibility, rationality and agency inherited from Renaissance humanism" (Bostrom, 2005; Wolfe, 2016: 13)[12]. Frequently in mainstream discussions, futurist visions by Ray Kurzweil or theories of Francis Fukuyama dominate the discourse of the transhuman future (Fukuyama, 2002; Kurzweil, 2017). This will be, among others, a crucial point of departure for my analysis of contemporary imagination and representations of crewed space travel in video games.

In ideological transhumanist visions of outer space, or in the condition of the cyborg in space, the absence of body, and the fact that the human body is a problem which has to be overcome, becomes crucially evident. In contemporary science fiction, this idea dominates the imagination of outer space and human-piloted space travel. Yet, whether in real life or in fiction, there is something intrinsically cyborg about the space-traveling human, i.e. humans who conduct extra-terrestrial activities. It has been suggested by many scientists that in order for human or most non-human animals to be able to survive and sustainably live on extra-terrestrial solar system planets, there is a need for substantial body modifications or constant help of various devices to keep them alive (Clynes and Kline, 1960). Furthermore, when imagining the vast distances between planets and journeys into interstellar space which might take hundreds of years, the human body becomes the primary hindrance that needs to be overcome. One of the most apparent cases where the body is rendered as a problem and disembodiment is exemplified is the concept of “cryosleep”, the idea to induce astronauts into a state of suspended animation or hibernation in order to preserve their bodies for long deep-space travel, where bodies lie motionless in capsules during spaceflight. This concept is both scientifically researched as well as considered for future space travel and it has been a crucial element in countless science fiction novels, films, video games etc. Another aspect of space travel that threatens the human body as an agency of power and strength is the absence of gravity and the absolute dependency on life-support technologies. On the history of spaceflight, Llinares argues that space flight disregards the body as a reference point for masculine experience (Llinares, 2011). The astronaut becomes merely a payload inside the spaceship and the entry into zero gravity is the next stage in the disembodiment with weightlessness canceling out bodily strength. At this stage "… the very definition of an astronaut at this point was an ‘experienced zombie’ who would lie there and do nothing […]" (Llinares, 2011: 141)[13].

For Donna Haraway, regarding NASA’s use of primates as test subjects for preparation to first human space flight, “the space ships, the recording and tracking technologies, animals, and human beings were joined to form a new kind of historical entity—cyborgs in a postmodern theater of war, science, and popular culture” (Haraway, 1989: 138)[14]. This form – the cyborg – is embodied in many ways, but most notably culturally by the astronaut. The images of an astronaut with a spacesuit and various equipment standing on the moon, or conducting “extra vehicular activity” weightless in the vacuum of outer space, are prominent examples of representations of human and machine symbiosis at a very high level. Alongside this technological image, another layer of references to Western culture and history is operationally attached to the representations of the astronaut and to the imagination of outer space both in fiction and in reality.

Colonialism, Construction of Outer Space and Video Games

The emergence of science fiction literature in the West and its rootedness in various forms of colonialism has been discussed by many authors (Geppert, 2018; Grewell, 2001; Latham,2012; Rieder, 2008). We need to take into consideration that science fiction is a predominantly European and US American literary genre, which emerged in the 19th and early 20th century, later becoming one of the defining characteristics of US American popular culture (Booker, 2006; Teo, 1994). One of the distinct objectives of the early European and US American Science Fiction literature was to define the relationship between what is human and what is non-human. According to Rieder, writers of science fiction offered a renewed space for the projection of colonial fantasies: “having no place on Earth left for the radical exoticism of unexplored territory, the writers invent places elsewhere” (Rieder, 2008: 4)[15]. For Geppert “imagining and re-imagining space and furnishing it time and again with one artifact after another, be they mental or material, has had a doubly paradoxical effect. As outer space became increasingly cluttered, it simultaneously became more and more concrete, and, concomitantly with such imaginary colonization, regarded in ever more spatial terms. An entire geography of outer space developed that presented itself as a continuation, if not a logical extension of earlier geographies of imperial expansion and colonial domination” (Geppert, 2018: 3)[16]. Since its emergence, science fiction has an organic link to colonialism, but concurrently it is also a ground for many writers, film makers and game developers alike, to challenge binaries, dogmas and hegemonic structures of race, gender and class (Lothian 2015, Schalk, 2018). This seemingly paradoxical, but nevertheless intrinsic quality is also present in digital games, which can be categorized as belonging to this genre. Many video games thematically build worlds with fluid gender identities and without hegemonic race structures whereas those same worlds often either depict a homogeneous picture of humanity or easily project xenophobic anxieties onto non-human species or technological entities such as robots or artificial intelligence. The Mass Effect series (BioWare, 2007 – 2017) and The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, 2019) can be mentioned as examples for such depictions. The tensions of what constitutes the human, or what differentiates it from the non-human are not just a common characteristic feature of SF video games, but also inherent to science fiction in general, be it literature and film. For Lavender, science fiction “has considered itself a “colorblind” genre, either blithely portraying a future free from racial struggle (not seeming to notice that this harmony is accomplished by eliminating nonwhite people) or else projecting racial anxieties onto the body of the alien without seeming to notice that the humanity united against this external threat is suspiciously monochrome” (Lavender, 2011)[17]. Science fiction also offers the white Western subject the possibility to switch his position from the dominant colonizer to the dominated and colonized indigenous position. As Rieder observes, in The War of Worlds H. G. Wells gives the white reader the opportunity to imagine themselves as being subjects of the violence which they themselves perpetuate against others. Nevertheless Wells still gives the white narrator of the story the ability to hold on to his anthropological power: “The Wellsian strategy is a reversal of positions that stays entirely within the framework of the colonial gaze and the anachronism of anthropological difference, but also highlights their critical potential. […] the “native” human narrator himself occupies not only the position of the dominated, dehumanized colonial subject, but also that of the scientific observer, especially when he becomes an ethnographer in the marvelous chapter on the Martians’ anatomy and technology. Thus the science fiction novel, while staying within the ideological and epistemological framework of the colonial discourse, exaggerates and exploits its internal divisions.” (Rieder, 2008: 10)[18].

