In Tom Clancy’s The Division, the player often sees a group of people in the distance. They huddle together, maybe taking shelter by a fire or picking through a pile of rubble, talking amongst themselves. They’re likely armed with guns, flamethrowers or baseball bats. As a member of the Division—a fictional sleeper agency activated by the American government in times of civil unrest—the player has to approach every one of these groups cautiously. They must move toward other people with gun raised, poised always to kill.
The Division’s version of New York City has been decimated following a terrorist plot in which a smallpox-based virus has spread through infected cash put into circulation just in time for Black Friday shopping. In what seems a remarkably short period of time (given the holiday decorations covering the still snowbound city streets) order has given way to all-out urban warfare. New York’s population has devolved into violent chaos. Gangs patrol the city, burning suspected disease carriers alive, building makeshift fortresses out of abandoned buildings and starting running gun battles with rival factions. Arriving in Manhattan, the player’s Division agent is tasked with stabilizing the city by eliminating these criminal elements. In some cases, this means collecting information on the virus’ make-up or expanding a base of operations in order to offer shelter and medical services to the city’s population. Far more often (and sometimes even as a part of her most pacific goals), the agent’s work is concerned with killing others and looting their bodies for valuable resources.
It’s this aspect of The Division that developer Ubisoft Massive has focused on most. Naturally enough for an action heavy role-playing game, the vast majority of the player’s interactions are violent. Though there are many, many missions to complete, they are all meant to make the agent better equipped for combat. Experience points and new items—knee pads, backpacks, guns—are awarded for taking over enemy positions, wiping out wandering gang members and completing investigations into missing Division members. Even the few objectives that don’t require violence (like the constant treasure hunt for scattered audio logs or virus information) provide resources that feed back into the player’s martial ability. Give a wandering civilian a bottle of water and receive enough experience points to upgrade a turret gun. Spend supplies on unlocking a pharmacy add-on for the main base’s medical wing and gain access to a steady supply of fabrics that can be used to craft body armor. Every action taken in The Division is funneled toward an increased capacity for violence. Even the most benign form of assistance is a transaction, any humanity the game’s world may try to portray eventually boiling down to an intrinsically brutal essence.
The constant distrust that constitutes The Division’s tone makes such mercenary game systems seem necessary. Each story mission ultimately results in a stand-off against waves of attacking enemies that test the strength of the player’s equipment as much as (or more than) their tactical skill. As well-designed as these encounters are—the environments strike a great balance between utilitarian videogame battle arenas and natural-looking living or work spaces—they’re always meant to check up on how well the agent is equipped for battle. In order to succeed at making New York City safe again, the game says, it’s absolutely vital that the forces for “good” be better at killing than their opposition.
This makes the act of progressing through The Division an uneasy process. The player ends up positioned as a serial looter who kills rival looters with impunity. She’s established as an agent of peace who achieves her goals through constant violence. The blurred lines between good and bad are never commented on by the game’s story. There’s no effort made to question how closely the Division’s efforts to reclaim New York match those of its enemy factions. Instead, the plot makes sure to put everyone into its crosshairs. Prisoners, fellow free citizens, government agents, rioters and environmental protestors—even the player character herself are seen as inherently untrustworthy by the time the story wraps up.
Progressing through the game involves an intense level of repetition. Gaining experience points and searching for better gear eventually brings the player into a kind of fugue state where the constant tension of distrustful violence eventually reaches a mind-numbing, low-boiling aggression. The Dark Zone—a section of the map roughly correlated to Central Park where player-controlled Division agents can turn on one another to steal resources—only furthers the misanthropy at the heart of the game. Every element of design exists in service to a deeply cynical outlook where the accumulation of physical power drives everything. It’s a game defined by a constant paranoiac loop—a distrust that keeps the finger always hovering just next to the trigger.
It’s made even more difficult to detach the game from its larger context, too, because The Division wants very badly to be taken seriously. Its introduction consists of a montage of fake news clips that trade the usual computer generated videos for live actors. Its characters reference Hurricane Sandy; the Division agents are called into action as a response to the evocation of America’s Executive Directive 51; its setting is one of the most recognizable cities in the world. There is no way to tune out what The Division implies about New York City, the United States, or the West in general. Its paranoid viewpoint is as much a part of its DNA as its gunplay and inventory management systems.
What ends up being so worrying about its attitude—its narrative, in both the explicit and mechanical sense—is that it legitimizes many of its audience’s worst impulses. It reinforces the basic untrustworthiness of other people, fostering the sort of wariness that means approaching strangers in a time of crisis with gun raised. The Division is wish fulfillment of the most negative kind. It promotes violence as the primary mode of humanitarian intervention while stating that the agents of this same violence are right to be ready to unleash it upon everyone around them.
Every work is entitled to express its own worldview, but the value of one as profoundly distrustful as The Division’s is questionable. In an era when such cynicism colors our collective culture and political processes, influencing popular views on issues ranging from immigration to international relations, indulging in a fantasy so ready to justify our paranoia can be hard to swallow.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen, VICE and Playboy>/i>. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.