Watch Dogs 2 is indisputably one of the most anticipated games of 2016. Whether you are looking forward to it or not, it’s a game that can make or break a potentially successful franchise, which would be particularly important for Ubisoft in the midst of their takeover woes. Hot off the generally disappointing first entry in the franchise, Ubisoft is looking to rectify much of what went wrong with the first game, and win over a loyal player base in the process. But as I was looking through some articles and impressions about the open world crime game, something occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of: Watch Dogs 2 is a game about domestic terrorism. It’s rare that a game tries to make a political statement, and even more rare that such a game would be from a AAA publisher. But something I have never seen, is a game with a political statement like Watch Dogs 2.
By this time, you’re probably wondering, “What the hell does an open-world crime game have to do with domestic terrorism”? I’ll get there in a minute, but first lets take about what the definition of domestic terrorism is, according to the FBI.
From the FBI’s own website, an abridged version of Chapter 113B of the U.S. Code, entitled “Terrorism”:
“Domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:
– Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
– Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
– Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
Another, slightly different definition can be found on that same page. It essentially says the same thing, but adds a bit about assaulting federal buildings and the murder of law enforcement.
18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that:
– Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and
– Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.).
Turns out, defining domestic terrorism is pretty simple. If you kill government employees, attack government property, or try to intimidate civilians for a political goal, you are a domestic terrorist. But for the basic definition of what terrorism is, we need only go to good old Merriam Webster:
Terrorism: n, the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.
With the definition of what domestic terror is out of the way, what does it have to do with Watch Dogs 2? In the game, players control Marcus Holloway, an African American youth who joins the hacktivist group DedSec in order to dismantle San Fransisco’s ctOS system, which keeps tabs on everyone at all times. After Marcus is mistaken for a criminal based on ctOS’s profiling, he decides to take matters into his own hands and do what he can to bring down the Blume corporation, the company responsible for ctOS, by way of hacking as well as armed combat.
Up front, Watch Dogs 2‘s approach to crime isn’t any different from other genre entries like Grand Theft Auto, Sleeping Dogs, or Mafia. Players still traverse an open world, causing all kinds of mayhem for their enemies and any civilians unlucky enough to get in their way. The wanton violence in these games is old hat by now, something we’ve gotten used to in the last decade. But the devil is in the details, as it were. In most modern open world crime games, you are still technically a terrorist, usually with the goal of rising up the ranks of a criminal organization, or getting some brand of revenge. In most of these games, you even take part in an organized group, often fighting against and killing government employees and law enforcement. The difference in Watch Dogs 2 is that you are fighting for a political cause.
Marcus and Co. are fighting for what they believe is freedom, and will take up whatever arms they feel necessary to do it. As with most open world crime games, police, civilians, and other criminals will get caught in the crossfire as they reach this goal. The game isn’t out, so there is a large amount of speculation as to how Watch Dogs 2 will approach this kind of collateral damage, but if promotional materials are anything to go by, the game will quietly gloss over the mayhem in favor of a fun adventure. Like the previous game, legions of bad guys will probably be shot to death, and millions of public property damage accrued. That’s not even mentioning the invasion of privacy that comes with hacking abilities. But that’s not to say DedSec’s cause is not just. In terms of the story, they are a resistance dedicated to seeing a free populace, unshackled by a system designed to oppress the weak. It might be slightly heavy handed, but it’s an incredibly effective premise, especially in 2016. The idea of a black American who is wrongfully profiled taking it upon himself to make a legitimate change to the system is a provocative and interesting angle.
Like in most crime games (and domestic terror groups for that matter), the characters in Watch Dogs 2 answer to no one. Law enforcement are a mere barrier to their goals, a barrier which can be easily dismantled with physical force. In a way, it’s ironic that DedSec fights outside of the system, to dismantle the system, to…restore the system? I haven’t exactly read their manifesto, so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details of their master plan. Having players be modern day revolutionaries might sound fantastic on paper, but like with most video games, nobody seems to be thinking about the realism of the body count. It wouldn’t bother me so much I guess if it wasn’t for the political angle. Something about the story, a black youth fighting the system in 2016, is rooted in a way that Grand Theft Auto’s heavy handed satire or Watch Dogs original brooding protagonist just can’t be. It’s exactly the kind of modern hero we need, it’s just the methods that I might find questionable.
Is this kind of glorification of domestic terror harmful? No, I don’t believe so. Not any more harmful than GTA’s glorification of murderous rampages at least. Criminal shenanigans have been a standard in entertainment for hundreds of years, and Watch Dogs 2 isn’t going to change that, no matter how shocking the violence. In the end, it’s an artistic interpretation, created for entertainment. At most, there is a political message that could be read into, but I don’t think this video game is going to inspire a group of marauding, hacking teenagers to murder their way across San Fransisco.
I can’t help but wonder what people would think of DedSec if they were a real organization. While they are quite obviously based on the real-life hacking collective Anonymous, to my knowledge Anonymous has never engaged in real life gunfights with police or tried to launch an armed assault on a tech giant like Apple. A group running rampant through major cities, causing mass hysteria and mayhem, answering to no one is a sure fire recipe for disaster. But in a supposed world where the government keeps tabs on all of its citizens by way of a private corporation, a resistance group fighting fire with fire would almost certainly find some supporters. Like any political group, it would just depend on your own personal politics. I mean, even the KKK has people handing out flyers.
I truly don’t mind if a game has a political stance; in fact, I would prefer it sometimes. I was incredibly disappointed in this year’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for the narrative letdown it turned out to be, despite its promise as a potentially powerful allegory for modern racism. I prefer that my stories have a message to them, a theme that leaves the consumer with something to think about after the credits roll. For video games, this kind of storytelling ambition has led to some of the best titles of all time, like The Last of Us, or Red Dead Redemption. But for this kind of narrative impact to work, the game needs to know what it’s about. Red Dead is about the death of a way of life. The Last of Us is about a hopeless struggle for survival. Watch Dogs 2 is about armed citizens fighting to wrest control from an oppressive system. But from what I’ve seen, it is more interested in following other series’ coattails, instead of fully living up to its own themes. In the end, I’m afraid such a bold story could fall by the wayside, another narrative misstep in an industry still trying to find it’s storytelling footing
Most gamers don’t probably spend a lot of time thinking about the political or social ramifications of open world crime games. But when players are confronted with a game about dismantling a forceful, oppressive system by means of hacking and force, there is something more to be pondered. In an era with movements like Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party, it seems like everyone wants to be a part of some cause, trying to take change into their own hands for their own political agenda. DedSec is not really that different in concept, they just might not care who gets in the way when the guns come out. As I eagerly wait to hear how the game is, I’m just going to hope that Watch Dogs 2 knows what it’s doing. There’s no way around the game glorifying domestic terror; that is given. I just hope that at some point along Marcus Holloway’s journey we get to see the consequences of the actions a group like DedSec might have on the believable world Ubisoft are trying so hard to build.