On the one hand, science fiction offers a possibility to break free of hegemonic patriarchal relations, as for Wheeler, "science fiction by its very nature offers a useful site for challenging both binaries of male or female, they can be neuters, have no definable sexual category, be intersexed or they can switch between genders. In science fiction the body (whether human or other) is a tabula rasa, capable of multiple and contradictory readings" (Wheeler, 2013: 211)[19]. On the other hand, science fiction almost always replicates existing issues of race and gender, oftentimes through projecting those issues onto other non-human entities. Technology plays a role in the creation of race (Gaylard, 2005) and in science fiction, technology becomes the domain where existing oppressive structures are rearticulated in technological subjects. “Bodies are produced at the intersections of technology, race, class, and gender. Within science fiction, social power is often sexualized, while the narrative drive focuses on other aspects that do not thematize gender hierarchies” (Melzer, 2006: 177)[20]. In science fiction, technology is often fetishized and operates as an instrument for an imagined masculinity in a posthuman context. According to Fernbach, this fetish does not always have to be phallic and it can “produce and proliferate non-normative differences, especially at the interface of the technological and the corporeal” (Fernbach, 2000: 234)[21].

Digital games and science fiction have a strong connection since the early days of digital games. Although the “genre” in video games is often defined by the game mechanics and how the player interacts with the game, rather than the game’s narrative properties, the narrative and iconographic characteristics of many video games still allow us to categorize them as belonging to the wider universe of science fiction. Many early video games topically deal with outer space and can thus be categorized as belonging to the science fiction game genre, such as for example, Spacewar! (1962), which is by many considered to be the first computer game. Early digital games such as Galaxy Game (1972), Computer Space (1971), Interplanetary Voyage (1973) and later examples such as Space Wars (1977), Star Castle (1980), Cosmic Chasm (1982) and most notably Space Invaders (1978) are among countless other video games exemplifying the dominance of SF as a genre in computer and video games. Furthermore, within the genre of science fiction games the theme of “outer space” is a defining characteristic and a core generic influence. Reflecting the cultural zeitgeist, video game developers of the 1970s and 80s turned to outer space and science fiction, influenced by an American Cold War research agenda that foregrounded space travel, computing and weapons development (Jagoda, 2015). The predominantly American landscape of the early video game industry laid the ground for the further emergence of science fiction digital games and shaped the defining attributes of video games, now created, distributed and consumed across the globe. For Jagoda, digital games “alter the nature of cognitive estrangement, speculative thought, and world building that have been central qualities of science fiction literature” (Jagoda, 2015: 150)[22], it is therefore only natural that so many popular contemporary digital games, across many different ludic genres, still present science fiction elements. Furthermore, Jagoda argues that “the science fiction game extends the imperial roots of the science fiction novel through a material reliance on computation and digital media, which support contemporary forms of imperialism and postindustrialism, including those that are specific to the American Century” (Jagoda, 2015: 149)[23]. Frequently, more than any other thematic category of video games, outer space games amplify this underlying imperial logic that is inherent in science fiction digital games.

Empire in Outer Space

Often, imagination of outer space, whether in real-world extraterrestrial activities or in science fiction, is restricted by an understanding, which positions the extra-terrestrial as the “final frontier”. This cultural positioning of the final frontier, waiting to be explored, conquered or exploited; and the astronaut as brave explorer putting his or her own life at risk in his/her conquest of the unknown, bares a lot of similarities to central narratives of colonialism. The launch of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and the period of the beginning of decolonization overlaps in time, as well as in imagery and biomaterials (Haraway 1989, Redfield 2002). While we have moved into the so-called post-colonial era, the language, imagery and representations of colonialism partially transcended into, or were re-invigorated in the imagination of outer space (Kerslake, 2007; Kilgore 2003) and thus found a safe haven: “space offered the prospect of a renewed form of settler colonization, this time into a zone safely free from human difference” (Redfield, 2002: 792)[24].

