Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Division (1), Tom Clancy, and the decline of conservative entertainment

Did you remember that The Division is a Tom Clancy game?

Tom Clancy is a creator we normally associated with the "technothriller" phrase, primarily as a result of his extremely tight relationship with defense contractors, who paid him to put new whizbang gizmos in his books so that the influential but tech-illiterate people who loved them would support them when they came up.  But a Clancy thriller is not a thriller in the normal sense. Clancy has a very specific feeling in his work that other thriller creators (techno and otherwise) don't specialize in: anxiety.

A Clancy protagonist is extremely bland, technocratic - a Company Man. Jack Ryan as CIA analyst is the exemplar here. Today we associate technocracy and expertise with the Silicon Valley cult of neoliberalism. But that wasn't always true. In a Clancy novel, the right thing to do is not in doubt because of some flaw of the protagonist or some compromise they must make in service to a flawed institution; but because they don't have all the facts, and can't get them.  The best Clancy novel, The Hunt For Red October, cranks this up to the top. Is the sub coming to attack us or defect? Are the Russians found tracking their fleeing sub or trying to trick us? We'd know what to do (follow the procedure, which would inevitably create the virtuous result)  if we knew the facts, but we don't know the facts.

Compare this to James Bond, who Fleming portrays as a sociopathic dinosaur of violence from a more horrific age, or to Jason Bourne, who Ludlum portrays as quite literally mentally shattered by his government-promoted skills.  Everywhere else in the thriller world, the protagonist is Part Of The Problem, and must overcome his (almost always his) failings to save the day.  (Fleming even cheerfully describes Bond falling deeper into his failings, at times making him a tragic figure.) Clancy didn't do this. And that's why he realized, very early on, that his work was perfectly suited to adaptation to video games. The player could easily put themselves into the shoes of a Clancy protagonist - learning and following the rules of the game with skill feels like learning and following the rules of the world.

In 1988, Microprose came out with Red Storm Rising, which is a masterpiece of fog-of-war.  (How could it be otherwise? Sid Meier was on it!) You're a nameless American sub commander and you must wage war on Russian vessels fighting (and supporting!) a Russian invasion of the Norwegian Sea. The last mission of the game was always to find the ballistic missile submarines that were launching nukes. But for our purposes the key fact of the game was this.  It was a game about finding the enemy.  You had to find the enemy before you could engage them. Every mission started with you facing the hostile unknown.  (And of course, 'the hostile unknown' is a fundamentally politically conservative view of foreign policy and the world in general.)

A definition of The Unknown:
everything beyond the reach of a cop's flashlight
And this embrace of Clancy-esque anxiety reached straight through the other games (SSN, etc.) right into the first Rainbow Six shooter in 1998.  In that game, you command an anti-terrorist unit whose job is to get into secured areas and rescue hostages.  But the AI in the game, while simplistic, was emergent. One wrong sightline, one gunman standing in a place you didn't expect and every member of your team would be maimed or killed. Again. Anxiety. Facing an unknown threat. You can kill a threat that's right in front of you - just click the left mouse button.  That will never work out badly in a Tom Clancy world. But you must enter the unknown in Rainbow Six (at least in 1998).

Something else was happening in the 1990s that would put Clancy games on the path to the Division, though.

The Conservative War On Art

In the 1980s, arguably, Clancy is the center of conservative American art, though he lacks the religious elements of the Moral Majority era. And he is a very commercially savvy guy. He uses licensing well.  Clancy the brand of course outlives Clancy the artist. Ghost writers and spinoffs all enhanced his success. Through to the 90s there was a deep well of talent that he could draw from - the conservative art world.

If you watch a movie from the 60s or 70s, and to some degree into the 80s there's a stock character: the "conservative art snob". The character that's like "rock and roll?! But what about my beloved opera?!" when the kids just want to dance. And maybe the kids teach him a lesson, or vice versa, but to audiences in that time frame, it was taken as read that you could be a conservative person and still take art quite seriously - maybe even too seriously!

