Life Imitates Art: Battlefield Hardline and How the Media Handles Police

Our media sends a few messages about law enforcement and some of those messages bleed into the real world.

Analysis by Mike Williams, .

On Saturday in Ferguson, Missouri, a young African-American man named Michael Brown was killed by a police officer. He died in the middle of the street, mere days before he was to start classes at a technical college. It's a tragedy, but it won't be the last. Brown's death follows the similar deaths of other men of color: Eric Garner in New York, John Crawford in Ohio, Jesus Huerta in New York, and Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina. It's a situation that should be more surprising, but isn't for certain classes of people.

The community of Ferguson took to the streets to protest the death and subsequent handling of the case. The police eventually cracked down on the city, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and military grade equipment to disperse the protestors. The pictures of the St. Louis Police Department in Ferguson have been compared to military occupations in other countries, but it's just a larger manifestation of something that's been going on for far longer.

Even journalists and elected officials weren't free from the crackdown. Two journalists and an alderman were arrested for recording the actions of the police, with other journalists reporting being shot at with tear gas and rubber bullets. It's as bad as it can get without descending into complete all-out war between the police and the people they are supposed to serve. Today, things took a turn for the better, but this shouldn't have happened in the first place.

This image says volumes about the situation at its worst in Ferguson, Mo. [Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]

The protests in Ferguson are happening because that is the only recourse those citizens believe they have. They believe there is no justice. They believe that Mike Brown's murder will go unpunished, as many of the murders listed above are currently unpunished. They believe that there is overwhelming societal and institutional favor with the officers who did the killing. The assumption is that they are correct, that lethal force was used because the victim had done something wrong.

Which brings us to Battlefield: Hardline, the newest entry in EA's Battlefield series, but with a focus on law enforcement within the United States. Perhaps EA shouldn't be showing the game at Gamescom 2014 this week in light of recent events, but hundreds depend on the game's success. Battlefield: Hardline plays on the growing militarization of the police, showing scenes of all-out war between heavily-armed police and criminals. It's a war game in a different skin, something that should probably disturb us more than it does. In light of the imagery coming out of Ferguson, it's not out of the question that some players may be disturbed by what Hardline represents.

Hardline is not a game I was planning to play, even prior to Ferguson. The subject matter is simply uncomfortable for me, so I'd already decided to avoid it. I have a different relationship with the police than some of Hardline's target demographic. I don't trust them. That's not to say that there aren't good cops; I've met many kind and personable law enforcement officers. Many are good people trying to do a good job, one I would never do myself.

Entertainment has the benefit of creating bad guys that are categorically bad.

But when I'm around law enforcement I'm always on edge, always more conciliatory, and always doing my best to give them a wide berth. I've been stopped in an affluent neighborhood while driving home. When I told some friends about it, they asked why I didn't get angry. I replied that it's because I was trying to stay out of trouble; I was trying to stay out of a situation that would put my word against that of a police officer. Or worse.

Running into a police officer with the wrong priorities has so many heavy consequences. Fines, arrest, assault, or even death. And frequently, at least for many minorities in the United States, there's no justice or restitution for running into a bad cop. No jail time or firings for those who do their jobs poorly and ruin lives. Ferguson illustrates this, as the arrested journalists can't even get solid information from law enforcement about the officers who arrested them. One wasn't even read his Miranda Rights. And that's the media, who are recording and releasing this information. What do police officers do to those without such voices?

The stories lean on the side of law enforcement, and that's reflected in our media. Battlefield: Hardline isn't a sore touch point, it's a continuation in a long line entertainment that portrays our law enforcement as always right. It follows Law & Order, 24, The Blacklist, Bad Boys, Lethal Weapon, and a host of other films and shows where the police have to circumvent the laws to "do what's right." Where the person they suspect is always the correct criminal. Where the ends (putting the bad guy away) justify the means (breaking and subverting laws).