As discussed by Redfield, outer space reflects a shadow of empire. The masculine adventure of earthly colonialism was used constantly to conceptualize journeys into the cosmos, ever since the first accounts of modern space exploration, and the realization of outer space offered a possibility for the provincialization of terrestrial empire from above (Redfield, 2002). In the 20^th^ century, when a few white men moved beyond the atmosphere, they became universal representatives of humanity, by virtue of the hazardous, nonhuman space around them. This reflection of colonial conquest in the outer space, continues in the aftermath of the 20^th^ century, as “the advocates of space exploration constitute perhaps the last unabashed enthusiasts of imperialism, cheerfully describing conquest, settlement and expansion, and hesitating not a whit before employing the term ‘colony’. Theirs is a Columbus of exploration, nation building and risk taking, not of invasion, domination and genocide” (Redfield, 2002: 797)[25].

Gender, Disembodied Masculinity and Femininity

In this perspective, outer space became white men’s playground, either in real life aspirations or in science fiction, where the language and images of colonialism can be reproduced. Renewed colonialist imagery in the realm of extra-terrestrial space and the manifestation of a new kind of relationship between human and machine, embodied by the cyborg, together constituted the image of the astronaut, that is defined by supposedly intrinsic qualities of masculinity, such as risk taking, pathfinding and having an insatiable curiosity to explore and to progress (Llinares, 2011). Yet, this image of the space explorer, whether as the spacefarer, the scientist or the economic visionary behind the technology (like scientists such as Wernher von Braun or today’s billionaire business men like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos) is a complex one, incorporating issues of gender, race and class. What is relatively stable in this construction of representation is that space exploration has always been driven by an unquestioned, axiomatic curiosity or drive for exploration which was frequently ascribed as a masculine quality. For Llinares, “[i]n most evocations of space history ´man´ stands in for a supposedly genderless expression of humanity’s innate subjectivity. Think of Neil Armstrong’s now legendary phrase: ´That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind´, or Star Trek’s mantra, ´to boldly go where no man has gone before´. These phrases have become a naturalized parlance and defining rhetoric of space exploration. Far from being neutral semantics however, they are part of an underlying discourse within space history in which ´man´ implicitly means men” (Llinares, 2011: 5)[26].

Considering the access to outer space, human spaceflight has not been particularly diverse in terms of gender and race/ethnicity (Dovey, 2018). Out of approximately 600 people who traveled to outer space, only 62 of them were women, while 24 astronauts who traveled to the Moon were all white men[27]. Only recently, following efforts to increase diversity in the selection process of astronauts, NASA has achieved a 50% ratio of men and women with the 2013 astronauts class, where out of eight graduated astronauts, four were women and four men[28]. Historically, NASA’s criteria for astronaut selection required the candidates to be chosen from a pool of military test pilots, which was exclusively male, since it was not possible for women to enter this profession in the American army in the 1960’s and 70’s. The Soviet Union’s first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova traveled to the earth orbit in 1964, much earlier than NASA’s first female astronaut Sally Ride, who flew to space in 1983. Despite the early date of Tereshkova’s flight, it was nearly 20 years until another woman flew to space. Towards the end of the Apollo program in the late 1970’s, there was a shift in the qualifications of astronauts and more were selected among scientists, instead of the ranks of military test pilots. Today, it became natural to conceive astronaut as a “scientist in the lab”, an identity that starkly contrasts with the 1960’s conception of the military-originated, risk-taking, masculinized adventurer astronaut. As space travel became gradually more inclusive to women and people of color, the traditional language of space travel was also challenged. For instance, since 2006 NASA’s guidelines for space travel language suggest the usage of gender neutral terms such as “human-piloted” or “crewed” instead of the much-used and almost standardized term “manned spaceflight”[29]. In science fiction, the diversification and democratization of space travel in recent years have also been represented and celebrated, as we increasingly see women and people of color characters in the forefront of fictional space exploration.

Yet, considering the “techno-masculinized” subject of space travel, one could argue that the representation of masculinity was somewhat decoupled from the physical body, while tensions relating to the traditional binary understanding of gender were rearticulated on the level of the relationship between bodies and the technological. The traditional hierarchical dualism of masculinity and femininity, frequently positions femininity as masculinity’s inferior other. In the landscape of the cyborg, these traditional definitions of masculinity are being rearticulated, taken away from the biological body image and ascribed to hybrid technological subjects. The traditional model of muscular masculinity, characterized by strength, bravery, independence and virility as masculine qualities, has been destabilized with the advent of the cyborg, while being rearticulated through it at the same time. Human bodies have been “feminized”, rearticulated as needing protection, while technology has been “techno-masculinized” (Fernbach, 2000; Masters, 2005).

