The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction

By Monica Evans. This academic article was first published in Vector #291.

  • Review: This article underwent editorial review from two editors.
  • License: (c) Monica Evans.
  • Citation: Evans, Monica. 2020. The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction. Vector #291, pp.15-24. Summer, 2020. 
  • Keywords: digital games, video games, science fiction, speculative fiction

In 1962, four computer science students at MIT, looking for something interesting to display on their new PDP-1 minicomputer, turned to science fiction. According to Steve Russell, the group’s core programmer, they started with “a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships” (Brand 1972). Before long, two ships – one long and thin, the other a squat triangle – could engage in an interactive, physics-based dogfight, and Spacewar!, the world’s first digital game, was born. 

Spacewar! may have been the first, but it was hardly the last. A staggering number of successful, influential, and critically-acclaimed games can be categorized as science fiction (Krzywinksa and MacCallum-Stewart 2009), from classic arcade games like Asteroids and Space Invaders to major franchises like Metroid, Halo, StarCraft, and Mass Effect; critical trailblazers like Portal, Half-Life, and Bioshock; indie darlings like Thomas Was Alone, Soma, and FTL; and recent critical and commercial favorites like Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In the absence of science fiction, an equally staggering number of games can be classified as fantasy, horror, or broadly speculative – to the point that it’s uncommon, if not rare, for a digital game to be set in a non-speculative, mundane world. 

Yet despite the vast quantity of science fiction games, there is little critical academic discussion as to why this might be the case. Writing on digital science fiction, Pawel Frelik notes that “most, if not all, video games are, in some way, science-fiction games,” and that “science-fictional regimes of thinking are absolutely central to the entire medium” (Frelik 2016). Likewise, Cameron Kunzelman writes that digital games are speculative because of their interactive qualities, suggesting that games “encourage speculation in the player through their specific modes of interaction,” and that a game’s mechanics, such as a point-and-click system, “can function as an act of speculation which moves beyond the traditional literary or cinematic modes of speculation” (Kunzelman 2018). He also notes that Spacewar!’s designers, and those that followed, were influenced by literary science fiction, and that “[science fiction] concepts and content have been at the core of video games and game culture since” (2018). It’s clear that game developers have a strong affinity for science fiction, and that this affinity has had an influence on the development of the medium at every stage. But science fiction fans exist among creators of other media, from novelists and playwrights to film directors and television producers. To explain the depth of influence science fiction has had on digital games, other factors must be at play. 

In the last decade, the democratization of game development has, if anything, increased the breadth and diversity of speculative games. As game development tools and publishing opportunities have expanded, and as a wider, more diverse array of people have had fewer barriers to creating and releasing their own games (Shaw 2017), digital games have broadened in content. Modern games are tackling mature and sensitive themes in non-speculative worlds, such as Richard Hofmeier’s award-winning Cart Life, a simulation of the crushing mundanity of working as a street vendor; Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, an interactive essay about her experience with hormone replacement therapy; and That Dragon Cancer, a digital autobiography and memorial from the parents of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of twelve months. Nevertheless, there are still massive numbers of science fiction games, many as mature, sensitive, and culturally relevant as their non-speculative counterparts. Developers are telling science fiction stories that are best told, or perhaps only told, through the medium of games, from the instant classic of Portal to recent critical darlings like Disco Elysium and The Outer Wilds, and even ambitious critical failures like No Man’s Sky.

As the medium has matured and expanded, developers are still turning, more often than not, to science fiction, implying a strong, fundamental tie between the two. I argue that digital games are predisposed to science fiction content for two reasons: game developers, at every historical point, have been science fiction fans, and therefore tended to make games with science fiction content; and digital games’ dependence on rapidly-changing technology makes them a natural fit for science fiction content and themes. These two points together – historical influence and technological structure – mean that games are literally a product of science fiction, and are therefore uniquely positioned to explore science fiction concepts and themes. And as digital games create engaging, emotional experiences for players in ways no other medium can, examining their deep link with science fiction helps us understand how games create narrative experiences as a whole, as well as how science fiction themes can be expressed in an interactive medium.

