Over the past five years, various big game–makers have made an effort to step away from questions of politics, history, and morality. Black Ops 2, Ghosts, Advanced Warfare, and Black Ops 3—all of these Call of Duty games are set in a wild, vivid future, far removed from the narrative problems inherent to action games based around contemporary war. Far Cry Primal goes in the opposite historical direction, 12,000 years into the past, but the effect is the same. So far from our own society is the one depicted on the screen that any violence or atrocity committed has only a tangential relevance to our everyday lives.
Murdering a prehistoric tribesman by siccing a tamed white wolf on him is not as immediately evocative to us, in this day and age, as it is to bomb insurgents from an American Flying Fortress as part of a war against terrorism. The big shooter series, rather than continue to try and navigate the political minefield of modern warfare, has opted instead to bubble wrap itself in fantasy and irony. After 2007 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the battle was on to represent war with more nuance. And the games industry's biggest developers surrendered immediately.
But an apolitical game is still a political game—if you choose to shield your story from all possible lines of questioning, that decision still comes from somewhere; and when so many of your peers are doing the same thing, your game, however apolitical, feeds back into a trend. It becomes part of politics. March 2015's Battlefield Hardline is a great example of a game trying hard to say nothing and be irrelevant, but in the process becoming not just highly political but politically dubious.
When a committee of politicians takes a vote, abstention is still a political statement—by ostensibly refusing to get involved, the abstaining politician is nevertheless stating her position. Likewise, Visceral's efforts to separate Hardline from the debates typically surrounding current shooters—debates about on-screen violence, player agency, and the representation of non-whites and non-Americans—inadvertently make the game contentious.
Where Call of Duty sidestepped into the future, and Far Cry into the past, Hardline tries to distance itself from the ethical quandaries of depicting war as a video game by emulating television police dramas. In an effort to frame the game not just as fiction but as popular, not-to-be-taken-seriously fiction, each mission is termed an "episode" and begins with a "previously on" cold opening. More importantly, the enemies are drug dealers and robbers, and the setting is Miami—aesthetically at least, Hardline is separated from the war on terror shooters that have predominated for the past decade.
But it still plays like a military game. Using assault rifles and explosions, you kill people en masse—people who are characterized merely as "bad guys." If the central failing of recent war games has been to render complicated conflicts—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as simplistic battles between good and evil, Hardline insists that the American war on drugs can be fought with military tactics, against enemies who are latently and uniformly criminal. The title of the game itself, Hardline, endorses a zero-tolerance, zero-empathy approach to law enforcement. But in reality, the war on drugs has been shown not just to ensnare police forces and cost the taxpayer, but to destroy the lives and liberty of innumerable US citizens.
America has the highest prison population, per capita, in the world. Under US drug laws, people like Kevin Ott, a 54-year-old from Oklahoma, can be sentenced to life imprisonment for possession of just three and a half ounces of methamphetamine. More than a trillion dollars have been spent fighting the war on drugs since 1971 and yet, since 1990, illegal drug purity has increased, and the cost of illegal drugs has dropped.
The Draconian approach to drug policing has consistently failed. But Hardline, first by repackaging itself as a police game and second by playing exactly like a military shooter, endorses hardline law enforcement. It's a game that has stepped away from debates about the war on terror and into the war on drugs. Rather than pose questions—perhaps accidentally, given how much it seems to want to be read as escapism—the game makes a very clear political statement. It's a political statement that, in America, has contributed to a grave national problem.
More troubling is Hardline's attitude not specifically to drug policy but policing in general. "Defeat enemies and search their bodies for evidence," advises Hardline's loading screen. "We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn't as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay," said writer Rob Auten, explaining that dialogue written to give enemies more depth was eventually cut from the game. Nakedly, Battlefield Hardline encourages you to shoot criminals and ask question later, or perhaps not at all. You are given a police badge and the ability to arrest rather than kill, but almost all the game's levels degenerate into a gun fight—Hardline is easier when played as a war shooter, and the criminals are characterized as so dangerous, so bereft of nuance or humanity, that killing them outright becomes the sensible option.
In March 2014, the month Battlefield Hardline was released, 114 people were killed by US law enforcement. The same month, the US Justice Department ruled that the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, had acted with misconduct by violently attacking rioters—the Ferguson riots themselves were sparked when an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was shot dead by police in 2014.
Four weeks after Hardline's launch, in April, 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old arrested in Baltimore for possession of a switchblade, died en route to police custody as a result of a "rough ride," whereby officers deliberately drove their van erratically, leaving the handcuffed Gray to fall against the walls and floor and suffer a fatal injury to his spinal cord. At the time of writing, 175 people have been killed by US law enforcement in 2016.
Hardline's efforts to make players not as "emotionally conflicted about gameplay," in light of true events, turn it into a didactic game about the efficacy and virtues of violent police work. Each crime in Battlefield Hardline is resolved with violence. Almost every criminal is pacified with lethal force, and as a result of that pacification, the player is awarded and permitted to progress. Attempting to remove from the role of a law enforcer any moral concerns or questions is precisely what has led to such a high rate of killings by police officers in the US—the ignoring of conscience and understanding, as encouraged by Hardline, is the catalyst for real-world police violence.
Hardline may be intended as pure entertainment, a raucous shooter unburdened by politics. But in the process of creating such a game, and attempting to simplify and make easy to enjoy the role of being a police officer in modern America, its makers—seemingly unwittingly—sponsor some of their country's most morally destitute political processes. As hard as studios or publishers insist, there is no such thing as an apolitical video game. Battlefield Hardline, absolutely, is both a product and a reflection of the time and place in which it was made.
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