When considering the cyborg’s potential for guarding the patriarchal lineage they emerged from, Cristina Masters crucially points out that “[…] the figure of the cyborg remains rather faithful to its origins. Thus, while the cyborg may provide new grounds upon which to reveal gender representations as contingent and historically grounded social constructs, we need also to attend to the ways in which the figure of the cyborg may continue to represent a desire for total masculinist control and domination” (Masters, 2010: 2)[30]. One of the most apparent examples for this kind of disembodied masculinity is incorporated by the cyborg soldier of the American military, where the body is the weakest link in the chain, as Masters argues, “[w]hat we are witnessing, and indeed participating in, with the constitution of the cyborg soldier is a radical rearticulation of subjectivity. Contemporary military techno-scientific discourses have profoundly altered the subject of discursive power productions, with the fleshy body of the soldier no longer standing in as the agent of politics by other means, or in this case, war by other means. With the discursive positioning of military technologies as superior to the human soldier, machines are now the subjects of the text. […] Technology, not the male body, becomes the subject capable of the discursive transcendence of embodiment” (Masters, 2010: 5)[31].

As discussed, masculinity serves as one of the main pillars for the construction of a dualistic, earth-centric understanding of outer space (Kilgore, 2003). But what does masculinity mean in the context of disembodiment and how is it represented in the posthuman condition?

To accurately answer this question and to be able to investigate forms and representations of disembodied masculinities in the context of “space exploration”, it is necessary to employ a posthumanist approach, because it allows us to challenge predominantly anthropocentric perceptions of the cosmos. To emphasize a critical proposition towards the understanding of the extra-terrestrial, I will thus draw upon arguments from discourses of posthumanism, new materialism and – albeit with a strong critical distance – transhumanism. Based on this framework, my research investigates how disembodied masculinity manifests itself in the astronaut/spacefarer, in digital game narratives of outer space exploration as well as in the world building and experiencing of outer space through gameplay mechanics.

Disembodied and militarized Techno-Masculinity

As it becomes apparent in the example of the American soldier – there are organic and formal similarities between the American soldier and the astronaut – the cyborg can become a continuation of patriarchal capitalism and hegemonic masculinity. A similar proposal was also made by Braidotti regarding the condition of the posthuman, recognizing the ambiguity about the end of humanism and “man”: “[t]he Vitruvian Man rises over and over again from his ashes, continues to uphold universal standards and to exercise a fatal attraction” (Braidotti, 2013, 29[32]; Matthews, 2018, 91)[33]. Likewise, humanism’s capacity for resistance was also drawn to attention by Neil Badmington: “Apocalyptic accounts of the end of “Man”, it seems to me, ignore humanism’s capacity for regeneration and, quite literally, recapitulation. In the approach to posthumanism on which I want to insist, the glorious moment of Herculean victory cannot yet come, for humanism continues to raise its head(s)” (Badmington, 2003, 11)[34]. This capacity of “man’s” perpetual insurgency for its validation will form the basis of my thesis.

My suggestion is that “man’s” crisis in the face of the posthuman condition and his attempts at reconfiguring the anthropocentric masculine identity in a disembodied subject are exemplified by various representations of the astronaut or outer space exploration narratives and gameplay mechanics across popular science fiction video games. In many popular video games (Metal Gear Solid, Mass Effect, Deus Ex series as few prominent examples for many) we witness a version of glorified transhumanism where the fetishization of human enhancement is expressed both in the game’s narrative and the gameplay itself. At the same time, the aforementioned games morally and ethically question the conditions of the cyborg and almost always posit a tension between the avatar/player and the posthuman condition that is seemingly imposed on the human, posthuman or non-human subject in their narrative. The representation of the “crisis of masculinity” arising from disembodiment in video games is complex and multifaceted, both exemplified by the narratives of conquest, exploitation, antagonistic relationships with non-human entities among others, while also encapsulated by the video games’ intrinsic qualities through gaming technologies which undermine the traditional humanist conception of the subject (Boulter, 2015).

