On the one hand, Gareth Martin for KillScreen has a rather remarkable and thought-provoking analysis of The Division, taking it to task specifically for its “perverse and and misanthropic politics”:
It’s always been a quirk of videogames that they succeed in depicting believable environments over believable people. The Division feels like the ultimate realization of this trait. The section of Manhattan island that the game takes as a setting is an artful work of digital craft. It takes a detailed one-to-one replica of the existing city as its starting point and covers it with layer after layer of enviromental detail. Every surface is creased, worn, scratched and marked, then plastered with trash, water, notes, graffiti, and greasy footprints. There is an obsession with garbage that tells the story of the breakdown of the systems of society so effectively. Bags of it lie in great drifts across roads, it fills stairways and alleys, piling up in cavernous sewers. It is an image that speaks so strongly to the supposed knife-edge the game wishes to depict society as resting on. It defines a society of endless consumption brought to its knees. When combined with the Christmas imagery that comes with the games’ “Black Friday” timescale—wrapped trees lined up on the streets, fairy lights twinkling above burnt out cars—it starts to feel like a visual interrogation of late Capitalism. And when the precisely simulated snow drifts in, and you are stalking down an empty city street surrounded by refuse, The Division seems to make sense, it seems to say something. But before long, out of the swirling flakes will come a jerky citizen, who will congratulate you for your efforts, and then ask you for a soda. And all at once, that something is lost.
The Division has a serious representation problem. Despite the complexity of its world, and its bleak sophistication, it fails miserably to represent the culture within it. Its crude depiction of a society divided entirely into “us and them” feels like the ugliest of conceits. “Citizens” are classified as those friendly-looking, passive idiots that wander up and down streets looking for a hand-out. “Enemies” include anyone who might take their own survival into their own hands. Within the first five minutes of the game you’ll gun down some guys rooting around in the bins, presumably for “looting” or carrying a firearm. Later you’ll kill some more who are occupying an electronics store and then proceed to loot the place yourself, an act made legal by the badge on your shoulder. Even the game’s “echoes,” 3D visualizations of previous events, seem designed to criminalize the populace, usually annotating them with their name and the crimes they have committed. This totalitarian atmosphere pervades everything—even down to a mission where you harvest a refugee camp for samples of virus variation, treating victims like petri dishes. Developer Ubisoft Massive runs merrily through any complexity and shades of grey in these acts, in what seems like a vain attempt to mask the fact that you are shooting citizens because they are “looters,” constantly prioritizing property and assets over human life.
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This is the paranoid fantasy of the right-wing brought into disturbing actualization by The Division. Look at the three gangs that form the main antagonists of the game: The “Rikers” are the prisoners of Rikers island prison that lies off the coast of The Bronx. They are the most obvious member of what The Division presents as societies’ dangerous underclass—known criminals. The “Cleaners” are former sanitation workers, who have decided that the solution to the virus is to burn it out of the city. A gang of blue-collar garbage men and janitors equipped with flamethrowers, they represent the lowest rung of the working class. The third gang are the “Rioters,” a majority black, generic street gang, decked in hoodies and caps that spend their time looting electronics stores and dead bodies. Perhaps the laziest and most repugnant of all the game’s representations, the Rioters might have been clipped from the one-sided and inaccuratemedia coverage of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Their collective name even seeks to mark anybody who resists the dominant regime for execution. Together, these gangs present a trinity of soft political targets, those that can be killed with little social guilt or questioning. The Division mercilessly uses these skewed representations to justify its political violence.
It’s a perverse idea of society, one where the government and its agents are the only thing standing between the average man and a host of violent sociopaths that surround him; from the “hoods” hanging on his street corner to the janitor at his office. They want what he has, the man thinks, because it is what they lack. They want to take what he has earned—to destroy what he has built. It comes from a deep seated place of ignorance and selfishness, one that doesn’t seek to understand the world but to divide it up into property and power. This ideology is nothing short of poisonous and yet The Division uses it as the fuel for its world. It borrows, word-for-word, the rhetoric of the New Orleans police department command who after Hurricane Katrina gave the order to “take the city back” and “shoot looters.” It presents those disenfranchised by society as its greatest enemies. It follows neo-liberal dogma so blindly that in one bizarre mission it actually sends the player to turn the adverts of Times Square back on, as if those airbrushed faces and glimmering products were the true heart of New York City, shining down like angels on the bodies of the dead among the trash.
And on the other hand, I completely agree with these series of tweets from Josiah Renaudin:
Neither of these viewpoints are wrong. I was taken aback by Gareth Martin’s political analysis if only because, like Josiah, I simply haven’t felt obligated to pay much attention to why I’m doing anything in The Division; I’ve been playing for over 12 hours now and I still don’t 100% know who I am, or why I’m here, or what I’m doing. That hasn’t stopped me from enjoying myself, even if I do wish I felt a stronger connection to the game; it wouldn’t stop me from wanting to continue, but as it is I have absolutely zero emotional involvement with what it is I’m doing. And that’s fine as far as my gaming habits are concerned, most of the time.
But yeah, after a dozen hours of this shooty shooty bang bang business, I do start to question the ethics of why my digital avatar is behaving in this way. It makes no sense to be ordered (by the game’s enemy-location radar) to shoot looters dead in the street, and then walk up to them and literally loot their corpse – or, more often than not, to walk away disappointed that they didn’t drop anything good enough to pick up. I especially don’t know why I’m shooting the guys with flamethrowers, who presumably are setting virus-ridden things on fire, and so aren’t necessarily the enemy, per se.
The premise of The Division – a deadly virus contaminates New York City and you, as a member of The Division, are tasked with restoring law and order to a lawless wasteland of a city – is certainly rich enough that it ought to be able to carry some narrative momentum in and of itself, but that’s not what the game is really about; your real impetus to carry forward (and a very strong impetus it is, believe me) is the loot chase. Very few games manage to make the chase compelling enough without being overwhelming and/or annoying; one might even make the argument that a game like Borderlands goes too far on the loot side of things. The Division’s loot chase is very finely balanced and well-tuned; I don’t often get what I need but when I do, I’m very, very happy.
But in the same way that eating potato chips out of the garbage in order to regain health felt a little weird in Bioshock, or that in order to catch a serial killer in Condemned you end up killing more people than the serial killer you’re chasing, and often in gruesome and horrifying ways, it’s starting to become weird that I, as a member of The Division, am advancing the cause of liberty and freedom by shooting stragglers to death, and mostly in the head in order to get an XP bonus.
EDIT, POSTSCRIPT: As I was writing all this down, another insightful essay popped up by Robert Rath on ZAM.