Space Invaders in the Economist

The Economist boasts some of the most fetching covers for any general affairs magazine. Elegant, well designed and clever, they overlap to some extent with the New Yorker’s (Tom Gauld is a nice fit for both), though they rarely offer the capsule narratives often to be found on the US magazine. In both cases, graphic sophistication is obviously used as an index of intellectual, cosmopolitan hauteur.

Andrea Ucini, cover to The Economist, Feb. 13-19, 2021

The cover for the February 13-February 19 offers a striking example of that design practice. I was noticeable enough to catch my eyes from halfway across a newsagent’s.

It is of course also a fascinating case study for the role of videogame imagery in the global culture – though The Economist is British, it is widely distributed across western countries, and in fact, I saw this copy in a train station in Tours, France. The reference here is clearly to Taito’s Space Invaders (1978), in which pixelated aliens gradually descend towards a lone spaceship, controlled by the player, which is initially shielded by space bunkers.

The cover adjusts this imagery is several ways. First, by replacing the invaders with spiky variations which should recall – in context – the shape of the coronavirus, by far the most ubiquitous graphic element on The Economist’s covers since last year (it features on 8 on the last 52 covers). In a clever and efficient twist, the ship itself turned into a syringe, whose white tip is also the ship’s laser. It is tempting to read the graduations on the syringes as measures of the vaccines’ respective efficiency. Andrea Ucini, the Italian artist who created the cover, often uses similarly inventive, if not surrealistic, conflations.

I am tempted to quibble about the accuracy of some elements. First of all, leaving aside the color of aliens, the explosions are noticeably anachronistic, and fit games released a few years later, like Xevious (1983). Secondly, while Space Invaders as a game with an empty background – this is what emulators still show and what contemporary conversions looked like – the arcade version actually used an overlay. The cover to Mad Magazine #230, from 1982, is thus a more accurate representation of that experience.

Left: explosion on the cover of The Economist
Right: explosion in Xevious (Namco, 1983)

Left: Space Invaders with overlay; Right : Mad Magazine #230 (April 1982)

Left: Space Invaders with overlay
Right : Mad Magazine #230 (April 1982)

Unsurprisingly for an allegorical 2021 cover, The Economist thus traffics in videogame nostalgia rather than in historically accurate mentions. Nevertheless, this choice raises several questions: this is after all the only clear pop-cultural reference on the cover of the magazine in the past year. It also echoes a previous cover, from August 22, 2020, so closely as to constitute a direct answer.

The Economist, Agust 22, 2020.

The difference, of course, is that the August cover uses a generic science-fiction reference, with none of the technological signature of videogames. How then can explain the use of Space Invaders, in a magazine which usually shows little interest in videogames and videogame culture?

  • Invaders, and specifically invaders, have been appropriated by street-art and have been revitalized as polysemic aesthetic signifiers, which are both nostalgic and current.
  • The game has permeated daily life in many ways. In addition to the aforementioned street art invaders, ads of all kinds have turned the invaders into shared symbols in the same way as Superman’s chest symbol and costume for instance. Additionally, fictions like The Last Starfighter (1984) or Ernest Cline’s Armada  (2015) – not to mention countless early 1980s examples – have consistently described Space Invaders as training for real-life.
  • Video games, especially high-score-based older games, appear to offer legible outcomes and clear hierarchies. They offer the promise of unambiguous resolutions, in a clear contrast with the ongoing crisis.
  • This may be a narrower argument, but Space Invaders still stands for a kind of technological and cultural threshold. This is not the first video game by any means, but this is arguably the game which made the form culturally relevant. This would echo nicely the theme of the issue.

Points 1) and 2) also help explain how a 41-year-old reference may still work for younger readers. As evidenced by the “mistakes” in the reconstruction, this cover does not seem solely aimed at people who remember playing the game when they were young or to dedicated specialists. Conversely, Space Invaders is old enough not to carry the social stigma still associated with contemporary videogames; its violence is abstract, aestheticized and distant. The cover, in other words, tells us a lot about the cultural cachet of that specific game rather than about the cultural status of videogames.

The irony, of course, is that the allusion only works at the superficial level of an indistinctly remembered experience. This cover is about Space Invaders as a shared cultural signifier. For the game itself tells a radically depressing story: you may defeat one wave of invaders, but another will come, and it will be faster. You may fight bravely, but sooner or later, you lose. The desirably legible outcome, the high-score, is only attained after defeat.

Things will go faster, and then you’ll die. Somehow, I can’t imagine this is what The Economist is trying to tell its readers.


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