Video Game Case Studies

The crucial point for contemporary representations of the outer space explorer in video games is the subject’s masculine desire to overcome the organic body’s limitations by transcending into the perfect technological subject. Signaling a crisis in the masculine representations of self and dominated by the anxieties rooted in threatened masculinity, this version of the cyborg desire rids itself of the fleshy body, in an attempt to construct an invulnerable subject position (Masters, 2005). In science fiction the ascription of masculinity away from the human body and on to technology seems to echo the Vitruvian Man’s resistance to the posthuman threat. In the case of the space explorer, the battleground is outer space and the fight is against the othered alien, that being extraterrestrial species, “irrational” artificial intelligence or the hostility of outer space itself; its planets, radiation, lack of breathable atmosphere etc. To develop my argument and expose these tendencies, I will analyze SF digital games that thematically involve outer space and where complex depictions of masculinity are in play. In video games, as discussed by many scholars in the field of game studies, hyper-masculine tropes of man are a common sight (Healey, 2016; Krampe, 2018; Snyder, 2015), but I intend to investigate models that are more intricate in their expression of gender constructs, embodiment and imagination of outer space, such as Mass Effect series (BioWare, 2007 – 2017), Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Sundae Month, 2016), The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019) and The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, 2019). Event[0] (Ocelot Society, 2016), Tacoma (Fullbright, 2018), Observation (No Code, 2019), Ostranauts (Blue Bottle Games, 2020) are some of the relevant cases for adventure and life simulation games with outer space settings. Astroneer (System Era Softworks, 2019), No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016), Factorio (Wube Software, 2020) and Satisfactory (Coffee Staion Studios, 2019) are significant cases for how the relationship between the player and the alien planet or outer space is constituted in the open world mechanics of the “sandbox” video games. One of the most prominent models for relatively complex representations of gender and embodiment as well as imagination of outer space as frontier is the video game series Mass Effect. For my research, the most current game in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017) is of significance, since its narrative exemplifies the dynamics between men and technology and its concept of the “Pathfinder” signifies the idea of militarized and disembodied masculinity. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s plot revolves around the protagonist Scott or Sara Ryder (depending on the normative binary choice of the player to take control of either character), who leads the colonization effort in Milky Way’s neighboring Andromeda Galaxy and becomes humanity’s so called “pathfinder” tasked with finding a habitable planet for colonists to settle on after a 600-year journey. Another prominent game for this research will be No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) which exemplifies a contemporary iteration of the robinsonade genre. Like No Man’s Sky, many other video games set in outer space can be recognized as examples of this textual genre, utilizing a similar trope in their narratives: the stories typically start with a spaceship crashed and stranded or somehow ejected onto an alien planet, and the games task the player first with survival, and later with the expansion and further exploration and/or exploitation of the planet. Satisfactory (2019), Astroneer (2019) and The Swapper (2013) are further examples. Tracing this trope, the literary genre of robinsonade will be emphasized to track the issues of colonialism and decolonization in science fiction video games. Robinsonade’s importance in the construction of my argument is not only warranted by its reference to colonialism, but also because it exemplifies core humanist tensions and dualities of human and nature, or the alienated “other”, as well as its emphasis on its subject’s necessary qualities for their survival, which is his courage, will for adventure, their positivist faith in science and their Western intellect and training they required back on Earth. In this respect, the robinsonade narrative becomes a theater where tensions between its subject’s core values can be tested or reaffirmed in the face of the posthuman condition.

  1. Central Research Questions and Aims

This research engages with the following questions:

To engage with these questions, a critical framework of philosophical posthumanism is to be developed in conjunction with science fiction studies. Video game case studies will be analyzed using relevant methodologies from the field of game studies.

  1. State of the Art

In recent years, there has been a considerable amount of research dedicated to the cultural impacts of outer space. Despite the recent interest in social and cultural significance of the cosmos, in game and visual media studies this topic remains relatively underresearched. Resting on some of the comprehensive works dedicated to this issue in cultural studies, as well as science and technology studies, I intend to address questions about the imagination of outer space, its cultural impacts and its ideological operation in relation to race, gender and the body in game studies.

In the field of cultural and media studies, Llinares examines the mythology of the astronaut in the 20th century and its embodiment of complex cultural representations of masculinity (Llinares, 2011). For Messeri’s ethnographical approach towards outer space, place making and mapping practices becomes evident, as she crucially interrogates the legacy of colonialism in this context (Messeri, 2016). Dickens’s work focuses on the “sociology of the universe” and critically engages with the relation between capital and outer space (Dickens, 2016). Similarly, Al-Rodhan interrogates the political notion of the use of technologies in the Earth orbit with the notion of meta-geopolitics of outer space (Al-Rodhan, 2016). For Redfield and Kerslake, respectively, the understanding of outer space exploration and outer space in science fiction become domains of operation for the empire (Redfield, 2002; Kerslake, 2007). Billings traces the ideology of spaceflight and the importance of American exceptionalism for the ideology of spaceflight in order to scrutinize the cultural implications of space advocacy, while Young puts forth Native American perspectives on outer space exploration (Billings, 2007; Young, 1987). Regarding questions related to technology and embodiment, Chun does not just examine the relationship between technology and race but considers race as technology, which draws attention to the performability of race and thereby criticizes biological or cultural perspectives towards it (Chun, 2009). Extending upon this proposition in his post-colonial inquiry, Syed Mustafa Ali positions transhumanism as whiteness, as he analyzes transhumanism’s ideological entanglement with the “White Crisis” (Ali, 2017). Atanasoski and Vora reflect on the relationship between the underlying logic of white supremacy and racial liberalism by sketching the contours and workings of technoliberalism; while Bostrom, Hauskeller and Hughes’ work deals with political, ideological and mythological aspects of transhumanism (Atanasoski, Vera, 2018; Bostrom, 2005; Hauskeller, 2016; Hughes 2002). The aesthetics of techno-utopian, transhumanist visions in right wing reactionary discourses and their relation to the colonization of outer space are present in the writings of M. Ambedkar (Ambedkar, 2017). Fernbach, Masters and Mackinnon engage with the notion of disembodied masculinity in the cyborg (Fernbach, 2002; Masters 2010; Mackinnon, 2018). Regarding the social and ethical implications of human settlement in outer space, Ferrando points out the necessity of a posthumanist reflection of space migration (Ferrando, 2016).

