Playing with Gender: A Critical Look at Blizzard's Smash Hit Starcraft

After a hard day of classes, who doesn't want to kick back and relax? But there are so very many options of what to do on our beloved Bethany campus! … Many people on this campus, and throughout the country and world relax by indulging in various forms of gaming. Whether it be sports or role-playing, pool, arcade, or computerized, gaming is a popular form of entertainment. But, are modern computer games more destructive than they are productive? Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing that I love more than curling up with my computer, a Starcraft CD, and Josie and the Pussycats in the stereo, but the other day I came to a few realizations.

While this argument could take nearly any game and come to the same conclusions, I would like to talk about the game Starcraft. To those of you who have never played it, don't worry, my point is clear enough that the actual gameplay need not be experienced to understand. I fear that Starcraft, along with nearly all modern computer games, alongside it's addictively entertaining gameplay, and beautiful plotline, reinforces negative gender stereotypes by quantifying the women as sexual objects, and simultaneously as unknowable beasts. This is not but a problem of Blizzard (the company the produces Starcraft and the popular Warcraft series.), but in fact of our society at large…. But to attack a whole society is so very difficult these days, so let's just stick with Starcraft for now.

Starcraft is an 'overhead-realtime-strategy game'. Which in short means that it is a game in which you build armies, and send them strategically to eradicate your enemies, while holding a bird's eye view. There are three races in Starcraft: The Terrans. Humans, expelled from Earth so very long ago that they've adopted their own governmental reign, technology, and customs… but who are still pretty much just like us with bigger guns. The Protoss, an ancient alien race whose power comes from their honor, nobility and psionic powers. And, the Zerg. A monstrous race of insects that have bred themselves into a hierarchical, hive-minded powerstructure, who wish to attain supreme perfection of form and essence.

Sounds pretty straightforward, huh? The blatant problem however is the way that women are depicted in this game, and perhaps the bigger problem is the comments on women that Blizzard may or may not have even realized that they put in (you may argue that if Blizzard didn't know, it's not a problem… if you want to argue this, first read some Michel Foucault… then e-mail me. (A game is a work, just like a book, once out of the author's hand, it is no longer theirs.).

Women in this and many computer games are depicted as sexual objects, and nothing more. Simply put, women are much more than that. Women, men… we are people, humans… nothing more, nothing less. Just because some of us have breasts, and others penises, does not make either more of an object of sex, nor more an object of power. We are of America, where we claim that we're all equal; equal rights, equal opportunities, equal power, equal sexuality. Therefore, it is not right to ingrain into our minds (through our entertainment) that one gender is only for the sake of sexuality. (For examples of the ways that women are overly sexualized in these games, see the attached "evidence" quotes.) Although this is a distinct problem, as these sexual identities get ingrained in us as we recreate, this is not actually the issue that I wish to address at the moment.

The issue that I wish to address is the much less obvious one. Of the three races in Starcraft, the player begins by first greatly feeling a connection to the Terrans. They are, after all, like us. They are humans, they look like us, they sound like us, and they claim Earth as their homeland. They have their power struggles, and their titles, and their government, and we understand this all, and empathize with it… quite frankly because it is our society. The Terrans are us, and so we relate to them. Blizzard was intelligent to do this, as it brings you into the game, and allows you to learn the user interface with a feeling of comfort, as you are not outside of the comfortable world of your computer room.

The next race is the Protoss. They are alien from us (as with all 'good' sci-fi aliens) in that they are exactly like us, but with a tweak here and there. Most players settle into the Protoss as their favorite race. This is presumably because of the fact that they are 'human' enough that we can feel for them, but they are alien enough that their power is new and sweet. The Protoss are essentially humans with greater psychic powers, and a more rigid code of honor (Note: I do not mean to say this of the story line, but of how we relate to them… I mean this in the same way as saying that Vulcans are humans with greater logic, less emotions, and pointy ears, or that orcs are green barbaric humans.). The Protoss are what many developing boys with to be. They are powerful, honorable warrior-philosophers. They are described as perfection of essence, but not of form (Alternately to the Zerg who are described as perfection of form who are seeking perfection of essence, and the Terrans who are described as perfection of neither, but on the brink of both.). We can feel for the Protoss, because, when all is boiled away, they are us… or at least our dreams and aspirations.

