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The Political Themes of StarCraft - Real villains tend to not be so blatantly obvious, and will instead claim they are making the tough decisions to help as many people as possible.

The Political Themes of StarCraft

An interpretation of how the story is based on the political spectrum.

StarCraft was the first RTS I played in my youth, replayed when I got older, and replayed again recently through the Mass Recall mod for StarCraft II. The story of StarCraft is certainly a political one. If you don't know it, you can read about it here. As a kid, I did not understand the story beyond a shallow level and saw everything through a good guy/bad guy lens where the good guys rebel against the madmen authority figures and Kerrigan was kind of sexy. Now as a wiser adult who studied political perspectives to understand the nature of heroes and villains, everything just makes sense to me.

The meaning of the races

Each of the races represent a part of the political spectrum. The Terrans represent indecisive centrism in a tug-of-war between left and right politics. The Confederates are unethical capitalists exploiting resources and oppressing people while the Sons of Korhal are the "idealistic rebel crusaders" fighting against the oppression of the Confederates. However, it turns out the left is just as bad as the right, even worse if you consider genocide by Zerg worse than oppression since the left is motivated more by vengeance against the oppressors than caring for the weak. They are made up of separate teams fighting each other towards separate goals, which is a balance of collectivism and individualism.

The Zerg represent extreme collectivism as they are literally a hive mind. They are genetically diverse and very flexible through their ability to spontaneously mutate. The idea that life is intrinsically valuable and more important than wealth radically extrapolates to mean that the goal of life is to breed more life without limit and achieve biological perfection through the assimilation of all life forms. All life is equal, and what is good is what maximizes the total amount of life, so it is permissible to sacrifice a lesser amount of life now if it leads to a greater amount of life in the future. The Zerg consume all other life to spawn an endless swarm where there are no individuals, only expendable drones following the will of the Overmind.

The Protoss represent extreme conservatism. Their technology and golden cities represent their wealth that they keep to themselves, and they conserve their people to the point of resurrecting their fallen warriors with cybernetics, but they are also rigidly traditional and idolize past heroes as examples to be followed. They believe in their own superiority over the other races to the point of seeing Terrans as expendable in the effort to stop the disease-like spread of the Zerg. The Conclave's pride in tradition and hatred of heretics led them to reject the only way to defeat the Zerg and to fight against their more liberal brethren during a critical time, which costed them their homeworld.

Left versus right

Collectivist sacrifice

On the surface, Mengsk is just a power hungry lunatic who would destroy entire planets and leave the pretty girl to die for his own ambitions, but his mentality is fundamentally collectivist. Mengsk did not see Kerrigan as an independent individual, but as an extension of himself. Kerrigan had no intention of sacrificing herself, but Mengsk decided on her behalf that she should be sacrificed for his greater plan. He then talks like the loss of Kerrigan was his sacrifice, not hers. As a leftist, he is about exposing the corruption of the Confederates and being the caring leader who watches over everyone, but ultimately, he is really concentrating power into his hands and building his own success at other people's expense.

You can see a similar mentality in real-life politics. When leftists say they want to tax the rich to save the poor, they are essentially treating rich people's money as their own. They talk about how "society" or "we" should help the poor when they are really talking about everyone other than themselves. They believe in taxation, not charity because they want to force other people to give up their wealth while expecting the impact on their own wealth to be negligible. They sacrifice other people under the impression it is their own sacrifice being made. Mengsk was made to be blatantly obvious, but real leftists tend to double-down on how they are helping people and working towards greater social justice, not realizing that intentions and outcomes don't always align because it depends on who they think is disposable to make their vision work (e.g. the wealthy, the straight white men, the far right).

Collectivism is like the radical extension of the basking in reflected glory phenomenon, where unilaterally associating yourself with a successful group makes you feel like you are a part of that group's success, so you feel entitled to make decisions for them as if you were an equal member of that group. Collectivists claim that we all must work together towards a common goal, but that goal is ultimately decided by whoever is at the top of the system directing the ignorant masses who depend on the collective to give them purpose. It is not really a collective goal, but an individual's goal being carried out by a collective of non-thinking drones.

Collectivists think they are being compassionate, but they are actually being egocentric by failing to distinguish between themselves and others. They have a "We all want the same things" belief because they cannot comprehend how people are different and want different things, which makes them ironically lacking in empathy as they start making decisions on other people's behalf and excise those who diverge from the collective vision and threaten the hive cluster.

