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Video Game Review and Analysis: Ethics, Religion, and Philosophy in “Supreme Commander”

31 Aug

(Originally published June 10, 2009)

As many of you are probably well aware, I do enjoy the occasional video game – especially RTS (Real-Time Strategy) titles. This includes games such as “Age of Empires” and “Rise of Nations.” This year, I kicked off the summer by purchasing Gas Powered Games’ landmark sci-fi RTS title “Supreme Commander.” I was pleasantly surprised, upon playing the game, that there was far more to this title than just “blow up the enemy.” So, for the most part, I’ll keep this review confined to an analysis of the philosophical viewpoints advanced as part of the game’s backstory. A basic outline of the game’s premise, however, will prove useful.

PART I

“Supreme Commander” takes place in the 37th century. Advances in quantum mechanics have allowed humans to colonize the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Newly invented robotic technology allows massive armies to be constructed from a planet’s natural resources within hours. It should be a time of peace and prosperity for all of humankind. But unfortunately, as has so often happened in the course of human history, the calm doesn’t last.

An “Infinite War” breaks out between three primary factions – the United Earth Federation (UEF), the descendants of modern-day humanity; the Cybran Nation, a race of humans augmented with cybernetic AI implants; and the Aeon Illuminate, a splinter group of humans who have embraced the alien philosophy known as “The Way.” Each of these factions has a different motivation for continuing the Infinite War.

PART II

In many ways, the United Earth Federation closely resembles modern-day society:

“The average UEF citizen is not much different from a 20th Century citizen of Earth. They are artisans, athletes, craftsmen, warriors and philosophers. They desire stability and order, but their ideas on how this should be achieved vary widely. Ancient religions are as varied and diverse as they were in pre-war days and continue to be a motivating factor for many. Even if individuals differ in their political or social perspectives, the single most common trait shared by every UEF citizen is their sense of brotherhood and community. Positively contributing to society and personal improvement is a way of life for UEF citizens. For this reason, UEF communities very rarely contain vagabonds and homeless individuals.” (Gas Powered Games, “Supreme Commander Instruction Manual,” page 19)

Sounds good, right? My first reaction upon reading this was quite positive. As Christians, we should indeed have a sense of brotherhood and community towards others, whether or not we agree with them fully. Also, this passage indicates that poverty has been conquered not by government action or the establishment of a welfare state, but rather by concerted action on the part of the individual citizens.

However, the UEF is not as ideal as it first appears. As players learn later on, the UEF was responsible for the enslavement of the Cybran Nation and the destruction of the early Aeon Illuminate members.

PART III

The Cybrans were originally UEF citizens who underwent an experimental procedure to have their brains interwoven with AI implants, creating a race of “symbionts” or, in layman’s terms, cyborgs. When the Cybrans petitioned the UEF for freedom, the UEF treacherously activated a hidden “loyalty program” that commandeered their AI implants and transformed many of the Cybrans into helpless machine-slaves. Some of the symbionts managed to escape, and began a campaign against the UEF to free their captured brethren.

“Cybrans view their captive brothers and sisters with a great deal of sympathy, a view that is fostered by Brackman. The Cybrans prime motivation for waging war against the UEF is to overcome their rule and free as many enslaved Symbionts as possible. As a result of their beginnings, the Cybrans have come to share a common vision of achieving freedom and autonomy through technology.” (Ibid., page 34)

Hmm. Their “common vision” is a bit unsettling…freedom and autonomy through technology?

PART IV

The Aeon Illuminate was founded when a group of UEF colonists landed on the planet Seraphim II. The native species, the Seraphim, introduced the colonists to an advanced viewpoint of peace and love that transformed their perceptions of reality. (They were later attacked, and many killed, by xenophobic UEF forces that eradicated the Seraphim and drove the Aeon into exile.)

