Stereotypes are something of a pandemic in video games. The zombie marines of Doom looked and sounded identical. In Star Wars games one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking all imperial personnel are clones, not just the troopers. Different zombies! was a feature of Left 4 Dead, the notion that their selection of common infected was diverse enough to give the impression they came from the population rather than a common spawning vat.

When memory and processing power resources grew to accommodate diversity, production limitations would become the pinch and when they could be overcome, we’d blame game mechanics. Different game components had to be immediately distinguishable: Louis was the only black guy in L4D, and tall guys, fat guys, hoodied guys and hysterical women were limited to specific special infected. It became part of the world’s mythology (or at least part of the mythology debate) that tobacco smokers, urban skateboarders and morbidly obese people were the ones who became specials.

Of course, it’s one thing to suggest that certain persons are susceptible to responding differently to the zombie virus. It’s another to suggest that they are more prone than others to becoming criminal or violent or antisocial because of their inner nature. In Batman’s adventure in Arkham City all the population delineates clearly between antagonistic hardened criminals and cowed political prisoners. Even in a massive penal colony, this polarized distribution is serves as an indicator that Arkham City reflects the viewpoint of Batman, and reflects Bruce Wayne’s damaged psyche far more than any semblance of reality.

The era ushered in by the 2016 election is one in which unreliable narration gravely affects state policy, let alone what the government asserts to the people is truth. The lenses that misshape our perception are becoming weaponized. The shapes of these lenses are now of critical interest, so we can be aware of how our own perceptions are altered, and if we can determine what is true from the distorted visions we’re given.

Problem Machine recently considered how the risk of violent media isn’t so much in exposure and desensitization, but in messaging, and has published a couple of articles on how culture has unexpectedly been conveyed from media to reality.

I’ve been playing The Division, a peculiar game in which the model set by Borderlands (that is, a shooter built within the framework of Diablo-style fast-action hunt-and-loot RPG). Borderlands is set as a futuristic spaghetti western, and other games with a similar style (Dead Island, featuring survivors of a tropical zombie outbreak, and the STALKER series, featuring scavengers and mercenaries in no-mans land near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant) feature loners with few ties and allegiances. Shoehorning the same paradigm into a Tom Clancy game, featuring the real world, real guns, and a unlilateral government agency behind the players, turns the game into one with with unfortunate implications. Doubly so, in this era, while our society decides to what degree rights of the individual can be usurped for the security of the state.

Like Arkham City, the Manhattan Island of The Division delineates clearly into good guys and bad guys. Good-guy militants are dressed in green, civilians are delirious or cowed and bad guys (rioters) wear red and walk with a swagger. Occasionally they’ll bark 20th-century hoodlum phrases like easy pickins! or get them before they get you. Some of them even gloat we’ll bring New York to its knees! The baddies attack on sight, so that there’s little question from the player what he or she should do.

As Problem Machine notes, designated baddies that are living human beings in the real world present some moral problems that others (e.g. robots or zombies) don’t. We have to take the game’s word for [it that enemies] are definitely bad enough dudes that they need to die.

The baddies of Division Manhattan attack the players on sight, but the high damage / cover structure of the game encourages shooting first, preferably from distance with a sniper rifle. No credit is lost for failing to read them their rights. No evidence is needed to determine that these American citizens were a threat to the safety of the Division Officer, or to themselves, or to civilians around them. (Occasionally, a baddie tries to rob a civvie eliminating the moral dilemma.)

Extra Credits laid out the messaging of The Division more specifically, that government agencies in a democracy are there in service to the people, and preserve peace by consent, hence the premise of the game (a unilateral sleeper army that takes control when logistics and response breaks down) is entirely contrary to the pretense of self government, and entirely consistent with the authoritarianism towards which our nation is creeping sprinting.

I didn’t notice the hoodie issue that EC did, namely that Division baddies will wear hoodies, whereas others don’t. (They also wear low pants and hold their pistols sideways, losing neither movement speed nor gun accuracy for their choices.) I attribute this to blind spots in my own cultural awareness. Also, having been raised by hikers and mountaineers, cold weather gear, including hoodies, seem practical. In a cold winter on Manhattan island, I’d want a hood as well.

On the other hand, The Division portrays western (white) elitism much the way that Avatar did. (That’s blue cat-people Avatar, not elemental bending Avatar.) The James Cameron film Avatar reflected the old narrative of a white westerner being dropped in with natives on their home turf and outperforming them in every way.

Similarly, The Division‘s delineation of enemies vs. non-hostiles reflects a narrative of polarized factions, outlawed gangs, instantly and easily identified and tagged to be annihilated without due process or even consideration.

Rioters as one faction is called in The Division are never seen actually rioting, and are portrayed as disorganized hoodlums. Narrative devices (e.g. recorded phone calls) suggest rioters have little ambition, and are happy to just walk the earth in search of adventure and somehow, this is bad or wrong. They’re accused of looting, but then as the player, I am encouraged by the game to loot my way through the game foraging for resources by which to craft new gear (and re-arm and re-supply).

There are also Cleaners,labor unions gone mad with flamethrowers looking to purge anything that might be infected by the virus, and Rikers, which I haven’t encountered enough to comprehend.

This is the kind of messaging that influences supreme court justices that torture works and is acceptable. Here in the United States, we already see how the police in their internal memorandums regard US civilians — especially ones of an unfamiliar race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality — to be outlaws by default that they can gun down with impunity, or at very least, rob through civil asset seizure without due process.

Game worlds meant to reflect or model reality also serve as messaging for what reality is, whether or not they were meant to serve as a propaganda device. And ones that categorize the people of the world into easily recognizable groups inform their players that people of the world might also be able to be so categorized.

Such messaging — when it appeals to those instincts we yearn to have affirmed; when it encourages antagonism and hostility contrary to collaborative, peaceful society — is dangerous.


2 thoughts on “Rioters

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