Blind fundamentalism

Aldaris represents the religious fundamentalist who will not deviate from the written word of tradition for fear it would taint society. He is portrayed as the unreasonable one spouting religious nonsense instead of explaining what was wrong with the Dark Templar that justified banishing them in the first place. Ironically, Aldaris was right. The telepathic technique of the Dark Templar to interface with and harm the Zerg was what revealed the location of the Protoss homeworld to the Zerg in the first place. "Consorting with the Fallen Ones" did bring disaster to their people because the Dark Templar's "profane power" had such a gaping security hole. Even worse, the only way to get out of the mess was to keep working with the Dark Templar, which further puts everyone at risk.

Stories that push the "discrimination is bad" narrative tend not to point this out and end up creating a straw man narrative of arbitrary persecution for no reason at all. What if Aldaris said right to Zeratul's face something along the lines of, "You did this! You brought the Zerg here with your reckless power! So many of our warriors have fallen and Fenix is crippled for life! We should have executed you and your brethren a long time ago!" It would weaken the anti-discrimination narrative the writers were trying to push.

The backstory about the Dark Templar's banishment contradicts why Aldaris keeps saying "En Taro Adun" and opposes Tassadar, even though Adun was a traitor who disobeyed orders and helped the Dark Templar just like Tassadar, yet was made into a hero despite it. Also, making the Protoss collectivist as the reason they persecuted the Dark Templar contradicts the fact that their culture honours individual heroes who went above and beyond, so they are supposed to be tolerant of individualism so long as the individuals are not a clear danger to others.

Even the idea that the Dark Templar are normal people who don't deserve persecution fails to read people beyond the surface by not questioning why these "normal" people are associated with the group in the first place, especially since being Dark Templar is a choice, not an inherited characteristic. Moderates tend to be enablers of the extremists by doing nothing while the extremists grow their ranks and wreak havoc. In their hearts, they want their side to win because otherwise, they wouldn't continue to be associating with it.

Regardless of whether they turned out to be right all along, fundamentalists fail to understand the logic of tradition. They act like tradition is beyond our understanding, yet it must be followed to the letter to repeat the success of past heroes. They believe that the past heroes who established the tradition were magical and infallible, which is understandable because geniuses appear magical in how they are able to come up with the things that they do, but they still operate within the confines of reality. Rather than focus on understanding the natural process the heroes used and refining it, fundamentalists fixate on the authority of the heroes.

It all boils down to an appeal to authority. Fundamentalists are terrible at explaining things, so they resort to bigotry. Even secularists engage in the same behaviour by quoting experts without understanding the methods used or the political motivations mixed into policy recommendations. Being an authority and being right do not always line up, which is why we have the concept of free speech.

Converging to the middle

The overarching political theme of StarCraft is one of political moderation, where the heroes have been burned by the lack of individualism of the far left and the lack of flexibility of the far right, so they rebel against the establishment to pursue their moderate principles. This is even true for the Zerg. At first, the Zerg were the generic bad guys that sought total domination and were eventually defeated by the Protoss. In StarCraft II, they pretty much join the good guys by moving away from the far left through Kerrigan's restored individualism.

Despite their moderate positions, the heroes of each race still retain their inherent leanings. Raynor fights for people's rights, but is disgusted by infestation and doesn't respect Kerrigan's decision to rejoin the Zerg. Kerrigan is vindictive against Mengsk for betraying her and uses the collective strength of the Zerg to carry out her will. Artanis has pride in his homeworld and sought to reclaim it from the foreign invaders to make Aiur great again. These are all motivations with political implications that put the characters at different points on the political spectrum while still being heroes.

You might think it is really about moving away from authoritarianism, but total anarchy is not ideal either because not everyone is capable of thinking for themselves and will end up directionless without someone's guidance, like the Zerg. Functional societies need principled leaders and collective organization to an extent because capitalism does not protect itself. Anarchy will eventually be taken over by an authoritarian who gives directionless people direction to sweep through the land and conquer the disorganized individuals. Liberty is protected by guns and prisons as ironic as it sounds, which means good politics require moral nuance, not absolutes.

Final words

The point is that fiction is based on real-life thinking as the source of inspiration, so comparisons to real-life is useful, even necessary in story analyses. Fictional characters are often caricatures of real-life extremists, and extremists are often caricatures of certain lines of thinking normal people have under some circumstances. Fiction can give you wrong ideas about certain kinds of people and how life should work, especially when people uncritically praise a story, which makes you think the story presents an authoritative view on life that everyone believes in, which is why political criticism of fiction is so important.

It is absurd to believe that fiction should not have politics or should not be viewed through the lens of politics. There is a reason why people disagree on things to the point of fighting, and it is intellectually negligent to avoid discussing that reason. If a game has bad politics, it is the job of critics to call it out and inspire better politics, not avoid politics entirely. It is understandable that politics is a difficult subject that questions the very moral foundations on which you conduct yourself, but you won't find innovation without taking risks.

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