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August 22, 2014 | by

At the worst possible moment, Battlefield Hardline valorizes police violence.

An early screenshot of Battlefield Hardline.

The Battlefield series, one of the past decade’s most popular video-game franchises, has already given gamers the chance to play as soldiers in World War II, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Now Battlefield Hardline, slated for release early next year, allows players to assume the role of a new kind of soldier: the police officer. A recent preview of the game shows a cop throwing a thief to the ground and cuffing him; the player is given the option to Hold E to Interrogate. The officer yells, “Tell me what you know!” and earns fifty points: Interrogation successful.

To Visceral Games, who developed Battlefield Hardline, the roles of soldiers and cops are so interchangeable that Army camo can simply be “re-skinned” into police uniforms. In light of the killings, riots, fear, and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the game raises disquieting questions about the relationship between law enforcement and citizens—in short, it’s a horror to watch.

As a cop in Hardline, you’re tasked with preventing robberies and rescuing hostages, which often means shooting all the criminals until they’re dead. (The gentlest thing you can do is arrest them.) The game also enables players to take the role of the criminals, and perhaps the more troubling aspect of Hardline is that this experience is identical to playing as the police: both “the good guys” and “the bad guys” see the world through crosshairs. The best players shoot first, and shoot from behind.

“In multiplayer, the world is simple,” reads the game’s website. “You’re on one side of the law or the other.” This sort of tone-deafness permeates the game and its marketing. Given recent events, one might expect the hype around Battlefield Hardline to have gone quiet; instead, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent. On August 13, four days after police shot Michael Brown, Visceral Games released a twelve-minute trailer showing off a chunk of the game’s single-player campaign. The video opens as the main character—seemingly an undercover cop—is carted off by a guy in a bucket hat who points his pistol at your black partner and says, “Race is not a factor here. My dislike of you is strictly personal.” Even when Hardline is being self-aware, it’s tasteless.

Throughout the preview, a voice-over from the game’s creative director, Ian Milham, explains that you can complete levels one of two ways. The “stealth approach” allows you to sneak up on bad guys and arrest them. For each one you put in cuffs, you collect money—a bounty—that you can use to buy better weapons later. A less patient player can simply go in with guns blazing, shooting with impunity. Simply put: as a cop in Hardline, you have the choice of killing people or not. The decision is entirely dependent on your mood. The extent to which this varies from practice in the U.S., where police officers are ostensibly only permitted the use of deadly force as a last resort, is debatable.

I e-mailed Visceral Games to ask about the ethical predicaments that Hardline presents, but received no reply. When Hardline’s creators talk about the game, they do so with juvenile enthusiasm. Speaking to the video game site Polygon, Battlefield Hardline’s executive producer, Steve Papoutsis, explained that the inspiration for the game was all the “cool, kick-ass stuff” law enforcement has:

They’ve got cool motorcycles. And they’ve got helicopters. They even have police planes … And then like SWAT guys. Come on, who doesn’t like all the stuff SWAT guys load up in? They look pretty sweet.

Similarly, almost all of the writing about Hardline from video game outlets has shown blithe eagerness for the game’s urban setting. Polygon is perhaps the only major publication to criticize Hardline’s troubling themes, but even that comes after glowing preview articles with titles like “Is Battlefield Hardline the next eSports darling?”

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shaken the country’s view of the military, if the rising number of school shootings has made us rethink our relationship to guns, none of these concerns have affected the robust sales of first-person shooters. In fact, as political and personal cognizance of violence has become more relevant, shooters have become more realistic, more violent, and more popular. The genre by itself has become a billion-dollar business, advancing by technological leaps and bounds each year.

Are first-person shooters popular because they’re in demand or only because they’re being developed? In an interview with NPR’s All Tech Considered about video game violence, Ken Levine, the creator of a sci-fi series called BioShock, explained that game publishers are more willing to fund shooters because they’re easy to market. “A shooter answers a lot of questions for you: the main mechanic is you have this gun, you have weapons, you have enemies, you have conflict coming at you,” he said.

