The Division 2 was a video game released on February 7th, 2019 for the Xbox, PC, and Playstation, and it predicted a severe version of a pandemic that rings true enough to warrant scrutiny.
The rendition of the virus’s onset in the games is eerie: a biological weapon unleashed called the Green Poison is laced on dollar bills on Black Friday. As a type of smallpox, the “dollar flu” spreads rapidly, and eventually a lockdown is called in on New York City. Field clinics are set up throughout the city, but the streets become a ghost town. Due to a mutated strain of the virus, the much anticipated vaccine developed is a failure, and the relaxed conditions of the social distancing measures and curfews lead to greater infection rates. The strain breaches past New York and begins to infect other major cities. In typical video game fashion, social cohesion breaks down and infrastructure falls apart, including waste management, electricity and fresh water. Looters and radical movements awaken in the destabilization. You play as a Division agent, a highly-trained sleeper agent sent into the roughest places (like New York and Washington D.C.) in order to restore peace and order.
Looking at this brief synopsis, it’s impossible in our context not to think of the virus in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. It is a moment when the intended criticisms of an art piece are subjected to the throes of history. In The Division 2, the series actually intended to carry on a critique of capitalism and consumerist behaviors that manifest. Above, one sees underneath this historic statue “RIP the system.” All throughout the games there are nods to the failures of consumerism.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic art has in its make-up irony at its core. Each aspect of set design, imagery, as well as the characters within it, have the acknowledgement that whatever has happened before proved to have little significance to those of the future, though they felt that job acceptance or college experience or birth of a child as meaningful in the present. Many of the advertisements along the sides of the street in The Division in New York ring incredibly hollow. The same holds for The Division 2, and despite the fact that the second game has the chance to take a more historical or political stance (since it takes place in Washington D.C.), so far the game sticks to its intensely anti-economic logic. Those without any hope for a future in the consumerist world become the most aggressive and selfish. So far in my little time playing I have only faced one group of enemy types: The Hyenas. Their young adult age cohort suggests a generational struggle, fighting against people who uphold the social contract of a United States on the brink. Most of the rhetoric surrounding the Hyenas is centered around economic opportunity, as they loot objects that are no longer valuable (though they are to them), and they seem hell-bent on taking what others have, regardless of how far the benefits last. The name is apt: hyenas are scavengers in ecosystems, and the young people here roam the streets of D.C., looking for easy targets and scrounge as they move.
Ecosystems might be an excellent transition. In our post-coronavirus world, hardly any discussion is given over to what new ways of thought come out of this crisis. We seem to be plunged in present tactics of survival and maintaining a sense of normalcy. How do we get back to schools? How do we reopen bars, restaurants, and businesses? No matter how draconian our economic system was on our poor and minority populations, the rhetoric continues to be that we have “no other choice.”
In The Division 2, almost a year has passed since total economic collapse, and as a result, the humid summers in the swamps of Virginia and Maryland have fostered a rebirth. Deer and wolves routinely wander the streets alongside humans, and overgrowth cracks the concrete. Newly formed “capture points” for the player to assist or disrupt (depending on loyalties) introduce supply chains and logistical patterns. Networking overlays the new geography. Fights start on the ground level and typically go up, as the player resolves conflicts and cleanses whole city blocks of a human virus of poor behavior rather than an epidemiological one. While the history of containing the virus still lingers in much of the visual field in the game, much like this old banner from the department of homeland security, the history is short lived for new networks of organization. Where The Division 1 is an autopsy of economic and systemic failures, The Division 2 is a reincarnation.
Here in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library, fights between the player and The Hyenas break out alongside empty shelves from the “Parenting” section. A lack of public services is also a lack of fostering growth among young people, and the paper from books explodes as fights break out. Collateral damage from the experience cannot be overstated. As the player fights in each iconic location, the opportunity cost is at the forefront: even with a victory, the cataclysm of the virus is evident in every bullet hole, in every accidental explosion from ammonium nitrate labs designed by poorly educated Hyenas. Here, multiple floors attempt to block off access to parts of the library using stacked shelves. Clothes hang from wires over the railings of the multi-level atrium. All sense of preserving history and knowledge is lost on a harsher level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“Safe Houses” like in The Division are old bars, restaurants, and social gatherings that have been redefined into places of much needed purpose. In the realm of anti-capitalist thinkers like Mark Fisher, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine an end to capitalism. The Division 2, like its predecessor, presents an alternative to private spaces gone public only after such a fierce wave of destruction occurs as to have them look wholly unrecognizable. In this safe house, the historical design of the building is overlayed with spot lighting, presentation whiteboards and corkboards, as well as amateur “ham” radio equipment, to the point where the architecture of the old world is masked entirely.
Still, there are opportunities for beauty. In this photograph, an early morning fog presents a dormant city waking up. The newer commercial buildings rest alongside the historical church. The game consistently impresses the player with dynamic weather effects that not only change the gameplay, but allows the player to see the small mercies that citizens of the war torn city are also able to see, which is the sensation of being alive.
But underneath each beautiful landscape lies the absurd. Here a santa claus toy has replaced the head of this mannequin, and on the wall behind lies advertisements that have no effect and empty shelves. The laugh I gave at seeing this santa claus as the head gave way to a stomach lurch. Our brains see products, rather than people. We chose a system that can send us iPads easily and cheaply, using cheap labor and open trading markets. But in so doing we also sacrificed the opportunity for more equal healthcare and education. We made buying a house close to impossible in major cities for those strapped with student loan debt.
So far, The Division 2 has an explicit story which is terrible, full of major characters who look silly and act silly, and is really a vehicle for gameplay.
Underneath is an environmental story that is always harrowing and fantastic if one has the eyes and the patience to discover it for themselves.
And the story it tells is of a country that was unable to band together under any humanist name. The game, at its core, is about Americans hurting Americans, whether it happens to be poor behavior on behalf of the virus, or the counterargument of killing hundreds of civilians as a Division agent. Each death administered by the cold logic of the player is a policy or behavioral failure.
If there is anything to gleam from this moment, it is that present technology and systems have a very hard time preparing for a future based on invisible warning signs. If a simple coronavirus pandemic wreaked such havoc on our economic and political framework, then the prospect of stopping climate change before it is too late has me skeptical about our resolve.
The story of The Division is also a return to the local politics. Each cutting of a corner in our systems has extended our modern system to alienate us from our surroundings. When we made the automobile, it allowed cities to expand into a suburban sprawl, without considering how public spaces could interact. We cut out the branch underneath ourselves by presuming that oil and gas would inevitably keep coming.
Possibly such a development is occurring right now with the internet, where digital information has undercut the need or desire for analog back ups. Blade Runner 2049 introduced just such a conflict by having a worldwide blackout, and humanity had to pick up the pieces by hand. It is not difficult to believe when already there are reports that schools are enrolling far more students for each teacher than they should. With distance learning measures eliminating the physical constraints of the classroom, teacher caseload has skyrocketed with over 40 students in one class. The internet is being leveraged to provide more efficient education, but the result is far less robust learning.
Globalization has siphoned, much like oil and gas wells do, the value from underneath local spaces, to such an extent that when disaster strikes, any weak link in a chain of human geography is prone to collapse.
The Division games feature a return to setting up shop, to finding resources, and to providing help to those we can see. Our immediate surroundings are important again, not just for streets and buildings, but for people and their desires.
It has been fascinating to look at the games as an alternative history to our own that is no less appealing as a mirrored reflection on some of the forces at play in our time. From coronavirus to capitalism, global events have made hyenas of us all.