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The police aren't an army: the problem with Battlefield Hardline

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Electronics Arts thinks it can bring Battlefield's military gunplay home. It's not that easy.

Battlefield Hardline moves the Battlefield series from international battlegrounds to a realistic domestic setting: As tricked out police, the player in Hardline uses heavy weaponry, armor and vehicles to kill criminals in Los Angeles. Despite the move, the series' fetishization of military weaponry, gear and lethal combat remains.

Cops and soldiers are not the same thing. They serve different purposes. Soldiers often serve in war zones, in direct conflict with our nation's enemies. The police serve in our cities, protecting and policing our nation's civilians.

And so Hardline is an uncomfortable role play within a role play: the player pretending to be a cop pretending to be a soldier.

At war at home

You used to be able to tell the difference between a cop and a soldier by how they looked. Soldiers had fancy gear, camouflage and heavy weaponry. Cops had a badge with their name and officer number. Times have changed, and now cops at a peaceful protest can look like the soldiers saving Gotham from a nuclear weapon.

The creators of Battlefield Hardline, while researching the militarization of the nation's police force, understandably began to view the devices used by Americans against Americans as novel and fun. After all, they look identical to those being used in their previous games against fictional terrorists.

Cops and soldiers are not the same thing

Polygon spoke with Hardline's Executive Producer and Vice President of Visceral Games Steve Papoutsis at E3. EA did not provide a response to recent follow-up questions about Papoutsis' answers.

"We did some research on the [internet]," Papoutsis said, "and we found out law enforcement have a lot of cool, kick ass stuff. These heavily armored BearCat-like attack trucks. They've got cool motorcycles. And they've got helicopters. They even have police planes. They have all this cool stuff depending on where you're at in the country. So they have some pretty awesome gear. And then like SWAT guys. Come on, who doesn't like all the stuff SWAT guys load up in? They look pretty sweet."

Everything you liked about Battlefield, the weapons of war, are now available in the United States. That's the terrifying subtext of Papoutsis' quote. They did the research. And like Papoutsis said, "[The police] have all this cool stuff."

In fact Los Angeles county law enforcement agencies have received three grenade launchers, 15 helicopters, three mine-resistant vehicles, four "other" armored vehicles, one plane, and thousands of assault rifles, pieces of body armor, and night vision gear. If anything the game is realistic; the latest battleground is domestic.

But glamorizing this militarization of the police force, creating a game in which police are allowed to kill people as often as they arrest them, is problematic, to say the least. The goal of the police is to protect liberty and property under due process. It's to protect people and the lives they built. It's to prevent harm, ease tension and — this should be obvious — avoid the act of killing. Even the police who face the most dangerous situations in the country don't have a higher number of kills than arrests. Nor do they track their kill count.

While Battlefield Hardline includes a a number of non-lethal options, they are not the point, as displayed by the hours of footage from the beta, in which the cops' weapons and vehicles are used to annihilate criminals. In the Gamescom single-player demo, non-lethal weapons are used to emphasize the game's stealth sequences, at least until shit hits the fan, and at least a dozen criminals are shot in the head.

The justification here is that the cop was forced to murder criminals, to guard his life, but that ignores the fact that the scenario is pre-determined, that Visceral created a scenario in which the cop has to kill so many people. Even if the plot of the game is about killing a bunch of racists, which it appears to be from the demo, that doesn't justify a game in which a cops best tool is lethal force.

THE THRUST OF THE GAME

At E3, Polygon asked Papoutsis about the game's announcement happening at almost the same time as a police chase in downtown Los Angeles, a short distance from the convention center.

"Those events are unfortunate, " said Papoutsis. "As an industry, video games are often held up as you can't do that …But we're an entertainment business, we're making entertainment. If you think about what you see on TV and film, they approach different themes and settings. That's part of the experience people are creating."

The trouble is games aren't like television or film. Just for the sake of the comparison, let's compare raw numbers for television, film and games. The number of people killed on screen in a televisions episode or movie might be in the single digits, the double digits if the work is extreme. In a shooter, the number of people killed will be in the triple, if not quadruple digits. John McClane is one of the deadliest cops on film. In the original Die Hard trilogy he kills 43 terrorists.

Film, television and games are simply different mediums with very different purposes and effect. The thrust of a movie is its story; the thrust of a game — specifically a shooter — is its action.

And the action in Hardline, the thrust of this game, is killing people as a cop. On the flip side is a multiplayer mode in which you have the option to play as a criminal and shoot cops. So in Battlefield Hardline you're either a lethal cop or you're an abject monster.

A cop game can't hide under the already prejudiced notion of previous Battlefield games: that the enemy is an international terrorists motivated by pure evil. No, the villains in a cop game are American citizens with American rights. And the heroes are enforces of the law and protectors of our rights.

We're becoming so accustomed to the image of the police as domestic soldier that we're selling the fantasy to ourselves as entertainment: That cops can behave like soldiers and treat citizens like terrorists.

We asked Papoutsis about the cops and their Los Angeles setting at E3, too.

"I think with Battlefield in general, it's intended to be realistic … what we try to consider is what areas could potentially relate for people, what's familiar to them, and what would be a fun place to play a game … I think its important to understand it's a video game," he said.

The police invading and occupying American cities with armored vehicles is certainly becoming familiar. Is anyone thinking that would be a fun place to play a game? The answer may be, for many people, yes. And again, that's the problem. That this is appetizing to any American citizen, let alone the thousands who've already pre-ordered the game, is proof of our cultural myopia. We've been conditioned to think lethal, super cops are the norm. That they're an aspirational fantasy.

Cops, the ones that don't parade down streets in tanks, aren't bad. Cops, when they serve their true purpose, protect our nation. Cops are supposed to be heroes. The trouble is when our culture — games, but also music, television, film and even the news — perpetuates an image in which the police enforce the law, but live above it. Real cops are heroes. The cop caricatures in a first-person shooter are not.

This is a developer having it both ways: The game is real. But it's fiction. Take the story seriously. Just not too seriously. We're all about the authenticity and respect of our police force. But also having a kick ass awesome time.

Worse, these statements are hollow. Fiction can and often does support negative stereotypes, promote toxic viewpoints and make political statements — even when it doesn't intend to. A game about cops killing people, even criminals, is inherently political and loaded. It's not "just" fiction. It's the fantasy of the death of due process.

Law enforcement as violent occupying force

Both the fiction and the press speak are convoluted and disingenuous: In Battlefield Hardline, you play as someone meant to protect people, who spends much of his time killing people. It furthers and empowers an image of cops as bad asses who choose who gets a trial and who gets a funeral. The image of the friendly neighborhood police man in pop culture is being replaced by the faceless, heavily-armed paramilitary force shooting tear gas into crowds.

"We're not making fun of those things you mentioned," said Papoutsis, in reference to the real world police chase in downtown Los Angeles. "It's unfortunate. I think there are a lot of people that put their lives on the line whether they're soldiers or law enforcement to protect us, and I appreciate them and respect them for doing that. But on our side, we're trying to create entertainment and fun for people so they don't feel compelled to do those things in real life."

The problem is cops shooting people because of a culture

The problem isn't civilians shooting people because of a video game. The problem is cops shooting people because of a culture. The problem is media —  with games at its center — fetishizes that violence, machismo and "pretty awesome gear" of our law enforcement.

And because of that, cops have militarized with minimal resistance. And because of that, Visceral and Electronic Arts are making a mainstream, multi-million dollar game in which a cop who kills hundreds of people is the fucking hero.

Big-budget shooters celebrate the ugliest parts of our culture, and at the center of these shooters is Battlefield Hardline.