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In the US we're wrestling with a number of very divisive issues as we try to understand
who we wanna be going in to the 21st century.
Among them are: police violence, vigilantism, and the question of just how much the US government
can do to a citizen in the name of protecting the rest of us.
And these questions are at the heart of The Division, except the game doesn't seem to realize it.
[Extra Credits - Intro music]
The Division is a game where you're shooting real people in a real city in the United States.
It's not like X-COM where you're mowing down aliens,
or even where the people you fight are the standard go to of plague zombies or something.
You're not even at war, so we can't get away with calling the enemies combatants.
Because there's no hand wave to be found, and because these are supposed to be
citizens of the United States who you gun down relentlessly without stop,
the game cannot help but make a statement, and that's problematic.
Because in a real world setting the player's actions have meaning.
They comment on our society, whether or not the developer intends them to. It's unavoidable.
It's like if somebody makes a film about college students in which all of the minority kids drop out
while all of the the white kids get A's. That communicates a world view, intentional or not.
The film makers might not have meant anything by it,
they might not have been thinking about it when they made the film.
It might not even be that essential to what they intended the plot of the film to be.
But they can't then just insist to everybody that "It's just a movie, stop overthinking it,"
something we still hear way too often with games.
So let's talk about the problematic elements of this game, honestly and openly.
Not about the quality of the gameplay, only what that gameplay means, what it says about issues
we're facing today and why we need to think about these things when we're placing our games in the real world.
Because in The Division, you're a government agent killing US citizens on US soil by government order
without due process of law and those actions are portrayed as heroic.
That's terrifying.
This game world is a totalitarian wasteland and it glorifies it.
Our entire society is based around the idea, true or not, that the government serves the people and that
in a democracy the government doesn't use violence against its citizens to get them in line.
Lately though with things like the Patriot Act or even Directive 51, on which this game is loosely based,
we as a nation have been struggling to preserve those liberties and come to a consensus about
how much power the state has.
About how many of those freedoms we're willing to let the state take away in the name of protecting us.
This is a very complex, nuanced issue and how we talk about it is essential to what we become.
And yet, without really thinking, this game lauds being an unquestioning participant in a brutal dictatorship.
In The Division, you play as part of a sleeper cell which the president has planted in the US civilian population,
answerable only to him, and usable as a military force against US citizens.
That is nuts.
The Head of State having a private army to be used against his own populace
is basically the very definition of a totalitarian state.
What's more, these agents have total discretion.
They don't have to answer to the police, and they even have the authority to order the police to help them
as they execute any citizen who is acting against what they feel is right for the state.
The more I played, the more it really felt like I was controlling an S.S. agent,
only instead of the game presenting my actions as the horrific stain on humanity's history it was,
it was giving me the S.S. agent's perspective where everything I was doing was
necessary and for the good of the state.
And all through the experience you hear your ally characters talking about how they're fighting to
"Preserve what's left."
Which...Look, America is our liberties.
It's the Bill of Rights.
It's not about some arbitrary lines on a map, or even a flag.
The characters in this game use the same sort of logic that has actually been used time and again
to justify taking away citizens' rights in the real world:
the idea that it's the only way to preserve America.
And yet, the game doesn't examine this.
Instead, it's just accepted it as the most normal thing in the world,
which is pretty dangerous in a nation where this is really happening.
And then there's the fact that the people you're shooting are disaster survivors.
They're ordinary people who have lived through a horrific event, and without due process, without acknowledging
their Fourth Amendment rights, you just gun down any of them who appear to be acting out of line.
Early on, there's a sequence where you're sent to hunt down and kill some people who stole some opiates.
When I arrived at the mission site, I found a small group of people just standing there and talking.
They weren't currently committing a crime, they posed no immediate threat to my agent, and I can't really say
that I had any good evidence that they had ever committed a crime,
other than the word of my superior who told me to go execute them.
And yet, the game encouraged me to gun them down from the back.
In a world where we're struggling with police shootings and justified use of force, this mirrors
far too closely what's actually been going on, what is actually causing incredible outcry in the State.
We've seen our national unity fragment and riots break out around instances of cops shooting
unarmed citizens over misdemeanors, or because of misunderstandings.
And just to be clear, I believe in the need for police.
I will absolutely and unequivocally tell anybody who asks that society is better with them than without them.
It's a broader discussion, but I think we actually have more liberty because of the police.
But, in a democratic nation there must be accountability.
