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How Video Games Are Exploring Our Fear of Police Militarization

It’s all about the police state and the apocalypse.

by Patrick McGuire
Nov 22 2014, 3:00pm

​Image: The Last of Us

For those of us who enjoy plugging our brains into the rapidly progressing immersion of video games, the narrative power of the medium has thankfully advanced one hundred-fold since the days of Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the rest of the iconic franchises born of our youth's 16-bit gaming revolution (if you were born in the 80s, as much of Motherboard's audience was, that is).

That increased narrative power allows game developers to explore much of the same topics that they've been digging into for years—namely, the inevitable destruction of our entire species, due to human greed and a hunger for power—but with a seriously advanced level of interactivity and character development. A slate of blockbuster games have pushed the envelope forward on one specific topic, police militarization, as it pertains to video game storytelling, with varying degrees of success.

In The Last of Us, you play as a grizzled, blood-thirsty survivor of a near-apocalyptic event that has infected most of the human race and turned them into zombie-like waste cases. As Joel, the grizzled survivor in question, you end up getting paired up with a young girl named Ellie, who is the only known human being on Earth to have been bitten by one of these zombie-like creatures and survived. Your mission, which you (SPOILER ALERT) choose not to accept, is to bring Ellie to a freedom-fighting group of activists called the Fireflies, who promise to extract some DNA goop out of Ellie, which will help save the rest of humanity.

If you've played through the game, you'll know that once Joel is actually confronted with the choice of allowing the Fireflies to operate on Ellie, a procedure that would kill her in the process, he snaps, and you are left with no choice but to steal her back from the Fireflies, thus ending humanity's last hope. It's a fucked up ending, but you can only get to it if you're able to fight through the roving gangs of bandits, militia, and heavily armed cops.

In one of the game's opening sequences, you're faced with an assault-rifle wielding police officer in suburban America who aims his gun at you, thinking you've been infected; even though Joel is with his daughter, the officer aims to take the shot. You ​see and hear the officer, who is obviously conflicted, try and argue with his superior who is urging him to shoot at a father and daughter. It's the game's narrative turning point where the police are no longer protecting the human population, they're keeping it contained.

Throughout the game you kill many, many cops, which is not dissimilar to say, Grand Theft Auto, where you're taking out the boys in blue left and right. But in TLOF, the lines of morality are blurred slightly. As Joel, you're carrying the cargo that could save humanity, and yet these gun-toting cops keep getting in your way. The cities that were once known as pillars of American freedom are now locked down, covered in checkpoints, and further restricted by curfews. This is the landscape you're given to struggle through; and the scary part is, it all seems vaguely possible, were North America to be rocked by a devastating epidemic that killed the majority of humans, and left the remainder either struggling for their lives, or turned into murderous zombie-like beings.

Standing against the beautifully rendered TLOF, the latest iteration of the Call of Duty franchise, Advanced Warfare (COD:AW), feels comparatively clunky, but nonetheless entertaining. In COD:AW, you play as Jack Mitchell, (MORE SPOILERS) an American soldier who loses his arm in conflict, and ends up being recruited by a sociopathic leader of a Blackwater-esque private military called Atlas named Jonathan Irons.

As the brief, 6-8 hour story unfolds, you realize quickly that a catastrophic attack on a nuclear plant in Seattle, which was ostensibly carried out by no-good foreign terrorists, was in fact planned in part by Jonathan Irons, who swept into Seattle post-disaster to build veritable internment camps for the displaced citizens rocked by the catastrophic meltdown.

In between the stunning scene of the nuclear plant falling and a flash-forward level that takes place four years after the attack, the game presents you with a TV ad "produced by Atlas" that shows you how a private military would market their services to a broken populace.

The ad boasts that Atlas brought safety to Americans while they were down, with the apparent subtext that the United States government had failed them. Jonathan Irons, who, by the way, is played magnificently by Kevin Spacey, is shown later in a war room with a United States general, defying the orders of the government, and effectively making his play to take over the world.

While COD:AW is Fast and the Furious compared to TLOF's Easy Rider, the real fear of a disastrous terrorist attack hitting North America, followed by an overwhelming wave of police militarization to "secure" the continent, is exploited to its fullest. In a scene that shows futuristic Detroit, where civilians are interned in an Atlas-built camp to separate those with high levels of nuclear isotopes from the normies, an already-crippled and bankrupt city is cut down once again by the impending siege of a private, futuristic military.

I won't tell you how the game ends, but the damage Irons's army did to the very structure of American exceptionalism rings out in the world of COD:AW.

Then there's the upcoming Battlefield: Hardline (BH), which takes the topic of police militarization and addresses it head-on, rather than including it as subplot. In BH, the traditional Battlefield war game mode of army versus army becomes cops versus robbers in a fictional LA where supercharged cops battle criminals on palm tree-lined streets.

The unadulterated, naked look at cops with big guns teased in the game's promotion has already caused a shit-ton of controversy, but perhaps it's because people don't want to look directly at the reality of beefed up cops patrolling our streets. It's a valid concern to question, and the intensity of video games makes the examination of one of our greater, harder to discuss fears that much more shocking.

In Canada, where I write this, we are witnessing disturbing glimmers of police militarization creeping into our country. The 2010 Toronto G20 saw 20,000 cops in heavily armed gear descend on city streets, kettling protesters and building temporary detention centres and heavy-duty security fencing in the city. In 2012, Montreal was torn apart by student protesters, who were met with a police force that was twice as angry, who lobbied to push through emergency riot control laws. And just recently, the police force of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a town of 61,000 people, received a $275,000 armoured vehicle.

The advancement of video games has allowed for intense stories to be told in the most immersive fashion possible; a progression that will only increase exponentially as the Oculus Rift edges closer to being a consumer product. With a growing fear of police oppression, governments and armies overreacting to "terror," the possibility of an Ebola-like virus killing us all, and other existentially ruinous ideas crushing our collective subconscious, video games are stepping in to confront these fears directly, by allowing us to play through and within them.

Their handling of it may, sometimes, be cheesy, but games like TLOF and COD:AW provide some of the best and most honest narratives on the issue that we currently have at our disposal. And with the way things are going, both in the real world and in the studios of game development companies, these titles are only going to get more technologically advanced, while exploring scarier stories that are influenced by our crazy planet.