A popular video game features a totalitarian empire ruled by an order of fanatical warriors devoted to genetic purity and the worship of an immortal despot. Emblazoned with death’s heads, federal eagles and other Germanic regalia, the regime’s elite slaughter foreign hordes they deem sub-human. However, these imperial soldiers aren’t fascist storm troopers, nor are they the enemy — these are the heroes of “Space Marine”.
This would be shocking were it not so common. Countless video games play out fantasies in which protagonists stand unaccountable and above the law, cleansing the world of evil through mass murder. And, somehow, these games are fun.
Presumably, most players wouldn’t advocate indiscriminate killing or military dictatorship as a solution to real world problems. Why, then, do so many video games have such bad politics?
With “Space Marine”, it’s somehow hard to decipher a political message because of the game’s tone. Many of the creators of the game’s franchise, Warhammer 40,000, came from 2000 A.D., a British comic magazine which careened between dystopian science fiction and Mad Magazine slapstick.
Like the magazine’s most famous character Judge Dredd — a humorless, authoritarian supercop known for stomping punk rockers and jay walkers — the characters can be read as either genre parody or genuine heroes.
Indeed, the game seems to revel in the over-the-top “grim darkness” of its protagonist’s world. There is no illusion that the Space Marine Emperor’s reign is a democratic or even merciful one.
For example, the game takes place on a planet-sized munitions factory where, even as slavering monsters kill everyone, a repeated intercom message demands that workers remain at their posts to fulfill their quotas — or else. As the Space Marine narrator tell us, “It is better to die for the Emperor than to live for yourself.”
Nevertheless, even if we interpret the game’s setting as tongue in cheek, it’s still curious that we are supposed to identify with these people. For every moment of levity, there are a dozen other moments in which the game seems to ask us to cheer as aliens with working class, Cockney accents are gored with a chainsword or thrill at the noble majesty of a bunch of unelected space thugs.
As writers such as David Brin and Michael Moorcock have pointed out in their readings of other fantasy and science fiction texts, most fans seem to accept the message that death is glorious, evil is an inherited defect passed down to entire “races” and rulers are chosen by supernatural means.
At this point in the argument, someone will inevitably respond that video games are a form of escapism and that we should therefore avoid evaluating them based on their implied ideologies. I have never understood this argument because it fails to explain why someone would want to “escape” to an imaginary world in which some people are just naturally inferior.
So, what’s the appeal? “Space Marine” provide players with a fantasy wish-fulfillment of self-mastery and control. Even as everything else changes or falls, the Space Marine is unyielding and strong.
The Space Marine is an example of what Klaus Theweleit called the “armored body.” Just as proto-fascist soldiers (Freikorps) imagined themselves to be encased in armor, impervious to the corrupting influences of foreigners, impure women, and the “Red Flood” of communism, the Space Marines protect themselves through mechanized suits which can never be penetrated or opened.
In an adolescent male fantasy, the Space Marines represent an invulnerable form of masculinity which does have to negotiate or compromise with social, racial and sexual otherness. The devout Space Marine will always remain the same, emotionally and physically untouched by anything that is different or threatening.
His enemies are the flipside of this fantasy. The alien Orks — as in so many xenophobic narratives — are creatures of infinite, uncontrolled instinct, incapable of civilized restraint.
Meanwhile, the lascivious demons of Chaos display pink, exposed bodies which constantly warp and mutate. Exposure to the Chaos heresy is not only a danger to tradition and order, but also to the bodies of Space Marines, because its followers emit a flow of magical radiation which disfigures and perverts all that it encounters.
The only response to these threats to a perfect and unassailable white male identity, the series suggests, is to kill: “Burn the heretic. Kill the mutant. Purge the unclean.”
Of course, it is important to remember that players have complicated relationships to their games. Players do not simply imitate or unreflectively affirm what’s happening on the screen. While playing “Space Marine”, I alternated between enthusiastic immersion, wry amusement and detached criticism.
In some respects, the series is more progressive than other, more “realistic” shooter games. By giving us this hyperbolic and sometimes sinister image, “Space Marine” encourages us to rethink our relationship to violent heroism. However, when it alludes to fascist imagery in such a cavalier way, it risks trivializing the suffering of millions. Either way, “Space Marine” shows that popular culture should not be placed beyond the reach of political thought.
JORDAN CARROLL is a perfect example of the Space Marine dictum, “An open mind is like a fortress with its gates unbarred and unguarded.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.