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A video game has reinvigorated a long-running debate about fascism and satire

Helldivers 2 has prompted a debate on social media: Is the game actually a satire of fascism? And if so, is it worrying that some people don’t seem aware of that?
Helldivers 2
Helldivers 2  is set on “Super Earth,” a futuristic version of our planet, in which all of humanity is united by “managed democracy.”Arrowhead Game Studios

Helldivers 2, a hit video game from Arrowhead Game Studios, challenges players to work together as an elite team of soldiers to save Earth by pushing back invading hordes of space bugs, cyborgs and robots.

It’s a simple enough premise, a classic good-versus-bad tale — except for one particular wrinkle. As many people have pointed out since its launch, some of the propaganda-style in-game content and the plot of Helldivers 2 bears a striking resemblance to “Starship Troopers,” a 1997 science fiction film about humanity’s future war against alien bugs that has come to be seen as a tragic case of satire that initially went unappreciated. 

The game lays it on thick, with cutscenes bordering on comedy that tout Earth’s united and militaristic regime, having already plundered the galaxy. 

“I would say most of the people understand it to be satirical,” said Christian Divyne, 29, a content creator and gamer who posted to TikTok about the Helldivers 2 discourse. “I think because it’s so overt in nature that people kind of get that it’s meant to be a bit and a joke.”

Where people are butting heads, Divyne said, is in conversations in which players say if they were in the Helldivers’ position, they would have no choice but to defend themselves and their country. 

“They’re sort of just missing the point of what is an entirely fictional story,” Divyne said.

That’s led to a surprisingly fervent and meta debate about the video game: Is it actually a satire of fascism? And if so, is it worrying that some people don’t seem aware of that? Or don’t care at all?

Or, in terms more relatable to people who spend a lot of time on the internet: “Are we the baddies?

It’s a discussion that has spread on X, TikTok, YouTube, gaming message boards and Reddit, becoming prevalent enough in the gaming community to inspire a video from an unofficial X account dedicated to news about the game

“Friendly reminder: Don’t be a fascist,” the text over the video of Helldiver soldiers reads. “This game is a satire. You should not be genuinely reciprocating approval of conquest, genocide and violence. … Don’t be cringe. Choose to think.”

The online discussion — and at times, debate — around the game has echoed some broader pop culture discourse around the challenges and dangers of using satire in media that can sometimes be subtle or lost on people, particularly around the subject of fascism. Some players have sought to distance themselves from the topic altogether, while others have leaned into the conversation, posting about the importance of the game’s satirical messaging.

Helldivers 2 launched in early February and was immediately a success. The third-person shooter was so popular that some players couldn’t initially access the game’s overwhelmed servers to log on and start dealing damage to the monstrous space creatures that inhabit the game’s planets.

The game is set on “Super Earth,” a futuristic version of our planet in which all of humanity is united by “managed democracy.” Super Earth has collected resources and technology from the planets it conquered during the Galactic War, and goes on to colonize the galaxy. It farms the alien terminids for valuable substances, which eventually leads to the terminids breaking free and revolting and then aligning with other enemies of Super Earth, leading to the Helldivers to assemble, thus beginning the events of Helldivers 2.   

When players are able to access the game, they’re met with tongue-in-cheek propaganda for “Super Earth” and the Helldivers, as well as not-so-subtle nods to facism and colonialism. In one piece of propaganda, a terminid — one of the game’s alien bugs — is seen eating a family in an idyllic neighborhood while an onlooker watches in horror. 

Those elements have helped earn the comparisons to “Starship Troopers.” Similar to the video game, the movie takes place on an Earth that is ruled by a singular government whose military forces are fighting bug-like creatures called “Arachnids” on their home planets.

When you combine satire and parody, you’re going to get a lot more people missing it.

-Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs at the Pennsylvania State University

“I think people have a difficulty separating that a protagonist of the story, like a theoretical protagonist, isn’t necessarily the hero,” Divyne said. “Because people will look at it and they’ll ask you directly, ‘Well, what are they supposed to do?’ And then you have to kind of turn around and be like, ‘The whole thing is fake. Like, the entire thing is just a metaphor.’”

"Starship Troopers," meanwhile, has gone through several rounds of re-examination and updated appreciation in recent years. The topic was recently revisited by some users on X arguing not whether it was satire, but whether it was effective in its satirical efforts.

It’s a particularly timely topic as political scientists and historians have warned that support for fascism has been making a comeback in various parts of the world, including the U.S. Similarly, experts have observed a rise in ironic communication, like satire and parody, in recent years, as a tool to both examine and push back on dangerous ideologies like fascism. 

Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State University, who has written several books about political satire, said that it is a guarantee that ironic representations will be misunderstood by some. 

She said the debate around Helldivers 2, which she has not played, is a sign that the satire is effective.

“When you combine satire and parody, you’re going to get a lot more people missing it,” McClennen said. “And you’re going to get a lot of the people that you’re actually satirizing liking it. It’s a guarantee, because it means you actually did it right.”