Failed civilisations, collapse, apocalypse – these themes are practically as old as humans began telling stories, from the theological appearances of Kalki in the Kali Yuga, to the opening of the seven seals in the Book of Revelation.

Eschatology has always held its draw, perhaps playing on some fundamental human anxiety that the world cannot go on existing when our corporeal selves cease to be, and as such, the end times will always be around the corner to some enlightened millenarians.

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A more recent phenomena is making these age-ending prophecies our own personal playgrounds. Twentieth century science fiction has had much to say about contemporary fears of the day, including exchanges of nuclear warheads, climate death, technological hubris, and catastrophic social upheaval. Hardly anywhere have these portrayals been quite as consistent as in a very modern form of mass media: videogames.

As part of the ongoing Utopia or Dystopia – Imagining Futures season at the British Academy, Dr John Wills, reader in American History and Culture at the University of Kent and author of Gamer Nation, will trace the history of the past half-century of gaming during a talk called 'Playing in the darkness: video games and the dystopian imagination'. In it, Wills will reflect on just what it is these digital worlds speak to about the future and explore the appeal of role-playing collapse.

Wills tells Techworld that the cultural predicaments, fears, and anxieties raised by gaming are often overlooked. "Since their inception, games have been providing us with valuable viewpoints on life, and, especially, they've had a skill in exploring disaster landscapes, where civilisations might be falling apart, or where it might be heading," he says.

The first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space, preceded Pong by a year and was a derivative of Spacewar!, the 1962 early arcade game made for the PDP-1 computer that was installed at MIT. In Computer Space, designed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, who would go on to found Atari, players control a rocket engaged in intergalactic warfare that must shoot down flying saucers.

What's interesting about this, according to Wills, is that from the very start, gaming pioneers were already fixated on future conflicts, where warfare has left the terrestrial realm and is fought in space – preceding Hollywood hits like Star Wars by nearly a decade. The game itself even featured in 1973's Soylent Green, itself a dystopian cult hit, in the apartment of one of the wealthy few who could afford fresh food produce rather than repurposed human slurry.

"There's this weird product placement within that dystopian movie that video games are a part of that dystopian future," Wills says.

Other games from the era that focused on off-kilter and dangerous future science fiction universes found themselves at the centre of moral panic. Take when Family Safety Magazine tarred 1976's Death Race as an "insidious", "morbid", "gross", and "sick, sick, sick" product for encouraging players to drive over humanoid figures.

Some game designers were very conscious of the anxieties that they were reflecting. Missile Command – famously played by John Connor in Terminator 2 thus mirroring the plot of the film – sees the player defending their cities from an unending barrage of nuclear bombardment.

People didn't necessarily know of the programmers' fear of nuclear war, adds Wills, but the designers were certainly conscious of it. Some even suffered nightmares while they worked on the title. When the game was shipped to arcades across America, the idea was that the player would imagine they were defending their own local towns and malls from the nuclear onslaught.

"That's really quite intriguing when a 1980 game is personalising these things and making you connect with games in a deeper way," says Wills. "That game is unwinnable. It's quite hard, but it's also unwinnable. The cities you're protecting will always be destroyed – you get some points but basically you will lose and it was deliberately designed in that way to make people think: in a nuclear war scenario, there won't be a winner, you will lose, and in a big way."

Today, hit games like The Last Of Us see the player cast in the role of the rugged individual and reluctant fatherly protector navigating a prepper-survivalist wet dream. A fungal contagion strikes and everyone is out for themselves, forced to avoid the zombie-like monstrosities on the fringes of remaining human settlements, or go up against the fascist military-police dictatorship in the dwindling urban centres.

More recently, The Outer Worlds from Obsidian imagines a collection of far-flung space colonies where brands have full control over entire planets: for instance, a tuna cannery corporation where an outbreak of the plague is deemed a useful human resources tool to sort the useful workers from the chaff – or where committing suicide transfers your debt to whoever happens to be the nearest worker to the victim at the time.

It's darkly humorous satire, yes, but it bites squarely at neoliberal capitalism, imagining what would happen if libertarians successfully had their way and colonised the universe (as they are of course intending to do): Libertarian Police Department at cosmic scale.

"Video games can have quite interesting commentary on present-day issues or what might happen," says Wills. "They've got a bit more gravitas and poignancy if they're engaging you not just in far-fetched fantasy, but they're actually saying to you: these things could happen. A lot of them have an environmental dimension, like Horizon: New Dawn. Some of the decent ones are actually offering that critical narrative and depth, rather than just being that surface adventure."

"I find the Fallout series quite interesting because on one level, it's quite romantic: some of the actions you take, you're indulging in consumption, and there's a nostalgia for America's past. But there's satire too."

For example, the gigantic US Army-developed "Liberty Prime" – in-game canon being that it was developed to liberate Anchorage from communist China during the Sino-American War of 2072 – spews patriotic propaganda messages from its loudspeakers as it rampages through the landscape at the end of Fallout 3.

Power play

That dystopia and collapse so successfully capture the public imagination is probably multifaceted. One possibility is a general sense of disempowerment. Is it coincidence that the rise and rise of games as a medium coincided with the massive transference of wealth and power instigated on both sides of the Atlantic by Reagan and Thatcher?

Games put the player at the centre of simulated universes where they can rise to the role of hero, making a material difference and setting the world to rights – similarly to Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, where Arnold Schwarzenegger transmutes from a hopeless everyman into planet-saving action hero. If the shit really does feel like it's about to hit the fan on practically any given day, maybe there's some catharsis in taking control, even if it's not real.

"We are maybe drawn to that really rewarding sense that we can make a difference," Wills says, "or that we can be put in an almost survivalist setting and protect people and save the world. They're all very big, romantic, powerful ideas, and games have such an immersive quality now that you can feel as though you're really, virtually making a difference."

Games also narrowly missed the wave of technology optimism associated with the post-war period, where Worlds Fairs suggested that advances in science would serve a liberatory function, perceived as transforming the human experience in line with the Jetsons rather than the total destruction of Skynet, ushering in a wave of consumer convenience, robotic servility, and spacefaring exploration.

Today contemporary western science fiction tends to lean towards the 'What If Phones But Too Much' fabric of shows like Black Mirror, where our futures are depicted as basically the same but slightly worse.

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Games have veered towards war and dystopia from the start. Wills wonders if there might also be a voyeuristic element at play here: "I think there's a dark frontier on the horizon where games do reflect a cultural anxiety and concern. It's almost as though we want to play out [these scenarios] in the virtual world. We want to play disaster in the virtual escape, but avoid it in the real world.

"Maybe that's a kind of mechanism for not actually tackling the real issues - but for me anyway, and probably for a lot of players, we are drawn to these disaster-scapes because we're almost like tourists where we get the attraction to be able to play and be a part of that."