Digital Heroisms Conference: Panel 1 | Horizon Zero Dawn

Paper One: The Potential Effect of Aloy’s Ecofeminist Heroism on Players of Horizon Zero Dawn

Todd O. Williams, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania


Todd O. Williams received his PhD in Literary Criticism and Theory from Kent State University in Ohio, USA. He is an Associate Professor of English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania where he teaches composition and literature courses including Early World Literature and Literature and Psychology. He has published multiple articles on pedagogy and Victorian authors. He is the author of the books A Therapeutic Approach to Teaching Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and Christina Rossetti’s Environmental Consciousness (Routledge, 2019). He has become an avid gamer in recent years with a preference for games with engaging stories and compelling characters.


Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD) has been widely praised as both a feminist and environmentalist game. Aloy, the game’s protagonist, might be described as an ecofeminist hero. However, an important question remains as to how the game’s themes might translate into cultivating pro-environmental attitudes and actions in players. My proposed paper will examine the effectiveness of the game’s ecofeminism through three models used in the fields of environmental and conservation psychology: environmental preference, the value-belief-norm model, and self-determination theory.    

Generally, ecofeminism seeks to displace a culture of domination that negatively affects human relations and our relationship with the earth. Several models used in environmental/conservation psychology align with ecofeminism and with specific aspects of HZD. First, an understanding of “environmental preference” in humans explains how the player forms a strong connection with the natural environment portrayed digitally in the game, which they effect and interact with through Aloy. The value-belief-norm (VBN) model argues that people with more altruistic and less egoistic values tend to hold more pro-environmental beliefs and with them norms of pro-environmental action. HZD can reinforce such norms, in particular through the player’s identification with Aloy who always acts with empathy and altruism toward the many diverse characters she encounters throughout the game’s narrative. Finally, self-determination theory (SDT) describes how games can give players feelings of competence that tend to lead toward pro-environmental behavior. Taken together, these models show how the ecofeminist, digital hero Aloy has the potential to encourage pro-environmental as well as pro-social attitudes and actions.

Paper Two: Scalar Heroism – The Temporal Landscape of Horizon: Zero Dawn

Dr Merlin Seller, University of Edinburgh


Dr Merlin Seller completed their MA and Mst at St Andrews and Oxford respectively, obtaining their doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia concerning transmedia and remediating works between film, photography and painting. They are a proudly pansexual/non-binary academic with a background in Art History and Visual Cultural Studies, and teaching experience in game design. They are currently Lecturer in Design and Screen Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, working across Film, Comics, Media and Game Studies, appointed in 2019. Their present research interests concern Phenomenology, Horror, and the Non-human turn in new media.


This paper explores issues of scale, agency and ecology through a ludic, visual and textual analysis of the protagonist in relation to landscape in third-person open-world game Horizon: Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games, 2017). This case study’s sci-fi vistas bear the robot carcasses of the machines used to shape them – from vast broken limbs stretched over mountain peaks, to the pseudo sauropods which map the plains for small ungulate machines recycling the valley floors. Through a thousandyear narrative, Horizon emphasises the impossibility of disentangling or prioritising different scalar levels of being – individual and environmental. I argue that the radical terraforming of Horizon’s world, and the fictive AR interface mechanics which superimpose its past onto its present, generates what Tomothy Morton (2013) calls a ‘being-quake,’ providing imaginative player “interaction across… scalar levels” (Chang, 2019:10). As the player performs the archaeological work of sifting through ancient bunkers, they explore this spatially in what Tim Ingold calls the temporality of the landscape as a dynamic product of human and non-human labour, always already constructed, eachpart evidencing agency and interrelation (1993). As Rosemary Jackson argues, Fantasy is not an escape but rather an articulation of the social and environmental contexts that generate it (Jackson, 1981), and by shaking up ‘being’ in a world reeling from a military-industrial complex run amok, Horizon’s hero points towards prescient modes of kinship that might fulfil Alenda Chang’s desire for: “a way to carry on and find productive modes of being even in a compromised situation.” (2019:188).

By Gabriel Elvery

Gabe is researching the effects of Fantasy in single-player, narrative-driven video games. Their project will explore whether its effective use facilitates affective engagement with digital fantasy worlds and whether this digital affect has the potential to impact the emotional wellbeing of players in their off-screen lives. Gabe’s research will develop a new kind of reader reception theory by investigating whether literary analysis of video games has practical applications and corresponds with the experiences of players. The end result will make available a fuller understanding of the affordances, implications and impact of the Digital Fantastic.

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