Individuals lucky enough to take part in the hotly anticipated weekend beta for Tom Clancy’s The Division – a militaristic instanced action MMO set to release March 8th, 2016 after copious and transformative delays – trounced around a ravaged Manhattan, leveling up and collecting gear in a compulsively lootable environment. There is something apparently seductive about the city’s thrashed streets as a viable stage for misadventure, a fantasy which The Division splits between John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and the grim realities of modern terrorism. New York City may be miniaturized here, but The Division’s attention to detail invokes everything from landmarks like MSG, realistic looking apartment building fire escapes, and reflective dented street signs.
Context is a different matter, however. And when I say the word “context,” I am reflecting on the violent target-practice and the deliberate narrative at play. Essentially, The Division takes place in a contaminated New York City subjected to a weaponized form of Small Pox released during Black Friday. Let’s pause here for a moment and think about that, as it’s a decidedly profound move. There are many diseases that could have been selected for this story, but they chose the one infamously responsible for the mass genocide of Indigenous Americans during the early period of colonization. The story positions this disease to erupt on the busiest shopping day in Manhattan as poisoned chickens coming home to roost.
Yet I cannot begin to count the number of hoodied, dark-skinned cannon fodder I’ve riddled with bullets in my time with the beta, a group which I only would later discover are known as “Rikers”, who are escaped convicts united together to profit from the carnage. Now, convict enemies in videogames are hardly rare, but we are talking about a game in which you spend most of your time (in the beta, at least), killing looters that appear frustratingly frequently as Black or Latino. Are their criminal records the basis for this? Is the cultural makeup of the convicted population part of a deliberate statement the game is attempting to make? Don’t forget that AFTER you gun these men down, you’ll probably be looting their corpses and the stores they were trashing; it appears that The Division’s playable agents are given carte blanche to steal from the environment and cull any apparent lawbreakers not carrying a badge.
Now, granted, there may be more to The Division’s plot intentions than what we get in this minute-to-minute appraisal of the beta. Still, the decision to render the experience as a sort of action RPG-like genre in which players go through the motions of mass extermination to hopefully pick up the next illuminated shiny object and then repeat the process ad infinitum – might compel the directors to weigh and consider the visuals replete in this common gameplay loop. Dead orcs and dragons appear less frequently in our headlines.
The sight of rioting, looting, then murdered people of color are a significant image that should not be invoked lightly. But beyond these visuals, the game’s most interesting mechanic is presented in the unsupervised Dark Zone, a PvP area largely inspired by DayZ where players are allowed to turn on each other for profit in a process called “going rogue.” Upon entry into the DZ you are always notified that communications with HQ have been severed and you are now on your own. Maybe this is the most interesting conceptual choice in the game, an exemplary stage of betrayal where The Division completes its political narrative: give men some guns and authority, but then remove surveillance, and they’ll probably kill each other for loot and lulz.
Interestingly, the available character skins to choose from at the start of the beta are primarily of people of color, as are the majority of the friendly agents in your base of operations. The Division is obviously concerned with mixing up its cultural representation, which is probably why I’m so shocked that nobody considered what those carefully chosen representations might look like lying dead after an alley firefight. Absent the absurdly satirical tone of something like GTA, we are left with more sullen episodes of dead Black men amidst squawking walkie-talkies.
Maybe we’ve had enough of that.
Leonardo Faierman is ¼ of the #BlackComicsChat podcast, writer/co-creator of the comic “Snow Daze”, and a Jewish Latino caught at the intersection of white privilege and “What ARE you exactly?”