As I play through the opening minutes of The Division 2, I think about the world it’s being born into. I think about Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement. I think about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Militarized police. Internment camps. The Black and brown deaths that made national news, and the countless others that didn’t. The prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal.
How the federal government has failed time and time again to keep children from dying.
How the NRA peddles racist and ableist fears to maintain its existence.
I remember we have a vice-president who allowed an HIV outbreak in Indiana to reach epidemic levels under his governance. How we have a president who admitted to sexual assault on tape. How the last president loved extrajudicial murder-via-drone, and his would-be successor exported US imperialism to Honduras for him and the countless murders of women and children because of it.
I think about the calls for civility and for a return to bipartisan cooperation. Of a Democratic party that largely refuses to grow and change, and a Republican one that refuses to denounce white nationalism. How new bombers are more important to the majority of Congress than keeping citizens alive and healthy. I’m thinking about the violent ponzi scheme that is capitalism, and of our leaders’ adamant refusal to accept climate change.
I’m thinking about all of this and so much more because Ubisoft urges me to, because in the world of The Division 2, America has fallen. Now it’s my job to bring back the nightmare of America, or as one marketing tagline insisted, to “take back our country.”
And with all these thoughts flooding my head, why the fuck would I want to do that?
Because according to the introduction of The Division 2, that’s the only morally good position. It’s what the upstanding citizen does.
After a gun battle, and a call to action for Division agents to save Washington D.C., the game continues with a cutscene that can I can only describe as a Homeland Security Agency recruitment video by way of a socially conscious, emotional advertisement from Monsanto. It sets the tone for how players are expected to approach The Division 2—with a paranoid, constrictive, and overly simplistic worldview.
It’s a Tom Clancy game, after all.
This sequence opens with a nod to the “War on Christmas” with a holiday-themed cup that couldn’t be more Starbucks if it were directly licensed. It’s an admonishment about conspicuous consumption and entitlement—how massive coffee retail chains and telecommunications are something good citizens can live without. This cutscene finds profundity in acknowledging that one can survive without Starbucks and Twitter, before sussing out that asthma can be lethal without access to prescription medication (though given the current interplay of the US government, pharmaceutical corporations, and insurance companies, this is already a reality for many).
And then The Division 2 goes straight into gun-ownership. Because, as it coyly states through questions (“Did you own a gun? Did your neighbor?”), being able to stand your ground is how you survive. Coffee is frivolous; guns aren’t just a second amendment right, they’re practically a requirement for citizenship.
Then the corn. Despite the fact that corn isn’t really an economical crop to grow hydroponically in the relatively small spaces of apartment complex rooftops, it’s quintessentially “American.” Cultivated over centuries by Natives, then hijacked, commodified and patented by agricultural conglomerates, it’s been processed and put in basically everything from fuel and plastics to food and beverages. Here, Ubisoft is using it to drive home a belief in necessity vs. want, and how “for the first time in centuries” America is getting back to what really matters, America’s true heart—a kind of freehold agrarianism, overtaking the urban, coastal landscape—helping each other and building communities. Which would be fine, except for the poorly defined and largely unexplained definitions of who these communities are made of, serve, and exclude. Kinda.
“There are also those who build nothing, create nothing…Hyenas…They’ve made our world bleed.”
It’s a dualism that was recently pushed in Ubisoft’s other “Restoring America” shooty scavenger Far Cry: New Dawn. Where a desire for return to “Traditional American Values” and Lockean labor theory are the defining characteristic of the virtuous, and the impulsive and equally undefined desire to set the final fires to the old establishment as the only ideology attributed to the marauding savages at the homestead gates.
The closing shots of this cinematic are of the orange Division circle, while voice over alludes to the agents of the Strategic Homeland Division, a sleeper organization designed to maintain continuity of the US government in the event of catastrophe. They are the light, the voice-over states—the only hope in re-establishing and maintaining the American way of life. It concludes wondering, if not for these US special forces, “who can save us?”
It seems absurd to think of all of this as “definitely not making any political statements” as creative director Terry Spier told Polygon. It’s blatantly political. Putting Tom Clancy’s name on the cover is political. Bringing in real world military and law enforcement tactical apparel and accessories company 5.11 Tactical is political. Having players press a button to marvel at the White House or collect the Declaration of Independence is political. Making a game about reestablishing the United States government in Washington D.C. is absolutely political. But what developers and marketers really mean is they don’t see what they’re doing as pushing an agenda; these are just “normal” beliefs that the majority of people hold. It’s just like how Modern Warfare 2 wasn’t “political” when it sent players to gun down “terrorists” in Pakistan eight years after 9/11. Despite very much maintaining and even advancing a political agenda, it supported the status quo’s needs and ideologies, and that was considered acceptable and normal (despite it being astoundingly gross).
According to the broader landscape of game creators and consumers, “normal” games can be apolitical. It’s those queer, socialist indies that push their agenda down the throats of white, cisgender, heterosexual, pro-capitalist gamers that are political.
If we listen to Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, The Division 2 is working as intended. It’s making me think. “We want to put them in front of questions that they don’t always ask themselves automatically. We want players to listen to different opinions and to have their own opinions” he told The Guardian. But, even if I’m to accept that the designers of these games believe they’ve posed these questions, reasonably built up the arguments, and presented them equally (and they absolutely haven’t), I’ve already thought about these things. I can’t escape them. I understand that I exist at the whim of a government and society that has largely normalized an arbitrary dualism at the barrel of a gun.
No matter how much the “Good Guys” look like a United Colors of Benetton advertisement, there’s no room for anyone who resists the Declaration of Independence, hellfire missiles as foreign policy, the need for strong borders, or what the “War on Drugs” really did to the world. The Division 2 wants me to engage with the belief that because I reject an imperialist, exceptionalist view of America as it currently exists, I’m no better than a Hyena. These just aren’t political conversations I need or want to have anymore. I’m here to tear down monuments to white supremacy, not rescue them.
I guess it’s fitting that the character creator sucks so much that I can’t even find myself in it.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.