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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Column: The Politics of “Space Marine”

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 jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

2 COMMENTS

  1. While the Imperium allows some local autonomy by necessity, stretching as it does across the galaxy, it does not allow direct dissent, full independence, or any possibility for peace-making. (“In the grim, dark future, etc. etc.”) It may be that some variants of the setting present the Imperium as a federalist democracy, but I haven’t seen these. I hate to quote Wikipedia, but my books are a few thousand miles away: “In the fiction, the Imperium is depicted as a loose empire, nominally consisting of all human-inhabited worlds in explored space and united through imposed religious conviction, extreme xenophobia, militarism, fascism, despotic hierarchical rule, and threats of brutal disciplinary force.” Where does the game indicate otherwise?

    Either way, I can’t speak to the entire canon – only this particular game. Other Games Workshops products certainly influenced Space Marine, but they were created by other authors and therefore have to be considered separately. Space Marine never suggested that the Imperial world Graia was anything other than an Orwellian planet in which proles are forced to toil endlessly for their masters. And the Imperium did nothing to change that.

    Even if Space Marines were acting in the name of some sort of federal republic, the game sets up a scenario in which an absolute and subhuman outsider must be destroyed at all costs. The idea that an ork or a Chaos cultist can never be good or peaceful is part of the problem of Space Marine. The game presents evil as a genetic or essential quality rather than an ethical or political condition, thereby precluding any possibility for negotiation or truce. This is a disastrous doctrine when applied in the real world.

    Furthermore, the game’s notion that democratic law must be suspended and “heresy” must be purged in order to fight this Manichean evil is quintessentially fascist. As Carl Schmitt suggested, fascism works by calling a permanent state of emergency in response to some threat, real or imagined. The Emperor’s justification for his unquestioned and unelected sovereign rule is deeply implicated with this authoritarian logic.

    But, again, the game’s tone complicates this by suggesting that the Space Marines are a parody of other science-fantasy texts (ala Norman Spinrad’s “The Iron Dream”). Indeed, later events in the game clearly suggest that even the Space Marines and their Imperial Guard comrades realize that not all is well under the Emperor’s reign.

    Chaos is the only true answer!

  2. Your critique of the Imperium is misguided and foul. You seem to be decently versed in the lore behind the game, but not nearly enough to imply that Space Marines or the government of the Imperium are ill-natured, closed-minded, or “totalitarian”.

    On an individual planetary level, every planet is free to choose which form of government controls it. There exist feudal/hereditary states, democratic republics, and every other sort of rule. The Imperium only takes a tithe (you know.. like a federal tax on top of the state tax) from every planet.

    In any case, the Imperium fights for the existence of humanity – not its enslavement. Space marines are, indeed, above moral reproach (save for the watchful eyes of the Inquisition). Chaos and every alien race is, by nature, hell-bent on the destruction of humanity (except maybe the tau.. but that’s a different story). There are no pacifist cultists, orks, etc. They all must be purged.

    – the Emperor protects.

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