Games That You Can't Let Yourself Think About

In other words, I'm playing 'The Division' again.
screenshots courtesy of Ubisoft

By complete coincidence, I spent the week leading up to Ubisoft’s announcement of The Division 2 playing opening hours of the original game’s campaign, with your operative’s first tentative steps toward “retaking” New York from a bioweapon-induced disease outbreak. It was a perfect game for a long, lazy weekend where I could mindlessly run around a hauntingly beautiful, disaster-stricken New York wasteland, listening to the sound of automatic weapons fire reverberating off the silent buildings, and diving for cover amidst the detritus of an interrupted holiday season.


I had to be mindless, because there is hardly anything in 2016’s The Division that the intervening years have not made somehow uglier and more fascist. In the midst of a lethal disease outbreak, somehow everything hinges not on emergency workers and health infrastructure, but a bunch of heavily armed militia—whose uniform is varying shades of tactical-chic gear and accessories—unleashing hailstorms of high-velocity ammunition on “rioters and looters.” You know, people trying to “take advantage” of the situation, as the politically agnostic conspiracy radio station describes it.

And yet I am a sucker for stories and depictions of apocalyptic social collapse, the kind of person who started buying copies of Station Eleven for his friends and insisting they read it immediately. I adore the grisly and frequently satirical vignettes of World War Z, and the long journey into the underbelly of a hellish fascist ethno-state in Children of Men. So even if The Division is coming from a place of affluent, provincial paranoia, I still can’t quite bring myself to pass-up the images of an ice-entombed brownstone. Or to indulge in a raging, snowbound firefight outside Penn Station.

So The Division has become another one of those games where I compartmentalize the experience. Most of the time I am playing a gorgeous open-world shooter with a wintry look that I love year-round. Or I’m in heist-movie standoffs around a Dark Zone pickup point, waiting to see who around me is going to flinch first. Even if there are a dozen games that handle combat in more dynamic and interesting ways than The Division’s point-and-click grind, few take place among such beautiful ruins.


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But every few minutes the game reminds me of its worldview and politics (made more pitiful by the ways it assiduously tries to be apolitical). Whenever The Division tries to portray its characters as heroic, their work and mission somehow noble, it’s a tone-deaf travesty. Paramilitary commandos exhort you to “take this city back,” ignoring the fact they’ve accomplished nothing except ensure their own security and comfort while the rest of the city is abandoned. There’s your CO, who points out that you’re both part of an organization that planted sleeper agents among American civilians and encouraged them not to forge any connections with the people in their lives—lest they develop empathy after they are “activated.” Nobody ever anticipated anything like this, she says, which raises the question of exactly what Division agents did expect to be doing by infiltrating American civic life.

Even though the Division later reveals its own awareness that there's a fascist streak underlying its heroes' mission, the game never really interrogates what that means, or questions your own actions dispensing summary justice in the streets of Manhattan. You're never made to question whether you might also be a bad apple from a tree that might just be poisonous.

The narrative justifications deployed through The Division are silly, but its politically-inflected fantasies are much more immediate now than they were in early 2016. The sight of special forces wannabes (in and out of uniform) strutting around in their catalog-ordered kit is a near-daily feature of American life. The belief that there is no greater calling than to maintain order at gunpoint and save the fallen, cosmopolitan American city from itself, is less a fantasy than the animating principle of the various facets of American revanchism. So while The Division is just a game, it's also a dream that longs to be made real.


Mind you, there is a lot of media that requires a healthy dose of doublethink or skepticism. But it’s rare that I find something that is such a bifurcated experience, where my feelings only switch between appreciation and outright loathing. This isn’t a game with “problematic” elements. It’s more like a video game Dorian Gray: something beautiful and captivating that, if you glimpse its true nature, is also utterly appalling.

I don’t know if The Division 2 can ever build something genuinely good atop such a rotten foundation. Almost any direction the series can go as it evolves the storyline is bound to be disastrous, unless it develops some self-awareness. But I’m doubtful that I’ll be able to keep the good in view alongside the bad, if the sequel continues to be a game that worships an order maintained at gunpoint, by people who continually try to pass-off their random, indiscriminate violence as a form of altruistic public service. One can only indulge in deluded villains portrayed as heroes for so long.

What about you? What are some games that you’ve had to mentally distance yourself from even as you enjoy them?

Let me know in today’s open thread!