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Hey everyone. This is Jared, one of the creators here at Wisecrack. With Halo 5 now on the shelves, we
thought there’s no better time to explore some the more interesting things happening
under the surface of this blockbuster franchise. So without further adieu, Welcome to this
episode on Identity and Religion in Halo.
Who is the master Chief? With more than sixty five million game titles sold, it’s kind
of crazy that this question still remains an enigma. But it is sort of THE reason to
play the game (beyond blowing up aliens and riding around in warthogs). Master Chief is
often regarded as one of the top rated video game characters of all time—but how is that
possible if we know so little about United Nations Space Command, Master Chief Petty
Officer John-117?
I suppose the problem starts with a much more complicated issue: Identity itself. One’s
identity is never cut and dry, easily understandable. Identity is always messy, unclear, and ambiguous.
Not only is Master Chief’s mysterious because we never see his face, there’s more: his
name is essentially a rank and number, and also because he isn’t really alone in all
that armor.
As Master Chief’s AI, Cortana is your guide through the Halo universe—she progresses
John through the game, explains most of the story line, and is also a sort of quasi lover
for the Chief.
It might be possible to read HALO as a feminist text by discussing the hybrid space created
by John and Cortana’s cyborg existence ala Donna Harroway and her Cyborg Manifesto (Yes
that’s a real thing go look it up…
but Halo 4 pretty much shits all over that possibility when
the message essentially becomes:. Cortana is a damsel in distress, who as a
woman shouldn’t think too much because… well… that is dangerous (Literally… Cortana’s
rampancy causes her to think her self… to death).
Cortana flickering in Halo 4 during Rampancy—freaking out.
But I guess the important thing is that everything is resolved because she serves her man well.
Cortana’s entire story line is supposed to be redeemed by getting to touch the chief
just once. Something about men in uniform, am I right?
Perhaps identity in Halo can be best understood through the lens of American Political Scientist
and Philosopher William Connolly. He describes identity formation as a process of becoming—where
a person is taught and chooses how they wish to be through an encounter with difference.
Essentially—people not only define themselves by copying what is deemed cool or acceptable,
but also by distancing themselves from things deemed unacceptable by society. It is through
this process of differentiating that people form communities and self identify- whether
it be as a mother, son, queer, garbage man, white, soldier, writer, gamer, etc.
Which brings us to the essential aspect that permeates the narrative of Halo as well as
the second section of this video: fear of the unknown, or as fancy philosophers like
to say: fear of “the other.”
It’s important to remember the historical context surrounding Halo. Premiering in November
2001, it would perhaps be naïve to assume that game is free of the ideological politics
of the time. Coming directly after the 9/11 attacks—Halo mirrors several elements of
the current war on terrorism.
I mean, for one-the Arbiter—a disgraced warrior- is promised forgiveness and eternal
salvation if he accepts a suicide mission. No elaboration necessary.
Whether it’s something like the Radical Islam at the center of the world trade center
attacks or the fanatical Christianity that motivated the Oklahoma City federal building
bombing- At the heart of terrorism is fundamentalism—or the belief that a particular creed or faith
is objectively correct—and worth dying or killing for.
A highly religious people guided by the teaching of three prophets : Truth, Mercy,
and Regret, the Covenant are positioned as the games antagonist—sort of cosmic religious
terrorists.
Religious dogmatism is essentially the guiding force behind the conflict in the games. The
term “Covenant” itself is a reference to a pact between a chosen people and their
god. The seven Halos rings are allusions to the seven seals of the apocalypse and the
seven trumpet blasts that bring about the end of the world.
The arch is a key component to activating the Halo ring—which is in part a reference
to the covenant between Noah and God, as a way to survive the great flood.
Knowing that the flood was an unstoppable force—the forerunners created the arch and
the halo rings as a way to survive the flood… get it? The arch is how you survive… the
flood.
Captain Keyes serves as a sort of John the Baptist, Baptizing the Master Chief by giving
him his first gun… and also like John the Baptist, Keyes loses his head.
Consider also the name we are given for the Master Chief is John 117. John Book one verse
17 of the King James bible reads “For the law was given by Moses, but Grace and Truth
came by Jesus Christ.” Just as Jesus gives force to the law with his Eternal Grace, Master
Chief gives force to the law with his overpowered pistol.
Given the multiple times that MC is resurrected at the end of each Halo game it’s not too
much of a stretch to draw the comparison between Master Chief and the big JC. Yes- It doesn’t
take a philosophy major to see the religious undertones in all of this.
The covenant worship the forerunners—an ancient alien race that constructed the Halo
rings. The Covenant believe these rings were constructed for them as the chosen people
or “reclaimers” of the forerunners mantel… Only by activating the rings will their people
achieve eternal salvation.
Any threat to this salvation is met with violence. With humanity, the covenant are confronted
with a race of people that make a similar claim to ascension and access to the divine.
When confronted with an ideology in direct opposition of their own there are a few options—the
covenant can accept that there are multiple claims to the Truth or they can exterminate
any threats to their faith.
Connolly uses the term “Exclusive humanism” to describe the belief that people have when
they assert that they have the god market cornered and everyone else can go to hell—literally.
Harvest, where the Covenant attackers proclaim: “Your destruction is the will of the gods,
and we are their instrument.”
Promised “The Great Journey” by the covenant prophets—the covenant elites, brutes, jackals,
and other mobs fall in line and start blowing shit up. It turns out isn’t so much salvation
as it is a cosmic death trap but that’s neither here not there.
When you take in to account the clearly deliberate names “Harvest” and “The Great Journey,”
all this starts to sound less like religious fundamentalism and more like Manifest Destiny-
or the idea behind the “civilizing” missions of early Colonial America.
“Harvest” is reminiscent of early colony life—the harvest of crops, thanksgiving,
and the pilgrims that originally came to America are all part of the sort of story book version
of American settlement that we were taught in grade school. When in reality, it was anything
but a great journey or a children’s tale.
“The Great Journey” is salvation promised only for the advanced. For the covenant, the
human race is primitive, and can’t ascend—they aren’t promised salvation.
This language of primitivism versus the rational or civilized goes all the way back to Descartes-
Basically, it’s easier to subjugate and entire population when they are reduced to
a status less than human—as inferior.
Similar to the dynamic between the humans and the Covenant, The construction of American
Sovereignty—of national identity creation- comes partly from the displacement, assimilation,
and eradication of the native cultures of North America. Stripping of land rights from
the Natives was justified in part through the dehumanization of their people—they
were uncivilized savages, primitives, brutes, heathens—not people.
The major event that frames Halo is the fall of Reach—a human colony laid to waste by
the Covenant. By following a UNSC ship named “the Iroquois,” the covenant are able
to find Reach. Iroquois ought to sound familiar, it's a native American nation that was part
of the “Seven Year’s War” or “the French and Indian War” (to Americans).
There’s some Irony here in naming a ship intended to facilitate space colonization
after an indigenous nation. In fact, a kind of strange historical reversal takes place—the
UNSC, with their space marines serve as a sort of extension of American colonialism—and
yet, the very same fleet positions itself as the colonized victim of the covenant.
If, as Connolly says, identity is constructed through differentiating ourselves from others,
then mixing imagery from Religious Extremism and Manifest Destiny is perhaps the peak of
irony for the creators. For the “otherness” the west fears in Religious- specifically
Islamic- fundamentalism is not only embodied in the covenant but also in our very own history
of colonization.
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The Philosophy of Halo – Wisecrack Edition

255 Folder Collection
Mine Shi Lee published on November 25, 2016
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