The Unrealized Potential of Video Games

Political change is seldom felt until it affects us personally. That is what made the 2018-19 government shutdown so visceral and terrifying. For thousands of government employees living on month-to-month paychecks, the shutdown raised fears of eviction or going hungry. Some even had to go as far as to sell their blood plasma to make rent. Personally, some of my friends went without health insurance for the whole 35-day stretch.

While many saw the shutdown as a personal threat to their livelihood, video game publisher Ubisoft saw an opportunity for advertising. On Feb. 2, the company sent out a marketing email for the then-unreleased ‘third-person-shooter’ “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2” imploring consumers to “Come see what a real government shutdown looks like in the Private Beta.”

While the company deleted the email and apologized within an hour of it being sent, the incident seemed to counteract statements made by Alf Condelius, COO of Ubisoft Massive, the team who worked on “The Division”. Back in Oct., Condelius stated that “we cannot be openly political in our games.” He goes on to explain that “it’s a fantasy… It’s a universe and a world that we created for people to explore how to be a good person in a slowly decaying world.” However, as Simon Parkin of The New Yorker notes, it’s hard for any game that begins with the player “sprint[ing] across the South Lawn past insurgent fighters and toward a White House that features charred walls and pocked pillars,” to not be political.

“The Division” and it’s sequel are set upon a backdrop of the United States ravaged by a contagion known as the “Dollar Flu.” The player is part of a group known as ‘The Division,’ a group of sleeper agents that are ‘activated’ with the goal of regaining control of population centers (NYC in the first game, and D.C. in the second) with a vast arsenal of firearms and personal drones. In simple terms, you play as a government agent given the authority by the president to use force against American citizens on American soil without oversight. This is a scenario that is as explicitly political as you can get.

“The Division” provides a good case study for the current state of video games. Games are moving from just being considered entertainment to being considered art. This process garners increased criticism of the medium, which in turn leads to increased backlash from traditionalists. The ‘Gamergate’ controversy, which began in 2014, found a largely male and largely white population attacking a largely female group of games journalists and calling for a return to ‘objective’ games journalism.

However, ‘objective’ video game journalism never existed. What makes video games a unique form of media is that players actively engage with simulated reactive systems, as opposed to engaging with a fully-formed text. The game thus has an automatic form of abstraction. The player must provide input, and the system reacts. The critiques of games that spurred ‘Gamergate’ focused on how in-game systems reflected and reinforced power disparities in the real world.

So-called ‘objective’ journalism calls for separating these game systems from the story they explicitly state. It calls for us to analyze only what the game tells us, not what it shows us. “The Division” tells us that we are saving New York from violent criminals. The game shows us killing hoodie-clad ‘rioters’ for committing low-level crimes in the wake of a citywide epidemic. Tom Bissell, another New Yorker contributor, puts it best when he writes that “All shooting games are inherently political because they all put forth a vision of violent force being an acceptable catalyst for change.”

In a recent talk at Wheaton, media critic Anita Sarkeesian mentioned how games like “The Division” fail in accurately depicting the way large structures actually function. These games are designed to provide the player with the fantasy of single-handedly taking down a corrupt or evil organization, often with a single villainous figure at the top. The game’s mechanics are also in service to this fantasy, at the expense of realism.

This is where the unrealized potential of video games becomes apparent. Ubisoft asked us to see what “a real government shutdown” looks like, and provided a supposedly one-to-one scale model of Washington D.C. in “The Division 2”. The only question that remains is what systems are best at showing the costs and personal struggles of that shutdown. When we can do that, video games will live up to their potential as art.