With the unveiling of Tom Clancy’s “The Division 2” at Microsoft’s E3 press conference a few months ago, I imagine few gamers, myself included, had mixed feelings about the upcoming sequel to the original title which released back in 2016. The most obvious reason being that Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment really mucked up the initial launch to “The Division.” And I mean they really screwed up. The game launched with so little in the way of content, lackluster role-playing-game mechanics, a massive amount of bugs and glitches and so much repetitive grinding— to the point that much of the initial audience got fed up with the game and just walked away all together. This is when Ubisoft and Massive slammed into emergency mode to fix the game’s numerous issues and actually produce worthwhile content that really should have been in the game from the very start. However, that is not what I am here to talk about. What I really want to talk about is “The Division’s” problematic themes and implications, something that other journalists for sites like Polygon, Kotaku, and the like have talked about as well.
In Tom Clancy’s “The Division” you step into the shoes of a nameless agent for “The Division,” a secret government agency whose members are sleeper-cell agents embedded into the public that are called to action in the event of a national emergency. The emergency in this case being an epidemic of smallpox called “the dollar flu” (because the vector for infection were contaminated dollar bills) that spread across the island of Manhattan during Black Friday and ravaged the whole island causing the government to quarantine the island, from the rest of New York City. From there you work with members of the New York firefighters, paramedics and national guard to prevent the entire city from collapsing.
Now, while that does make for an interesting story, this is where story and the game’s mechanics present some very disconcerting implications. As a member of The Division, you have been given carte blanche as an agent of the state to “recapture” the island from not only disease, but from “criminals” as well. The criminals in this case being rioters, cleaners (former workers for NYC’s sanitation division), rikers (former prisoners from Rikers Island) and the Last Man Battalion (Blackwater-esque mercenaries). And how do you recapture the island? By shooting any “criminals” who get in your way. That right there.
Your in-game allies all constantly refer to the citizens of New York you are shooting at as, “criminals” or “low-lifes” or “scum.” What’s worse is that all of those “low-lives” are all clad in hoodies and baggy jeans; a staple of fashion worn by working-class Americans. In those moments, I was reminded of that famous scene in Apocalypse Now, with American troops destroying an entire village from helicopters while shouting similar lines while “Flight of The Valkyries” plays on in the background. It’s in these shoot-outs towards what are basically working-class citizens that I felt really uncomfortable with “The Division.”
The game even tries to justify this message through character dialogue with non-player characters saying stuff like, “we have to fight to preserve what’s left.” But all I could think of after those bits of dialogue was, “what am I fighting to preserve?” Am I fighting to preserve the island of Manhattan or the diminishing authority of the state? Am I fighting to save the people of Manhattan or “just the people that matter?” I think the only time I felt truly like I was helping people was when I was giving food and medicine to people on the street and building up the medical wing of my homebase in the James Farley Post Office.
In this era where we are all grappling with issues such as the police shootings of unarmed black citizens, rising class tensions and the question of how much power the state should have, the idea of a government agent working for an agency so secret its existence has mostly been a rumor is terrifying. Especially one who does not answer to anybody except the president, being given a blank-check to kill any citizen who does not comply with the will of the state and even conscripting the national guard and the police to do so.
What’s worse is that both Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment have both been told about this problem with “The Division” by the press, to which their only response is, “The Division is not meant to be political.” I understand what they are trying to say, but they need to consider that all art carries messages both intentional and unintentional, and to just handwave all the dark implications of the game’s mechanics and narrative as nothing to be concerned with is dangerously naive on the part of Ubisoft and Massive. Until the two developers realise this, all us gamers can do is turn our brains off and try to look past it.
Kelly Baker is a student at West Chester University. ✉ KB819687@wcupa.edu.