And then there are the Zerg… The ruthless, writhing alien beasts. The icky bugs. The enemy. The Zerg are not human. We have difficulty relating to them because (if for no other reason) when we click on them, they do not talk to us. They do not sass talk. They do not bend to our will. They do not entertain us. They simply respond to us in an animalistic tongue that we cannot comprehend. Upon clicking on one of their buildings, you do not hear the sounds of building, nor of metal upon metal, but instead of the organic sounds of life oozing. The Zerg tap into the spirit of fear that resides in all human beings. It taps into our primal memories of beasts that cause our tribes harm. And they are meant to be that way. They are the plague upon the universe, the disease, the evil, the enemy… the Other. So what? What the hell does any of this have to do with sex, sexuality, gender, or the price of tea in China?

It has everything to do with reinforcing gender stereotypes. but first you have to realize that the Terrans and the Protoss are men, while the Zerg are women. What??? The Terrans have male and female. The Protoss are asexual. And the Zerg…well, they're the Zerg! I understand… but keep reading and it will become clear.

Both the Terrans and the Protoss function on a productive economy. You build buildings that are suited to the type of unit (army) that you would like to use to conquer your opponent, then you invest money into those buildings. The more money that you invest into the more of those buildings, the stronger your army, and the faster you get those armies. The Zerg however work on a reproductive economy… something that we are not all too familiar with. With the Zerg, there is one main building, called a hatchery, that produces Larva. These larva are then transformed into a more powerful unit, which is even then occasionally transformed into an even more powerful unit. The power of the Zerg lies not in how many productive buildings you have, but in how many reproductive (larva-birthing) buildings you have. Also, their power lies not in efficiency of building (more marines per minute) but in keeping your troops alive long enough to get them nurtured and grown up to a state of power. (Good job for those of you who are putting together the gender argument already).

So? So, the Terrans play hard and fast, the Protoss play power, and the Zerg need to nurture, who cares? The reason why this is important is because the productive economy is the male economy. It is the economy that is set up by the half of the species that cannot bear children, the half than needs to invest worth in order to gain. Conversely, the reproductive economy is the female economy. It is the economy of the half of the species that bears children and is biologically required (at least for a while) to nurture the young. So that's great! We've shown one side of evidence that implies that the Zerg are playing off of female ideology, while the Terran and Protoss play off male… but that is still not yet anything offensive or bad. Allow me to show more support for the claim of Zerg being female, and Terrans and Protoss being male before I show the full extent of my hand.

The buildings say a lot about what gender they are meant to parody. The Terran buildings are sharp and angular. They are built in a series of poles and walls, and constructed from the ground up, sharp, boxy, and rigidly unwavering. Cold. The Protoss buildings are tall and thin, reaching toward the sky, the large phalluses reach upwards, rigid and firm, an emblem of power for all to behold. The Zerg 'buildings' are somewhat different. First of all they are not buildings, per se, but are living entities in and of themselves. Secondly, they must be 'built' upon the life-giving fluid that oozes from the mother building: the hatchery. Thirdly, a drone (evolved from a larva as are all troops) must sacrifice its life in order to become the building. Once the drone sacrifices itself, it becomes a large, undulating womb-sac that pulses and grows until the building inside has finished incubating. It then bursts forth out of the womb as a once again undulating 'building'. But the Zerg buildings are neither angular, nor phallic, but explicitly gynic. All of the Zerg buildings ooze some sort of fluid from one of their many openings. Nearly all of their buildings have one to multiple openings, ranging from gaping circles, to small oozing slits, to rounded triangles that pulsate open and then closed slowly. Also, one of the Zerg's greatest strengths is a building known as a Nydus Canal. A Nydus Canal is a large, vaginal opening, that if a Zerg unit enters, it may emerge at the other end, in a manner that "greatly puzzles most Terran scientists." (This quote is too much to not mock: What? Men cannot understand the vagina: the symbolic representation of women? I never would have guessed.)

My third argument comes from the actual experience of playing the game. When playing the Terran and Protoss, you slowly build and army of ever increasing power. You start off low in power, but then build and build, and build, and build until one glorious moment when you 'go' and it is either your moment of glory when you sweep the map, or it is an unpleasant resolution, as your great accomplishment is wiped out and you have no choice but to lose, or if you are lucky to undergo the slow but steady process of getting back up to the point where you can 'go' again.

The Zerg on the other hand, build up first a small and weak group of troops. These troops usually test the mettle of the enemy, and so you build up a slightly larger group to do the same. You then follow this with a larger, and more powerful, and a larger and more powerful, and a larger and more powerful group… until finally you have won, or you are struck in the instant of rebuilding before your next great thrust begins. While this argument is much more blatant when shown graphically, anyone who has studied either human sexuality, or gender-comparative literary styles should recognize this pattern. It is the comparative stages of sexual peaks, climaxes, and orgasm(s).

