Phil Hartup on videogames

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Cops and robbers: how the police became our new favourite video game villains

The breakdown of trust between the public and the police has been reflected by how comfortable we are killing them in games.

A screenshot of the main character of Grant Theft Auto V hiding behind a police car during a shootout. Image: Rockstar
A screenshot of the main character of Grant Theft Auto V hiding behind a police car during a shootout. Image: Rockstar

I don’t remember exactly when I realised it. Maybe it was when I was mowing down an army of Swat team officers with a machine gun in Payday 2. Maybe it was when I was clubbing street cops to death with a colossal dildo in Saints Row 3. Maybe it was when I was playing Max Payne 3 as he slaughtered his way through almost the entire São Paulo police force. It could have been when I was watching people shoot down police helicopters in the Battlefield: Hardline promos, or playing any one of the Grand Theft Auto series. The realisation was that that there is something unwholesome about the portrayal of law enforcement officers in games, something unsettling about the glee with which games portray violence against them.

Violence in games has been around almost as long as the games themselves, and shooting police officers as a theme is not especially new. Games like Syndicate, and the first GTA, featured plenty of violence from the protagonists directed against police officers, but back then games were different. The industry was small and the reach was minimal. Games had a rebellious streak to them; they were a little bit edgy, a little bit punk.

Two things have changed since those days: the first is the reach of games, and the second is the quality of presentation. Games are ubiquitous now, and games like the GTA series count as the biggest and most marketable aspects of our media. Games also have a much higher standard of presentation than before - the targets of the violence in games can be recognisably human now, and speak and react in lifelike ways to getting brutalised for the amusement of players. The net result of these changes is that we have a situation where some of the biggest elements of our media are violent games and the targets of that in-game violence are often law enforcement.

This in itself ought to be seen as something to think about. Of course we all know the violence in games isn’t real, and it isn’t going to make people any more violent than they already were, but just because a game isn’t going to make you violent doesn’t mean that presenting law enforcement officers as enemies isn’t notable. Not inherently wrong, but it doesn’t feel like an entirely healthy state of affairs.

The list of people and things that it is acceptable to mercilessly slaughter in video games is not that long. Mostly it consists of Nazis, cultists, criminals, monsters and robots. To get onto that list you have to be seen as less than human, or to have divested yourself of your humanity to the extent that a player can not only stomach violence against you, but enjoy that violence. We can safely say given recent trends in games design that police officers are now on that list too.

Why are so many games portraying police as cannon fodder or villains? Who, if anybody, is to blame? I would contend not the games developers themselves - they serve the market, and if games about shooting cops didn’t sell so well we would not have so many games about shooting cops.

Nor would I blame the media at large. We’re still seeing movies about hero cops, good guys and bad guys, natural justice being served and that old timey morality. The old media has remained loyal to those ideas and you would never see anything like a movie with the profile of a game like GTA V or Saints Row 3 show that same level of disdain for the police.

It seems more plausible that the blame for how police officers are being portrayed lies with the police and law enforcement agencies themselves. The simple fact is since the turn of the century the reputation of police officers, around the world, has been sinking faster than a socially awkward submarine. Plenty of groups have had problems with law enforcement over the years for legitimate reasons - particularly those from ethnic minorities - but in the 21st century mistrust and hostility towards police has become normalised to an extent few could have predicted. In these days of ubiquitous cameras and video uploads to the internet much more of what the police do is open to scrutiny, and it can be shocking. The misconduct of police services from London to Los Angeles is online for everybody to see.

The extent of the mistrust towards the institutions themselves is deeper now than before, too. In the UK we’ve seen killings by police that have caused widespread outrage, most notably those of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan. Innocent people killed, their killers escaping fitting punishment. We’ve seen police being heavy handed against demonstrators and undercover officers infiltrating peaceful and legitimate protest groups with no clear justification. We’ve seen light shone onto the actions of the police during the Hillsborough disaster and the duplicity surrounding that, alongside decades of shady dealings with the tabloids. In short, many of us have learned over the last few years that not only are police forces institutions with profound problems - putting it mildly - but that they have probably always been this bad. We just didn’t know about it. There is not a lot of faith left.

In the UK problems are severe, and the erosion of the relationship between a society and its law enforcement officers is something that harms both parties. It could, though, be much worse. In the USA the police have become militarised, happily acquiring surplus counter-terrorism and military hardware from the government. The use of paramilitary police units, even for mundane tasks such as serving warrants, has skyrocketed in the last couple of decades. All this, backed by a federal government that likes to snoop on people’s communications and put them in jail far more than anywhere else in the world. It really isn’t a surprise that the authorities are becoming seen as acceptable targets for the violence in games under such circumstances.

So what can be done? I would conjecture not very much. It isn’t like the police forces of the world will suddenly have a big meeting and decide that they’ll do their jobs better from now on, just so games developers stop being mean to them. As a society we’re just going to have to get used to the fact that we no longer seem to like the people we hired to enforce our laws, although since the feeling appears to be mutual perhaps this isn’t anything to lose sleep over.

Tags:Gaming