While there are many entertainment media examples of police being portrayed both as good guys and bad guys, the trope of law circumvention to "do what's right" is a common factor, whichever point of view is being articulated. Our entertainment does this because that's what we want. Good and evil, black vs. white. The evil conspiracy always goes to the top. The application of sufficient willpower and force will always win the day. The simple morality makes us feel good - despite the majority of people not condoning vigilantism or the concept of a militarized police whose end justifies the means. Sometimes we just want to see someone be the badass or beat the badass. Especially in our industry, it's rare to have a game that portrays these situations in a nuanced light, like Papers, Please or Spec Ops: The Line.

The magic of Michael Bay storytelling.

Oscar Wilde wrote that, "life imitates art far more than art imitates life" and it's true. There's a bleed-in between the entertainment we consume and the real world. Our entertainment normalizes certain things, things that frequently aren't true. It says that law enforcement is always correct, which isn't true because they're only human. (In 2011, 9 out of 10 stops by law enforcement in New York didn't lead to any arrest.) Our entertainment reinforces beliefs founded in racial or sexual biases; that's why so many hammer on representation in games, comics, movies, and television. That's why it's important to watch how a game tells its story or what's being presented. That's why we should question our entertainment instead of just disgesting it whole without any thought.

I enjoy many of the shows and movies I mentioned before. It's fine to enjoy entertainment with problematic issues; trust me, not everything you love is without issue. Battlefield: Hardline is just too close for me. That's not something I want to control directly. I don't need to kill or arrest suspects without being cognizant of their rights. I don't need to enforce that kind of order. I need that layer of unreality and at least from what I've seen so far, Hardline doesn't really have it.

It's just feels too close to the experiences minorities have with law enforcement, as I'm sure previous Call of Duty or Battlefield titles may have been for players in other regions. I don't need the game boycotted, it's just something I'll comment on and avoid. If I do play it, it'll be through this lens as a way to have a further discussion on this topic. I don't fault the hundreds of people at EA or Visceral working on the game, I merely want them and players to think about what's being created and how life might imitate that art.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for pashaveliki #1 pashaveliki 3 years ago
    Thanks for this article, Mike. Fantastic and necessary work.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #2 SigurdVolsung 3 years ago
    Great article, Mike. By not disturbing us, you are speaking of the general public. It does disturb me, both the real life situation and the game itself. After the first preview video of the game I knew that it was an immediate non-purchase for myself. I hope that the game ends up saying something worthwhile and not being too exploitative. But it is nevertheless important for games to not be pre-censored or be solely predicated on sales. The capacity to exploit or to say something important is one of the driving forces between keeping the medium an art form instead of a commodity or a technology display.
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  • Avatar for #3 3 years ago
    Excellent article and excellently laid out view of which I share.
    I'm not even as generous as you with how many good cops are out there.
    I grew up the minority, one of a handful of white guys around a majority of black people and Mexicans (and, incidentally, the best people I've ever lived around in my life).
    I got on good with everyone, but the racist cops just threw me in as an honorary black kid....actually the title I heard from these "peace officiers" was n****r lover".....and was stopped daily, always searched and harassed. All done without cause. I broke no laws, was not a drug dealer or in a gang.
    I've had a dirty cop throw me to the ground with his gun drawn. No charges and I did nothing to the guy, I was basically guilty of hanging out with people of a color different than mine and he wanted to scare me into stopping doing it.
    I've seen cops plant stuff and shoot unarmed guys and make up a story later, straight out of TV, except this is real life.
    So when a kid in a poor area gets gunned down (and the only reason we hear about any of them in recent years is thanks to technology allowing witnesses to either be able to speak in more areas or, even better, record stuff) I'm not surprised. It's always been going down, just the new generation is waking up to it.
    But I have no respect for cops. I am polite, as you point out, to the degree they can't get me for any trumped up "aggressive behavior" leading to some story that I resist arrest.
    I'm not stupid, I know the only slim chance of change is through peaceful resistance, but inside I have zero trust in them and certainly don't believe the myth they're protecting the people.
    Anyway, point is I understand your viewpoint more than you might expect a white guy could. And you brought up great points about entertainment that I've actually brought up with my wife before.
    Be careful out there, Mr. Williams. America is getting bleaker and bleaker. And I hope your article can get even one person to be more aware of propaganda in some of their videogames that wasn't before your piece.
    But you made me feel a little less alone on knowing what's really going on out there if you're not white and living in the upper class suburbs and beyond.
    (EDIT: Small edit made to make things a bit less inflammatory. - Mike)Edited August 2014 by MHWilliams
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #4 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Great, unexpected article, thank you. I'm deeply uncomfortable with military and police games myself, because they do glamourise and tacitly endorse brutality that's a fact of life for many real people. Thankfully in Ireland the police don't have guns, and we don't have much of an army either.

