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Dear Video Games: Your Politics Are Showing, Whether You Like It Or Not (Commentary)

Developers of games like Tom Clancy’s ”The Division“ insist they aren’t making political statements. They’re wrong

In “Tom Clancy‘s The Division,” users play as a sleeper agent in New York working for a government agency called, you guessed it, The Division. New York is in chaos because of a deadly virus that spread by a terrorist, via dollar bills, on Black Friday.

Your enemies, with whom you only interact by way of firearms, include: random armed looters; escapees from Rikers Island prison; city sanitation workers who wield flamethrowers and burn everyone they see; and a private military company called the Last Man Battalion.

“The Division” is a persistent online game, so your all-out war on the streets of New York City can never actually end. Thus this conflict is basically Vietnam, because publisher Ubisoft’s hope is that you’ll play it forever. The only way for it to end is for the player to turn it off and not return.

The Tom Clancy affiliation, by the way, is totally arbitrary. “The Division” isn’t a Clancy property — Ubisoft was simply allowed to brand it as such, as the publisher has done with other games in the past. The name imbues some fun incidental political baggage; if you read the game’s description, you might think it’s some kind of liberal satire, but seeing Clancy’s name on the box might give you reason to think it has a very straight face.

“At the end of the day, it’s a video game. It’s an entertainment product,” Julian Gerighty, associate creative director of “The Division,” said to Killscreen’s Michelle Erheardt earlier this year. “There’s no particularly political message with it.”

A couple years ago I spoke with some of the developers on “Homefront: The Revolution” during the press event at which it was announced. This is an upcoming action game in which North Korea, in a “Red Dawn”-type scenario (the writer of the original “Red Dawn” film, notably, worked on the previous game in the series) has carved out a sort of Eastern Bloc for itself before invading and occupying the U.S. The game is set in Philadelphia — a decision made, we were told, because of that city’s history with the American Revolution. The title “Homefront: The Revolution,” of course, also evokes that history.

But “Homefront” is set in the present day, and puts the U.S. in the awkward position of fighting a guerrilla war against a foreign occupier looking to impose its own ideology and form of government. Fighters in this new revolution — players assume the role of a soldier leading a ragtag force against the North Koreans — make use of all the tools of modern guerrillas, including improvised explosive devices (!) and hit-and-run tactics.

“We’re not really that interested in the politics of it,” associate producer Fasaht Salim told me and my former colleague Phil Hornshaw at GameFront. “For us, it is quite literally a very interesting and different premise. This is like a worst-case scenario.”

Somehow, with video games, we hear this kind of thing all the time. They’re not trying to make a political statement with their incredibly loaded story premise. Ultimately, games are just for fun.

Video games are also art. Gamers have been less prone to scream that at you lately, but it wasn’t that long ago when a huge pile of nerds absolutely went off on Roger Ebert for claiming they could never truly be works of art. It was a big enough deal that the U.S. Supreme Court even had to address whether video games count as a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. They decided in favor of games.

So if games are art, they should always be making political statements. Even the summer blockbusters we think of as cynical cash-ins — like, for example, the “Transformers” films — are layered with copious amounts of political commentary. Filmmakers couldn’t avoid it if they tried, because that’s just inherently how storytelling works. You have something to say, and you say it by telling a story.

The truth, then, is that of course “Tom Clancy‘s The Division” and “Homefront: The Revolution” are littered with political statements. Hell, just saying that they aren’t making political statements — with those innumerable bits of very clearly loaded storytelling elements — is itself a political statement.

But the reason they can pretend that they aren’t and be believed by fans is because of the fractured nature of video games. In a title like “The Division,” which functions as a perpetual motion machine of Stuff to Do and People to Kill, all that art stuff is just flavor. You’re really just there for the endless, mindless slaughter. If you care about the storytelling in “The Division,” you’re gonna hate it because it doesn’t even care about its own story.

Last year I wrote a book about games in which I described this problem in simpler terms by referring to “The Last of Us” — a game which, if there could ever be a consensus for the best storytelling in the medium, it would be that this is the one that provides that. “The Last of Us” tells an interesting story but is hamstrung by “game stuff” — things put into the experience strictly as a mechanic for challenge.

The example I emphasized is that of shivs that the game requires you to make over and over. You play a grizzled middle-aged man traveling across the U.S. during a zombie apocalypse, but you don’t have a knife and the shivs that you assemble from scissor blades you find scattered around break after one or two uses.

That doesn’t make sense, and it certainly doesn’t fit with the text of the narrative. It’s just an arbitrary thing thrown in without any internal explanation that doesn’t contribute in any way to the storytelling experience. This is how video games work, with whatever they’re attempting to express being incessantly hamstrung by the rules.

“The Division” is rife with that kind of stuff, and the result is you have a game, and you have a story, and they have little to do with each other. The idea of a game that goes on forever, in which you enter its world every day for years to do battle with the same enemies over and over and never actually win but also never actually lose, is actually a great metaphor for American campaigns in Vietnam or Afghanistan or the like. But for it to work as a metaphor, “The Division” would ultimately have to condemn itself, and by extension the player who fights forever but accomplishes nothing.

While Ubisoft almost certainly has a writer or two who is subverting “The Division” with that sort of artistic intent, the game as a whole doesn’t play along with it. Ubisoft, by the way, has made so many games with this structure in the last few years (see also: the “Far Cry” series) that you can’t in good faith assume they’re making them like this for any reason other than that they want to make the last game you ever play. They want to fulfill your need for diverting entertainment by preying on your compulsions. That’s tech, not art.

Thee funny thing about “The Division” and “Homefront” and “Destiny” and any other game that works as a violent, endless time-killing simulator is that they follow in the footsteps of an early Xbox 360 game called “Crackdown.” That game, released way back in 2007, has a player character, a government agent, charged with eliminating several criminal organizations in the fictional Pacific City who have essentially created anarchy.

So you roam around killing bad guys and doing busywork until you finally take them all out — after which you learn that the agency you work for had allowed those crime syndicates to spread in the first place so they could then swoop in and institute more or less a fascist dictatorship. Your boss tells you this, and then lets out an cartoonishly evil laugh. That game was commenting on itself.

And yet here we are nearly a decade later, looking at a different game, “The Division,” with almost an identical plot with very little in the way of subversive aspirations. It’s bullshit. And it shows that despite all of gaming’s supposed growth as a form of art in the last couple decades, the most visible games out there might just be contributing to an artistic recession in the video game world.