Here's the nub of it:

In 1980 if you were into ballet you were probably politically conservative. In 2000 if you were into ballet you were almost definitely a filthy liberal.

When you look back at the 70s and 80s, you see things like the original Red Dawn and while you might chuckle, there is no sense that it's being presented ironically or in any way insincerely.  Red Dawn cracks jokes but in the end it's a flick that says school spirit - embodied by the jocks, even - will defeat the dirty commies. In that movie there's a communist soldier that pries a gun from the dead hands of a person who died next to a bumper sticker saying you can have the gun if you can pry it from their cold dead hands. That's a movie that wants to make you laugh - genuinely. It's real conservative art. But something happened.

In the 1990s, the American conservative movement launched a war on art. The perception was that the art world was not homophobic or racist enough.  The most familiar conflict associated with this push is the attack on the National Endowment of the Arts, but it was not just the elites, it was a top to bottom push.  The Southern Baptist Convention demanded parishoners boycott Disney, of all things.  Not even the hypercapitalist repository of traditional family-friendly fairy tales was enough for the Newt Gingrich era.

By 2000, with the Republican party firmly in control of an overwhelming majority of American states, they unleash an orgy of spending cuts to strangle libraries, live theater, visual art, digital art, orchaestras, dance companies, public funding for film, essentially the entire superstructure by which non-blockbuster American art was produced was drowned in those ten years. In the middle of the 20th century the dream was that every small town in America would have not just one, but TWO professional orchaestras - one for classical music and one for "pops". This was a conservative American dream, mind you.  They believed the country needed needed to preserve and advance historical cultural triumphs and art was a part of that.  But by 1990, they wanted no part of it. What if a kid got inspired by music and became a rapper?!  (Interestingly, the only place truly conservative art still thrives is in the cop show, but they tend to be too racially diverse and often portray the police characters as struggling with being ethically compromised.  Blue Bloods can only reach so far.)
Blue Bloods, a show that dares to ask "okay but what if
police violence and nepotism is actually good when white
people do it?"

So by the time the 21st century rolls around, and video game technology is getting really hot, Clancy's content is looking pretty anemic. There isn't a deep bench of conservative artists anymore who can grasp and express the emotions he's trying to get across.   The post-9-11 first person shooter experience is indeed structurally conservative - a guy with a gun left-clicks his way through foreign people until the world is saved.  But typically they embrace the "compromised" thriller structure. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the organization you work for is part of the problem; in the Black Ops series you're explicitly hallucinating. So the political statements of the games are less than explicit. They are hidden behind the post-Iraq War-failure mask of "mistakes were made".  (This is with the exception of the first Modern Warfare game, which is jaw droppingly prescient about the impending total failure of American oo-rah intervention for a game made during a time when the Iraq War enjoyed 80+ percent public support in America.)

This brings us to The Division.

The Division is a third person shooter MMORPG in which a terror attack has crippled New York City. The plot is explicitly a conservative fantasy, much more explicitly even than the other foreign-adventure shooters populating the market.  You are an operative "activated" by a shady national security entity ("The Division") to go in with your gun and special forces training to sort things out.

Just like Rush Limbaugh always said, one day the big corrupt racially diverse liberal cities crumbled and an Individualized Strong American With A Gun is the only force able to put it right. You are a bartender or a cabdriver or something "embedded" in America by this government organization, so when you are "activated" you grab your gun and "roll out."  You literally are a secret agent infiltrating what clearly doesn't count as The United States. You're a Real American infiltrating (gasp!) the mysterious foreign land of New York City.

It's implied that the Division is a big organization, and of course it's a MMORPG so there's lots of other players running around, the single player story plays out with you, and one other injured NPC agent.  That's it.  Nobody else from your group makes it to the infected area. So it's as radically conservative a notion as you can probably get without actually putting explicit white supremacy in it.  In the tutorial, you shoot a "rioter" who's trying to get some antibiotics for god's sake. Only in a Clancy world would that make any sense. Remember, in Clancy's world, the threats you can see and understand are not the struggle. It's what you don't know and can't figure out that is dangerous in Clancy's world.