Defining the Digital Science Fiction Game

While the vast majority of digital games include some speculative elements, most if not all games present the player with an interactive fantasy in a broader sense. Designer Marc LeBlanc, in defining a taxonomy of aesthetics for digital games, lists “fantasy,” or “game as make-believe,” as a type of fun common to a wide variety of games (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2004). These fantasies are often speculative, as in games where the player saves the princess, the world, or the galaxy; but many are non-speculative, such as the fantasy of being a rock star presented by the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series of games, or the fantasy of running a successful American football team as in the Madden NFL series. That said, the technological structure of games means that the “fantasy” or “make-believe” elements of science fiction games can be approached more directly. To further examine the link between digital games and science fiction, working definitions of both are needed.

Defining science fiction to everyone’s satisfaction is a challenge, as exemplified by two infamous non-definitions: Damon Knight’s “science fiction is what we point to when we say it” (1967) and Norman Spinrad’s “science fiction is anything published as science fiction” (1974). Gary K. Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy lists definitions from over thirty authors and critics, as well as multiple definitions for “sci-fi,” SF (as distinct from “science fiction”), scientifiction, science fantasy, and speculative fiction (Wolfe 1986). Writing in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, John Clute and Peter Nicholls have noted as recently as 2020 that “there is really no good reason to expect that a workable definition of sf will ever be established” (Clute, Nicholls, and Stableford 2020). That said, they acknowledge that “the fights are at the fringes” and there is relative consensus at the center: that works of science fiction are intended either “to comment on our own world through the use of metaphor and extrapolation, or to create genuine imaginative alternatives to our own world,” and that many works do both at once (Clute, Nicholls, and Stableford 2020).

Defining the digital game is, if anything, more contentious. Historically, game scholars have disagreed on most terminology in the field, including but not limited to game, play, experience, engagement, mechanic, and interaction (Salen and Zimmerman 2003; Juul 2005; Schell 2008; Sicart 2008). Terms like immersion and simulation have specific, very different definitions in related fields; while others, such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, are muddied by their prevalence in popular culture or science fiction itself. Additionally, there is a significant lack of homogeneity among games and game genres. Apart from their medium, there is little similarity between a real-time strategy game like StarCraft, an action-platformer like Metroid Prime, and a classic arcade game like Defender. The issue is thorny enough that some game designers consider it solely an academic problem, arguing that definitions are less important than clear communication between developers (Schell 2008). As with science fiction, the most common definition seems to echo Damon Knight’s: “game designers follow their gut instincts… they know it when they see it” (Schell 2008). Also like science fiction, the fights tend to be at the fringes, in that there may be debates over whether a visual novel like Doki Doki Literature Club or an interactive essay like Dys4ia counts as a digital game, but there are no questions about Grand Theft Auto or Half-Life 2.

It’s important to note that digital games are fundamentally interactive, in that interactivity is the defining quality of the medium, but that they can and often do present narrative experiences in a nuanced, engaging way. Science fiction, on the other hand, is a primarily narrative genre, and so we need to briefly examine how digital games present narrative experiences to the player. The relationship between storytelling and game design has been heavily documented and discussed (Aarseth 1997; Juul 2005; Ryan 2006; Isbister 2016), but two aspects are relevant here. First, many scholars argue that digital games are a procedural medium, in that a game’s meaning is embedded in how players understand and experience its rules, and that games “can convey complex messages precisely because of their procedural nature” (Sicart 2011). Second, the primary function of a piece of fiction, in any medium, is to convey an emotional experience to its audience (Stein 1995). While early games were focused on two emotions, fear and adrenaline, modern games are adept at presenting a range of emotional states (Chen 2013). Likewise, early science fiction games were often limited to surface-level representations of spaceships and aliens, but modern games can grapple with complex science fictional themes, filtered through the unique affordances of an interactive medium. Digital science fiction games are both products of technology and about technology, meaning that they are primed to tell emotionally engaging science fiction stories that are best told, or perhaps only told, through the medium of games. 

