Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Boulter, Jonathan S.


This dissertation studies Western big-budget video games of a genre often referred to as “open world.” By tracking the concept of the “frontier” as a settler colonial (and later neoliberal) signal for space that invites access, I argue these games are both expressive of and cater to settler and neoliberal cultural anxieties regarding extermination and desires for accumulative dominance. Furthermore, these games exhibit their settler colonial and neoliberal ideologies through their narratives, gameplay mechanics, and productive contexts. That exhibition of ideology comes in several formulas of settler and neoliberal cultural production identified by various fields of scholarship. This dissertation, drawing from Indigenous studies, video game studies, post-colonial and Marxist theory, studies the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series, Assassin’s Creed 3 and the so-called “Ubisoft formula” generally, as well as Horizon Zero Dawn to argue a few central points about big-budget Western open world games: (1) they are what I call artificial frontiers, and as such are the preeminent entertainment of settler colonial cultural mores and the sustained eliminative and accumulative logics of those mores’ historical frontierism; (2) they reveal, reflect, propagate, accommodate, and assuage settler colonial anxieties and desires; (3) they exhibit (though attempt to obscure) the genocidal logic and exploitative relations of Western settler colonialism and neoliberalism; consequently, to some extent this dissertation argues the video game industry’s social function shows the compatibility of settler-influenced neoliberalism with fascist ideology.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation argues that the big-budget, Western-made video games of the “open world” genre draw from the concept of the “frontier” for their success. By studying the Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption series, Assassin’s Creed III, and Horizon Zero Dawn, I assert the genre’s features make them “artificial frontiers” because they cater to the same cultural anxieties and desires “the frontier” has historically produced and continues to “play” with. As the frontier is historically a space of imperial genocide, modern video game companies design these games as power fantasies. These power fantasies normalize the economic, racial, and political problems of Western culture, and seek to soothe the fears and wants that context produces. Finally, I argue that these fantasies reveal how the ideology of these extremely popular games is similar to fascist ideology.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.