Thought Bubble: Tom Clancy’s Legacy of Violence

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(Ubisoft Toronto)

The following contains spoilers for Splinter Cell: Blacklist.

When Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist debuted in late August, it arrived to overwhelmingly positive reviews and the type of enthusiasm normally reserved for late summer. It was a fitting coda to the blockbuster season, a final dose of digital explosions and unambiguous morality.

Now it’s December, and the real world seems a little grimmer. The U.S. government went AWOL, Washington police gunned down a woman with a child in her car outside the Capitol building, and Saturday marked the one-year memorial of the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut.

Tom Clancy also died unexpectedly at the age of 66, so now seems like an appropriate time to talk about guns, games, and legacy. Specifically, is Tom Clancy responsible for the media’s ongoing attempts to blame video games for acts of real world violence?

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To be clear, I don’t think there’s a direct causal relationship between video games and violence. To suggest that Splinter Cell, Battlefield, or Call of Duty is responsible for tragedies like Sandy Hook is beyond simplistic. When I talk about Clancy’s legacy of violence, I’m speaking in a much broader macro-ideological sense.

I think the question is worth asking because Tom Clancy’s fictional universe has always aspired to emulate reality.

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(Ubisoft Toronto)

I BELIEVE

Tom Clancy first gained traction because he offered an eerily detailed depiction of military espionage and equipment. His books had a tangible weight absent from the cartoon universe of James Bond, where villains like Dr. No and organizations like SPECTRE were never particularly plausible.

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The media products bearing his name have similarly benefited from that reputation. We trusted Clancy to do his homework. If he was putting it in writing, it meant he had studied the protocols and consulted with the experts before passing on his insider information to the audience. He conferred a degree of verisimilitude by blessing entertainment products with his name.

The problem is that the extended Tom Clancy brand has always been less grounded in authenticity. Splinter Cell makes the usual allowances for endurance and pain tolerance in video games, while the enemy AI is predictable rather than intelligent.

The franchise also exists within a fantasy world where the American intelligence system is unimpeachable. Sam Fisher is a superhuman secret agent who justifies American paternalism because he only kills internationals that need killing. He’s the official Man in Black, covering up incidents we never hear about while protecting us from threats we’re supposed to assume are omnipresent.

Yet while Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a work of fiction that does not depict geopolitical reality, Ubisoft wants you to think it does, because the illusion makes the game more compelling. It helps the player suspend belief, and Clancy’s implied stamp of approval is one of the ways in which Ubisoft manufactures that facade.

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It’s effective sleight of hand. Blacklist is a fun game, though it’s far from perfect in ways that make me feel like I’m not the optimal player. I completed a non-lethal playthrough, using the default starter pistol right up until the end because there wasn’t any point in upgrading items I wasn’t planning to use anyway.

Between missions, I was reminded of all the things I was missing. The upgrade menu is a shopping list of military hardware itemizing all of the real weapons I can use to murder fake terrorists. Since I ignored them, I wasn’t getting the proper dose of technical realism. I wasn’t fully invested in my own deceit.

The game posits that guns, goggles, and Kevlar are the tools you use to solve problems. In order for that to be true, Blacklist needs you to embrace a world in which violence is a given so violence can be presented as an acceptable response.

That’s hardly unusual for a video game. What’s striking about Blacklist is how ineffectual the other options are. When the President attempts to shut down Fourth Echelon near the end of the game, Sam ignores the order and ends up saving the day. The lesson: if you think you’re the hero, you are the hero. Your actions are justified because you know what’s right. Passivity only serves to enable the offenders.

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WELCOME TO REAL LIFE

What happens to that logic in the living mind an individual unable to contextualize personal actions and the impact they have on others? Does wanton violence – even against children – seem principled, or even noble?

I can’t say for sure, but anyone capable of such an extremely antisocial act as the shooting that took place a year ago in Newtown probably trusts his or her own instincts more than any attempts at dissuasion. The internal feedback loop is removed from external considerations that condemn that behavior.

Sam Fisher embodies the myth of the one-man army, his inevitable victory demonstrating that proactive violence is necessary, and that mentality becomes harrowing when projected globally. As sensationalized as they are, incidents like Sandy Hook are rare occurrences perpetrated by outliers. It’s a sign that something has gone wrong, that the individual is not healthy.

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Unfortunately, we’ve become so preoccupied with isolated violence that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. We react more strongly to Sandy Hook than we do to the bombing of a wedding in Yemen because we believe that the latter can be justified as part of a broader campaign. Both are equally horrific, but we miss the human component when we don’t have to witness it firsthand.