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on the police too. As an Irish guy in the UK, I've been stopped and searched (sometimes strip-searched) many times at the airport, albeit more so during the worst of the Troubles a few years back. People who aren't targeted don't get that you have to be unfailingly polite and acquiescent, because you have zero power in that situation.
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  • Avatar for afff3443ss #5 afff3443ss 3 years ago
    I'm happy to see an article like this on here. Very well-written.
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  • Avatar for Thad #6 Thad 3 years ago

    Insightful social commentary on a deeply uncomfortable issue? I already thought that USGamer was treading territory no other game site was, but this takes it to another level.

    AND a comments section with nothing but positive feedback? I was expecting that even less.
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  • Avatar for docexe #7 docexe 3 years ago
    Great article Mike. Made me reflect about the situation in my country. Most of the population here is of mixed descent, so we don’t suffer from the same racial divide that the U.S., but we experiment a profound economic divide (the rich are scandalously privileged, the poor are mercilessly exploited and marginalized), coupled with staggering amounts of corruption from authorities, the government and its institutions. The average person doesn’t trust the police force, the overall perspective is that they are incompetent in the best cases and irredeemably corrupt in the worse.

    The recent war on the drug cartels has exacerbated the situation to an extent, but the truth of the matter is that for decades it has been an open secret in Mexico that most criminal organizations are colluded with the police and the government in one way or the other. Not to mention the fact that the government itself has used the police as an instrument of repression multiple times, and that some police corporations are pretty much paramilitary groups that abuse their power with impunity.

    In that sense, I certainly find Battlefield Hardline incredibly tasteless. Although like you say, I wouldn’t call for boycotting it, fiction like this ultimately has a right to exist.

    If anything, I agree with you in that we need to apply some critical thinking on the matter. I’m of the personal opinion that art tends to be a reflection of society and its vices more often than the opposite. But as time has passed, I have realized this is only true to a certain extent. The primary purpose of art, media and fiction is to transmit ideas. Sometimes they do it in very subtle ways, and if we just passively absorb them, we can get a very skewed perspective of reality. In that sense, I have realized that is important to reflect on, question, investigate about, and criticize the themes and message presented in games and other media we consume.

    As geeks and nerds, developing that kind of critical thinking with our pastimes is difficult at times given the emotional connection we tend to form with them. We sometimes just get offense at people pointing out flaws in them, and I’m as guilty of that as everyone else. But of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #8 metalangel 3 years ago
    I noticed throughout the Hardline gameplay trailer that the police are repeatedly exhorting the criminals to put down their weapons and surrender, even as they shower them with bullets.

    The problem for me is that it just doesn't feel real - you could just as easily have dressed the criminals and cops as the soldiers from BF4 and nobody would have noticed. I don't think of the police as going guns blazing with automatic weapons through city streets.

    I had the same issue with NFS: Hot Pursuit. The old NFS games, you (as the police) had to force the criminals to stop either by boxing them in or with a stinger. The 2010 Hot Pursuit you were also encouraged to get them into the most horrific accident possible (we're talking into a guardrail at 150+ kph and watching their crushed car flip end over end into a field) because they're driving too fast.

