This post was inspired by one of the most ill-conceived articles I’ve encountered, courtesy of Polygon. I’m not going to link to it, because fuck that site for running such a piece, but it was essentially a piece of Watch_Dogs advertising posed as commentary on the events ongoing in Ferguson, under the incredible title “What Watch_Dogs Can Teach Us About #Ferguson” (to which the correct answer is, of course, not a fucking thing, you fucking cretins).
BUT! It did make me realise that there’s certainly something worth discussing on the flip-side of that headline. Which is to say, just what the democracy-flouting, culpability-shirking, demonising actions of the militarised police in Ferguson, Missouri highlight about the problems in the media generally, and video games specifically.*
Because for all that Polygon’s ill-thought-out article (as well as a tone-deaf Kotaku article discussing the way in which militarised police were ‘damaging the image’ of games like Battlefield) is next to worthless, a major element of both of them – that the events in Ferguson resemble a computer game – is one worth considering. They’re just looking at it from the least useful angle.
The thing is, Ferguson does resemble a lot of computer games. Too many computer games, in fact. A ridiculous proportion of big-budget computer games throw the player into exactly the role you can see the Ferguson police assuming: that of the authority-wielding, gun-toting, white (probably American, certainly western) hero; fighting predominantly non-white terrorists and/or criminals with extreme prejudice. Whether soldier or policeman, your Justice is assured, your Authority undeniable, and anybody challenging either of those things is Bad and deserves no quarter.
That’s the accepted narrative, whether you’re playing a Call of Duty, a Medal of Honor, or an awkwardly-timed Battlefield: War On Crime Edition. Or, indeed, if you’re a news outlet where peaceful protests become “riots”, where speaking out against police abuse becomes inappropriate, where protest becomes shameful.
It’s a powerful narrative, and it’s pervasive; when you’re immersed in a culture which glorifies the bravery of white men quelling dangerous non-white elements with violence, is it really any surprise when a tooled-up policeman starts to see all challenges as threats and overreacts to a perceived threat with disastrous consequences? Is it any surprise that his boss then sees the large, public response to that as a further threat, as a sign that something Bad is happening and must be quashed, with the Just Authority of the police employing all measures of suppression and enforcement as they see fit, where any who threaten your actions, even by reporting on them, become guilty of a criminal act and valid targets for attack?
No, it’s not a surprise. And the people responsible for crafting these narratives – in the news, in movies, on TV, in video games, anywhere – need to think long and hard about that. We keep repeating these narratives – of the Good White Authority Figure and the Bad Non-White Rebel – and we help to convince people that these actions, these disgusting actions, are not just acceptable, they’re justified.
*because that’s the medium I’m most aware of, not because I think it’s any more relevant than other media to the issues highlighted.