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Video Games Have To Reckon With How They Depict The Police

2015's Battlefield: Hardline.
2015's Battlefield: Hardline.
Screenshot: Electronic Arts

The depiction of police in video games has taken many forms over the years. Officers might appear as antagonists exemplifying corruption and violence, or as benevolent forces doing their best to protect and serve. Recent weeks of protests against police brutality and racism have upended video games’ ability to depict the police as neutral arbiters of justice, which should make game developers reckon with how they will present the police in the future.

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It is impossible to overstate how the protests of the last few weeks have affected every visible political landscape. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have served as a wake-up call for some and a vicious reminder of the cycles of centuries of hate and unchecked authority for others. They prompted protests across the country and around the world, and statements of support even from companies that did their best to avoid such political statements in the past. So how will video games’ depiction of police also evolve?

In many ways, the Grand Theft Auto series is defined by the police opposition present in every title. Kotaku has reported that Rockstar’s next game is a new Grand Theft Auto, in which police will no doubt play an important gameplay role. With force designated by a star-rating in the corner of the screen, police come after players in everything from squad cars to helicopters after the player has invoked their wrath with illegal behavior. But it feels increasingly silly to consider that police confrontation requires laws to be broken to invoke a proportionate response. I am not here saying that Rockstar needs to change this or risk its credibility, but I am wondering aloud if such a thing is even on its radar. The targeted caricature of Grand Theft Auto quickly falls apart when the world Rockstar’s designers are satirizing becomes stranger than their own conceptions of it.

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Grand Theft Auto V on PlayStation 3.
Grand Theft Auto V on PlayStation 3.
Screenshot: Rockstar Games

In Grand Theft Auto, the police are more of a neutral arbiter of the player’s skill at committing crimes without getting caught. In other games, they’re presented as a more definitively positive force. When Sony released Spider-Man in 2018, I felt uneasy with the game’s portrayal of police in the fictionalized New York City. It idealized a police force that easily works with the masked superhero, and a protagonist who himself wished to play dress-up in blue. Despite the occasional tilting of this portrait, Spider-Man’s story and world were not a representation of the kind of New York that exists outside the TV screen. The gameplay largely reinforced that Spider-Man himself was the moral ideal of law enforcement, always struggling to do good, then leaving it to the police to enforce the legal side of his actions. It was, if nothing else, fantastical escapism from a dreary world where that rarely if ever felt true.

I pushed my feelings down as inconsequential to the greater whole. But given recent events, it is difficult not to reflect back on how Spider-Man and other video games offer a rigidly positive portrayal of police. That uneasiness, born from the game’s utopian depiction of law enforcement, has begun to crystallize for many. Many video games depict police as purely altruistic, not reflecting any of the bitter reality of prejudice and violence. Those that might not have understood that before are now starting to get it, and that might be a problem for future video games.

This week, Sony announced a PlayStation 5 sequel to Spider-Man starring Miles Morales. It will release into a world quite different from its predecessor, especially considering that it stars a black protagonist living in New York City. People will not be able to feign ignorance about police violence and racism being organized and systemic, so how well can a video game do at pretending that the real world should not impact it?

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Many game developers will very likely find themselves at a crossroads with upcoming projects. The games will either be seen as publicly supporting causes like resistance against police brutality and black civil rights, or reinforcing a propagandist call to trust police as morally pure heroes. The protests over the last few weeks, and the heavy-handed police response that has hurt, maimed, or killed too many people, should be giving creators in all types of media pause. The cancellation of the long-running television show Cops is indicative of prevailing winds; decades of pro-police entertainment have hit a wall that once seemed perfectly permeable to creators. Video games should expect to feel that same impact.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Screenshot: Sony
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It would be easy to brush off these concerns with the assumptions that the real world’s darkest hours have no place within the escapism of games. It was, after all, a simple matter to ignore the queasiness I felt at Spider-Man and immerse myself in its other aspects, so I understand the temptation. The gaming industry, while maybe not always being conscientious agents of social change, are certainly aware that they can affect it. The power to tell stories that exert influence can be used to reverse that idea, entrenched though it may be.