    Maybe it's because, as a white male living in Canada and the UK, in all but one of my interactions with the police throughout my life, I haven't been in trouble. I do worry when I hear about the police here in Toronto being accused of similar problems - we had two high profile police shootings on public transit - and hope it's not going the same way here. I hope the G20 thing was a one-off.

    You're right on the money about the media portrayal. The need for drama has interfered after the likes of Adam 12 finished, and which Law & Order is fun, I'd prefer watching stuff like COPS.

    When I play LCPDFR (I know I keep going on about it) it gives me satisfaction being a good guy. Every time I pull over a drunk driver, arrest an abusive spouse or return a stolen purse I feel a job well done far more than finding the Lost Book Of Foobar in an RPG.

    *that one 'other' time was after I'd had a car accident which an officer had witnessed. He gave us both breahalyser tests to ensure that alcohol had not been a factor (it hadn't)
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  • Avatar for hal9k #9 hal9k 3 years ago
    @Thad I agree. Excellent piece, Mike. Honestly, I'll admit that a lot of these issues (specifically the portrayal of police in fiction, and how that may seem to justify abuse of power) hadn't occured to me. This article got me to think about things in a different way. In fact, I read this last night and felt that I needed to think about it a while and come back. I was afraid the comments would be a disaster area by now (after the bs Kat had to deal with for making a similar well-reasoned argument), so I'm pleasantly surprised that's not the case.

    I've been lucky to not have to deal with bias myself, but I have seen a bit with my Asian-American girlfriend. Twice in traffic stops when she's driving, the cops opened the conversation with, "Do you speak English?" She was born in Alabama, raised in NC, and speaks unaccented English. The cops in both cases did not. Her dad (a university professor) and brother also got pulled over, the car searched, and asked for proof of citizenship out in the southwest.

    Anyway, regarding the game, I wonder if disassociating it from Battlefield would've made a difference. Titles mean things, and the fact that the game clearly uses a military shooter framework to portray an urban environment as a literal battlefield (right in the title, no avoiding it) seems like the most distasteful part, to me. I'm all for a cops & robbers action game, but this looks like an "us vs. them" war game that wants to be taken seriously without any nuance or shades of gray. I can see the harm in that.Edited August 2014 by hal9k
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  • Avatar for andrewpetracca93 #10 andrewpetracca93 3 years ago
    There's not necessarily anything untoward about not reading an arrestee Miranda rights. Cops only need to do that to make post-arrest statements admissible evidence; not doing it doesn't void the arrest or something.
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  • Avatar for dangalloway15 #11 dangalloway15 3 years ago
    Mike Browns MURDER, eh? I guess we know where YOU stand on this issue.
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  • Avatar for IPA #12 IPA 3 years ago
    That's the best thing you've written Mike (in this reader's opinion). Well done. USGamer continues to amaze.
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  • Avatar for santiagomatamoros #13 santiagomatamoros 3 years ago
    @VotesForCows The appeal of games like the original Call of Duty was in having the opportunity to play the hero in a noble cause; the trend today is to glorify the base and ignoble.

    As for Hardline, I read somewhere that the game's creators tie their fictional supremacist antagonists to our Founding Fathers and the modern TEA Party through the display of a Gadsden flag.

    The implication is absurd.
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  • Avatar for santiagomatamoros #14 santiagomatamoros 3 years ago
    @dangalloway15 A witness unintentionally recorded at the scene supports the claim that the officer fired in self-defense: Brown taunted and then charged at him.

    It's best to wait for actual facts before drawing conclusions. Self-righteous nescience is still nescience. And self-righteous.

    (Which of course does not deny the too-frequent abuse of power by law enforcement. And government, in general.)Edited August 2014 by santiagomatamoros
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #15 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    I don't find anything noble in violence and war. I think it can be necessary, for sure. But its never noble. Never a good thing.
    People are entitled to make games about real wars, real situations. That's fine. But they just make me think about real people dying. Which I don't enjoy.
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