It is a truth universally acknowledged that a profession that requires equipping a firearm must be represented in video games as incredibly violent.
However little understood the profession may be by game designers, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the gaming industry that it is considered a rightful property of such games to portray the guardians of criminal justice and soldiers in military service as engaged in a nigh perpetual bloodbath. [/end Jane Austen parody]
Never mind that a responsible police officer or soldier would vastly prefer for his or her weapon to remain holstered all day every day; the realities of these professions are immaterial to the demands of gameplay. (And, let’s face it, I don’t really want to play a game in which I command a hearts-and-minds campaign of US Army Engineers bringing clean water to a troubled region. I want those things to happen in real life, but it lacks a certain zest as gameplay.)
But, leaving aside military/battlefield games, police games are maybe even more vexed because of the heightened public scrutiny around police violence after the unjust deaths of Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and too many others to name here gave rise to civil rights protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement became a part of the public consciousness.
In other words, playing a police officer who shoots citizens starts to feel a little on the nose.
Unlike the lawless antiheroes of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, police are ideally operating within a system of constraints that make doing their job a challenge, but which are absolutely vital to safeguard the rights and safety of citizens. And the consequences when that system of constraints breaks down is a militarized, biased police force that cannot properly connect with the communities it serves.
Historically, though, that’s exactly what policing games have been about: breaking those constraints. While Sierra’s Police Quest series shows that procedural style games can be done, and well, that modest series has been entirely eclipsed by series like Crackdown, Battlefield Hardline, or the True Crime franchise, the last of which recreated Grand Theft open-world mechanics and permits the player to steal cars and kill innocent civilians…as a police officer who experiences virtually no repercussions.
There are also games that focus on investigation, often featuring strong noir storylines (L.A. Noire is the chief example of this, but there are others like the 2015 Blues and Bullets, which has an Al Capone and Eliot Ness storyline), but such games are “about” policing to the same degree that Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is “about” a police investigation—not much.
In This Is The Police, a police management simulator released August 2, 2016 by Weappy Studio, attempts to address issues of racial tension are present, but so broad and clumsy as to be comical. The game takes for point of view a police chief six months from forced retirement, looking to make half a million (probably illegally) before he goes to supplement his pension.
There are a lot of noir elements in the game, and naturally the Mafia make appearances, but the game also offers nods to reality that are jarring precisely because they are so scarcely integrated. There are “racists” in the city, who are attacking black people, and City Hall wants to please the racists, so you’re ordered to fire all the black cops. Oh, and crime calls come in from “the ghetto.”
The problem with this kind of black-and-white, frivolous treatment of racial issues related to criminal justice is that it reinforces the idea that racists are somehow a distinct, rare, and unpalatable element of society (whereas only the last is generally true), and that the kind of moral quandries that a police chief might face related to racial issues will always be immediately recognizable as such.
Questions of gender are treated in a no more nuanced method. Despite being “okay with the racists,” City Hall has to offer some “concessions to the feminists,” so the player is ordered to implement gender parity in employment within three days. The problem? When you open up the labor pool to try and fill open positions, there’s only one woman in the labor pool—the rest are all men.
This creates a sort of hidden curriculum within the game whereby the player is being pressured to hire women to appease “the feminists,” but no women want to be cops. Whatcha gonna do, ladies don’t like wearing unflattering trousers, amirite?
None of this constitutes the bulk of gameplay—most of the game involves assigning officers to different calls, making on-the-scene decisions to deal with tense situations, and appeasing the Mafia. But its presence demonstrates that Weappy Studio is aware of the friction surrounding police work but only wants to nod to it in the most general of ways.
Video games are not utopian, nor are they intended to be. But like all art which is based on real systems, they have a certain obligation in how they portray or distort reality. And the more closely they hew to actual conventions and methods of police work, the more important it becomes that they get it right.
Why? Because as much as we natter on about understanding that fiction isn’t real, fictional portrayals still come to be used as part of our mental furniture. If you’ve ever reacted to a real news story by mentally conjuring up a point of law you learned in an episode of Law and Order, or Googled an outlandish malady you saw on House to see if that thing on your toe will kill you, you do it too.
And right now, our understanding of the criminal justice system, its challenges and constraints, is absolutely vital to the way we enact (or don’t enact) reform. Real problems call for real solutions, and if our brains are stuffed full of actively misleading narratives, they’re less likely to master the true understanding needed for resolution.