It is a question many of us want to put to EA. Why green light, develop, and release a game glorifying irresponsible violence by police given the current environment? Assuming this game would ever go over well with people willing to consider its politics, that time is not now. A game where you are shooting without ever asking questions, beating suspects and innocents alike, with a complete disregard for the casualties and damage done in pursuit of potential “justice” isn’t going to play well in this political climate. To top it all off, it’s in pursuit of drug users, whom America is questioning the merits of prosecuting in the first place. We’ve already got a prison system clogged with inmates who will be there for decades simply for possession. If they really wanted to make this game, they should have put it on hold, but probably they should have scrapped it entirely.
The question is just as applicable to us, however. Why are we up in arms this time? Battlefield Hardline is incredibly insensitive, glorifying police violence at a really, really bad time to do so. However, it’s hardly like video games have never glorified cops before. True Crime: Streets of LA presents main character Nick Kang as an affable detective martial arts master/loose cannon. You run and gun wildly, race recklessly through the streets, and more. You’re encouraged to randomly manhandle and pat down pedestrians without cause or consequence, even as they “hilariously” object that this is a disgusting violation of their rights. It’s especially eerie given that New York City has since implemented a very similar law in the form of “stop and frisk.” The Getaway: Black Friday is perhaps not as cavalier, but still tasks you with gunning down criminals en masse while telling you how “realistic” the game is. There’s a (proud?) tradition of the gung ho cop in video games- what makes Hardline okay to single out?
It wasn’t too long ago that The Order 1886 came out. After a lot of hype, the popular consensus was that the graphics and art were stunning, the combat was fine, and the story was quite poor. Near the beginning of the last generation, Killzone 2 came out in incredibly similar circumstances: hyped out the ass, very pretty, okay combat, bad story. Killzone 2 sits at a 91 Metacritic. The Order sits at 65. Would The Order have been so berated had it come out a decade ago? I doubt it, and the reason is the same as the reason True Crime got a pass but Hardline doesn’t deserve one- progress.
In gameplay, in story, in graphics and in scope, games are constantly progressing as a medium. And yes, we’re very gradually learning some emotional maturity too. The last five years have seen games tackle tumultuous relationships with alcoholics, war refugees, a game about dimensions and perspectives and I don’t even KNOW, and much much more. We are less and less accepting of developers who have clearly given no thought to the implications of their games, and that’s a good thing. Every medium has constantly raising standards, video games included.
Video games are such a young medium progressing so rapidly that the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking we’re being harder on video games than we are on other art forms, but it simply isn’t the case. Other industries had to grow up as well- they are simply far older, and their emotional progress is (for the most part) out of sight and thus out of mind. Much of our modern film language is owed to the 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation- the first 12-reel film ever made, and the first film to be screened in the White House. It’s based on a book of a different name: “The Clansman.” Yeah, that clan. Both works are disgustingly racist propaganda for the KKK, and for all the film’s finesse and lasting impact on the medium, it’s a hateful piece of work. Films have progressed a lot since then, and it’s incredible to think that movie ever got a theatrical release. It wouldn’t see the light of day as anything but a loathsome torrent today. Progress marches on.
Battlefield Hardline is nowhere near the malevolence and tastelessness of The Birth of a Nation. Even setting aside the social progress of our society, they’re simply not on the same level. But the basic point stands- as our culture progresses, and as our medium progresses, what we accept as okay changes. Would True Crime be as offensive as Hardline were it released today? I doubt it, as True Crime’s execution is generally less tactless, but certainly there would be people who would be upset. There is a time where Battlefield Hardline wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows. That day is not today.
The world waits for no man, and certainly for no video game. Despite some flares of conservatism in the industry lately, games are getting more advanced in every way, all the time. It’s a slow process, but it’s obvious in retrospect- this industry once shipped a game about raping a restrained Native American woman [custer’s revenge]. We’ve been through State of Emergency, Hot Coffee, Manhunt, and more. Hardline isn’t a game made out of hate, or an intent to do harm. It’s an astonishingly clueless game that offends through ignorance and thoughtlessness. We don’t need to hold a metaphorical book burning, but we do need to stand strong and let developers know that we expect better of them. It’s as much for their own sake as it is ours.