© 2019 Jonnie Wilder
“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf” — Richard Grenier paraphrasing George Orwell
In the fictional near-future, I’m standing overwatch on the wall of the Haunted House Control Point near the present-day Octagon Museum, about two blocks from the White House, watching a group of men burn to death in a fire I set with a portable flame-thrower turret. It’s a beautiful sight.
Some of them drop their weapons and I walk in to take them for myself as the fire dies out, then I roll behind a jersey barrier and fire off a few rounds of suppressive fire toward a heavily-armored man weilding a chainsaw. He’s barely phased by the bullets that pancake on his ballistic armor and he revs the chainsaw menacingly as he runs at me.
I’m rebuilding society in the shadow of a biological terror attack, making America great again. I’m playing Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, a video game about killing people who kill people and take their stuff, and then taking their stuff so you can kill even more-well-armed people and take their stuff too. I kill people to show that killing people is wrong.
Far Cry 5 sent us to a secluded Montana valley to fight religious extremists in the Branch Davidian vein, led by a David-Koresh-like character who turns out to be completely right about the fast-approaching end of the world, but only because he sent his followers to infiltrate governments and bring it about. Its release coincided with the seating of Donald Trump as president, which brought up not entirely unreasonable comparisons of the motivations of the in-game radical extremist group with those of Trump supporters.
Battlefield V added the ability to play women soldiers in the highly-stylized battlefield of video game World War II, which caused #gamergate forehead veins to pop and minds to clamp shut in response to learning that women played roles as resistance fighters, snipers, and spies during a war that threatened to pull the curtains shut on everyone’s world; man, woman, and child alike.
And now, in The Division 2, we are tasked with rebuilding society from the ashes of catastrophic domestic terrorism; not with hammers and nails, but with assault rifles and drones. Heavily armed and organized gangs of looters and highwaymen roam the streets, taking stuff and imposing their ideologies on people who are weaker. They engage in slavery, murder, and intimidation in their efforts to take everything they can for themselves and leave nothing behind.
We, the players, are Agents of The Division: a secret force of trained civil servants — the deepest of deep state sleeper agents — who have been activated after the collapse of government. It’s our job to establish a continuity of civil government and reinstitute order.
For all our good qualities, it’s no secret that the human race is a violent and chaotic force let loose upon the world and each other. We fight often and fiercely because we are very, very good at it. We got to be so good at it because we fought often and fiercely: for our lives, to protect our communities, and to spread our ideals.
And we are equally ashamed by it. We eagerly throw our support behind faceless troops sent to far corners of the globe to suppress ideologies we disagree with and to acquire resources we covet. And when they return with the loot; we disavow their tactics, disregard their grievous wounds, and desert them when they reach out for assistance.
We are violent and at the same time, ashamed of our violence. That is what makes the human race both impossibly beautiful and immensely terrifying. We are as powerful as our contradictions.
Since the generation of us who witnessed the Vietnam War delivered nightly onto our televisions, we are all aware that war is hell, even those of us who have never witnessed it firsthand. It’s a regrettable waste of resources and human lives. It is to be avoided for all time and at all costs, or until we become frustrated and angry. Whichever comes first.
But the great question every video wargame leaves not only unanswered, but entirely unasked is “what is peace”?
Is peace simply the lack of war? Games like Dishonored and Deus-Ex reward players for finding non-lethal solutions to violent situations, is that what peace looks like? Neither game could be considered peaceful.
Is peace something attainable or fleeting, akin to values like justice and harmony? Humanity can’t live in a permanent state of contentment because sustained contentment leads to discontent.
If human beings were truly peaceful creatures, attaining peace would be a simple matter of fairly distributing resources and upholding values of freedom and egalitarianism. Not an easily accomplished goal, but one that can be outlined and worked towards.
What makes peace so elusive is that some humans will always try to have more than others. It’s encoded into our very beings: that if one of something is good, having all of something is better. The irony is that when we share what we have too much of, we feel morally superior to those we took from.
Both capitalism and socialism promise order, but inevitably lead to disorder. All economic systems are tasked to solve chaotic equations that eschew fixed answers and are more art than science.
Social systems are even more chaotic. Democracy is easily disrupted by emotion and untruth. Dictatorships rise and fall on the strengths and weaknesses of personalities, and the fact that all men eventually die. And even the strongest oligarchies are vulnerable to infighting and distrust.
If we are to have peace, what would bring it about and then enforce it? Is it peace if we fear to fight it and only acquiesce at the point of a gun? Where there is injustice, there is no peace, but justice cannot be applied without the threat of force.
Flowers don’t grow in the dark, but peace can occur even in the midst of war, under the right conditions. Peace, therefore, is not a state of being; just as beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.
Peace is ethereal.
Great literature rarely comes right out and says what it means. Firstly, because it’s boring to read manifestos unless you fervently agree. Secondly, because great literature lets us come to understandings about human nature by ourselves, through metaphor and analogy. Great literature shows, it does not tell.
Video games are the perfect media for showing.
