With ‘Watch Dogs: Legion’, Video Games Finally Start To Address Police Brutality
Three years is a long time in politics. It’s even longer in video games.
Released in 2016, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs 2 told the story of the San Francisco chapter of DedSec. A disillusioned hacker collective, DedSec stood firm in their mission to expose government corruption, fight for the underprivileged masses and look damn good while doing it. Consisting of three people of colour, an introverted hacker with Asperger’s syndrome and a bisexual anarchist in a mask, DedSec were successful in bringing down, among others, a tech-bro billionaire who valued money and power over human lives.
Over the course of the story, Watch Dogs 2 emerged from the standard open-world crime game template as a youthful call-to-arms overflowing with unexpected, righteous bravado. It was a game which resonated with players so much that a wealth of fan art, slash fiction and rampant appreciation for this handful of characters is still alive and well online three years later.
However, it was also a game which was released one week after Donald Trump was elected President of The United States. Any potential discussions that may have fallen out of Watch Dogs 2 around that time were immediately overshadowed by omnipresent real-world events.
Earlier this month, an estimated 75,000 people took to the streets of London to protest the visit of the current US President. Supported by a dismal 19% approval rating for Trump in the UK, Londoners made it clear that he was unwelcome in their city and told him to, as one protest sign put it, “fuck off please”. As expected, Trump denied that these protesters even existed and wrote them off as ‘fake news’.
That’s expected now — the fact that Trump flat-out denies reality. That’s a thing that we’ve all somehow become comfortable with. It makes us laugh when it should make us want to run out into the street screaming. But exhaustion is a powerful sedative and we’d rather focus on entertainment like video games to help us manage our daily lives while we grow number to our surroundings. Except the Watch Dogs franchise keeps forcing us to confront them instead.
At E3 2019 in Los Angeles, Ubisoft unveiled the third instalment of their hacker franchise, Watch Dogs: Legion. Set in the near future, the game’s timeline establishes a version of London where the United Kingdom has already dealt with the consequences of ‘Brexit’ and has separated from the European Union. Subsequently, the worst case scenario has occurred. London is now an oppressive dystopia living under the cruel boot of private security firm Albion. Citizens are in cages, people who speak up against the government disappear and fear is unrelenting. It’s kind of like now, but with slightly cooler technology.
Times have changed both in society and in video games since the genre of ‘open-world crime sim’ became popular.
In terms of storytelling, this idea isn’t groundbreaking. If this was a movie or TV series, it would be met with a shrug. Yeah yeah, near-future dystopia extrapolating real-life, blah blah — we’ve seen it before. On the other hand, for a video game, themes like this are still extremely rare. Clear concepts which strike this close to home, in this current political climate, are typically avoided by everyone except the smallest of independent studios. So for a publicly-traded company like Ubisoft which has an annual operating income of over two hundred million dollars, this type of video game seems quietly revolutionary.
The aforementioned DedSec still exists in the world of Watch Dogs, but has now gone global. Marketed as ‘play as anyone’, Legion’s hook is that the player can create their own chapter of DedSec this time. You get to choose the type of people who you want to rebel against authority rather than be given specific characters from the outset. Whether this gameplay choice and its character storylines will resonate with players as hard as the kids from San Francisco remains to be seen. Either way, DedSec will continue to take the fight to power which, in this futuristic London, is no longer corrupt tech companies but rather the ruling government authority itself.
Times have changed both in society and in video games since the genre of ‘open-world crime sim’ became popular. Bursting into the mainstream consciousness with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, the amount of similarly structured video games that are released every year is still high. Play in a third-person viewpoint, travel to a location and receive a mission with the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Dozens of games have cloned this framework and some have improved upon it. Yet there’s one standard feature of this genre that became so inherent, its impact has been largely forgotten.
Over the course of three games, the Watch Dogs franchise has seen the function of authority gone through the most fascinating changes.
The traditional ‘wanted level’ function in open-world games essentially represents the police. If the player performs enough random crime outside of missions, typically in the form of murder, an authority figure appears and does everything in their power to stop it. Implemented as a preventive measure to kerb an endless cycle of carnage which ignores the missions, and potentially completion of the game itself, the wanted level has devolved over the years. From being a visible threat in Grand Theft Auto III to ridiculous aliens in Saints Row IV, the function of a ruling force has slowly faded into the background and gradually become the most uninteresting aspect of these games. It only seems to exist out of obligation now, rather than to serve any real lasting purpose within game design.
In the real city where Watch Dogs Legion will be set, the use of dystopian technology is not fantasy. The London Metropolitan police have been criticised for the use of the Gangs Matrix, a predictive, machine-learning tool. Implemented to identify and monitor citizens believed to be on the verge of committing gang-related violence, the Matrix lists children as young as 13 with 80% of the people monitored described as ‘African-Carribean’ while 8% are ‘white European’.
