Lawlessness is the central appeal of so many video games. Sometimes it’s blatant; Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause are explicitly designed and marketed around players’ abilities to travel anywhere and do anything. Steal a car. Fly a helicopter. Destroy a building. From the absurd “Dubstep Gun” of Saints Row 4 to the varied, unbridled bloodletting in Dead Rising, video games’ capacity for riotousness—entertaining chaos—is something of which they are commonly proud.
Other times, lawlessness is more discretely implied. Fallout 4, by allowing you to design an impeccable, fantastical or ludicrously proportioned avatar, is permitting you to break certain laws of the universe. Call of Duty, when it casts you in the role of a heroic special forces soldier, is letting you experience something that the restraints and practicalities of real life would never permit. Hence the term—loved by both game makers and players—“escapism.”
Video games are seductive because, albeit by comparison, and in simulated, virtual settings, they set us free from the bounds of everyday life. This, we have come to believe, is video games’ highest aspiration—their raison d'être. As long as that belief persists (and seeing how much escapism appeals to the gaming audience, and how well it sells, one can only assume that will be a very long time) a video game truthful to the role and responsibilities of a police officer is difficult to imagine.
A police officer is not sworn to adhere to laws and boundaries. She is responsible for maintaing them. Our video game heroes are rogues, renegades and mavericks—often, they’re outright criminals. Such figures, like Trevor Philips from GTA 5, Rico from Just Cause and Corvo from Dishonored, exist outside of the law. The assassins in Assassin’s Creed seek to pull apart an established order. The soldiers in Call of Duty are elite operatives beyond the borders of standard military control. These characters facilitate video games’ lawlessness. They are rebels, and allow players to act as rebels in kind.
To be a police officer implies restraint. Where games routinely let you choose how to dispose of enemies, a police officer, ptypically, must follow pre-delineated routes of action. Instead of bounding in guns blazing, she must assess, arrest, shoot to wound. In short, she must be careful, something which video games, in their God-given role of escapism, hesitate to ask of players.
Hence video games like Watch Dogs and Battlefield: Hardline. These ostensible cop dramas are just escapism—lawlessness—thinly disguised. As Aiden Pearce, you are a vigilante who is free to eliminate criminals using lethal force and regardless of due process. As Nick Mendoza, you are, halfway through Hardline, framed by a corrupt police colleague and branded a criminal—you spend the remainder of the game shooting and killing crooks supposedly in the name of justice but without any adherence to the protocols of organised law enforcement.
The plots of these games provide a veneer of police procedural, but also, through various contrivances, free players from the responsibilities inherent to actual police work. They are indicative of how video games, at least in the form they’re currently mass-produced, are unfit for faithful depictions of law enforcement; after years of encouraging players to do whatever they want, and building games to facilitate exactly that, how can we expect to sell something that provides the total opposite? Video games, by current expectations, belie cop drama. Players have been raised to hate and destroy boundaries, not stay within them, let alone help maintain them.
This Is The Police is a better-intentioned game about law enforcement. The player is given well-defined boundaries (crimes are solved by dispatching uniformed officers rather than using guns; a solid conviction demands weeks of case work and a body of evidence) and a system to which they must answer. The Mayor and City Hall will routinely examine the player’s progress and either reward and punish her based on performance. At its occasional best, This Is The Police is about both operating within the confines of institutions and how the decisions made by those institutions can be cavalier and detrimental.
More honest than games like Watch Dogs or Hardline, which drop their pretences of cop drama and are primarily about lone vigilantes, This Is The Police depicts law enforcement as an immovable system, the rigidity of which is implied further by its lack of change despite repeat mistakes. Nevertheless, This Is The Police often falls back on lightheartedness and ambiguity.
The game’s Kickstarter page reminds people it is not about the specific police force or place. Several of the crimes players must solve are either deliberately humorous—a naked man destroying the interior of an art gallery, for example—or larger than life. The game’s central plot involves a war between two Mafia families, one of which is headed by a Bulgarian criminal clearly repurposed from The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Soze. It may not be escapist like Saints Row or shirking the rigours and responsibilities of faithfully depicting police work to the extent of Battlefield: Hardline, but This Is The Police makes a concerted effort to diminish players’ sense of reality. It is a broad, levied, nakedly fictitious world, the tacit implication being nothing you do here is particularly serious.
It takes only a passing glance at the news of today to understand why such a depiction of police work is bad. Considering that, as of writing, 623 people have been killed by US law enforcement in 2016 alone, one has to wonder whether video games that encourage at best laissez faire, and at worst gung-ho attitudes toward policing are—if not oblivious to the culture surrounding them—actively supporting it.
Escapism is a goal toward which video games continue to strive. But considering today’s video games about the police—and the seemingly inescapable corner into which games have painted themselves when it comes to inspiring in audiences any sense of responsibility—escapism is a ridiculous thing for an entire culture to uniformly chase. Put simply, not every video game need be based around lawlessness, least of all games about the work of police officers available in 2016.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.