Some people are talking about The Division critically, while others are getting mad that people are focusing too much on politics. Here are my thoughts on this matter.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Don Siegel’s 1971 classic Dirty Harry. It’s a phenomenal yet complicated movie; a brilliantly-paced and tense action film in which Clint Eastwood gives the performance that made him a megastar. On the other hand, it’s also an excessively ugly film.
Some of that ugliness can be attributed to the vernacular of the times, but it truly goes far deeper. Even after stripping all of that away we are left with the core of a mean film whose hero is at best a nihilist, and at worst a homicidal maniac with a badge. Dirty Harry is worth seeing because it’s extremely evocative in how it views issues of crime, policing, and violence. It can be a hard movie to watch, but it’s rich with details for you to debate with friends over coffee.
I love movies like this, and I’ve long felt that there simply aren’t enough video games that provoke discussion about what the creator is trying to say versus how the work fits into a larger cultural context. In my mind, the only mainstream game I can think of in the past five years to have done this is Spec Ops: The Line.
The recent release of Tom Clancy’s The Division has sparked some interesting discussion, although very few people seem to want to engage in it. Reviews have been generally favorable. It seems that The Division is a very capable and fun third-person shooter with some really fun co-op and multiplayer modes. What’s been interesting however is in how some reviewers (such as the indomitable Andrew Todd at Birth.Movies.Death) have foregone the traditional review format with this game and primarily focused instead on its narrative themes, as well as the mixed and/or problematic messaging that, intentionally or not, is very much a part of the overall experience.
Looking Critically At The Division
Now, this type of premise in not inherently a bad thing. In fact, there is potential for this type of setup to be a truly transcendent experience (I again direct you to Spec Ops: The Line, which handled this exceptionally). In response to Todd’s review, as well as Gareth Damian Martin’s over at Kill Screen, some have lashed out against this approach to evaluating and discussing The Division, saying that the purpose of a video game review is to evaluate it as a playable product. As for social, cultural, or political messaging that may emerge from it, well, those are irrelevant because “it’s just a video game.”
My initial response to that is that it’s an incredibly reductive and boring way to evaluate a piece of creative work that is ostensibly aspiring to art. Furthermore, the problematic things that critics are finding and discussing in The Division are within the text of the game. You take on the role of a paramilitary agent whose targets in the game are looters, escaped (yet not necessarily convicted criminals) prisoners, and random survivors of the plague. So in short, your job in The Division is to target and execute vulnerable people as its primary mechanic. Regardless of what your personal take may be on that type of thematic setup, it is at the very least an intriguing perspective on a piece of media designed for mass mainstream consumption, and it leads to more meaningful discourse.
To go back to Dirty Harry, imagine reading a review of that film and the critic spends 800 words talking about how fast-paced it is because of its editing and how the camera does a great job of keeping everything in frame. I mean, sure, those are aspects of the film that perhaps contribute to it being successful. It also however gives you no real insight as to why it is a unique and significant piece of work. That’s not to say that there’s no value in discussing some of the more relevant technical aspects of a video game, particularly if there happen to be issues with it. However, are we not at the point where it’s reasonable to simply assume that everything works as it should, and that the goal of criticism is to look beyond the shiny exterior? By limiting the discussion of The Division to nothing but technical points, it effectively lumps it in with the other 39 Ubisoft games that are mechanically indistinguishable from one another (and I say that as a fan of many of those titles).
Are We Turning a Corner? I Hope So
To be honest, I feel a little bit silly sitting here saying, “Hey, maybe it’s okay to look at a video game with a critical eye” because how is this not happening already? Part of this is on people who write about and report on video games; it’s not only okay to talk about larger issues within them, but in fact it should be encouraged. With that, there are millions of people playing The Division and having a blast with it, and the morality of what they’re doing in-game is not even registering. And you know what? That’s okay. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to engage with something beyond surface-level enjoyment, that’s okay. Hey, I unironically enjoy Call of Duty’s single player campaigns so I know all about sitting back and watching the fireworks. The thing is, there’s always subtext to analyze there are always themes to explore.
As is the case with Dirty Harry, sometimes those themes can be difficult, messy, and ugly. Sometimes they reveal a part of us that can make us uncomfortable because of what that may suggest. These are healthy exercises, and they are always worth exploring because it’s through that discourse that we gain a greater appreciation for art. By examining what games like The Division are saying, whether it be intentional or otherwise, we learn how they end up fitting into the larger cultural consciousness, and that in turn enriches our understanding of both the world and the media we consume within it. To deny ourselves that, or to silence others from exploring that, we’re destined to eternally being little kids playing with toys.