Date: January 23, 2023
Not long ago, I was playing through The Callisto Protocol, just after release. I had a similar experience to most; from its clunky combat to its generic story to its myriad technical issues, it was a disappointment. For me, though, that disappointment went a layer further, into the thematic. You see, The Callisto Protocol has at least one problem that it isn’t alone in.
The game is set almost entirely within a prison. Every character is either a prisoner or a guard. It advertised itself as having lofty goals for its narrative weight and thought. All this led me to (naively) expect that the game might finally be the one to take a serious look at crime in games, to tear apart the standard gaming stereotypes about criminals, and to at least lightly examine the topic with a critical lens. Jacob Lee, after all, is a wrongly imprisoned man, who has to work alongside other prisoners — all of which are actual criminals — in order to escape the hellish Black Iron prison. Surely, that game can’t fall into the same pitfalls that most do of showing criminals to be nothing more than mindless, violent brutes without remorse, right?
The second real level has you come across a room full of guard corpses that have been hung to the ceiling, with an audio log featuring a group of prisoners tormenting and murdering a pleading guard exclusively for their own pleasure and enjoyment. “Ah, well,” I thought at the time. “Par for the course.” But, perhaps, it shouldn’t be.
The Criminal Problem
I want to be clear: crime is fun. At least, committing crimes in games is fun. From robbing a bank in Payday 2, to making your way to the top of the gangs in Yakuza or Mafia, to committing grand theft auto in… Well, Grand Theft Auto, it is enjoyable to be a criminal in games. So long as you are the player character.
But, this is not an indictment of the criminal activities of video game protagonists. I’m content to leave it at “video games make committing crimes fun,” because… Yeah, they do. There is nothing quite like a 5-star wanted level or some wanton destruction. And, in fact, that is the kind of escapist entertainment that video games are largely made for. I don’t need to tell anyone reading this that there is virtually no link whatsoever between committing violence or crime in games and doing so in real life. That isn’t a conversation I’m interested in having. Violent video games do not lead to a rise in violent crimes, obviously. That’s not what this article is about.
This article, rather, is about how there is a real problem about how crime, and specifically criminals, are depicted in games, and one that does some real damage. The fact that games depict criminals as parts of huge, organized mobs of sociopathic goons is a problem, and it feeds into the trend of anti-crime rhetoric being utilized to fearmonger and further oppress already-downtrodden people (as well as the general population). I need to be exact: I don’t think this will ever change. For as long as we have had stories, we’ve told them about heroic vigilantes and peacekeepers who have combated nefarious criminal scourges. And that’s fine. Most narratives are escapist, and escapism inherently comes with these kinds of exaggerated depictions; they help make the game more engaging.
But, while this depiction of crime is one of many things that we have to accept as a part of gaming’s escapist nature, a problem arises when we realize that there is no counternarrative to this in the medium. And that lack is worth discussing and criticizing. Even as storytelling in games has progressed over the last few years, even as other mediums do have more grounded portrayals of the issue to balance out the escapist ones, and even as other serious concepts like war and mental health have been taken more seriously by games, there has been a near-total gap when it comes to examining gaming’s depiction of crime. And so, while individual games are not at fault for making fun systems out of crime, gaming as a whole has a lot further that it needs to go.
The Faceless Criminal Versus the Actual Criminal
The most obvious sign of gaming’s troubled approach to criminality is in what purpose NPC criminals serve in games. Almost universally, they are roving gangs of enemy factions that the player character must kill or otherwise defeat. They are roundly unreasonable and violence-hungry to the point of near-universal psychopathy, and games go to great lengths to make sure you know just how evil they are via overheard dialogue or gruesome set-dressing.
This is especially prevalent in superhero games, such as Spider-Man (2018), Gotham Knights, or the Batman: Arkham series. In each of these, you play as a vigilante who – as a matter of course at this point – must patrol the city to put a stop to random street crimes committed by large bands of organized (but still zany and brutish) criminals.