The correlation between violence in entertainment and reality remains unclear at best, but it’s clear that games have an influence on American youth—it was just over a decade ago that the U.S. military developed America’s Army, a free online shooter that depicted ground warfare more accurately than comparable games. It was developed for seven and a half million dollars—just one-third of a percent of the Army’s annual marketing budget—and is considered one of the most successful recruiting efforts ever.

Last November, Maria Konnikova explored the reasons why first-person shooters are so popular in a piece for The New Yorker. “First-person shooters put our ability to control the environment, and our perception of our effectiveness, at the forefront of play,” she wrote. The irony that law enforcement appear to have neither control nor effectiveness in Ferguson appears to be lost on the 600,000 people who, as of this writing, have watched the Battlefield Hardline preview on YouTube since it was released.

Since 2002, when the Battlefield series was introduced, every major American conflict has been dramatized in an iteration of the game. Law enforcement seems like the natural next step. But it’s one thing to lionize the military; it’s another to advocate that the police is the military. The tragedies in Ferguson have renewed interest in the militarization of American law enforcement. As Jay Caspian Kang asked in The New Yorker last week, “Have we also become anesthetized to images of police in armored vehicles and full military gear?”

Battlefield Hardline implies that the answer is a resounding yes. The tagline on the game’s website reads, “Live out your fantasy of being a cop and criminal.” Note that conjunction: and, not or. In Hardline’s universe, the two aren’t mutually exclusive—perhaps the most subversive and intelligent point it’s likely to make.

Kevin Nguyen (@knguyen) is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

20 COMMENTS

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19 Comments

  1. Armchairing | August 22, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    This article reads like any other poorly informed, pandering article from 10 years ago that said violent video games were the root of all evil.

    Kids have been playing Cops & Robbers since time immemorial, long before video games ever existed. Anyone who grew up in the past 100 years has likely played it at some point.

    Interestingly, Cops & Robbers as a game played in playgrounds and quiet suburbs by children everywhere also rarely involved anything except pointing pretend guns at eachother and yelling “BANG”

    Coincidental? Sure. Correlational? Not in the least.

  2. James Jackson | August 22, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!!

  3. Cyberdactyl | August 22, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    “I e-mailed Visceral Games to ask about the ethical predicaments that Hardline presents, but received no reply.”

    Let me tell you why you didn’t get an answer. Every large game studio gets requests like yours pretty much weekly, and they’ve come to recognize them for what they are. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation, let me offer up a video instead explaining in detail why your email was ignored.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixhr8mjy1fs&list=UUmb8hO2ilV9vRa8cilis88A

  4. Morellio | August 22, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    You don’t even mention the first amendment, which is incredibly ironic. The amendment that should protect the right produce games like this is the same one that’s being so wantonly violated in your thrice mentioned city of Ferguson. It seems like you’re suggesting that we react to the suppression of liberties by suppressing more liberties. Is it badly timed and a bit tasteless? Yeah. It always was. Some people don’t care though, and they shouldn’t have to.

  5. Yari Viking | August 22, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    Not sure if you know this, but there is this other small game out there called Counter Strike, once played by millions of people, that has been around for a decade or more. Counter Strike features terrorists versus counter terrorists. So does that mean that this game is responsible for the hatred of terrorists and people who are known to be terrorists? Or does it mean that this game caused people to become terrorists because the game depicted the planting of bombs and killing of counter terrorist forces?

    It’s a game. Separate reality from fiction. And if you think people can’t do that, then the problem isn’t the games, it’s society as a whole.

  6. DerpSquad | August 22, 2014 at 6:42 pm

    These commentards completely miss the point.

    It’s not about first amendment, it’s about portrayal of cops.

    Get a clue morons.

  7. Peter | August 22, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve been uncomfortable with seeing “ENEMY KILLED 100″ whenever a cop shoots a criminal dead in Battlefield Hardline ever since I first saw it. In light of what’s going on in Ferguson, with many reports of cops shooting civilians, telling reporters “I will kill you!” while pointing a gun in their face, and generally being more violent than is necessary, it is really weird that we have a game coming out where cops can just kill whoever they want anytime they want and get 100 points. I would hope that the general public is also extremely uncomfortable with the idea of killing policemen in the line of duty. Yes, this is a video game, but it is extremely distressing to see cops killing with impunity and players being able to gun down policemen.