In the field of science fiction studies, Hsu-Ming Teo outlines science fiction’s affiliation with American nationalism and the concept of space as the “final frontier”, as well as what it draws from the Enlightenment, such as its views of science, rationality, progress and perfectibility (Hsu-Ming, 1994). Bajaber opens up the genre’s potential for post-colonial writers who engage in decolonization (Bajaber, 2013). Grewell and Pak’s works also investigate the role of colonialism in the imagination of the “conquest” of outer space, as well as the concept of terraforming, while Nama and Kilgore draws upon the notion of race in American science fiction (Grewell, 2001; Pak, 2016; Nama, 2009; Kilgore, 2003). Matthews crucially analyses posthuman masculinity and humanist “man’s self-preservative resistance to an ontology that heralds his obsolescence” in the realm of film (Matthews, 2018: 87)[35].

The relationship between the construction of masculinity and outer space, as well as how race comes in to play in this context, requires additional research, since research in this direction for the most part revolves around the history of space travel, rather than focusing on its contemporary implications and impacts, regarding issues of privatization of outer space travel (MacDonald, 2017; Dubbs and Paat-Dahlstrom, 2013) and the rhetoric of “leaving the earth” in the face of the environmental crises caused by global climate change (Impey, 2015). In the light of these aforementioned works I intend to emphasize contemporary critical posthumanist theory. By deploying a feminist and post-colonial critique regarding issues of embodiment, or disembodiment of masculinity in the context of the imagination of outer space, this research addresses the necessity to integrate critical posthumanist theory into the fields of game and science fiction studies.

In the field of game studies proper, Jagoda’s research focuses on the strong relationship between digital games and science fiction (Jagoda, 2015). Boulter interrogates the posthuman nature of digital games and offers an extensive philosophical analysis of the gaming experience (Boulter, 2015). In his view, the act of “gaming”, by connecting oneself to a machine and becoming one with it, is itself already an act of transcending towards the posthuman. Filiciak suggests, that the postmodern condition of multiple or split identities and networked selves is exemplified by the use of online avatars in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (Filiciak, 2003). In “As We Become Machines”, Lahti examines how video games constitute the relationship between the corporeal experience and subjectivity, and what role technology and the interface play in this process (Lahti, 2003). The posthuman values inside the player-game relation and in the process of gameplay is explored by Janik, by emphasizing a critical posthumanist approach in the field of game studies (Janik, 2018). Giddings brings the “digitality” of digital games up for debate in his query of the implications of playing as non-human agents in digital game play (Giddings, 2005). In their crucial interrogation of the posthuman potential of the avatar-player relationship, Wilde and Evans develop a concept of posthuman empathy in gameplay, by drawing upon the works of Barad, Braidotti and Hayles (Wilde & Evans, 2017). In “Automated State of Play: Rethinking Anthropocentric Rules of the Game”, Fizek analyses the AI-driven automated non-human gameplay and proposes a new perspective that is conscious of the cybernetic nature of digital games, and critical of the anthropocentric perspectives in game studies (Fizek, 2018). Like Boulter, Melnic and Melnic also draw attention to the posthuman qualities inherent to the gaming experience (Melnic, Melnic; 2018). Jerreat-Poole utilizes disability studies to investigate representations of disability in the Mass Effect trilogy and explores the series’ “crip futurity” (Jerreat-Poole, 2020). The potential provided during gameplay for players to experience human body “enchantments” and augmentations without truly modifying their actual body is discussed in Foith’s analysis of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Foith, 2013). Everett and Watkins trace race and ethnicity representations in video games by outlining the realities of the American political climate in the backdrop of video games (Everett & Watkins, 2008). Bissell discusses the cultural significance, importance and artistic relevancy of digital games in his work (Bissell, 2011). Chess highlights the queer perspective for an analysis of the narrative potential of video games (Chess, 2016). Schmeink inquires into the dialectic of two positions digital games posses; firstly as digital media that needs to be analyzed using new tools and secondly video games as an addition to previous textual forms. A relevant work by him for this research traces how agency is negotiated in a posthuman context in the first person shooter video game Bioshock (2007) (Schmeink, 2009). Calleja establishes a holistic model for examining the interaction between the player and the game (Calleja, 2011). Galloway investigates the aesthetic and political impact of digital games as a formal medium (Galloway, 2006). When engaging with both the narrative and the ludic aspects of digital games, Jayemanne examines avatar/player subjectivity as well as non-playable characters and objects in games, by emphasizing performativity in video games (Jayemanne, 2017). In their analysis, Gregersen & Grodal highlight the player’s interaction with the game, embodiment and interface, the avatar-player relationship, the player’s feelings of active ownership and efficacy in relation to avatars and tools (Gregersen & Grodal, 2008).