There is, of course, an opportunity to further define the “true” science fiction game by differentiating games with deep, nuanced themes from those with surface-level content – i.e., games that only qualify as science fiction because aliens, spaceships, or plasma guns are present, or in which, with trivial development effort, “the trappings of the fantastic could simply be exchanged for something more immediately familiar to planet Earth” (McKeown 2016). For the purposes of this article, I have chosen not to distinguish between the two as of yet, and am examining digital games with science fiction content as a whole. Additionally, this article is generally concerned with games and science fiction in the Western, mostly British and North American, tradition. For example, while numerous games from Japanese and Chinese development studios include science fiction content, and acknowledging that cross-pollination between development studios is common – especially when localizing globally-popular Japanese games for Western audiences, such as the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy series – Asian game development is heavily influenced by anime and manga traditions, in addition to Western science fiction, which is beyond the scope of this article. 

The Influence of Science Fiction on Game History

The small team of computer science students behind Spacewar! may have thought spaceships were the obvious choice, but in hindsight it wasn’t obvious at all. Russell’s “two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing” could have been contextualized as any number of real world objects or vehicles – such as the US military’s Redstone Rocket, which in fact influenced the design of one of the two ships (Donovan 2010). But Spacewar! was science fiction at its core because all four of its developers were avowed fans of E.E. Smith’s Lensman series of space opera novels. One of them, J. Martin Graetz, writes that “without the Gray Lensman and the Skylark of Space there would be nothing to write about. So most of the blame falls on E. E. Smith… If Doc Smith had been content designing doughnuts… the world might yet be free of Spacewar!” (Graetz 1981). The first arcade games of the early seventies, Computer Space and Galaxy Game, were unabashed copies of Spacewar!, and their influence is clear on their successors, more mechanically complex games that kept their content tightly focused on spaceships and aliens, among them Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaga, and Defender (Donovan 2010).

This pattern repeats throughout the history of games: an early, groundbreaking title is directly inspired by science fiction, often because of the deep fandom of its developers, and the games that follow are influenced both by the science fiction content of that game and by the speculative tastes of later developers. Dani Bunten Berry’s cooperative space pioneering game M.U.L.E. was directly inspired by Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and had a profound influence on multiplayer game development as a whole (Bunten Berry 1984). The first true real-time strategy game came about because a group of developers had the license to Frank Herbert’s Dune, as their publisher “liked it, with no idea how to turn it into a game.” Their producer, who had both read the book and played Sid Meier’s Civilization, realized that “the real stress was the battle to control the spice, and that a resource-strategy game would be good” (Clarke-Willson 1998), resulting in Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, itself a direct influence on both StarCraft and Command & Conquer. The developers of Halo, an inarguably influential series, published a list of their influences in 2006 as the “Bungie Guide to SciFi,” including Iain Banks’ Culture series as well as Ringworld, Dune, Rendezvous with Rama, Starship Troopers, Aliens, Blade Runner, and Snow Crash (Bungie 2006). Banks’ influence is especially clear, both in small details like the starship names Pillar of Autumn and In Amber Clad and in the series’ larger themes about human-machine relationships, cybernetic enhancements, and the possibilities of large-scale artificial worlds. 