  8. Haonmi | August 22, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    Are any of these people that bitch about violence in games actually gamers that play violent games? I think not. No huge spikes in crime due to GTA (any of the 5). In fact, I would venture to guess no violent game has increased violence in real life by any significant degree. Sure there are psychos who will blame a game (as an excuse) but these are the same people that would blame a book, a speech or even Twinkies. Tired of these self weak minded douchbags

  9. Haonmi | August 22, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Damn, accidentally posted before I was ready. You get the idea though.

  10. Steve Rogers | August 23, 2014 at 6:04 am

    Clearly the author has never seen Dirty Harry.

  11. DJhez | August 23, 2014 at 7:05 am

    Somehow most commenters seem to miss the point of this article. It is about how the perception of police has changed and it has become normal to see them as (war)fighting force. Something the new battlefield only reinforces. Whether or not FPS games influence violence remains a matter of debate. I think it does to some degree it probably does, but at the same time availability of guns is probably a much more potent factor in propagating violence with deadly outcomes. Nonetheless, it is not the main issue of this piece. Militarization of police – is the issue and the new battlefield just helps to poignantly illustrate this.

    By the way I play a lot of shooting games (ARMA series, Farcry, HL2, TF2 L4D, etc..) and don’t think they should be banned, but I will not let my children play these type of games until a certain age, simply because I don’t want them to think violence is ‘normal’ or default course of action for resolving conflicts. And I think you can raise serious questions about a police game the promotes such an attitude and what this conveys about the role of police in the US.

  12. Eli | August 23, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Christ, what IS it about video games that compels its supporters to completely deny the utility and insightfulness of critical analysis? No other art form in the world would see its proponents whipped up into a frenzy over the most basic examination of themes and portrayals in a work, yet we’re supposed to believe that (all) games are art. Alright.

  13. Oscar DeBarge | August 23, 2014 at 11:54 am

    I’ll just wait for the hack that reverses the skin colors of the avatars; so we can have Black officers arresting (or doing something more) the lily-White public offenders. :-)

  14. Tom | August 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    As a fan of the Battlefield series, I thought Hardline had a pretty severe identity crisis from day one. The casual palette-swap from military conflict into law enforcement seemed like a poor creative choice, but it took the events in Ferguson for me to realise the problems ran deeper than just bad design.

    I’d be interested to know what conversations have occurred within Visceral/DICE/EA following the recent events.

  15. You | August 23, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    Yeah, look at this horrible article trampling all over the first amendment. The author should be arrested for having written it!

  16. CCCC | August 25, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    “The tagline on the game’s website reads, “Live out your fantasy of being a cop and criminal.” Note that conjunction: and, not or. In Hardline’s universe, the two aren’t mutually exclusive—perhaps the most subversive and intelligent point it’s likely to make.”

    You’re reading too much into it. It’s neither intelligent nor subversive. It’s just bad writing. Also from the site –
    “FROM THE STREETS OF LA TO MIAMI, IT’S A WORLD FULL OF GRITTY, CRIMINAL UNDERBELLY.”

    The site is full of ridiculous copy.

  17. Herb Walker | August 27, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    I have been playing Battlefield 4 for months and other First Person Shooters for decades. But, when I was “asked” to Beta test Hardline, I did not want to for the very reasons stated in this article. Law Enforcement is not Warfare. Nor should it be portrayed as such.

  18. Tim | August 27, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    This article and resulting comments also unintentionally highlight the growing disengagement of individuals from the greater society. “It’s just a game.” “It’s not real.” For the rest of the country watching passively on their TVs, the events in Ferguson and elsewhere might as well be described the same way.

  19. Really? | August 31, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    So the Paris review is now publishing stories about FPS games.

    What a class act.

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  1. […] not as soldiers, but as police doing what the police do: fighting crime by shooting everyone. An August review of the game from the Paris Review outlines the troubling accuracy and tastelessness of the game, noting that the game trailer was […]

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