When discussing masculinity in game studies; gender, diversity (or lack thereof), sexism, misogyny and hypermasculinity or hyperfemininity in character representations in video games have been the focus of many researchers (Lynch, Tompkins, Driel & Fritz, 2016; Trinh, 2013). Particularly concerning the issue of masculinity in video games, at the core of the discussions we find questions related to how narratives, aesthetics or gendered gameplay of video games embraces tropes of hypermasculinity. This research aims to approach the gap in previous research by encompassing the disembodied white male subject in the context of outer space in video games, by analyzing complex representations of gender, which sometimes can not necessarily be categorized as “hyper” forms of exaggerated gender representations. This approach necessitates an understanding of philosophical and critical posthumanisms for its investigation of disembodiment and aims to develop a novel framework for video game studies which is informed by posthuman philosophy. Furthermore, the question of the imagination of outer space in video games entails more comprehensive interest in the field of game studies, because digital games frequently feature narratives set in outer space. This research addresses the under-representation of this issues in game studies and attempts to investigate the interlinked relationship between space travel in real world and its representations and imagination in contemporary science fiction by employing a trans-disciplinary approach.

  1. Research Methods and Design

The aim of this research is to apply a critical posthumanist analytical framework to cultural representation of outer space exploration in science fiction video games. Based on an in-depth literature review, a critical framework of inquiry drawing upon the fields of posthumanism, gender studies, science fiction and game studies will be elaborated. During the first phase of the research, I will identify current debates and positions in the field of posthumanism, through a literature review of relevant texts. With the help of this review, I will then develop a toolkit for critical inquiry in order to engage with the question of disembodied masculinity in outer space.

In the second step of the research, I will focus on the field of science fiction studies. Here, I will deal with the question of cultural production of outer space in contemporary video games, through a literature review of SF studies literature related to the imagination and construction of outer space in science fiction proper. As I have shown in the previous chapters, science fiction has a role in imagining and constituting the relationship between what is human and what is non-human. Thus, to examine disembodied masculinity’s manifestation in outer space and to trace the “empire in outer space”, I will draw upon central texts and use relevant methodologies from the field of science fiction studies[36].

My transdisciplinary approach will be further enriched by specific methods from the field of game studies in order to facilitate an analysis of a range of different exemplary works in the form of video game case studies (Lankoski and Bjork, 2015; Hill and Gibson, 2000; Galloway, 2006; Isbister, 2016). The entire process of analysis is informed by a perspective which fundamentally regards video games as a point of entry for a kind of posthuman subjectivity, i.e. their capacity to reformulate the traditional humanist conception of the subject through the medium of human and machine symbiosis (Boulter, 2015). Major qualities which inform my selection are, firstly, the video games’ depiction and construction of the human body in outer space and its relation to the non-human; secondly, the games’ overall narrative and gameplay features, which constitute the relationship between the player and outer space in the game. Because of multi-faceted nature of digital games, it is vital to choose specific methods that correspond to the distinct characteristics of games. Two main groups of digital games constitute the case studies, considering their ludic and thematic properties (Petrowicz, 2017), such as their narrative attributes and thematic scope, as well as their gameplay objectives, rules, mechanics, economies and other features of interactivity or player-avatar relationships. The first group includes narrative-heavy video games, and the second group consists of “open world” and “sandbox” digital games, as well as selected multiplayer games and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). Each of these two groups require specific game analysis methods that slightly differ from the other. Regarding the first group of narrative-heavy games, textual analysis of representations in digital games will be central (Carr, 2017). Video games such as The Outer Worlds (2019, Obsidian Entertainment), Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017), Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), Tacoma (Fullbright, 2018) and Observation (No Code, 2019) present fully developed and complex narrative structures. The embodied experience of playing games and corporeality in digital games will form the base of the analysis and highlight the embodied nature of representations (Anderson, 2017). For a critical qualitative analysis, this methodology takes avatars, interfaces, menus, information screens, dialogue choices as well as consequential actions into consideration and examines how these elements operate as they are, and together with other narrative properties, to constitute the “text” of a game (Consalvo, 2006). Case studies of digital games will be “conceived as multiple-layered systems and processes of signification that mix representational and performative, rule-based and improvisational modes in their cultural character”, to sufficiently acknowledge the ludic nature of the games and their gameplay (Mäyrä, 2009: 1)[37]. In regard to a games’ narrative potential, my analysis will utilize a model of interpretation that is not privileging heteronormative formulations, by relying on queer theoretical models in game studies (Chess, 2016).

