The world of The Division is one not too unlike our own. The game is grounded in realistic roots, portraying a version of Manhattan in ruins after a highly weaponized virus has been unleashed on the populace. As factions vie for control in the chaos, you are sent in as an agent of the titular Division, to restore order and safety to New York. The realities of this situation, however, might be more dangerously real than you would expect.
In my time with The Division, I have encountered a number of enemies, ranging from the arson-prone Cleaners to the deluded Rikers. For each mission, it seemed like Ubisoft went out of its way to remind me of their criminal activity. Videos of people being burned alive, tortured, mutilated—The Division doesn’t ever stop reminding you how heroic you are in stopping these evil people from carrying out their deeds.
And still there’s one encounter I can’t keep my mind from going back to. It happens every time I’m in the streets, running from mission to mission or just exploring with friends. Rioters are often out in the street, picking supplies out of the pockets of a dead civilian or just walking around, carrying themselves as someone to not be messed with and warning the weak to get back inside. They all wear the same attire: hood up, bandana around their neck, baggy jeans. Non-descript, unable to identify one from another, yet a single silhouette that has taught me to raise my crosshairs and pull the trigger to avoid trouble.
The Division has conditioned me to treat these people as enemies first, and to not even consider an alternative to wiping them out en masse.
The immediate issue is with the dissonance this creates in the narrative. As an agent of the Division, your job is to restore order and rebuild society. This is reinforced right from the beginning, with radio call after radio call from Faye Lau constantly reminding you that we can still save the world no matter how bad it’s gotten.
If we’re to consider ourselves as the only remaining arm of the government, an everyday person turned embedded operative, then it would follow that the idea is to protect everyone, not just the sick and weak—or at least give an option to surrender, lay down arms and possibly help those who appear dangerous.
Instead, these Rioters are immediately aggressive. They’re labelled as enemies right off the bat, and often placed in situations where you’re encouraged to get the drop on them. Often distracted by scavenging supplies or just having a discussion on the street, they’re set in a way that urges you towards an inevitability: kill or be killed.
It might be easy to wave this off as an odd circumstance. Rioters are just another enemy in the game, another mob to mow down and pick up the shiny loot that drops from their fading bodies. The natural loop of The Division is shoot, loot, repeat, and that holds true to Rioters as much as it does Cleaners or Rikers.
But games can and should examine the broader context of their mechanics and nature, because there are very real correlations to be drawn in the “sights up, us or them” approach that The Division takes with its Rioters. In the real world we see protests every day, whether it’s against a hate-mongering presidential candidate or in defense of a child shot in the streets.
The Division encourages you to profile, to instantly distrust and even fire upon a person in the streets purely because of their clothes and appearance. The developers’ intentions are likely not as insidious as the end result, but the concept is still unsettling.
At many points, throughout the collectible bits of story you can find around the tattered bones of New York, these Rioters are humanized, given backstory and reasoning for their actions. They have families, businesses, opportunities. They care, are cared for and struggle, and often pick up the bat or pistol just to find some supplies for their family to make it to the next day alive. These are the people that make up the faceless mob, the wave after wave of desperate hooded vigilantes, believing they have to fight for every scrap.
I’m supposed to be establishing order and some semblance of peace, but instead of just telling them to lay down their arms, reasoning with them or even simply arresting them, I’ve become judge, jury and executioner for every Rioter in Manhattan.
Many Rioters have come at me first, often with bats and pistols. I’ve seen some harass civilians, attack them with force or take them hostage. But just like the Rioters that shoot first, I’m not that different; often I’ve been the one to get the jump, to lob a sticky bomb or just open up with my M60 down an alley because a few NPCs looked like trouble and I needed to get to my next mission rather than detour around them.
The Division makes no qualms in turning your actions into heroics. It seems like no matter how dark things get, the other side always has to be that much more evil. I’ve seen many video tapes of Rioters beating civilians and taking their supplies. And yet, I have to wonder what my actions would look like to someone on the outside.
It’s easy to brush off the violence as “just videogame things,” to just consider the Rioters another of the many bad guys I’ll have to kill in order to get my next rare drop or bits of experience. So I wander down alleyways and continue on my way. I enjoy the odd catharsis The Division occasionally offers and its constant drip of shiny new toys. Yet often I’ll see a hooded figure down the street, casually talking to another. I’ll pull my crosshairs up and see them in red, designated as characters that I’ll have to kill one way or another.
As I scope in on my sniper rifle, taking up aim, I’ll frequently pause. A solemn moment is the least I can do, to at least remember that this is a game. I’m reminded of that twice, as once the hail of bullets and explosions recedes, accolades dot my screen, with new guns to better fell the next group. They’re my due reward for identifying the enemies as the game describes them, and dealing with them in the only way The Division understands.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.