115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Containment and Collection in Cold War Video Games: Gold, Technology, and the Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity

Raymond H. J. Rim, University of California, Riverside

The Cold War constructed gender along geopolitical models: political hegemony affected how America valorized and idealized a brand of hegemonic masculinity built on the ideas of containment and collection. The collector par excellence that figures prominently in American films and British fiction is reworked and transformed into a newer model for early video games made in both the US and in Japan.


This paper will consider the evolution of media in the Cold War, focusing particularly on video games as a cultural and economic commodity. By the late 80s and early 90s, video game companies introduced new characters and styles of play that mirror pre-existing masculinities and ideologies. Containment culture figures prominently in films and novels of the 60s and 70s; while technological advances open theoretical new worlds and possibilities of being, capitalism and its attendant systems mimic pre-existing and traditional (and therefore less risky) forms. My larger project tracks hegemonic masculinity built on containment culture, along with its binary-paired ideology collection across various genres: films, literature, poetry, video games, and anime. Figures like the villain in John Fowles’s “The Collector” and the King in James Clavell’s King Rat are constructed on the notion of hegemonic masculinity: a style that is designed to mimic geopolitical superpowers like the US and the USSR, and one that subordinates and systemizes other forms of gender identities (queer masculinity, female masculinity, etc.). This particular construction of hegemonic masculinity mirrors the way that smaller and lesser entities are forced to participate in the hegemonic superpower: the way James Bond is able to mold and meld ethnic minorities like Karim Bey in From Russia, With Love and Judah Ben-Hur in his title film models for American audiences the way to dominate countries like Greece and Turkey on a geopolitical scale.

            Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog are considered seminal games in the history of video games. Both have spawned various sequels, and both are in many ways formative to how the rest of the genre developed. My paper will explore the ways the protagonists of these games are given gendered identities that mimic other cultural models that are similar. Japan occupies a unique position following WWII as an area where American capitalism shaped the Japanese national identity. Mario the plumber is a Japanese construction of an ethnic identity used to sell a consumer commodity. Like other hegemonic masculine constructions, he flouts the conventions of containment and is able to access areas others cannot. The goal of the game is to collect as many gold coins (and points) as possible in a contained amount of time. Sonic the Hedgehog takes that role to an even higher extreme in which speed, in the form of technology, is used to break down the rules of containment. In the sequels, other male characters are introduced to reify Mario and Sonic’s position as hegemonic male.

The villains portrayed are also worth exploring: Dr. Robotnik’s egg-like vessel takes the idea of containment to a separate level: Japan being a nominal ally of the US during the Cold War, the makers changed the name of the villain from Dr. Eggman to Dr. Robotnik, playing up the Soviet menace by adding a Russian suffix to technology. The villain then takes the idea of collection, twisting it by collecting the “natural” animals and making them into automaton-like robots.