Where that line of accountability lies, and how we may deal with even unconscious prejudices in those
sworn not to merely uphold the law but to serve the people and the Constitution,
is one of the defining questions of the moment for us.
And to have a game be so blasé about these things does a disservice to everybody.
By having someone who is essentially in a law enforcement role gun down minor criminals
without any process of law, it essentially says that this is what to expect from law enforcement.
And that dishonors many law enforcement professionals who really are out there to protect and serve.
And at the same time, by celebrating and encouraging this behavior through gameplay,
it also dishonors the real people who have died and the families that have suffered.
It trivializes a very complicated issue.
But this isn't just a vague parallel I'm drawing here.
Those minor criminals you're tasked with exterminating early in the game are simply called "Rioters."
And it's easy to identify Rioters because they all wear hoodies.
I kid you not, the vast majority of the low-level generic enemies are "Person In Hoodie".
Literally everyone you find on the street wearing a hoodie is a thug to be gunned down on sight in this game.
At a time where the hoodie has become a national symbol of racial violence for us.
Geraldo Rivera ludicrously said that the hoodie was as much responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin
as George Zimmerman was, and then basically went on to tell black and Latino families
to not let their children wear hoodies if they don't want them getting shot by frightened white people.
Famous athletes have since used the hoodie to show their solidarity with the black community, and enormous
protests have been organized using this as a symbol of the racial problems that were being protested.
Given the magnitude of the problem,
the horrific labelling of an entire racial group based on one garment,
and the use of that garment as a codeword to call an entire group of people "thugs,"
this is an area where you have to tread with care.
And The Division utterly fails to do so.
Not only does it make use of that "thug in hoodie" stereotype without thinking,
and reinforce it by having everyone wearing a hoodie be a criminal,
but the NPC is even shouting out lines like, "Lowlife scum!"
as they mow these hoodie-clad disaster survivors down.
Reinforcing the dehumanization of these people.
And there's not only a race divide, but also a class divide going on here.
As most of the stories that you hear from these individuals fit the working class story mold.
And the second faction of enemies you encounter is the Sanitation Workers Union,
who are depicted as having gone crazy from the strain of the outbreak.
And I should note that while they are depicted as having gone crazy,
and so must be stopped with the unquestioned application of lethal force.
They're basically doing the same thing the player character is.
They're going around the city, burning whatever they feel is contaminated,
in order to wipe out the infection, and help restore the city.
Which isn't really that unlike wondering around the city
shooting whatever you think is contributing to the breakdown of society.
And truth is, this game also promotes the type of fear mongering that has so divided our society;
claiming that one terror attack would take down the entire United States government,
and justifying anything in response.
But this just isn't true, and we know it.
Now, yes, there was one theoretic simulation which was played in the Bush era,
Called "Operation: Dark Winter,"
which essentially said that we were highly vulnerable to a biological attack.
A simulation which basically the whole game is based on.
But this simulation's results have not only been criticized,
but are also based on data from 15 years ago.
Perhaps, more importantly, during none of the epidemics of the 20th century
did a major country collapse into anarchy, or face widespread lawlessness and riots.
And in the 21st century, even virulent disease like SARS and ebola have been shown to be containable.
And it just kills me to say all this
because I know this isn't what the game's developers intended for their game to say.
In fact, as I played through it,
I could see instances where some of the team was clearly trying, where they could,
to squeeze in small moments of self awareness.
And the developers as a whole were clearly making a serious effort to be concious
about issue of race and gender.
The Division itself is played by a diverse cast, and not just playing token parts either.
Honestly, that's more than most games do.
And yet, unfortunately, they took the wrong lessons from our struggles with diversity in the game industry.
Because being concious of race doesn't mean simply having characters of varying skin tone.
It means being aware, and not tone deaf to the racial issues that affect us today.
The Division should serve as an object lesson for all of us about being concious of what a game is really saying
With its world and its mechanics.
Because despite what I'm sure was never the intention of the developers,
they managed to present to us a game which glorifies totalitarianism and the unrestricted use of force.
Plays light with issues like police brutality, and succumbs to sweeping generalizations,
pigeonholing people based on what they wear.
It's an example of classism and paranoia mongering,
at a time when our society is wrestling with these issues.
And for some, without even thinking about it, what this game glorifies will effect them.
Because culture matters, and games are culture.
We can do better.
See you next week.
[Extra Credits - Outro Music]
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The Division - Problematic Meaning in Mechanics - Extra Credits

383 Folder Collection
Caesar Wang published on May 21, 2017
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