Year-End Special Four-Part Special: Methods of Power in and around StarCraft II

One of the central questions in both Philosophy of Law and Social and Political Philosophy is “What is power?” Quite a bit of philosophy is interested in understanding the concept of power, often before making value judgments about its use and limits. StarCraft II is a multi-leveled study in power, through gameplay, story, and the impact of the game on the world.

As a real-time strategy game StarCraft II is about controlling and using resources to gain power. Furthermore, each of the three races within the game explores this theme in a unique way, and each of those different explorations illustrates a piece of the way that StarCraft II explains and demonstrates South Korea’s pioneering and excellence in e-sports.

For the Terrans, power is about building and controlling infrastructure—the media and information are key elements in the story and game. For the Zerg, power comes largely through infestation—through being present and connecting with sources of power and with the general Zerg population. For the Protoss, power is considered to be the result of knowledge and wisdom. All of these different approaches can be used to understand why South Korea is such a consistently dominant force in e-Sports.

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[Part 1] The Wind Beneath the Wings of Liberty: “For Universe News Network, I’m Kate Lockwell.”

One of my favorite options throughout the Terran campaign was the interaction with the UNN news reports, and the obvious government control and bias against the heroes. What I thought was a fun gimmick took center stage in the plot when the protagonist rebels discovered incriminating recordings of the corrupt Emperor. The heroes chose to hack into the broadcast network and disseminate the incriminating statements, thus turning the “hearts and minds” of the people against the corrupt government. Advancing the revolution was a matter of controlling the infrastructure (in this case, the media infrastructure). For Raynor’s Raiders, power was about controlling information through existing systems, and was worth “a hundred battles.”

In more broad terms, power came from controlling the resources of information and the means of distributing that information. Jim Raynor’s observations that the government had used the media against his cause for years, and his fear that the government would only spin the incident and regain control, show the power of the media. While this is a largely a statement about media as a special kind of access to the power of controlling a very large population, it is also a commentary on the strategic value of controlling any element of infrastructure. For the Rebellion against Mengk’s Confederacy, control over UNN was as important as any military base or research facility or arms manufacturing plant.

It is easy to see the strategic value in controlling existing infrastructures and making them work for your own cause—indeed, there may seem to be no reasonable alternative. However, the Zerg’s interaction with existing differs a little from the Terran method.

[Part 2] One Swarm, One Heart: Being and Infestation.

The Zerg campaign uses the word “essence” in almost every conversation. There are lots of interesting questions about “essence,” such as questions in constructivism and the challenge of natural kinds. Setting aside such puzzles, we can see that the Zerg obsession with essence is in the context of furthering power through connection and infestation. Unlike the Terran approach of controlling systems of power, the Zerg connect with power and weave some element of that power into themselves. They break down the barriers of distinction between themselves and the other thing. They seek to permeate and be permeated by those things around them, and are drawn to power to be permeated by it and integrate it into themselves; their infestation is presence, or “Being” in a sense Heidegger might approve of.

Even the essential game mechanic of the Zerg, “Creep,” illustrates the role of connection for this race. A growing, living carpet is the foundation of all Zerg bases and provides bonuses to Zerg units. Everything about the Zerg is a matter of connection: their hive mind, their sprawling, organic physical connection, and even the origin of all units from the same structure are all directed towards breaking down distinctions between beings into a single whole.

A lot of this is rightly alien to humans, if only because we don’t cover ourselves, each other, and our world in mucus. However, we do form a less tangible sort of organic carpet that connects us to everyone around us, which we call our culture. This living background also directs how we connect to power, each other, and ourselves.

[Part 3] The Future Legacy: Why Zeratul Reads the Writing on the Wall

The glimpse of Protoss that we get in StarCraft II (until the release of Legacy of the Void) is through the experiences of a single Protoss mystic, Zeratul. Zeratul is on a sort of spirit journey to understand ancient prophecies about the end of the universe. He believes that understanding these predictions will give all three races the direction they need to avoid apocalyptic catastrophe. For the Protoss (at least this particular one), power begins with knowledge and understanding, which directs further efforts at power.

Rather than rushing into power to subjugate enemies or create even greater power, Zeratul wanted to know how power should be used and what should be done. He wanted mastery over context and direction, and certainty in his goals. Zeratul relied on writings from the past about the future to know what to do in the present. This optimizes his context and understanding, as it allows him to see the direction of forces by understanding the causes of their shapes. By understanding the origins of the Zerg, he understands the potential for Kerrigan to become powerful enough to thwart the overarching threat to the universe. By understanding the tensions between the three races, he understands the risk of Kerrigan’s destruction that would make possible the end of all things. For Zeratul, this view—brought by knowledge and understanding—is the most important resource. He wishes to begin at the beginning, and understand what should be understood.

