Like everyone else, I’ve spent the past few weeks following the terrifying events in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve never been more scared for the future of my home country. The police force’s ludicrously excessive display of racism, classicism, and military fetishism reeks of white male entitlement, a naked demonstration of the fact that the establishment does not regard black men and women as human beings. The flagrant violation of first amendment rights and the refusal of the police to accept responsibility for their actions are profoundly unsettling. Ferguson is not the first outburst of its kind, but it is the most significant to happen on US soil in my conscious lifetime.
It’s therefore troubling that so many of the images feel so familiar, because I shouldn’t feel like I’ve seen them before. Yet the camouflage and the tanks, the bulletproof vests and the helmets with tinted visors, well…
It all looks like a video game. And I find that extremely disconcerting.
I’ve always held that video games don’t cause violence, and I still think that’s true. But it’s tough to ignore how closely the officers in full combat gear resemble the box art for a game like Battlefield 3. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Watching the police behavior for the past few weeks has been like watching a cruelly vindictive LARP-ing session with guns and human targets instead of padded wooden swords. Combat gear is not considered everyday garb, but if you like Call of Duty, that’s what you wear when you play dress up.
It’s also telling that it’s not behavior learned from the military, as many veterans have pointed out. Someone trained to deal with a crisis knows that weaponry can exacerbate tensions. Guns are leveled as a last resort, which makes you wonder why the police in Ferguson seem to believe that aggression is the best way to deal with non-violent civil disobedience.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to suggest a correlation with video games.
As a kid, you don’t have a true appreciation for adults as individuals. Grown-ups are defined according to relationship – mother, father, neighbor, etc. – or profession. The world is full of teachers and lawyers and doctors and plumbers and policemen, not lovers and fighters and people who follow the Grateful Dead.
Those vague impressions crystallize as you get older and learn to distinguish position from personality. A teacher and a tattoo artist are equally capable of appreciating death metal, and a police officer and a writer are just as likely to love video games. I’m 28. A white officer with six years of experience – like, say Darren Wilson – could plausibly be the same age with similar frames of reference. If we both grew up with Mario, it’s entirely possible that we both graduated to more violent adult fare once we got older.
Even if that’s not true of Darren Wilson – and I have no way of knowing one way or the other – I’d wager that it’s true of many of the white officers who have taken to the streets in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Call of Duty is one of the most popular entertainment products in America. It stands to reason that any sizable group of young men will include a few gamers. That’s the era we live in, and even people who don’t game much will at least be familiar with the commercials.
That seems noteworthy given the degree to which the Ferguson police are mimicking simulated deployment. In the Battlefield games, your gun is always drawn and your finger is always on the trigger. That’s what we’re seeing in Ferguson. The law enforcement strategy – take aim and advance – is learned from multiplayer death matches without any rules of engagement. It’s how you behave when you regard guns as instruments of entertainment rather than respecting them as lethal weapons. It would probably be a stretch to say that the police are having ‘fun,’ but they’re definitely drunk on their own display of power.
When pundits worry about the pernicious influence of video games on youth, this is exactly what they should be afraid of. Violent video games do not turn otherwise well-adjusted children into psychopathic mass murderers who go on multi-state killing sprees. But they do normalize dangerously inaccurate notions of conflict management and reinforce the idea that violence in a war zone is always justified.
What’s happening in Ferguson is the cumulative result of centuries of racial oppression and systemic violence. To blame video games would be to diminish a history that is far more powerful and far more insidious than a relatively young medium. The issues at play are much greater than anything produced by Activision or EA.
However, video games do seem to be shaping the visual manifestations of that conflict, which isn’t surprising given the cultural profile of America. Games are everywhere. The police have internalized the martial imagery propagated in Call of Duty, and are now choosing to project it back against the citizens they’re supposed to protect. They’ve conjured a war zone and turned the town’s black citizens into the kind of ‘other’ often slaughtered but seldom understood in video games.
That’s what distinguishes Ferguson from otherwise harmless role-play involving elves. If you want to be a wizard, your foes are dragons and other mythic things with no bearing on reality. But a military power fantasy exists in relation to other human beings. Someone needs to be dominated in order for that fantasy to be fulfilled.
It’s therefore telling that the police have spent the past weeks trying to tell journalists that they have no right to record public events despite it being one of the oldest, most well protected rights in the United States. They’re using harsh words and the threat of violence to silence dissent, clinging to the misguided hope that they can erase moral atrocities if the victims are too scared to talk about them.
And again, I think of gaming, because I’ve seen the same kind of abuse used in attempts to censor women like Anita Sarkeesian and Samantha Allen. I don’t in any way wish to diminish the physical violence being used against protestors in Ferguson, nor am I interested in comparing different strands of violence. It’s all bad. It all needs to stop.
But many of the verbal intimidation tactics used in Ferguson are more frequently used online, where it happens everyday. That’s where the language is learned. That’s where it’s practiced. That’s why men think it’s effective.
That’s also why I find myself dwelling on the things gaming can do to address that deep-seated cultural toxicity. The struggle in Ferguson is not about video games, and to suggest otherwise would be to reduce the conflict to absurdity. Claiming that we can solve the problem with video games would be more presumptuous than useful. The actions of those providing on-the-ground aid and coverage are far more important than anything I could suggest and I don’t want to draw attention from those efforts.
But if I can’t speak to the immediate roots of the conflict, then I want to make damn sure that we take the steps necessary to ensure that Ferguson doesn’t happen again. That’s why I believe Ferguson should be a critical time for self-reflection, so that we can learn the lessons we need to learn and strive to do better moving forward.
With regards to gaming, the industry harbours a profanely racist, sexist, and anti-social element, so it’s sadly not all that surprising when those attitudes spill out from Xbox Live and take shape in the physical world. These undercurrents have existed in the American gaming consciousness for years. If that’s what we offer, what were we really expecting to get in return?
I think we have a responsibility to project a better example. Gaming is an unparalleled medium for empathy, and we should be using that to teach players to have more respect for each other, not less. At the very least, we need to acknowledge that doing nothing isn’t enough. The causes of Ferguson are rooted in history, but we make up the cultural environment that surrounds it today. Fixing gaming won’t fix everything. However, we can make the present (and hopefully the future) a better place to live if we eliminate the toxicity in our own small corner of society.
For now, we can start with the industry’s willful misrepresentation of military realism. The soldiers in Battlefield perform superhuman feats and never face consequences for murder. If that’s the template that police are using for real world situations, then something has gone disastrously wrong with the very concept of law enforcement. I only hope that the people responsible are held accountable, and that the damage can be undone before another unarmed civilian dies.