Playing with nuclear weapons: video games and the production of power and victory


Carolina Panico is a Doctoral Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. Her research focuses on feminist poststructuralist interrogations of the global nuclear order. Carolina's Ph.D. project examines the emergence of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) with a specific focus on the contributions of small and middle-power states. Carolina is interested in feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial approaches to global politics, particularly international security, global governance, arms control and disarmament, and norm dynamics. She is a member of the Beyond Nuclear Deterrence Working Group, part of the Rethinking Deterrence Research Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and housed at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

This article examines how nuclear weapons are represented in popular war simulation video games such as the franchise Call of Duty. While the literature has explored the social and symbolic meanings of nuclear weapons and how they have been represented in popular culture, existing accounts have not thoroughly engaged with video games. Using a feminist poststructuralist lens, I seek to understand how representations of nuclear weapons in video games contribute to normalising particular systems of meaning about nuclear weapons. Rather than simply fictional or trivial, I will show how such representations contribute to normalising the ongoing possession and modernisation of nuclear weapons. I will show how game dynamics produce nuclear weapons as a “winning condition”, thus a symbol of power, supremacy, and victory that reinforces dominant understandings of their military value while masking the horror of killing. Moreover, I will show how nuclear weapons are programmed to be the “special item” in the game that only the most skilled players can obtain, reinforcing the exclusionary power dynamics sustaining the nuclear status quo. The article contributes to the literature examining the politics of nuclear weapons. It draws particular attention to the role of popular culture, as a system of meaning production, in reinforcing dominant understandings rendering nuclear weapons a persistent feature of global politics.