The aptly named Hyenas in The Division 2 are anarcho-scavengers and libertarian-looters who don’t care for the lives of people who aren’t also scavenging and looting along with them. Even their allegiance to each other is fraught. They are the “giant rats” that inhabit the sewers of every role playing game: introducing the main character to combat by providing an ubiquitous enemy that is easily reviled and can be easily defeated.
The Outcasts, like the Cleaners from Division 1, are terrified that the genetically-modified, smallpox-derived bioterror MacGuffin that ended civilization will bring about an end to the human race. More importantly, bring about their own personal end. They are pissed off at their plight and they will fight it by ridding the world of anyone with watery eyes and a case of the sniffles. With fire, if necessary, and fire is always necessary. They are flame-thrower-weilding anti-vaxers, hellbent on saving themselves from terrors they don’t understand.
The True Sons embody every liberal’s fear of a militarized society. They are loyal only to each other, they are brutal and unaccommodating, and they are sadistic and authoritarian.
Lastly, there are the Black Tusks, a barely-veiled reference to Blackwater-style mercenaries who work for the highest bidder and who seem to hold no values beyond the esprit de corp and the value of their paycheck. They appear at the end game — which is gamer speak for where the game actually begins — right as our 25th amendment-ized President Ellis probably-not-so-coincidentally disappears after pronouncing us “the doer of deeds” who is going to help him “get shit done”. Storywise, it looks like he got a better offer, to be continued.
But there’s one more faction, The Division itself.
According to the game lore, The Division is the manifestation of our real-world Directive 51, signed by President George W. Bush in 2007. Simply, The Division’s job is to ensure an enduring constitutional government in the event of a catastrophic emergency. At the point of a gun, if necessary; and for our video gaming purposes, yes it will be necessary. The Division is a boogeyman chimera: the embodiment of every Trump-voter’s deep state nightmares, tribal-tattooed, wrapped in a Gadsden flag, armed with an assault rifle, and sporting a MAGA hat.
The game’s story is told through missions that narrate the building up of settlements where people can raise children, grow food, keep bees, and not have to dodge bullets in the streets. In order to do this, the lawless and violent elements that have been unleashed by the collapse of civilization must be pushed back so that there is room for peaceful people to live their lives.
In case you haven’t heard, most people — even video gamers — want to live peaceful lives. No one wants to be at war and we all want to live long lives in good health. We want our children to have even better lives than we have.
That poverty, illness, and strife are ever-present blights that return despite our best efforts to eradicate them is one of life’s great frustrations. Unable to eliminate these evils, we turn to blame each other for them. Which, in turn, causes us to perpetrate them upon each other in a never-ending cycle.
As a Division agent, our job is to push back at those evils more methodically, and then to surgically remove them. By force of arms.
Interventionism is an aspect of United States foreign policy (though it isn’t at all unique to the U.S.) that brings up a great deal of public debate. Some believe we should intervene, but only in non-violent ways, and there should never be any repercussions, and it should always be completely effective.
Others believe just as strongly that we should never intervene. To intervene in the affairs of others is a type of social violence. To tell someone else how to live their life is wrong. To usurp a leader, even non-violently, is an act of war. Even if that leader were reviled; he may be a devil, but he’s our devil.
These are present-day problems that don’t have clean and clear answers.
In The Division 2, after we rescue President Ellis from the hands of the Hyenas, he refers to us as a “doer of deeds”, quoting Theodore Roosevelt. Then he continues to ask us, “To direct those deeds towards an even greater good.”
Very presidential of him. That is a good value that you can pass onto your kids, no matter your political leanings.
It is, however, highly reliant on the phrase, “greater good”, which is doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
If peace is a greater good, which many of us would agree it is, is it ethical to use violence to achieve it? If, in the absense of carefully-applied violence this peace does not come about, what do we call that inaction in the face of evil? Is inaction in the face of injustice not unjust itself?
Is there a universal moral code, and what is it? Or are there no right answers, only what we — together, and in good faith — bargain to bring about the best, least bad outcome, using techniques ordered from the menu of unpalatable choices. Is even hoping for collaborative agreement on how to best deliver the most peace for the lowest cost hoping for too much?
The Division doesn’t answer that question, or even bother to ask it, because it can’t answer. Humanity itself struggles. “War and Peace” is a great novel, and its anti-war message is profound. War is terrible, but it does offer redress for injustice, even as it creates new injustices. To expect more from a video game is hubris.
The quote from President Teddy Roosevelt that is evoked by President Ellis’ mention of “the doer of deeds”, best sums up the political message of The Division 2.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That Massive Entertainment, makers of The Division games hid this message in President Ellis’ speech, “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done. If we’re going to get this country back on track, we have to be willing to do things that won’t be… popular. But I’m not here to woo voters, I’m here to get shit done,” is testament to their creativity and the nuance of their politics. When the next chapter of the story is released and it turns out President Ellis was the one who hired Black Tusk to implement his very different idea of what enduring government looks like, we Division Agents will pitted against him despite being in agreement that we all like getting shit done.
Then, agents and critics alike can ask the difficult question, guns blazing, “what are we willing to sacrifice to make space for peace?”