It is not like the gaming industry can claim they did not see this particular backlash coming. Electronic Arts found itself on the wrong side of history with 2015’s Battlefield: Hardline, a clumsy attempt to bring the Battlefield series’ military lineage to bear on the nation’s police force. The developers at Visceral openly bragged about how warlike and cool the police and SWAT teams could be, as a means of explaining the virtues of a police-led Battlefield title. There wasn’t much of a sustained conversation around Hardline, but that was probably because the game itself wasn’t particularly well-received. EA went back to historical military shooters and has not returned to the police motif since.

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1995's EarthBound.
1995's EarthBound.
Screenshot: Nintendo

Not all games are entirely trustful of police, often presenting them as inordinate threats to civilians. In the 1995 Super Nintendo role-playing game EarthBound, Ness finds himself dealing with belligerent, incompetent police who very quickly resort to violence. While these examples can hew surprisingly close to an uncomfortable reality, they’re also few and far between. They sit on a line of absurdity because it is difficult for some people to believe, after years of entertainment conditioning them otherwise, that the police as a group could be anything other than protective.

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Media has the ability to entertain, but it also reinforces what we believe society to be about. Neither movies, television, nor most other forms of entertainment are free from sin when it comes to running public relations campaigns for police, but video games can choose to draw their line in the sand. If there is not currently someone at Spider-Man developer Insomniac telling colleagues that they knew this was going to happen, then that is a problem, because it means there wasn’t a voice in the room that understood the larger issues at play in a silly joke or lighthearted story.

Racial tensions coupled with an imbalance in authority are problems that affect every country in the world in different forms, and game developers of every race and creed will emerge from this moment taking something different away from it. In the realm of triple-A gaming, which has always discouraged running too fast or going too far with its messaging, we can only hope that there are members of the team making the argument that the virtual world is not disconnected from our own—and that those in charge are listening to them.

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No one ever asks for the responsibility of making a better world, but it is a tragedy to let that burden fall to our shoulders and ignore it. A Spider-Man sequel should reckon with the fact that police would treat Miles Morales differently from Peter Parker. Whether this ends up being a transformative step or not, it is still a step, and one that is worth taking. There’s something about great power and responsibility that applies here, that maybe the video game industry will pick up on.

Imran Khan is a former senior editor at Game Informer and occasional cohost at Kinda Funny. He can be found trying to pick away at his never-ending backlog or on Twitter @imranzomg.

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DISCUSSION

I’m surprised there’s no mention of Mafia 3 here. The game features a black protagonist and takes place within the same timeframe as the Civil Rights movement. And the police react accordingly, scuffing you for minor offenses, always being suspicious of your motives, and taking your white victims more seriously than your black ones.

From an Inverse article:

he’s constantly discriminated against, but not in an always in an overt way. Instead, he’s poked with a figurative tiny needle over and over and over again.

The little details the developers put into Mafia III to seemingly showcase the systemic nature of racism are impressive. Police response time changes depending on how white your neighborhood is. If you shoot someone downtown, or even just look at an officer the wrong way, the police will track you down for what feels like forever. But if you’re out in the Hollow, it’ll all blow over pretty quickly.

It’s not just neighborhoods; it’s also the race of your victim. For example, when I stole a car in Pointe Verdun from a black person, the first responder suggested an officer go over there to “maybe take a statement” if they’re not too busy. However, just two blocks over, I stole a car from a white man and the police response was faster and encompassed a much larger area. I had to hide for two minutes straight before they called the search off. Normally, in the game’s black communities, it would take less than 45 seconds for the alert to go away.

That’s not all. White women clutch their purses when you walk near them. Black dock workers smoke by themselves at a distance from their white co-workers. Gangs of rednecks with Confederate Flags on their trucks call you “boy” while beating up random black men. Police officers will shoot you if you loiter near them long enough. There are segregated “whites only” businesses that will order you to leave the moment you arrive, and management will call the police if you don’t comply.

And, from a NY Daily News article:

This racism built into the system has the potential to present a powerful example of how impoverished neighborhoods in reality are so easily susceptible to increased crime: Wouldn’t you rather steal a car with little chance of getting caught?

Obviously, racism against black people during this era is a lot more brutal than today, but Mafia 3 is a vivid example of how US law enforcement tends to systemically enforce the dominant culture. Perhaps it can serve as a model for how police are represented in future games.