in Philosophy gaming ~ read.

Language and Culture - a Metal Gear Solid V Commentary

Metal Gear Solid

is a legendary story-rich video game series best described as 90% realism and 10% fantasy -

on one hand set in battlegrounds like Russia and Afghanistan with shadowy government agencies manipulating double-crossing spies, on the other featuring cyborg ninjas, telekinetic psychopaths, and a reanimated corpse riding a FLAMING UNICORN -

all of which is fantastic, but I really love it when it presents deep philosophical ideas like this meditation on the nature of war (WATCH IT). So, I want to dedicate this post to think through the ones presented in the latest game.

Namely...

Language and Culture.

"It is no nation we inhabit, but a language.
Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland."
Emil Cioran, Romanian philosopher​

There are a few times in life when your mind is blown by a new revelation, such as that Santa Claus doesn't exist, electricity flows like water, and pickles are just pickled cucumbers. This happened to me again not too long ago as a senior in college who decided to take a psychology course on the nature of conscience. RateMyProfessors said the prof just walked around and rambled for 90 minutes every class, which was pretty much 100% accurate, but some of the stuff was truly fascinating.

Such as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or linguistic relativity.

I like the bolded version because it sounds more badass. Essentially, these two guys believed that differences in culture, worldview, and even the very cognitive processes that govern our decision making are based in the linguistic differences of, and within, each language. To give an example, take the term "hamburger" and imagine trying to explain to a tribal native what it means. They certainly don't have a word to describe it, but they do have words to describe things which exist for them but not for us, perhaps a food or a ritual or an emotion.

For a while I never understood why some dedicate themselves to protecting languages, but it makes perfect sense now. As languages die out, so do their cultures. Native Americans integrating themselves into American society, discarding the traditions of their ancestors. Indians speaking English to communicate across the continent, but Tamil, Gujarati, and Punjabi to preserve some sense of history, community, cultural identity. Reflect for a moment on Cioran's quote above: our native tongue is our true fatherland.

And then there are those who would use language as a tool for control. George Orwell alluded to this in 1984 - if you control the language, you control the people. Restricting language restricts thought; censor words and works to invoke fear in the public; censor their very education and people will remain ignorant, rendering them incapable of usurpation; if the words do not exist, then the thoughts cannot exist.

Wow, right? Is your mind bent yet? I hope so!

...Just how does this have anything to do with MGSV?

Spoilers ahead

About a third of the way through the game, there's a sequence where you walk through a seemingly abandoned military hospital in Africa. No music is playing, just ambient noise, and there's blood on the floor. After turning a few corners, you see... African children, strapped down on stretchers, engorged purple tumors on top of their ribcages, with an incision in their necks on top of the Adam's apple, through which is inserted what looks like an IV drip at first, but upon closer inspection is actually a pair of earbuds. Attached to tape recorders with the play button pushed.

Grotesque, and it made absolutely no sense. Humans can't hear through anything but their ears, so... why? Even though the game's story progresses pretty slowly, this was the point where I had to keep on playing just to find out what was going on.

Turns out that in the MGSV universe, language originated from different strains of "vocal cord parasites," which become active when exposed to specific languages. There is a strain for virtually every language, and if say the Hungarian parasite hears Hungarian, its larva begin to mate and multiply, eventually destroying the host's alveoli. The main villain, Skull Face, understanding that these parasites can be used as a tool of cultural genocide (and therefore control), tries to resurrect ancient strains by performing experiments on vulnerable subjects. Those tape recorders had been playing a mix of languages to see which ones activated which strains. The Kikongo strain is the first to break out.

Skull Face, as it turns out, is infected with a whole multitude of strains himself. A Hungarian native who can never speak Hungarian again, he laments what he sees as the robbery of his cultural identity and past. English is now the only language he can speak, and he hates it because after the parasites went dormant, English speakers took over much of the globe, dominating and eliminating many cultures in something akin to manifest destiny... which Skull Face wants to revert. By reawakening the English strain and nuking the world with it.

I'm definitely a fan of the trope in which the "villain" has some character development, so he's not seen as evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil, but instead motivated by reasons that we might empathize with. Unfortunately, producer Hideo Kojima doesn't do a strong enough job of driving home this concept. The gamer is ultimately left with little reason to care about Skull Face - he's not nearly iconic enough to be memorable, and while the plot driver (vocal cord parasites) is novel, most players think it's just another gimmick, just a more creative take on the hypertypical "kill all humans" motif.

Hell, we don't even get to fight him. He gets crushed by an electric tower that gets knocked over by the giant robot we do fight.

Final thoughts

But you have to admit, it's an interesting hypothesis. What if, tomorrow, nobody could speak English anymore? Those who can speak other tongues would definitely start speaking in them, and some lost/dying languages might find new life. Hell, I'd find it pretty damn cool if people started speaking Coptic and writing in hieroglyphs again. I'd also feel super sorry for the ~80% of Americans and 95% of British who would pretty much have to start from scratch.

As for me? I wouldn't mind moving to Paris... I can speak some French --

BONUS

Here are some of my favorite words from other languages, which I will try my best (but ultimately fail) to explain:

  • Saudade - a soulful longing for a past period of time; the sadness of knowing you can never experience it again, exactly as it was back then. Portuguese.
  • Mono no aware - a pensive appreciation for passing moments and their tiny details. The autumn leaf, as it falls; the bell signaling school is out. Japanese.
  • Epanouissance - the aspiration to a wholesome state of self-fulfillment, flourishing, the top of Maslow's pyramid. French.
  • Zugzwang - a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one's turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage. German, definition from Google.

Got some to share? Message me or post in comments!