This is a post about SWTOR and Killing Anarchists


In Star Wars The Old Republic you kill “anarchists” a lot.

You kill lots of people actually. Even as a Jedi, part of an order established around the idea of peaceful interaction and force only as a means of defense, you’re asked to slaughter droves of people. In many instances that violence is contextualized; often it’s represented as a part of righting a wrong, rescuing or defending innocents, or otherwise justified.

The mission is often contextualized, but enemies mostly aren’t. There are bosses, main antagonists that participate in driving the action of the story throughout a quest, chapter, or the entire class storyline for your character. They have some depth, and backstory. They have motivations that are explored; they can be reasoned with. But there are also scores of low level enemies littered along the path to the adversaries that have proper names and backstories.

Depending on your faction – Republic or Imperial – you’ll battle a mixture of different enemy types. But both factions in the game tend to fight a lot of generic enemies labeled something like “thug” or “White Maw Pirate” – something that clearly indicates they are a threat to you regardless of whether you fight for the Republic or the Empire. Something that makes them bad guy, no matter what side you’re on.

On multiple planets in the game, across varying class storylines, both Republic and Imperial characters are asked to occasionally kill enemies labeled “anarchist”. Finally, on a planet called Belsavis, playing as Jedi master called Dejá, I was continually asked to kill anarchists simply because they were in prison and trying to get out.

The other prisoners had names that denoted what crime they committed, usually with an adjective before it. I think one might have been “deranged killer”. Others were more generic. But tucked in there with all the other crazies – “anarchist”.

It made me pause. Why is being an anarchist a crime? Is that their only crime? What else could they have done, besides adhering to a political philosophy, that caused them to be imprisoned.

We never know who these characters are on Belsavis. Granted, in a large-scale MMO it’s not possible to explore every single NPC’s backstory, but all the other generic enemy types are understandable at a glance. Belsavis is a prison planet, used by the Republic to hold various levels of dangerous prisoners, so I understand that there are murderers and thieves there. But does the Republic jail political dissidents?

It is briefly touched on that some of the prisoners in Belsavis have been born in prison. They’ve committed no crimes, but somehow they’ve grown up imprisoned. You get to meet one of them and talk, but neither he nor any of his followers are identified as anarchists.

From what I can tell, SWTOR never touches on what anarchism is, only that if you see it you should kill it. There are a couple of quests that use it as a stereotype (as an Imperial Agent you’re tasked with killing an “anarchist leader” who doesn’t say much), but there’s no nuance or depth to how it’s represented.

To my knowledge, only one character represents anarchism to the player as anything other than a target. Kaliyo is a companion character that joins the Imperial Agent class, and has a minor crossover role in some other storylines.

She’s never overtly depicted as anarchist, which may be preferable. It’s noted early that she keeps ties with “violent anarchist groups” and that’s about it. She has contempt for authorities, mocks those who obey blindly, and revels in disobedience.

Kaliyo is mostly caricature, but she’s more than cannon fodder and I thought that was a minor victory. It’s disappointing that anarchism is only viewed through this one narrow lens, but she’s shown to have value to the Imperial Agent class and some depth as a person. It’s the minimum expectation of any supporting character, hardly worth praising, but still better than the nameless enemies labeled “anarchist”.

Anarchism

Anarchism is a diverse philosophy. It has a wide range of varying sections within the underlying belief, and a number of different scopes as far as application is concerned. There is disagreement even among anarchists about what the philosophy truly is or how it should be applied.

This isn’t the space to thoroughly educate on what anarchism is. What I would like to do, however, is establish 1) the basics of anarchism and 2) that painting in broad strokes to depict all anarchists as nameless thugs to be killed is not healthy for any sort of discourse.

It’s not that, as an entertainment product, SWTOR needs to be hyper aware politically or maintain a philosophical objectivity (objectivity is seldom a way to compelling story). It’s that as an entertainment product it failed to provide immersion for me once a philosophy I’m aware of (and partially identify with) was represented so ignorantly.

It doesn’t have to be politically correct, but it does have to show some adeptness when it willingly chooses to handle a political philosophy, even if it’s in name only. The ignorance makes the depiction of the enemy shallow, that shallowness dilutes the protagonist’s mission, and that lessens the quality of story.

While it’d be too much to expect the writers at bioware to thoroughly educate themselves on every political philosophy in existence, it’s not too much to expect that they not interject the name of a philosophy or name its adherents if they don’t understand it at all.

They chose to place “anarchists” in the game – and I believe they did so largely because they don’t view anarchism as a political philosophy at all, but as a synonym for chaos, and evil.

Largely because of poor representations in media, anarchism is only known through caricature, stereotype, and misinformation.