The notion that violence is relative, and that only we can assign a proper value, is at the heart of military games like Splinter Cell. And to Ubisoft’s credit, Blacklist doesn’t shirk the issue. The blowback when you go into Iran without the proper say-so is just one acknowledgement of the divergent framing of one event, as is Fourth Echelon’s messy fallout with the CIA. Not all U.S. agents are depicted as demigods. Fisher knows covert intervention can sometimes make things worse.

It’s therefore unfortunate that that more nuanced message fades into the background. Blacklist as a power fantasy assumes that we’re going to relate to Fisher, not the bumbling staffers getting in his way. We want to think we’re better. The unassailable confidence stays with us after we leave the game, and that exceptionalism trickles into policy whenever the U.S. government sends a Sam Fisher or a drone out into the field to wreak havoc on someone else’s doorstep.

And no, I don’t think that’s a stretch, especially in the context of American imperialism. Edward Snowden’s recent disclosure exposed a surveillance network that exists largely because the NSA believes that anything is permissible in the name of American security. We don’t have to tell you what we’re up to, and we’re allowed to do it because father Fisher knows best.

The War on Terror is one protracted attempt at preventive law enforcement, and the scope of conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is far more devastating than anything happening domestically. The same logic that permits domestic spying also permits widespread loss of life abroad. Those making the decisions – like the NSA – really do think that the ends justify the means.

Tom Clancy’s games exhibit the link between video games and violence because they reinforce a worldview that perpetuates the aggression of American protagonists. Colonialism is necessary because these are the weapons that let us get away with it.

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MAGNETO WAS RIGHT

The primary motivation of Sadiq, the game’s main antagonist, is a reaction to that same sense of American entitlement. He’s portrayed as evil because he’s committing acts of mass terrorism, but – as he eagerly points out – how is that any different from what the U.S. has done in the Middle East? He’s an effective villain because his motivations are coherent, a backlash from the victims of American hostility.

Sadiq is essentially flipping the script and presenting the same question from another perspective. What actions are justifiable to protect global citizens from the United States?

The difference, of course, is that Sadiq is not American, which here equates to being wrong. Sam prevails even after Sadiq strips him of his gadgetry. The implication is that Fisher wins not because he has the better tech, but because he possesses greater conviction. Fourth Echelon rides to victory on an iron tide with a divine mandate of freedom.

Somewhere along the way, the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur. Fisher is a fictional character with a superhuman degree of analytical competence, but the presence of so much authentic tech persuades us that we could be just as badass given the same resources and opportunities. If you know everything, the proper path becomes clear.

The NSA is on just such a quest to achieve authority through omniscience, an organization of wannabe Fishers. But the scope of the network is irrelevant. Other people seldom think the violence used against them is as legitimate as you do, but you’ll always be able to justify your own actions if you don’t have external oversight.

Your perfect equation – the one that says violence is OK – is missing a few key variables. If you’re surprised when people resent blatant invasions of privacy, you shouldn’t be spying in the first place.

Taken to its logical conclusion, Blacklist becomes dangerous because it puts a neat little bow on a situation that would never be quite so tidy, encouraging us to oversimplify the world and the consequences of violence within it. Fisher’s actions would most likely lead to further escalation, undercutting any moral imperative he might have had. The ends may justify the means, but the system breaks down when there isn’t any end.

Sadiq hasn’t gone away just because you detained him without a trial.

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THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

So what’s Tom Clancy’s legacy in gaming?

Oddly enough, I think it’ll be harmless. While Clancy was alive, we could trick ourselves into believing that he had significant input into everything bearing his name. Now we’re disillusioned. The Tom Clancy universe is officially an ongoing attempt to make money off his estate. Hollywood will continue to make Jack Ryan movies in an effort to supply an American James Bond, while Penguin will keep publishing books bearing Clancy’s signature.

The further removed those works get from the man who inspired them, the less we’ll believe in the authenticity of the results. We’ll remember that Tom Clancy was a superlative entertainer who spun a fantastic yarn, and that seems fitting for one of the best suspense writers of his generation.

However, we should be interrogating the culture that produced him. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is a recent entry in a jingoistic tradition that traces back through books, movies, television, and now video games, a tradition that has taught entire generations that perfect conditions exist in an imperfect world.

We need to be more aware of that fallacy, as well as the overconfidence that follows. Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn’t incite violence any more than Patriot Games did before it, but both regard the careful application of violence as an effective form of diplomacy. As we’ve learned time and again, that ideology quickly turns to tragedy without the proper restraints.

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