[Part 4] StarCraft II in the World: How Korean E-Sports Power Makes Us “Foreigners”

All of these approaches are played out in answering the oft-asked question: “Why is South Korea so good at e-Sports?”
The answer begins with the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. After a devastating economic collapse, governments like South Korea’s were faced with questions of rebuilding and moving forward. South Korea invested heavily in telecommunications infrastructure. As the economy steadily rebounded, one small business plan that grew around a strong telecommunications infrastructure was computer gaming cafes. These became so numerous and omnipresent that they became a major element in the culture of young people growing up in South Korea around 2000. As the culture integrated computer gaming as an important social medium, the quality of players grew. In the late 90s, there were not as many games that lent themselves to the kind of competitive, head-to-head, high-speed gameplay that fit the cultural need of young people gathered in a social setting, but StarCraft was a near-perfect fit. Just as Brazilian children gravitate towards soccer fields and so many American children hang out near basketball courts, sizable portions of Korean children spent free time at gaming cafes. It follows quite obviously that spending time practicing and learning leads to excellence. That excellence is so dramatic that it is even noted in the parlance of StarCraft II tournaments: competitors are either Korean or “Foreigners.”

[Of course, there are other factors that led to S. Korean unique dominance in e-sports—Japan’s anti-gambling laws undermined the growth of a competitive gaming scene, the US was sold on consoles like Xbox and PS2 over computer gaming, etc.]

There is a simple analysis of the story of South Korea’s success in e-Sports: Economics, legal possibility, and technological availability lead to the creation of a new infrastructure (Terran). This infrastructure was integrated into the culture, leading to the development of a specific kind of power (Zerg). The path of past events created a direction for power to be used (Protoss).

There is so much more to talk about in StarCraft II. Its rich story is filled with characters and ideas, and the storytelling and gameplay add depth and perspective to further enhance the potential subjects of discussion. For the considerations on power, there is a takeaway lesson about understanding and recognizing the inorganic structures and organic cultures that produce certain types of power, and realizing the direction that power wants to go. Whether it’s telecommunications, biotechnology, energy management, or sports and entertainment, these points are relevant and recognizable. Future outcomes will depend on how we make our systems and culture, and how we allow our creations to shape us.

Grinding for Moral Consistency in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

“Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!” is set between Borderlands 1 and 2, and allows players to play as some of the bad guys of Borderlands 2. One trailer (6:40) for BLPS cracked wise about the moral implications of advancing the cause of future enemies, but this question is central to the theme and story of the game.

I. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” –Kierkegaard

The game of BLPS is played as a flashback. After the events of BL2, the mercenary Athena is captured and interrogated by the victorious heroes of the two previous games. She explains her role in the events between BL1 and BL2, and you, the player, play out those events as she describes them. As a freelance mercenary, Athena is hired by the central antagonist of BL2 (Handsome Jack) to save the moon of Elpis from a renegade military commander. (Yes, the plot is heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

A recurring theme is the decision to advance the cause of Handsome Jack, as the post-BL2 interrogation reflects on the horrors he inflicted. The story poses to players the challenge of reconciling Jack’s heroic actions of saving a moon (and its colonial population) with his villainous acts of destruction carried out in BL2. The game asks us whether Jack was a good guy or a bad guy, and by implication also asks: How can we understand his apparent transformation? How can we make sense of a character that displays contradictory traits? How can we evaluate good and evil?

These are deeply important questions for our lives. Discerning between good and evil is at the core of ethics, and permeates decisions we make in our personal, familial, political, theological, and professional lives. Adopting the wrong approach to the ethical questions posed in BLPS can have catastrophic implications if applied elsewhere in life: apathetic indifference, sympathy, empathy, or pity for evil, absolute subjectivism, blind and unquestioning tolerance, or strict act utilitarianism all lend themselves to a variety of atrocities and horrors we intend to avoid through ethical examinations.

II. Virtue Theory Gives a More Complete Evaluation than Some Teleological Formulations

The game challenges the maxim that “the ends justify the means” by presenting several applications of that ideal, including one betrayal by a prominent protagonist NPC to kill Jack and the player. The story also makes a specific note of Jack’s decision to kill three probably innocent scientists on the suspicion that one of them might be a traitor—a decision which he openly relishes, afterward. An NPC asks the player-character for their opinion of Jack’s choice, questioning both Jack’s motive and his nature.

One way to evaluate Jack and his transformation between BLPS and BL2 is in an appeal to virtue theory. On this interpretation, Jack’s actions may have saved Elpis, but his nature and character were malicious and malevolent throughout the escapade. This view affords us the outcome of seeing Jack as a bad man who did a good thing. This view is also consistent with the entire knowledge of Jack’s wanton evil in BL2, in which he is malicious and does only bad things.

III. Grinding, Grinders, and Moral Ground

In any game with a leveling and/or gear system, players often find they want to gain an advantage by gaining extra levels for added bonuses, thereby making it easier to meet future challenges. This is often done through repeating simple and mindless tasks, which slowly and steadily advance the player towards the next level or have a chance of yielding desired items. This slow, steady process is called “grinding.”

BLPS introduced a new feature to the game called a “Grinder.” This machine accepts three items and returns (with some probabilities involved), a better item. This does some amount of “grinding” for the player, helping advance the attainment of better gear more rapidly.

Moral identity advances by an analogous method: a slow, steady, repeated process of small decisions, actions, and attitudes.

IV. The Need for a Good Evaluation of Goodness

Throughout BL2, Jack addresses the player characters as bandits, asserting that they are no different from or better than the marauding psychopaths they slaughter. Jack explicitly sees himself as the righteous hero—even with his dying breath. Because evil will always think itself good and present itself in a positive light, we must have a better approach for evaluating morality than general, easy-to-apply standards handed to us by the most convenient authority.