The game does realize on some level that having the player airdrop into New York and just spend their entire time assassinating poor people trying to survive is Definitely Not going to be compelling to a national audience who remembers President Bush letting New Orleans drown.  So The Division has to make a very tight turn.

But when it drops everything that makes Clancy's conservative-thriller structure work. In The Division, you're always, always, always sure about what is happening next. You can pop up a high-tech map, explicitly a map that is inside the game world, an in-world map, with an orange arrow pointing to where you need to go next. Pointing to where you need to search to find the next clue.  Pointing to items you need to scavenge.  And then it introduces a crew of people that you are there to help, so you're not just there for hostile reasons. Once you look closely at this group their presence is mind boggling.

So it's the Joint Task Force (JTF). It has security forces, clearly portrayed as cops who had to put on body armor and pick up a M-16. Like, not special forces operators like the PCs. They're regular joes in helmets. (There's even women JTF officers! What would Tom Clancy think?)  There's medical personnel who have to be rescued from clinics where they're trying to provide first aid and first responder treatment to everyone, including gangs that treat them like valuables to be traded/stolen. And engineering/infrastructure people who are essentially the most EYYYYYY I'M WALKIN HERE New York City plumbers and building supers you can imagine. And along with the JTF was the "First Wave" of people from the Division, all of whom either got turned by the mysterious enemy, killed, or are otherwise wiped out, leaving the JTF to struggle through on their own. Gangs are stealing weapons, shooting it out in the street, the water supply is barely chugging along, people need first aid everywhere in the city, it's a mess, the JTF is stretched to the limit.

When you look at the JTF in the context of the thriller, it absolutely leaps out at you: The game posits that there's positive, cooperative, skilled-but-highly-pressured people right next to you, all around you....and in thrillers do you know what we call those people? The ones that try to get shit done but maybe the problem's too big for them, or maybe -  just maybe - they can pull it off? Those are heroic protagonists.  The game put actual protagonists into the game next to you trying to accomplish your technology-assigned tasks, and made your only verb for interacting with the city your left-click gun.

With the JTF literally right next to you as in-fiction working examples of a much more heroic way to move through this fictional space, literally every time there's a mission to assassinate some gang leader, anyone who is thinking about the rules of this fictional world is thinking......wouldn't it be better to try to negotiate here? Wouldn't it be better to trade some stuff? What actually do I accomplish by putting 10,000 rounds in the head of some rioter that (say) the nurse here at the base couldn't accomplish if I just was standing there and glared menacingly at the rioters while she tried to treat them?  If the JTF weren't there the game would be unbearable, but since they are there, they raise unanswerable questions.  When you actually find out about the First Wave, the inescapable conclusion is "Oh shit, I'm not just the bad guy here, I'm a bad guy working for very stupid people who already failed once, and can't think of anything else to do other than 'more of the same'."

What Could Have Been

There's a version of this game that could have been made that embraced the Clancy-conservatism. Like, you're going into darkest (ahem!) New York City and you don't know what you're gonna find, and the wrong move could be game over.  You can deal with whatever's in front of you with total confidence - you never shoot an innocent person, that just doesn't happen in Clancy-world.  But how you get the problem in front of you is the struggle. That would be a Clancy-conservative game. But the people who might make and understand that type of game aren't around anymore. There isn't a conservative art scene which Ubisoft could pull from to make it work.

Or there's a version of this game that could have been made that embraced the JTF as the more standard thriller protagonists. Just leave Clancy on as branding and have a game about a New York cop who survives the outbreak and has to make her way to safety with her gun, a few bullets, and her street smarts, or a hospital physician's assistant who is trying to save who he can, or a fuckin plumber! Come on, Mario's not a plumber anymore, the field is wide open for a heroic plumber who knows if the pipes break down everyone will be dead in a matter of days.  Hell, you can even give em guns and have them left click if you want! But they're the heroes. Make them the heroes!

But they couldn't figure out how to do either of these right, so they tried to strike a middle path and it.....isn't that good.  Thanks For Coming To My TED Talk.