Alongside the use of Automated Facial Recognition, these methods have resulted in high levels of incorrect identifications, failure to properly distinguish between criminals and victims and also breached data protection rules for citizens of the United Kingdom. The London Mayor’s Office has called for a complete overhaul of the Matrix, launching an investigation into its discriminatory techniques.
If the leader of the free world approves and encourages structural violence, the thin blue line of the law inevitably becomes blurred, and soaked in blood.
Over the course of three games, the Watch Dogs franchise has seen the function of authority gone through the most fascinating changes. Throughout the first game, the police are largely an annoyance to be avoided as vigilante Aiden Pearce exacts bloody revenge upon the city of Chicago.
In Watch Dogs 2, this concept shifted dramatically due to the characters themselves. Marcus and the rest of DedSec were determined to bring down corruption but through their personalities, emotions and conversations, the act of murder felt incredibly incorrect for these young kids. A mostly pacifist playthrough with 3D-printed taser pistols and billiard-balls-on-ropes became much more comfortable within the story. The ability to take innocent lives was still present – it just felt really wrong, more than ever before. Organically, the police in Watch Dogs 2 became practically non-existent and for the first time, the idea of a wanted level in an open-world game seemed essentially pointless.
The majority of London police don’t carry firearms. In Watch Dogs: Legion, their virtual counterparts are painted as reluctant affiliates of Albion, but in essence, their powers have been stripped away. Any purpose they may have once had as a deterrent in this genre of video game has now been replaced by London’s new oppressive regime.
The one constant in open-world games is no longer the obligatory inhibiting feature it once was. Now it’s the enemy.
The objective of this component in these games has changed not as a result of natural industry design trends but because of the world around us. Starting as an authoritative force to be feared, this feature disappeared into irrelevant background noise and now in Watch Dogs: Legion, has become the full-blown antagonist of the game. Such a drastic transformation didn’t happen by accident. The countless deaths of unarmed minorities at the hands of police across the world and the lack of punishment dealt upon the perpetrators have dominated the news in the last three years.
Even Trump himself has encouraged police brutality in his speeches and excused war crimes, which is in keeping with a man who still stands by his 30 year-long demand for the execution of five young boys in New York City. Such twisted beliefs from the most famous leader on the planet have filtered down into the minds of the worst kind of people in 2019, giving them the courage to add their voice to already volatile societies around the globe. If the leader of the free world approves and encourages structural violence, the thin blue line of the law inevitably becomes blurred and soaked in blood.
The overwhelming global distrust of the police is now so prevalent in modern life that it has finally penetrated a medium of big-budget entertainment which in the past, has largely ignored the actions of real-life counterparts. When viewed within the video game industry, Watch Dogs: Legion stands as an anomaly but when it is taken as part of the world we live in, it not only makes perfect sense but feels long overdue. As art imitates life, Legion represents the final nail in the coffin for what players know as the standard ‘wanted level’ in video game crime sagas. The one constant in open-world games is no longer the obligatory inhibiting feature it once was. Now it’s the enemy.
Ubisoft executives have consistently stated that they aren’t in the business of making political statements with their games. While this assertion could be given a vague lease with franchises like Ghost Recon or The Division, the existence of the Watch Dogs series, and especially now with Legion, make such statements not only appear like a complete denial of reality but could begin to work against them as a publicly-traded company.
This constant disconnection between the CEOs and the story themes present in their games is not a good look. If it continues, the two theories that higher level executives aren’t interested in supporting their development studios or they’re somehow convinced their own company’s only products are Rabbids and Just Dance gains more traction. Either way, it not only reflects badly upon Ubisoft but also a franchise which has successfully carved out its own path in predicting the future of society and made significant progressive strides within its own genre.
Thanks to technology, how we view our current society at large has changed drastically since 2016. The terms ‘alt-right’, ‘fake news, ‘alternative facts’ and others are not outrageous anymore, they’re just concepts weaved into the tedious fabric of our reality. Structural injustice is commonplace, cruel governments and corrupt tech companies no longer answer to anyone and we watch it all happen out in the open as we scroll through our social media feeds.
The kind of random brutality which has always functioned in modern civilisation has been given more of a spotlight and an almost daily horror show of events is becoming increasingly difficult for the privileged ruling class to ignore.
Video games have also changed because a reflection of life through art is a trend that is inevitable as death, taxes and revolution. So, of course Watch Dogs: Legion exists. We can just hope that its depiction of future London leans more towards fiction than fact by the time it is released in 2020.
David Rayfield writes good things in good places like Gamespot, Kotaku, Medium and…elsewhere. Tweet him at @raygunbrown