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The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn

Posted by Martin on 8th November, 2011

Guernica

In order for fascism to self-perpetuate, it needs to instil two distinct and contradictory ideological certainties in its citizens. Firstly, they need to believe that the state is unstoppably powerful; they have to believe that the government will never falter, never stop, and never make a mistake. The victory of the fascist worldview must be perceived by its citizens as an absolute inevitability, a glorious triumph over the forces which oppose it.

The contradictory belief, also essential to the propagation of a fascist mindset, comes when you examine the characterisation of those opposing forces. The enemy – whoever they are – must be seen as pervasive, powerful and mindlessly committed to the destruction of everything Good and Pure. They can’t just be seen as a hiccough on the path to victory; no, the enemy of the state in a fascist system must be, if anything, just as powerful and omniscient as the state itself. Citizens must be prepared to combat their invasive influence at every turn, as this justifies whatever horrific actions the state takes against them.

Fascist ideology, then, requires the illusion of both the unstoppable force of the enemy and the immovable object of the state in order to function. With that in mind, the move in modern military shooters towards faceless, infinitely-spawning enemies is the perfect demonstration of fascist thought being applied to game design.

Let me rewind a little. Hordes of faceless enemies have been running towards player characters since the beginning of the First-Person Shooter game. The zombie genre, in its various media incarnations, has been using the unstoppable mindlessness of its enemies as a justification for brutality for years. There’s a definite streak of fascist thought in the vanilla concept of zombies, although it’s usually complicated and subverted by the now-cliché “We Are The Real Monsters” subtext. Games, though, tend to have far more straightforward plots, and the dichotomy between ‘human’ and ‘monster’ is well-explored territory in FPS games.

The differences between this and the modern military shooter, however, are clear. While Doom was abstract in its enemy design, drawing influence from Christian mythology and science fiction, the Call of Duty games represent fully-conscious humans as amoral monsters. The abstraction is important; while the good vs. evil subtext of the former still hinges on dichotomy, the latter implies that humans, rather than being a mess of conflicting motivations and convictions, can constitute an unstoppable ideological force. As James Hawkins puts it:

“In the storied history of the Call of Duty franchise, or in the Battlefield or Medal of Honor franchise for that matter, never once have we seen the opposition as people. We shoot them as people, they stumble and roll across pavement as people, yet their humanity is categorically absent from our encounters with them.”

This process of dehumanisation, especially when utilised in fictional conflicts so clearly analogous to the ones in which our countries are currently engaged, justifies the player’s actions against them. By representing the enemy as humans, but having them act as monsters, the developers transgress from abstract exploration of themes to direct political statement. The enemy in these games is faceless and nameless, the literal embodiment of the insurmountable fascist Other.

The immovable object of the state, therefore, is represented by the player character. Divorced from permanent death and equipped with a recharging health bar – and usually characterised as a chisel-jawed white man, as an aside – he is the force which resists the unstoppable Other. The canonical story, after all, will always end in his success at Whatever Cost. Of course, all his brutality and violence is justified in the face of the enemy’s evil acts. Many of these games will show outright some specific horrific incident, in order to demonstrate precisely how entirely opposed to Good such groups are.

Strip away those elements, though, and we are left with the uniquely gamic expression of fascism: the infinite respawn. Enemies are not individuals; they are fanatics, prepared to charge into a mounted gun emplacement in order to destroy the forces of Good. Complex, interconnected motivations are reduced to endless waves of sub-humanity, funnelled down corridors and across rooftops into the player’s righteous bullets.

I don’t mean to imply that the developers of these games are full-on fascists. In my opinion, however, their design decisions are a clear demonstration of fascist ideology expressed through the video game form.

7 Responses to “The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn”

  1. Mike says:

    It feels like developers make the hordes of enemies faceless on purpose so that killing them is less disturbing than if you were told that each and every one of them has a family and two children called Bobby and Alice. Sometimes I play games like this and do actually pause for a moment and think “poopie, if this was real then each of these ragheads/ruskis actually has a wife and two children called Bobby and Alice”. After this realisation I have to put the game down for a bit.

    Basically what I am saying is that rather than being a fascist plot, it is exactly the same as how every government behaves in a war situation: turn the enemy into a faceless inhuman monster to make it easier to kill them in swarms and still sleep at night.

    • BJ says:

      Objectification is the standard mode of interaction with people that we don´t know. When you are crossing paths with hundreds of people on the subway, you objectify them, as your primary objective is avoiding collision, not caring about them as human beings, etc. etc.

      Exactly what this has to do with fascism is somewhat unclear, however, unless one (as is commonly done nowadays) reduces the information content of the term “fascism” to a synonym for “bad”.

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  3. [...] Martin Falder at Oh no Videogames! describes “the fascist politics of infinite respawn“! [...]

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  5. [...] it’s nigh impossible to design games like that any more. The best selling franchises are fascist corridoor shooters and glorified games of Simon Says; you can see why publishers might be reticent about funding a 40 [...]

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