The Protoss and Terrans, follow the male sexuality of building up, and up, and up, until finally it is the long awaited moment, while the Zerg build up, and then drop some, then build more… and more… and more… and more, and once dropped it may re-build up again, much sooner than it's male counterpart.

If these arguments aren't enough 'evidence' to get you to at least contemplate the possibility that the Zerg are intended to be taken as female, while the Protoss and Terran are to be taken as male, I feel that you should reread the evidence more carefully, and perhaps simply examine if you don't want to believe it. Now, to the crux of the matter. The reason why it is harmful for games like this to draw on such ideologies is that it reinforces negative gender stereotypes, in regard to both men and women. I am mainly concerned with the female aspect, and so that is what I will put my emphasis upon.
To solidify into gamers minds the idea of Zerg = female, alongside Zerg = unknowable, evil beast yields a culture who regard female = unknowable, evil beast. This is obviously a problem. Women are human, men are human. In that sense there is no distinction. I would say "women are as worthy (or as human (or as anything)) as men", but this statement itself reinforces the ideology that men are standard, while women simply strive to be like them. this need not be the way that we look at it. Women and Men are equals, and anything, addictively entertaining or not, that reinforces an ideology that says otherwise needs be taken to task. I am not assaulting Blizzard, for I truly believe that they are not even aware of what they did. The problem lies in the fact that this game, in fact nearly all computer games, is a direct product of the American male fantasy. The problem lies not in the game (although it perpetuates the problem), but in the fantasy life that we have set up for the American male youth. Freud refers to women as the "immense heart of darkness", the unknowable, the different, the other. This permeates our society.

  • Well, I call for it to stop here and now. The only way to combat preconceptions such as this is to become aware of them. Women are not inhuman, are not unknowable, are not evil, nor the enemy, nor an immense heart of darkness. No, women are simply humans, the same as men, but with different sexual organs. Games that perpetuate such stereotypes are a symptom of a greater problem within society, a problem that I am calling attention to now. Fight sexism. Fight gender stereotypes. Think of people as people, not as sexual objects, nor as the unknowable other.

    Evidence

    Warcraft III:
  • Humans
  • Footman
  • "Don't ask. Don't tell."
  • Sorceress (only female human troop)-In a seductive voice: "What'll it be hotshot?" "If you insist." "This better be good." "Click me baby… one more time." "You don't 'get out much do you?" "Let's chat on Battle.net sometime." "Help me help you." "I don't remember casting slow on you." "Get down Sparky." "It's about time."
  • Mortar Team:
    "…and that's how baby Dwarves are made."
    "Get your finger out of thy bunghole."
  • Gryphon Rider
    "It's not the size of the hammer that counts, it's how you wield it."
    Granis Darkhammer
    "Touch me not, I am chaste."
  • Orcs: Grunt
    "Why you poking me again?"
    "Why don't you lead an army instead of touching me?"
    "Poke, poke poke, is that all you do?"
    "Me so horny, me hurt you longtime…"
  • Orcs Shaman
    "You ever get hit by lightning where the sun don't shine?"
    Peon
    "Me not that kind of orc."
    Magis Coldeye
    "Touch your tongue to mine."

Starcraft
Terrans

  • Medic- Speaking Seductively
    "Where does it hurt?"
    "I've already checked you out commander."
    "You want another physical?"
    "Turn your head and cough."
    "Ready for you sponge bath."
  • Vulture
    "I don't have time to fuck around."
  • Siege Tank
    "Yes Sir."
    "Orders Sir."
    (While these last two are not sexual, they give the obvious implication that the game player must be male.)
  • Goliath
    "Checklist completed…. SoB."
    (Again, not only being a sexually derogatory statement, this implies that only males will be empowered; leading the force.)
  • Valkyrie- In an overly sexualized Russian accent.
    "Don't keep me waiting."
    "I have ways of blowing things…. Up."
    "You're being very naughty."
    "Who's your Mommy?"
    "(Stallion neighing)"
  • Sarah Kerrigan
    "I'm ready!"
    "I'm waitin' on you."
    "Easily amused, huh?"
    "Doesn't take a telepath to know what you're thinking."
    "You get off on annoying people, don't you?"
  • Infested Kerrigan
    "Don't think that I need You!"
  • Infested Duran
    "I think you're getting too familiar."
    "I don't think we've met."

--Kelly Alerenson (lolathegrig@hotmail.com)

 

 

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