Chthonic Poetics


Thesis Title: Geographies of the Underworld: Chthonic Embodiment and Game Worlds
Masters thesis: MS in Digital Media, Georgia Tech, 2008
Project website:

My masters thesis (MS in Digital Media, Georgia Tech, 2008) research explored the relationships between mythic underworlds and video games. The underworld is everywhere in games, and it appears throughout their history, across genres and platforms. There are striking parallels between underworlds and games in their narrative and spacial structures, and these reveal underworlds as virtual environments that predate digital technology. The body is the medium through which we experience these spaces, and the logic and rules that control them use somatic metaphors to render that experience form an inherently immaterial simulation.

Video games exhibit significant underworld themes, values and references in their narratives, worlds, and representation. These chthonic elements have appeared in games across genres, settings, platforms, and target audiences over the course of video game history. I argue that the remarkable prevalence reflects a formal relationship between the underworld and video games; specific elements in mythic underworlds comprise a chthonic poetics that resonates with video game worlds and affordances. Video games uniquely support the spatial, thematic, and narrative elements that characterize underworlds and the philosophical questions they engage.

I began with chthonic spaces to identify the poetics of underworld and understand how they function, placing special focus on spatial construction of meaning, narrative, liminality, and embodiment. Chthonic poetics has applications for other media, although I focus primarily on video games and digital environments.

Underworlds exist as "real" but imaginary places, whose landscapes, denizens and conventions are created and sustained through community consensus and history as well as invention by individuals. As spiritual spaces, they stand in contrast to the material world, but connect to it through interfaces, including the biological (such as shamen, or practitioners in ecstatic states) and the topographic (through an explicit relationship with caves, for instance). These mythic places often share several key characteristics, despite their varied and separate traditions: a distinct spatial geography, fostering narratives of embodied journey and challenge, that is bound by logic and rules peculiar to that place.

Embodiment binds these elements together; they are unintelligible without this core perspective. The body sits at the axis of experience and interpretation in mythic underworlds like the one described by Dante in the Divine Comedy - and in game worlds like the one in World of Warcraft. It provides the medium through which we can experience these simulations as worlds rather than mere information structures.

To learn more about this work and how to get a copy of the thesis, please visit the project website at