‘Tom Clancy’s The Division’ is both morally repugnant and a dull chore

By Nate Taskin

Tom Clancy's "The Division." (UbiSoft)
Tom Clancy’s “The Division.” (UbiSoft)

Every work of art, regardless of the creator’s intentions, has a set of beliefs, outlooks and ideologies embedded in its text. Video games, from “Call of Duty’s” celebration of American militarism to the snide consumerist satire of the “Grand Theft Auto” series, have never been exempt from this rule.

Games that force the audience to become an active participant (as opposed to the passive observer of cinema) deserve better than what AAA developers have reduced them to: celebrations of juvenile carnage and meathead gun porn.

That we are conditioned to judge a game’s merit solely on how “fun” it is demonstrates the utter failure on the part of both consumer and critic to engage with games in a meaningful way. When we view art from such a reductive perspective, it becomes easy to see why most mainstream video games have such a rigid, retrograde adherence to the status quo.

Thankfully, if “fun” is the sole factor that informs our judgment of video games, then “Tom Clancy’s The Division” fails on that front alone. Yet once one examines the moral odiousness of what the game chooses to condone, and, furthermore, what it compels the player to revel in, it demands further examination. Once that lens is applied, it becomes clear that “The Division” is little more than another example in a long list of generic, cover-based third person shooters that uncritically endorse fascism.

“Tom Clancy’s The Division” (though given that Clancy died only shortly after the game’s announcement, his involvement in the project seems minimal) sets itself in a paint-by-numbers dystopian universe devastated by a plague of smallpox. Though the American government has collapsed and civilization has fallen to pieces, you, the player, must “protect what remains.”

As part of the titular “Division” – an elite force of sleeper agents inexplicably trained for this highly specific scenario – you act as a government agent meant to defend private property from the “looters” that seek to defile it. Who is the main enemy that the game requires you to kill without remorse? Desperate poor people.

Based on the premise alone, the developers seem like the type of people who would look at Mitt Romney’s infamous 47 percent comment and applaud. In an instance of wretched dehumanization, the game clads its hoard of indistinguishable enemies in hoodies so that killing them becomes all the more easily stomached. This type of content would appear out of place in even the most jingoistic Michael Bay movie. Here though, such reprehensibility seems par for the course, and that fact casts a truly damning light on modern video games.

Imagine yourself a mercenary hired to defend private property from lower-class citizens of New Orleans, rendered desperate and hungry in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Imagine yourself hailed a hero as your body count nears the thousands. This frame of mind is one that “The Division” unapologetically sanctions. This mercenary is our hero. It salivates over its commitment to authoritarianism, and views your enemies – people who simply wish to survive – as vermin that beg for extermination.

There is no subversion or moral framing that justifies these grievous acts à la “Spec Ops: The Line.” Every time you commit an act of evil, every time you pepper a faceless non-player character with lead, the game assuages any moral misgivings you might have as it assures you that it is all for the greater good. We are in the right, the game says, because we are blessed with the most “stuff.” The weak are meat that the strong eat, and all resistance to these power dynamics must be stamped out of existence.

Even if one were to excuse the game’s adoration of mass slaughter (and given the uncritical mindset of most gamers, I doubt this hurdle will be a problem for them), I fail to see how one could derive enjoyment from such basic schlock. When enemies shoot at you, you hide behind cover. Then, when the opportunity arises, you shoot at them. This is the game, ad infinitum.

Given that “The Division” has broken sales records, it seems clear that lack of mechanical innovation is not so much an encumbrance, but a quality to be desired. There is comfort in the familiar I suppose, and if “The Division” refuses to challenge the status quo on a moral plane, it fits that it refuses to innovate on a technical level either.

Rampant fetishization of gear is on full display. The game rewards your acts of genocide with more mods, more guns and more “stuff.” One-fourth of the game will likely be spent with your eyes glazed over a hideous, cluttered crafting screen. You kill so that you can get cool upgrades, and you get cool upgrades so that you can kill some more.

Stray dogs populate the streets of “The Division.” They don’t attack you. You can’t pet them. You can’t play fetch. You can gun them down if your heart desires it, though. This mentality is what “The Division” cherishes – one where the only the form of interaction manifests through violence. Here exists a video game that spits on the plight of the marginalized and sees compassion as a greater plague than the smallpox that drives its plot.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]