Aeon society appears idyllic:

“The Aeon love grace, beauty and cherish esoteric peace. One can readily imagine this relatively new culture living a monk-like, minimalist lifestyle. The average Aeon citizen is soft-spoken, modest and internally disciplined. These are necessary traits inside of a population with such intimate awareness of each other, and the teachings left behind by the alien population are incredibly valuable in promoting a “harmonious existence.”” (Ibid., page 47)

The Aeon philosophy, known as “The Way” appears to have some Zen undertones, but it is never explained fully.

“Believing that they would save the galaxy by spreading The Way to all of humanity, the Aeon brutally waged war against the UEF and Cybran Nation for 1,000 years.” (Gas Powered Games, “Supreme Commander Forged Alliance Instruction Manual, page 42)

From the context, “The Way” sounds like a form of jihadist Buddhism – a way of “peace and love”…spread through brutality and warfare. This incongruity is perhaps the most fundamental flaw in Aeon theology. They believe that by destroying those who object, they will ultimately establish peace.

So what can we as Christians learn from these three factions?

PART V

The UEF has the right idea when it comes to establishing order in society. A culture of individuals working together to build stronger communities and societies is certainly a laudable goal, especially without governmental intervention. However, we cannot be effective witnesses for the Truth if we do not fully live out those principles which we profess. By enslaving the Cybrans and committing genocide against the Aeon, the UEF seriously undermines its professed commitment to helping others. Theirs is an ideology of forced unity rather than a philosophy of true fellowship.

UEF Virtue: Brotherhood
UEF Vice: Hypocrisy

In their quest for freedom, the Cybrans are battling for principles of freedom and justice – and in many ways their struggle resembles that of the early Americans. It’s indisputable that the UEF has treated them unfairly, and they are right to stand up and resist that tyranny. But what are they really fighting for? The game provides the ambiguous answer of “freedom and autonomy through technology.” The goal of the Cybrans is to escape the confines of the UEF and immerse themselves forever in the alternate-reality of cyberspace. But true freedom is not found from losing oneself in a virtual world, or from being physically released from an oppressive government. That’s the kind of trap that leads to “World of Warcraft” and “Second Life” addictions. Rather than withdrawing from the culture, we are called to engage it. Ultimately, real freedom can only be obtained from salvation through Christ.

Cybran Virtue: Dedication/Freedom
Cybran Vice: False Hope (trusting in technology for salvation)

Christianity certainly is, in large part, a religion of peace and love. But the way in which we bear witness to that Truth is essential to our effectiveness as Christian communicators. How can the Aeon expect the rest of the galaxy to espouse “The Way” when they are savagely attacking those who refuse to embrace “peace”? Forced conversion is no conversion at all. Condemning others wantonly is no way to share the Gospel. We are not called to tolerate or accept evil – but rather to hate the sin, and love the sinner. The Aeon hate both the sin and the sinner.

Aeon Virtue: Peace
Aeon Vice: Violence (message obscured by the medium)

PART VI

On a slightly different note…

Does “Supreme Commander” contain objectionable content? Fortunately, the game is far less violent than many others in the same genre. Battles are fought not between flesh-and-blood humans, but solely by machines that explode (completely bloodlessly) upon death. There is some language (about as much as you’d find in “Transformers”) but for the most part it is quite clean. (“Supreme Commander” carries an ESRB rating of E10+ (Everyone 10 and Older) for Comic Mischief, Fantasy Violence, and Language.)

Should you play it? From a technical standpoint, the system requirements are huge. Much of the philosophical conflict is confined to the backstory and the manual, occasionally leaking into the game (i.e. an Aeon Commander promises “You shall be cleansed!” during battle). It is nevertheless an excellent RTS title with high production values and very little objectionable material. Overall, Christian gamers will find “Supreme Commander” a challenging and compelling game that provides much food for thought.

VERDICT: 8/10
A remarkably well-made and thought-provoking RTS. Compelling.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Sci-Fi

 

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