Although it’s likely true of all political philosophies that the mainstream audience is at least somewhat misinformed – it seems nowhere worse than with anarchism, again, largely because it’s so effortlessly misrepresented in media.

What if the enemy type was “Socialist”? What about “Transcendentalist”? “Communist”? “Libertarian”? Let’s take it outside of the political realm, into other paradigms. What about “Christian”? “Muslim”? Could any other belief system of any kind be so carelessly tossed in as an after thought to be used as cannon fodder? Even if the storyteller is opposed to said belief, and their story is about warning of its dangers, it’s poor storytelling to minimize something so complex to such a caricature.

Would we dismiss the grievances of real Socialists or Muslims if they were labeled so grossly?

A word from an anarchist

Politically, I wouldn’t consider myself a full blown anarchist. I prefer to stay away from labels, because they often prevent people from actually learning about another’s views. But if I have to use them, I like to throw out a bunch of them to really make people think. I tell people I’m a Voluntaryist-libertarian-minarchist-anarcho-capitalist. So while it’s minor compared to Voluntaryism or libertarianism, anarchism is part of my political views.

But on Belsavis, playing the role of the Jedi Master Dejá, trying to help stabilize a prison planet being overrun, I was asked to slaughter dozens of “anarchists”. They were mute, shallow caricatures labeled in a way that was rushed and ignorant, hardly worthy of being called real anarchists. But I was still asked to murder them, and that name – “anarchist” – floated above their heads in red letters every time.

I stayed in character, and went on killing. After all, Dejá believes it is the Jedi way to serve the Republic, and this is all in the name of stability and order. But there was a part of me that wondered, what if these were real anarchists? What if these were people who simply didn’t want to be ruled? Would I be fighting on their side?

But thus far, there is no option to fight on their side. No matter what faction you play in the game the message is clear: if you believe in no rulers, or the dangers of the state you are the enemy.

I’m not forced to play the game, of course. I could have chosen to stop playing. But I didn’t, and I don’t because I accept that playing this sort of game means playing a role. This is story, not deliberate political participation.

But the story was less enjoyable because the writers carelessly tossed in a term they clearly didn’t understand, and portrayed it in a way that is demeaning to anyone who does understand and adheres to the philosophy it represents.

There have been far worse missteps in games writing. Because of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion, a majority of the world’s population has been marginalized in games. The representation of anarchism, while important, is only a small part. I don’t consider it the most important part, especially considering games continue to normalize war against Muslims and Middle Eastern nations, or women as sex objects.

But, thankfully, I know of many writers braver and more talented than I am who have touched on those other important topics. I don’t know of the anarchist games blogger who has written on this topic. I don’t think anyone has written on this topic, specifically. So it seemed I was the one who would say a word on behalf of the anarchists.

And what do I have to say about it? This:

Anarchism is about not being ruled over. It’s not about chaos, or no rules. It’s about no rulers. Many anarchists are pacifists, and generally all of them advocate peaceful means of change. It costs Bioware, or any other develop, nothing to avoid using the term so carelessly, and only a little bit of effort to try and depict it with some measure of understanding. Maybe, just maybe, they’d even go so far as to accurately represent something as diverse as anarchism.

How much more amazing would their story have been then?





3 responses to “This is a post about SWTOR and Killing Anarchists”

  1. Steven Sukkau says:

    This is really good Jordan, (I love your writing!) However, maybe it says more about the medium than anything else that Bioware needs a blanket term for generic “bad guy” because so much time in games is spent killing stuff. It would be interesting to have the player kill anarchists for the first part of the game, only to have an opportunity to join them and understand their perspective later on. It would mean less mindless, and more importantly, guiltless, killing. And I like that idea.

  2. Jordan Rivas says:

    @Steven — You are very kind, sir. I’m glad you dug the piece.

    You bring up an excellent point about swtor having generic enemies at all, and moreover how many of them there are. You kill a lot of nameless foes, and while I can see that actually reinforcing the Sith dogma, it seems entirely contrary to the Jedi teachings.

    I actually have always thought of writing a piece about this but I’m sure many other writers have done “gee don’t we kill a lot stuff over and over again in MMOs” type articles. I think this piece is actually starting a conversation on a topic not touched on anywhere else.

    What’s curious is that Bioware does a lot of what you suggest in your example. Their games are excellent at starting you with certain paradigms and then challenging them. They even do that in swtor. That there are occasional missteps in a game like swtor is a symptom of how massive it is and how easy it is for there to be gaps in something that huge. And perhaps, yes, the progression structure of MMOs.

    Anyway, as always thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. […] Jordan Rivas has been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic and noted some unfortunate implications with shortcuts taken in the […]

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