The influence of science fiction is pervasive in digital games, such that most genres have at least one defining game or series that can easily be categorized as science fiction. For platformers, we turn to Metroid; for first person shooters, Halo, Half-Life, Portal, and DOOM; for computer role-playing games, Mass Effect and Fallout; for console role-playing games, Final Fantasy and Chronotrigger; for survival-horror games, System Shock, Bioshock, and Dead Space; for real-time strategy games, StarCraft; for squad-based strategy games, X-COM; for massively multiplayer online games, EVE Online; for simulation games, Spore. The 4X subgenre of strategy games – standing for “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” –  is dominated by science fiction titles, from Galactic Civilizations and Sword of the Stars to Sins of a Solar Empire. Additionally, games that seem to lack science fiction elements on the surface often develop or reveal them during the course of the game. The zombies of The Last of Us are overtly science fictional in nature, resulting from a mutated strain of the Cordyceps fungus. The Uncharted series, an explicit homage to the Indiana Jones film series, hangs on science fictional MacGuffins, from a mutagenic virus to hallucinogenic plants. Even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the most recent entry in one of gaming’s most traditionally high fantasy series, takes place in a world threatened by ancient autonomous machines, and in which Link’s magical abilities are accessed through a technological device called a Sheikah Slate. 

One can argue that many games, including many of those listed above, include science fiction elements at the surface level only, and that a majority of big-budget commercial games prioritize action and spectacle over nuance and ambiguity (Krzywinksa and MacCallum-Stewart 2009).Whether this argument has merit, indie games, far broader and more difficult to categorize, are tackling some of science fiction’s deepest and most complex themes, including the awakening artificial intelligences in Soma and Thomas Was Alone, the shifting identities of linked clones in The Swapper, body horror and control in INSIDE, and the nature of narrative and time in The Stanley Parable. Equally complex themes have appeared in recent blockbuster games, such as humanity’s second wave coming to terms with the extinction-by-technology of the first in Horizon Zero Dawn; the dehumanizing post-apocalypse of Death Stranding, in which premature babies in artificial wombs are used to detect other-dimensional events; or the android societies struggling in the absence of their human creators in Nier: Automata

It’s also worth noting that many game writers and scenario designers are also science fiction authors, and vice versa. Historically, the first commercial wargaming system, “Little Wars,” was designed and released by H.G. Wells in 1913 (Peterson 2012). Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the most influential roleplaying game in existence, has obvious roots in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but takes equally heavy inspiration from Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance’s seminal science fantasy saga (Ewalt 2013). Science fiction authors have written for games since at least the early eighties, including Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, Orson Scott Card, and more recent writers like Ted Kosmatka, E. Lily Yu, and Naomi Novik, some of whom started as game writers and now move fluidly between traditional short fiction or novels and interactive fiction for digital games. 

Why game developers have such an affinity for science fiction over other narrative genres remains an open question, and requires an in-depth look at why people in general are attracted to the genre. Nevertheless, evidence of that affinity abounds, and has shaped the development of digital games at every historical point. But digital games are also a fundamentally technological medium, an examination of which further explains the link between games and science fiction.

The Influence of Science Fiction on Game Technology

In 1997, when Myst and DOOM were on every personal computer and Tomb Raider ruled the game consoles, Janet Murray wrote that digital games were like the incunabula: books printed in the first fifty years after the invention of the printing press, before that particular technology had worked out its kinks. “The garish videogames… of the current digital environment,” she writes, “are part of a similar period of technical evolution, part of a similar struggle for the conventions of coherent communication” (Murray 1997). Over twenty years later, in the wake of VR headsets, motion tracking peripherals, and procedurally generated game worlds, it’s clear that games, in fact, are incunabular by nature: products of a pervasive, rapidly-changing technological landscape that shows no signs of stabilizing. Among its many definitions, science fiction has also been called the literature of change, specifically literature that “deals with human responses to changes in the level of science and technology” (Wolfe 1986) – making for a powerful link with digital games as a scientific, technological, and constantly changing medium.

