What Video Games Tell Us About Police Brutality & Our Perception of Each Other

The idea of a police state operating amongst an oppressed society is not a new notion to many gamers. Ostentatious displays of power, ignorance, and violence permeate and reflect our current social and political climate while also maintaining the idea that the narrative taking place outside of a video game, may actually be more truthful than we thought.

Speaking truth to power is something the video game industry is familiar with. Video games have undergone its fair share of societal scrutiny since their inception, whether its from congressional hearings regarding content, state lawmakers, and parents vilifying the existence of a virtual world where their children were being exposed to things of a fantastical nature and were seen as something that needed to be restricted and monitored.

Video games weren’t yet seen as technical achievements of art. The negative stigma of gaming is still something that the medium suffers from. Notions of causing violent behavior and illogical ideations of the real world were accusations the industry had to endure for decades and even now some consider them to be a lesser art form. This parallels the idea that freedom of speech carries with a caveat.

For some, video games are how we make sense of the confusing world around us. As of late, the recent protests and demonstrations of unjust violence at the hands of the police have left me at a loss for words. It implored me to explore the cyclical nature of protests and injustice and how that narrative is intrinsically tied to a medium that we’ve been enjoying for years. Video games have served as the catalyst to the age-old question of “do video games incite violence?” My theory is that they do quite the opposite especially if we’re to focus on the narratives they create.

The Hero Narrative

This is the Police

There’s a freeform nature to storytelling that’s present in video games but there’s one in particular called “the hero narrative” that’s frequently found in police-centric video games. There’s no escaping the hero narrative; the hero juxtaposes what’s considered “the bad guy” in the context of the game, whether it be a gruff likable action hero gunning down Nazi’s or a maniacal magical ruler overseeing a distraught kingdom (and it’s up to the plucky young hero to dethrone that ruler).

See Also: Should AAA Publishers Be Avoiding Political Games?

Video games have always held an interesting narrative when it comes to authority figures. Look at newish games like This is the Police, and the most explicit example that comes to mind, the still-controversial Grand Theft Auto series. The series views the protagonist or player as their own anti-hero of sorts. An anecdote that I’ve always found curious if not humorous is the number of people that follow societal rules while playing in-game (stopping at stoplights, surrounding to the police, and refusing to steal other players’ vehicles). This behavior is especially curious because the criminality that is prevalent in the game (and strongly encouraged) is not engaged in at all by some gamers who just want a sandbox open world to explore and enjoy on their own terms.

Grand Theft Auto holds a distinction because its very structure allows the player to play however they would like even with the choices in development like consequences for defying authority figures rules in-game, these rules closely mirror our own except the difference is that in our reality (with minority groups in particular) we don’t always have a choice when it comes to our police state. Given the recent disheartening activity by our present authority figures, we have even less of a choice than we thought in the past.

Battlefield Hardline and “Good” Cops

battlefield hardline

To paint a clearer picture, we have to take a look at two releases within the past two decades that push a narrative much similar to the one that’s driving our perception of the events going on in our world right now. Battlefield Hardline is EA’s first-person shooter from 2015 in which you play as a cop investigating a drug war, abuses of power, and revelations of corruption.

The game contains the hero narrative, establishing a “good cop” story so that the culpability of the shady actions and abuses of power are perpetrated by his trusting nature in his career and actions, the brunt of the narrative is a classic crime caricature of a cop who just happens to be doing his job and makes revelatory discoveries that give him the moral high ground in the end.

Max Payne & Normalizing Police Brutality

max payne

The second game, Max Payne, is a neo-noir introduced in 2001 (and two sequels thereafter) follows the titular character as an NYPD officer and undercover agent for the DEA who ultimately finds his journey becoming something akin to a vigilante after tragedy strikes his family. The narrative immediately establishes Max as a man in mourning seeking justice on his own terms giving off the impression that the violent acts committed are justified and the gamer is implored to root for Max the entire time.

The depiction of these cops in video games and the suggestive “good guy vs. corruption” narrative is used often and gratuitously enough that this element of storytelling (specifically the power fantasies) has become the norm when it comes to the depiction of the police and their utilization of personal and large scale warfare. This closely mirrors our own societal expectations of those in power over us, especially in regard to intent to incite violence and create paranoia and conspiracy.

In most video games, police are depicted as the aggressors with in-game consequences to actions made just to hammer the point home. These ideas instill the belief that trust is foolish when it comes to positions of power over others.

The Role of Video Games In Our Perception of Race and Gender

As a black man in America, it’s hard to keep an objective response to the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. These two black men were killed by unquestionable racism and the fact of the matter is my fear of the recent evils of this world is justified. And, by juxtaposing it with my passion for video games and the ideals they represent helps me make sense of the heartbreak by drawing these comparisons.

Video games also play a role in our perception of race and gender. Don’t believe me? Ask an entire demographic of gamers who felt largely ignored by the past two decades’ biggest releases and the criticisms they’ve drawn for their ignorance. An example would be the controversy surrounding the character Carl “CJ” Johnson, a main character in the 2004 video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Carl’s narrative as a “former gangster” which included caricature-like depictions of “the hood” was considered insensitive by some but also carried the positive aspect of the main character being a person of color.

Positive Examples of Inclusion

What I consider to be a positive example of inclusion is the Mass Effect series, a space opera that allows the character to interact with female and male characters (including aliens) who have their own clear and fleshed out agency. Mass Effect was a hit with many players because it could cater to every demographic and sexuality which was a rarity for most triple AAA titles.

mass effect inclusion

What does our consumption of these titles say about our own moral alignment when we put them on a pedestal? Is it earned? It says that we are open and willing to change and progress along with the industry, it may sound too hopeful but most developers and studios are on the right track when it comes to the inclusion of ALL stories. The stories being told now reflect our society and the ignorance we can sometimes all struggle with.

When it comes to how we view oppression, it’s clearer now more than ever that there’s a cognizance to our society when it comes to what is right, what is wrong, and what we need.

Video games hold an important role in fulfilling that hunger – a respite from a confusing and painful world. In terms of reflecting violence, what makes this medium so important to the world right now is that it’s something we do every day. Choices in how we tell our story, choices in how we react, and the choice to try and change the narrative for the better every single day.

We are in the position to inspire artists to hold a mirror up to our very nature, a challenging feat, for sure, but one we are all capable of aspiring to. This writer hopes to reflect on the positive and necessary changes that need to be made so that we all live a safer and happy life, a life that Arbery and George Floyd were denied. And that is a saddening reality, indeed.

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Josh is a bestselling poetry author of "love bandit" and "Joshua Williams in a Week of Suicide(s)". He is a mid-west based artist and writer who loves pop culture, dogs, and has a 16-bit heart.