Open world space exploration games such as No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016), Astroneer (System Era Softworks, 2019) and Satisfactory (Coffee Stain Studios, 2019) make up the second group of case studies, because of how they constitute the player’s relationship to outer space, alien planets and their resources, life etc. More than the first group of narrative-heavy games, this group of games necessitates a deeper focus on the gameplay mechanics (Calleja, 2011). In these games the player devotes significant time and effort to optimizing the economy of exploiting resources, crafting and building. Issues such as planetary protection and the precedence of indigenous life on other planets over human exploration in these games, provide a critical potential for the textual reading of this genre (McKay, 2000). Here, the transdisciplinary character of this research allows a more comprehensive analysis, by drawing upon works from the fields of science and technology studies and cultural studies. Ideas like escaping planet Earth, or expanding to outer space for material resources to sustain growth on Earth have an essential place in canonical space video games and these concepts will be critically approached within a critical posthumanist framework. When engaging with massively multiplayer online games (MMOG), I will consider the game’s communal aspects (Taylor, 2009).

The first group of narrative-heavy video games and other games that are textually relevant for this research, which will be analyzed in more detail are the following (subject to change): Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017), The Outer Worlds (2019, Obsidian Entertainment), Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), Event[0] (Ocelot Society, 2016), Tacoma (Fullbright, 2018), The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), Observation (No Code, 2019), Ostranauts (Blue Bottle Games, 2020), Factorio (Wube Software, 2020). The second group of video games case studies, which consists of “sandbox” and “open-world” games and other games, which are significant for their gameplay mechanics are: No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016), Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Sundae Month, 2016), Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019), Astroneer (System Era Softworks, 2019), Satisfactory (Coffee Stain Studios, 2019). The following digital games will be also taken into consideration alongside the main focus to the aforementioned games, for their respective specific characteristics of gameplay and narrative properties: Star Citizen (Cloud Imperium Games), Stationeers (RocketWerkz, 2017), Deliver Us The Moon (KeokeN Interactive, 2018), Take on Mars (Bohemia Interactive, 2017), Journey to The Savage Planet (Typhoon Studios, 2020), Elite: Dangerous (Frontier Developments, 2014), Space Engineers (Keen Software House, 2019), Oxygen Not Included (Klei Entertainment, 2019), Terraria (Re-Logic, 2011), Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2014), Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015), Civilization: Beyond Earth (Firaxis Games, 2014).

In addition to my own gameplay experience for the analysis of the video games, other player’s gameplay footage will also be examined, in the form of “Let’s Play” videos. Furthermore, video game live streaming formats will also be taken into consideration as methods of analysis (Sapach, 2018). This will incorporate recording my own gameplay for further content analysis, as personal game logs, as well as using other player’s live or recorded gameplay footage, firstly as sources for textual analysis, and secondly as logs of player-game interactions and other complex matrices of interoperability (Radde-Antweiler, Waltemathe and Zeiler, 2014; Parkkila, Radulovic, Garijo, Poveda-Villalón, Ikonen, Porras, Gomez-Perez, 2016).

The selected digital games for this PhD project are those games that appeared on the market between the year 2010 and present. This time limitation allows us to capture a relatively contemporary picture of the issue of outer space in digital games, as well as to establish an analysis that reflects present-day accounts of the cultural imagination of outer space, and its complex relationship with developments in real-world outer space exploration ambitions. Since the early 2000s and predominantly during 2010s up to present day, the privatization of crewed outer space travel plays an important role not just in the actual space travel industry, but also for the cultural understanding of outer space and its colonization (Dubbs, 2013). Digital games undoubtedly reflect this shift in the cultural understanding of the “conquest” of outer space and this research takes this phenomenon into consideration when analyzing digital games released between 2010 and today.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda (BioWare, 2017)

No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016)

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (Sundae Month, 2016)

The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013)

Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019)

The Outer Worlds (2019, Obsidian Entertainment)

Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017)

Event[0] (Ocelot Society, 2016)

Tacoma (Fullbright, 2018)

Observation (No Code, 2019)

Ostranauts (Blue Bottle Games, 2020)

Astroneer (System Era Softworks, 2019)

Factorio (Wube Software, 2020)

Satisfactory (Coffee Stain Studios, 2019)

Stationeers (RocketWerkz, 2017)

Civilization: Beyond Earth (Firaxis Games, 2014)

Star Citizen (Cloud Imperium Games)

Deliver Us The Moon (KeokeN Interactive, 2018)

Take on Mars (Bohemia Interactive, 2017)

Journey to The Savage Planet (Typhoon Studios, 2020)

Elite: Dangerous (Frontier Developments, 2014)

Space Engineers (Keen Software House, 2019)

Oxygen Not Included (Klei Entertainment, 2019)

Terraria (Re-Logic, 2011)

Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly, 2014)

Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015)

Eve: Valkyrie (CCP Games, 2016)

Spacewar! (Steve Russell, 1962)

Galaxy Game (Bill Pitts, Hugh Tuck; 1971)

Computer Space (Syzygy Engineering, 1971)

Wing Commander: Privateer (Origin Systems, 1993)

The Dig (LucasArts, 1995)

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