In this week's edition of Banana Pepper Martinis, L.B. Jeffries takes a look at the use of academia in the discussion of video games.
A growing trend in game criticism is to shoehorn academic disciplines like Marxism or Freudianism into video game analysis. A good example would be the blatant mother figure tones from Cortana in Halo and the fact that Master Chief seems dead set on winning her affections. Another would be going on about the mis-en-scene of Bioshock, which is just a fancy way of saying the game makes you feel claustrophobic. Typical reactions to these kinds of exchanges vary from "It's a fucking game" to "Dude...seriously, it's a game." Which is fair enough, but how exactly are we supposed to talk about video games with people beyond "I luv teh gamez"? There is only one logical conversation after that: the experience itself. This is actually what academia really is when it applies to a game, varying ways to explain and analyze with great depth and magnitude the precise nature of that game's experience.
This wouldn't be a proper defense of academia without some game analysis though, so I'm going to take this through a very gentle, easy going run down of Starcraft (after the jump).
Beneath all the clever balancing and design of the three sides of this game is an underlying theme of class warfare. The Protoss represent the upper-class, while the Zerg represent the lower, impoverished class. The Terrans, stuck in the middle of these two warring factions, represent the embattled middle-class trying to exist between these two forces. Social class has a variety of definitions, but using the Marxist one for this critique we will say that class represents the relationship a group has with its means of production and resources.
The Protoss possess a very hands-off relationship with their tools of war. Every part of their arsenal comes through a warp gate, meaning they never actually build it themselves. A working class of subservient drones and robots serves their every need. Most of their units are also disproportionately expensive in resources, meaning that one Zealot consumes far more resources to create than the other race's grunt level soldiers. This is analogous to the upper-class because they too tend to consume more resources per rich person and rarely actually produce their own goods. Instead, they control those who have the means of production and merely enjoy the benefits. They also tend to consume far more crystal and gas even after production. For example, a typical Protoss unit does not achieve proper killing potential without a significant financial investment after completion. The Carrier has to have drones built after it warps in. The Reavers all need to have scarabs paid for over and over. They are continuously consuming resources far beyond the initial costs. Finally there is the Protoss shield system itself. What better metaphor for the upper-class, insulated by their wealth, than the regenerating shields of the Protoss forces? It is only after punching through their shields, their wealth, that you are able to begin striking at the core of the upper-class Protoss.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lower class, which Marx described as an assembly of "vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers..." Given the huge variety of species assimilated into the Zerg swarm, with each one bringing a unique ability or contribution to the force as a whole, this would seem to be an apt description. Furthermore, the very nature of the Zerg is the swarm, the rushing mob. They are controlled by one central authority figure, another detail of the lower class that is typical of their susceptibility to the mob mentality and fascist impulses. The Overmind and Kerrigan are constantly battling to maintain control of the swarm, which is an excellent example of the constant struggle of controlling the lower class through propaganda and mind control. The Zerg are easily persuaded by psi-emitters, rebellious cerebrates, and rival factions. Finally, their entire means of production centers around the Hive, a giant structure that is the center of any Zerg base. The larvae that are bred and grown there are capable of becoming any part of the swarm. None are superior to the others in their births, but it is only by the will of the swarm that they become different from one another. This egalitarian construct is emblematic of the unified origins yet multi-faceted society that the Zerg represent as the lower class. The Zerg are all equal in their births and their contribution is the same for the swarm.
Finally, the middle class or Terran forces in Starcraft represent just that: an in-between force that exists as a medium between these two groups. They are embittered between the swarm mentality of the Zerg and the elite high-expense units of the Protoss. This image of defense is one that best describes their chief asset and how they strike a balance: bunkers and missile turrets. No other race in the game has as potent a defensive capability. Nor are the bunkers manned by a subservient robot working class like the Protoss, they must be filled with soldiers to work like the Zerg structure that always require a sacrificed drone to exist. In contrast to this is the missile turret, a robotic unmanned unit that is subservient to their Terran controllers. Like the middle class of society, the Terrans possess some ability to use a worker robot class and yet must still participate in their own production to some extent. The SCV's all contain people, most of their units must be manned, and very few structures are not populated. Another chief feature of the Terrans is adaptability. Many of their key structures can lift up and be relocated. Any of their buildings can be built (or repaired) by an SCV and on any ground that is suitable. They have no need for purple goo or psionic fields to power their structures. Like Marx's praise of the middle class for their adaptability and independence, the Terrans in Starcraft are the ones most capable to overcome the weaknesses of the upper and lower class.
It's important to remember when people go around making these kinds of assertions that they're not (or at least shouldn't be) implying that the author actually intended this stuff. Hell, Blizzard has been using the exact same plot in their games since 1992 and their design method is to create the multi-player first, so I'd say it's a really safe bet they didn't intend this. Beyond that, class comparisons fit nicely with any 3-sided RTS game, and frankly I could arguably get away with shoehorning the concept of Starcraft into any other 3-sided scenario. That's not really the point of all this. The point is that it's fun to talk about video games with people, and after a while, you want to talk about your experiences with the game. You don't need a fancy English degree and you don't need to know anything about some academic school of thought (I got most of this stuff off Wiki, as will be obvious to 2.3% of the population). You just need to talk about your experience with a game beyond simply liking it. The question is...WHY did you like it?
When Kerrigan broke out of the chrysalis and decided she wanted to become a Zerg, how tragic was Raynor's sadness at his failure to be the knight in shining armor? To have arrived to save the princess only to discover she was more powerful than him? How interesting was Tassadar's religious persecution and punishment when he was the only person on Aiur who could stop the Zerg? Or my personal favorite, when Kerrigan brushes aside any doubts about how much she truly enjoys power. After stabbing all of her allies in the back and announcing to her cerebrate that she's just been declared "Queen Bitch of the Universe", your mission is to kill everyone in the sector or die trying. If people start praising moments like this, if they start talking about them more for the experience in more eloquent terms, then maybe there won't be a day when there are so few of those moments to choose from.