These constant changes to gaming technology make the medium challenging to keep up with, but don’t render it incomprehensible. Science fiction scholar Patricia Warrick, in her study of cybernetic fiction from 1930 to 1977 – here meaning fiction primarily concerned with computers and robots – notes with disappointment that those stories were overwhelmingly pessimistic, focusing less on the transcendent possibilities of artificial intelligence and more on “destructive metaphors of machines overwhelming and dehumanizing man” (Warrick 1980). She ascribes this failure of literary imagination to the simple fact that writers can’t keep up with the science: “With too few exceptions, the fiction gives no evidence that it is aware of information theory or computer technology [or] cybernetic automata… The resultant fiction is depressing, reactionary, even ridiculous to those whose knowledge of the computer is not totally naïve” (Warrick 1980). While her assessment would likely change for writers after 1980, especially those writing in the cyberpunk subgenre, it is certainly not true that science fiction game developers lack expertise in computer technology. Programmers, digital artists, and level designers are knee-deep in technical software on a daily basis; and while development team structures and positions vary widely between studios, there are few if any game development positions that do not require knowledge of computer structure and code. For all the challenges of developing science fiction games, failing to understand digital technology is not one of them. 

It’s one thing to say that games are fundamentally technological, but something else entirely to specify what that means. First, as noted earlier, games are good at presenting complex content because they are procedural: that is, they are dependent on strictly defined sets of rules. Those rules are dependent on, and therefore inextricably tied to, the technology itself, here the systems and mechanics laid out in each game’s codebase, as well as the computer technology by which the player experiences the game. As described by the authors of MDA – the “mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics” framework for games research – game design and authorship are linked in that “seemingly inconsequential decisions about data, representation, algorithms, tools, vocabulary and methodology will trickle upward, shaping the final gameplay… As games continue to generate increasingly complex agent, object and system behavior, AI and game design merge” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek 2004). Taken one step further, one can argue that the narrative or emotional experience provided by a digital game is dependent on the technology underlying the game’s creation, meaning that the experience of playing a game is fundamentally science fictional in nature. 

Second, many of the tropes of science fiction appear in the technological structure of games, which allow game designers to explore those tropes in ways unique to the medium. Science fiction content in games is often narrative, aesthetic, or environmental in ways that involve little-to-no significant interaction from the player. The core icons of science fiction, such as the alien, the spaceship, the wasteland, the monster, and the city (Wolfe 1979), commonly appear in any number of science fiction games as environments to explore, enemies to overcome, or both, as in the passively deadly atmosphere of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. When those icons or tropes are instead included in a game’s core mechanics or systems, powerful speculative experiences can be created. Time travel stories, for example, are particularly effective when time can be manipulated directly by the player, as in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Braid, in which the player can rewind time to undo errors or pursue different game choices; or The Gardens Between and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in which choosing how and when to move between time periods serves as a core game mechanic. Even more effective are games that present interactive science fiction content in ways that encourage the player to reflect on complex themes, such as the cloning and body swapping mechanics at the core of The Swapper, which puts the player in an emotionally challenging, morally ambiguous situation about identity, theft, and control (Evans 2017). 

Of course, time travel and body swapping aren’t currently possible; and while cloning is, Dolly the Sheep and identical twins are less narratively dramatic than cloned dinosaurs or instant doppelgangers, which remain solidly in the realm of fiction. Some of science fiction’s most popular tropes, on the other hand, are not only real but common in game development, such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence. While game AI doesn’t begin to approach the sentient, self-replicating, or all-powerful machine intelligences common to science fiction, developers are very good at faking it. Players of Alien: Isolation are stalked through the game world by a tactically-minded AI predator, one intelligent enough to consider some game areas more “interesting” to search than others. Clive Gratton, the game’s technical director, explains that their goal was “not to cheat… If you can hear the Alien in the vents close to you then there’s more chance that it can hear you and will come down. It is actually traversing through the vent network” (Lane 2017). 

When games include fictional AI in their narrative and real AI in their systems, the two will naturally intersect. Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a world populated by cybernetic dinosaurs, simply called “machines,” as part of a narrative in which Earth has been terraformed and repopulated after an extinction event caused by self-replicating, biomass-consuming robots. Players spend a great deal of game time hunting or otherwise interacting with various machine species, including relatively peaceful herding machines like Grazers and Broadheads, crab-like transport robots like Shell-Walkers, and giant, aggressive predators like the Thunderjaw, essentially a weaponized T-Rex. To create what feels like a living machine ecology, the game’s programmers needed machines tobehave differently depending on what the player does… We looked at the lore, together with the narrative writer and the writing team, and asked, what can we do?” (Francis 2018). The narrative requirements of the machines’ fictional AI are bolstered, if not directly replicated, by the game characters’ actual AI, allowing for an immersive science fictional experience that feels real in the moment of play.

