Beyond the Broken Window – Disease and Autonomy in The Division (I)

dailydose_darkstroke Today we have Part I of a post from Arno Görgen. He is a researcher at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. His main research focusses on interconnections between popular culture and biomedical science, esp. on digital games and medicine. His nom de plume on twitter is @pachukipachuki.

The so called Broken Window-Theory, published in 1982 by Kelling and Wilson, describes how a relatively harmless phenomenon, such as a broken window in an abandoned house, can lead to a total neglect of the neighborhood (Wilson and Kelling 1982). One of the contributing factors of this collapse is the physical decay of the environment. This deterioration signals to criminals that deviant behavior in the environment will not be penalized in any way. The following increase in crime results in a withdrawal of the old-established citizens and, in a feedback process, a further rise of violence and destruction. In 1994, the former police chief of New York, William Bratton, presented a strategy of “zero tolerance” as the only effective way of maintaining executive control in the context of such a ‘crime epidemic’ (Bratton 1998).

In the fictional and meticulously recreated New York of the extremely successful computer game The Division1 (Ubisoft Massive 2016), this “window” has been shattered for a long time. Nevertheless, the player’s task in this third-person-shooter remains the same: to restore order in the city with the help of a zero-tolerance strategy. In The Division, New York has been under the threat of a bio-terrorist attack with a new, artificially fabricated pathogen, the ‘Green Pox’ (also: the ‘Green Poison’ or the ‘Dollar Flu’). This fictive variation of the smallpox has been distributed massively by using dollar bills at the so-called Black Friday.  For many residents, the new disease led to death, evacuation or isolation in the now sealed-off city. The remaining residents are afraid to leave their homes, partly out of fear of smallpox, partly out of fear of marauders, criminals and paramilitary vigilantes (“Cleaners”), who answer all cases of suspected smallpox infections with weapons and fire power. Hence, suspected infection of a citizen is sufficient for the Cleaners to kill and burn them on place.

The player/character (PC) who, as a member of the eponymous Division and of a joint task force consisting of military and police forces and a medical disaster control agency called CERA (Catastrophic Emergency Response Agency), represents the last hope in the fight of civilization against this ragbag of sociocultural downfall. He is part of a second wave of operations, after a first wave could not prevail against disease and anarchy. Accordingly, evidence of this failed first intervention can be found everywhere, especially in the form of abandoned and destroyed medical centers, isolated contaminated neighborhoods, derelict ambulances and other police-, fire department-, or military vehicles.

Phenomenologically, the epidemic draws a lot from the aesthetic and epistemological knowledge of epidemiology. Accordingly, one finds isolation wards and provisional hospitals with their respective equipment, pathogen-resistant clothes, numerous references to public health campaigns and medical guidelines in the form of posters, phone records or media reports, contaminated areas, which can be entered only with appropriate precautions, etc. The virus itself, its origin, and its consequences are documented in a number of artifacts which the player must interact with. In implementing such a ludonarrative archaeology, The Division uses a common device to enhance the immersion of the player into the game: by consuming these artifacts, he can retrace the history of the decay of the city and, in consequence, connects with the gameworld and its distinct culture (Görgen/Inderst 2015).

Hence, The Division employs a deeply medicalized scenario and even advertises the realism and authenticity of this setting. In this context, “medicalization” is not regarded as the medical reinterpretation of social problems, as originally indicated by Foucault or Conrad (Conrad, 2007; Foucault 1984). Rather, in the context of this game, I think of medicalization as a basic superposition of narratives with biomedical semantics, aesthetics, and epistemology. The medicalized framework mainly serves the purpose of creating an immersive, ‘authentic’, gaming experience by diegetic naturalization (Spiegel 2008).

Games can be regarded as formalized and abstract conflicts, based on which a player can experience conflict situations without the risk of self-harm (Crawford 1984). A medicalized setting as offered in The Division can recreate conflicts on many levels, be it bioethical problems (in other games usually conflicts of justice or autonomy) or be it through implementing ‘medicalized’ tasks (e.g. “Obtain the virus data and upload it into the main server!”).

Public Health-Guidelines. (Screenshot by Arno Görgen)
Public Health-Guidelines. (Screenshot by Arno Görgen)

The entire aesthetics and archaeology of the game aims on supporting the procedural rhetoric, which means, the narrative argumentation which emerges through the player’s interaction with the game (Bogost). Procedural rhetoric also enables players to immerse themselves in a post-apocalyptic world, which, as a hyperrealistic simulacrum of New York, feels at the same time estranged and familiar. This version of the Big Apple is left to decay, mountains of garbage are piled everywhere; the player can find provisional mass graves, starving people, and stray dogs.  In this game world, so the game tells us, violence and corruption can only be fought with counter-violence. It is not sufficient to mend the broken window (as intended in the first, failed wave of intervention), but all symptoms of decline must literally be contained and extinguished with the help of the zero-tolerance strategy. Gameplay and game world are thus quite harmoniously aligned.

Part II is now available here!

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