Why The Division is Confused

What the hell is The Division? I mean, I know it’s an RPG from the relentlessly creative powerhouse that is Ubisoft. I played the beta and absolutely loved the gameplay and the time-sink nature. But what, specifically, is The Division?

Good question. I’m glad I asked.

You are The Division, described by Ubisoft as ‘a unit of sleeper agents activated to save what remains.’ So you play as a government stooge working for the JTF – the Joint Task Force of emergency services and what’s left of the army. Men-and-women-of-action types, without much sense for the bureaucracy that usually defines these sorts of things. I don’t think I saw a middle-aged weakling snivelling in a suit once.

But something about The Division doesn’t make sense. And I’m not talking about the rioters in bullet-proof hoodies. I’m not talking about why your employers charge you for buying equipment for the job instead of supplying it for free (pure video game dissonance). I’m not talking about the fact that the Black Friday pandemic that’s brought the US to its knees probably wouldn’t happen in real life because we’re all about chip-and-pin and contactless payments these days. There are kids today who have never seen a £50 note.

The central premise of The Division is this: When the government falls, you take to the streets to keep the peace and ensure the continuation of the government. Does the government deserve to fall? Was it corrupt? Did it provoke the terrorist plot? Who knows, who cares, there’s some blue loot over there. Go fetch.

And – based on the beta – the mainline co-op missions with the AI bastards work to make this make sense. Or at least make you not think about it. These guys are bad, so you must be good.

Just one problem.

In the world of The Division, there doesn’t seem to be any need for government. At least, not for the players. The Dark Zone, the game’s PvP arena, is supposed to be a wild west where anything can happen. This is where our fellow gamers quit being helpful and start unleashing hell. It’s a primal thing – without some form of order we’d all go off our heads and start eating each other. Apparently.

Every time I ventured in to the DZ – as the cool kids call it (and I do too) – I noticed one spectacular thing: most people were pretty cool.

You team up with a squad – the matchmaking is seriously fluid – and you head out together, blitzing around landmarks, where bosses can be found, and looting the hell out of their savage corpses.

When we did trip over another group… Almost nothing ever happened. We ignored each other. We helped take down baddies. We made goofy actions at each other.

Those rogue bastards need to die though. Your heart sinks when you see the skull signs above their heads. No two ways about it, whether they’re camping out on a roof or rioting down the street, when a team’s on a rogue rampage, you will die. They’re buzzing off natural chemicals you didn’t even know your brain had.

Then… you begin to notice that everyone on your HUD is bee-lining towards the skulls. It may be vigilante justice – which has always been so flawless in its judgements and reprisals – but it’s still justice. You can see the foundations of a system beginning to evolve.

Because these patently guilty guys are disrupting a near-civil world, where mostly we’re just darting about getting things we need to sustain ourselves in the environment. A bit like we do in real life.

rogue

One time, we ran headlong into a few bullets. We levelled our guns on the player. This is it. The snow-steeped showdown in the street. And then he apologised on the mic, voice strained and nervous. We dropped our guns. No bloodshed (just a flesh wound). No bodies. No smoking guns.

It wasn’t the threat of law enforcement that stopped us shooting up some loot-hungry gamer. The players didn’t need one of the primary institutions of the government to live in peace; just good old-fashioned calm and patient. All right, so it’s not exactly like real life, but it’s a pretty good example of how we just get on. Nine chances out of ten, we don’t want to get shot or have our hard-earned loot stolen. I don’t think that’s just me.

Ok, I guess you could argue this: we let that player live because he might’ve won, and taken our loot. The threat of punishment, in this case material loss, was enough to keep us all in check, in the same way that the police are used more as a psychological deterrent than as crime-busters. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. But that didn’t require governmental infrastructure – that’s just how we roll, dawg human nature.

So why does the world of The Division need the government to continue? And why are we playing as government stooges, working for the man? It’s about keeping the same powerful men in the same powerful roles regardless of whether or not they deserve to be there. Or maybe it’s about the JTF just keeping busy, business as usual, while their world crumbles as it surely will. What it’s not about is starting over, reforming civilisation just a little bit better than the last time; a quantum of hope glimmering within New York’s underbelly. But given how things go out there in the Dark Zone, maybe it should be.

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