Compared to Call of Duty, EA’s Battlefield series is the marginally more realistic military shooter franchise. The upcoming newest installment, Battlefield Hardline, lives up to its family’s “I shot fifteen men and healed my wounds by waiting behind a park bench” traditions, but its setting is one predicated on an issue that recently has become way too real. Hardline takes place in the US, and you play as police.
Before I remembered which game series I was looking at, and before I knew the main character was a cop, the preview I watched of Hardline looked kind of interesting. It opens with the Latino protagonist and his black partner being thrown in a dingy cell by pasty white dudes with assault rifles. I wasn’t paying very close attention, cause, hey, Battlefield, so I was carried away in a flight of fancy: “Whoa, a game about fighting militarized police??” Unfortunately I got it completely backwards.
Polygon examines and criticizes the game’s basis and influences. Quoting Steve Papoutsis, the game’s executive producer:
“We did some research on the [internet], and we found out law enforcement have a lot of cool, kick ass stuff. These heavily armored BearCat-like attack trucks. They’ve got cool motorcycles. And they’ve got helicopters. They even have police planes. They have all this cool stuff depending on where you’re at in the country. So they have some pretty awesome gear. And then like SWAT guys. Come on, who doesn’t like all the stuff SWAT guys load up in? They look pretty sweet.”
This is a fairly disturbing reaction to the militarization of our police force. As we’ve seen very clearly during the Ferguson unrest, and many times earlier if you’ve paid attention, American police have a bit of a problem with cool guns, trucks, and grenades, and no, they can’t “stop if they wanted to.” This is a structural issue that’s going to take a shitload of work to deal with.
So in the face of the horrific abuses carried out by police, the handing-off of military hardware to cops, the apparent policy of shooting individuals dead just for the absolute safety of officers, we get Battlefield Hardline. Games are art, but it’s pretty goddamn dismal how we use that art form.
I’ve long fantasized about and recently abandoned the idea of first-person shooters as political commentary. It’s the most intimate and immediate perspective possible, with a highly-charged action at its core, which has always seemed like a good avenue for making a statement. But as we’ve seen with Spec Ops: The Line, shooter gameplay rolls over any message that’s there. Despite the almost anti-soldier stance the game takes, Spec Ops ends up reveling in violence anyway.
Aside from the genre problem, the climate for blockbuster games like Battlefield isn’t exactly receptive to questioning violent institutions. It’s very open to the idea of corruption within institutions (Modern Warfare 2 has you shooting American soldiers who are commanded by General Evil), but the acknowledgment of bad apples isn’t really disruptive to anything. It states that while there’s outliers that try to take advantage, the system works. So you may at some point be fighting police in this game, but they’ll be police in the pocket of a drug cartel or the kind of “real” racists who say the n-word. You, the hero, play the part of the good-ish cop, the ideal product of the system, who, um, has a taser and cuffs but can choose to shoot criminals in the back of the head if he feels like it. The irony will of course be lost on the audience.
I’ll admit I was rather foolish to think for a second that the game’s plot would have you playing someone on the other side of police violence. I like to be cautiously hopeful about this stuff, but that’s a rough ride to be on. The fact of the matter is that people who play Battlefield don’t want to hear the other side. This is the main issue with all “realistic” shooters—in making a black and white scenario where you’re fully justified and left guilt-free in murdering people, they reinforce narratives that help perpetuate the real-world violence the games depict. For Battlefield Hardline, choosing the police as the protagonists, the good guys, like always, means another eight-hour single-player campaign arguing for police instead of the people they hold control over.
The direction Battlefield Hardline is taking is no surprise. It’s not like we should be expecting anything of substance to come out of that end of the video game landscape, as nice as that would be. And for all the words I could write on it, Hardline’s premise isn’t that offensive to me. It’s a cops and robbers game that capitalizes on our country’s horrific obsession with firearms and authority to be as radextreme as possible. At worst, the game is a mirror. Sadly, that’s also the best it can manage.