Despite these examples, it’s important to note that a game’s mechanics and systems and its narrative content don’t automatically touch. Often, this is by design: respawn systems, for example, are near-ubiquitous in digital games, but only a few, such as Destroy All Humans and Bioshock, use those systems to say anything of substance about immortality or cloning. Nevertheless, the technologies on which games are fundamentally dependent are in a constant state of rapid, developmental change, which creates opportunities for meaningful intersections between real and fictional technologies. In other words, the digital game is a medium in constant technological flux, which makes it an ideal space for exploring science fiction content and themes.

Digital Games as Science Fictional Medium

In 2009, Tanya Krzywinksa and Esther MacCallum-Stewart argued that digital games, despite their potential for science fiction storytelling, had yet to achieve that goal, noting the “simultaneous and contradictory claims that the new frontier of digital gaming has brought a new dimension to [science fiction] and that videogames less ‘boldly go’ than ‘broadly follow’”(Krzywinksa and MacCallum-Stewart 2009). Modern games, they explained, emphasized science fiction that favored “spectacle and action over contemplation, and in which speculation, clearly integral to the act of playing games, is not as radically realized as is possible” (2009). Whether one agrees with their assessment or not, a significant number of radically realized science fiction games have been produced in the last decade, and the arguments against digital games as a medium for substantial science fiction are falling by the wayside.

First, digital games, like all creative endeavors, fall under Sturgeon’s Law, the author’s response to constant criticisms of science fiction using the worst examples of the field: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important. And the ten percent of science fiction that isn’t crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere” (Langford 2012). It’s difficult to determine which digital games qualify for Sturgeon’s ten percent, as games within the same subgenre can vary wildly in their mechanics, content, and player experience; and games have achieved objective critical or commercial success for a strikingly wide range of reasons. That said, there are still numerous examples of games across genres pushing the speculative potential of digital systems and environments, proving that games are a worthwhile, even ideal, medium for science fiction. 

Second, one can look to Janet Murray’s 1997 description of digital games as incunabular: the products of a technology in transition. Over two decades later, I argue that games are in fact inherently incunabular: products not of one technology but of a pervasive, rapidly changing technological landscape that will never be finished, stabilized, or come to a point where all the kinks have been worked out. This process of continual technological evolution makes games inherently science fictional, and therefore a natural space in which speculative fiction can be expressed, explored, and experimented with.

Lastly, few arguments about the worth of digital games have withstood the test of time. There is no longer a debate about whether games are an art form: they are, as evidenced by the MoMA adding fourteen digital games to their collection in 2012 (Antonelli 2012). There is no longer a debate about whether games are a medium for legitimate science fiction, as the Nebula Awards, arguably the most prestigious award in science fiction, added a category for Game Writing in 2018. Game historian Tristan Donovan writes that “far from settling into some kind of creative maturity, the video game remains an art form that still feels as if it has barely got started” (Donovan 2010). Digital games have come a long way from Spacewar!’s simple needle and wedge, half a century ago. Now game developers, science fiction authors, and the increasing number of creators who are both at once have a great deal of territory to explore, to continue discovering how best to use this naturally science fictional medium to express what it means to be technological, computational, and human.

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Monica Evans is an Associate Professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Evans has developed digital games for children’s hospitals, science museums, arts organizations, and the United States Government, and directs the Narrative Systems Research Lab at UT Dallas.


Copyright Monica Evans. All rights reserved.

One thought on “The Needle and the Wedge: Digital Games as a Medium for Science Fiction

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