Rules of the Father: Playing with Patriarchy and Masculinity in The Last of Us

How is patriarchy, the rule of the father, encoded in rule-based systems like videogames? How does patriarchal rule become an algorithmic rule and vice-versa? These questions are at the heart of Rules of the Father, the first comprehensive scholarly analysis of the zombie apocalypse/ action-adventure/ third-person shooter videogame The Last of Us (2013). On the one hand, the book is a close, extended study of The Last of Us and its themes, genres, procedures, and gameplay. On the other hand, the book is a post-GamerGate reflection on the political and ethical possibilities of progressive play in algorithmic mass culture, of which videogames are now the dominant form. Widely regarded by critics and fans as one of the best games ever produced for the Sony Playstation, The Last of Us is remarkable for offering players a narratively rich experience within the parameters of cultural and gaming genres that often prioritize frenetic violence by straight white male heroes. The Last of Us is also a milestone among mainstream, big-budget games because its development team self-consciously intervened in videogames’ historical exclusion of women and girls by creating complex and agentive female characters. The game’s co-protagonist, Ellie, is a teenage girl who is revealed to be queer in The Last of Us: Left Behind (DLC, 2014) and The Last of Us II (2020). Yet The Last of Us also centers Joel, Ellie’s fatherly protector.

At the core of my book is the hotly debated question of whether The Last of Us succeeds at creating a feminist experience for the mass audiences of violent videogames. Does the game mount a convincing critique of Joel and patriarchy? Is Ellie an alternative to the tropes analyzed by Anita Sarkeesian, or is she merely another Lady Sidekick? How should we interpret the game’s notoriously ambiguous ending, which pits Joel’s perspective against Ellie’s? To answer these questions, the book provides a case study of a number of key issues in videogame studies: How do designers remain true to their progressive sensibilities while facing the market imperative to create profitable games for predominately male consumers, many of whom have grown up with videogames and are now playing as fathers? Is it possible to combine gender-inclusive game design and the hypermasculine power fantasies and “fun” of the zombie apocalypse, action-adventure, and shooter genres? How do rules, game engine codes, narrative, and play combine to create a game’s “ludopolitics” (Liam Mitchell)? If, as Ian Bogost claims, videogame procedures make claims about real-world systems, how does The Last of Us algorithmically model and critique cultural-political systems such as hegemonic masculinity and heteropatriarchy? How are players’ expectations conditioned by a game’s embeddedness in a media ecology of videogames, comics, and post-apocalyptic films and novels?

Both scholarly and accessible, the book investigates these topics in the form of a “critical playthrough.” In contrast to strategy guides, which detail the steps necessary to “beat” a game, the contemporary playthrough is typically an edited or live-streamed video that documents an individual player’s subjective experience of an entire game. In this book, I aim to combine the popular playthrough and academic videogame studies. The playthrough shows us that gaming is a cultural conversation that extends beyond the individual couch and screen, that players and non-players find value in experiencing a videogame through intimate engagement with another’s play and opinions, and that a single videogame is worth the focused and extensive commentary that is routinely afforded to single novels or films. Like a playthrough, Rules of the Father guides readers through the entirety of The Last of Us and subjects everything from the title screen to the final cutscene to analysis. Unlike most popular playthroughs, my analysis goes beyond strategy and color commentary and invites readers to move through the game’s virtual space and ludic possibilities with the aid of feminist and queer videogame studies and gender theory. I treat the critique of patriarchy as a counter-algorithm, a disruption and recoding of programmed action and thought that opens up critical play.

Rules of the Father will be of interest to scholars, players, and students of videogames who are concerned with how gender is algorithmically represented, made actionable, played, and critiqued. The arrival of videogaming as a dominant mass-cultural form means that we must take greater political responsibility for our play and for the gender fantasies encoded in our automated entertainment.

Under contract for Palgrave Studies in (Re)Presenting Gender