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

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.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era