A similar loop occurs in games where you play as a criminal, such as the Mafia and Yakuza franchises, though the difference in those games is that you are dispatching the criminal gangs in order to muscle in on their resources or territory. Usually, this is justified because your gang or group of ne’erdowells are just so much more upstanding and righteous than those wicked thugs on the opposing side. You are doing crimes for good reasons, obviously.
Even in games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, where players regularly use weapons and resources obtained from criminal activities to harass and massacre entire towns, you’ll get half a dozen missions where you’re “helping” people (usually by dispatching rival gangs), just to prove you’re the good guys. Rival gangs must never encounter random strangers in need of aid, unlike you. Gangs a player is in aren’t so much criminals, then, as they are Robin-Hood-esque outlaws, taking from the rich and the evil in order to give to the poor innocents in the community. Keep in mind that, in these examples, “the rich and the evil” are usually the gangs you are facing off against.
It doesn’t require much “peeling of the paint” to see the issue here: this is not how crime works, and not even how criminal gangs work. Most street crime that is committed is done by lone individuals with little preparation, not grand heists done by a brigade of well-armed lifers. Even gangland crimes are rarely done with more than three or four members at any given activity. And yet, Spider-Man, Batman, and Kazuma Kiryu stumble across gunfire and sirens every time they walk out a door.
And consider what kinds of criminals you beat up or kill in these gangs. Hard-edged lifelong criminals, dangerously insane psychopaths, and the kinds of people to casually talk about murder when they think no one is listening. Sure, these kinds of criminals exist in the real world, but they aren’t the norm, even among street assailants.
Most people commit crimes for logical, though not typically justifiable, reasons. They steal a purse or push drugs in order to make end’s meet, they commit assault or other violent crimes due to peer pressure or untreated mental health issues, and even the most heinous crimes are rarely committed by amoral sociopaths, but rather by people who can usually rationalize it to themselves (even if wrongly). And that’s not even getting into how the most common criminals — those imprisoned for possession, tax fraud, and other non-violent offenses — are almost never depicted in games. Instead, prisoner and criminal is a murderer, and an abnormally aggressive one at that. In games, every robbery (and it’s usually robbery) is committed by men who seem to be doing it for the fun of it more than anything, who never have any ties to family or friends, and who mercilessly taunt the game’s hero about just how much they just can’t wait to murder them.
In short, games are both incredibly unempathetic and incredibly unrealistic in their depiction of criminals. For every time an ex-con helps out the player character or a criminal willingly works alongside them, there are dozens and dozens of nameless, faceless goons spouting one-liners about just how evil they are. This is in stark contrast to real criminals, humans with complex lives who have realistic, serious reasons for committing the crimes they do. Most of whom are non-violent, and wouldn’t even know where to start as a criminal in gangs like those depicted in games. Most real criminals might not be justified in their actions, but they aren’t typically thrilled at the concept of murder and chaos, unlike NPC criminals.
Why Don’t Games Get it Right?
The reason for games not depicting more realistic criminals is obvious: you don’t want your players to feel bad for beating up the principal enemies in the game. Especially when the core gameplay loop sees you beating up or killing criminals during the majority of your in-game time. It would really spoil the fun if every time you broke a criminal’s face on the pavement they screamed, “Oh no, now my family and I will be wracked with lifelong medical debt — not to mention ongoing physical therapy — all because I needed to sell drugs in order to help my family escape the poverty imposed on me due to systems of oppression and societal factors! Spider-man, why?!”
I’ll grant, it would be a lot less enjoyable to be essentially chastised by a game for playing it like that. Or, worse, it might just be really, really funny. Either way, that is not ideal.
And, besides, both superhero and crime fiction – the two genres with the most frequent inaccurate depictions of criminals – are built on these stereotyped, exaggerated portrayals; it’s what makes them fun. This problem isn’t exclusive to games, either. Tossing in a bunch of mooks for the main character to deal with is a great way to create action in any medium, and criminals are an obvious, simple go-to when it comes to “mooks”. What’s the alternative? Generic, grey alien armies? Please, no more of those, either.
So, having nameless, roving gangs of antisocial supercriminals makes games more fun and action-packed, providing an easy enemy to populate a game world with. The use of criminals, even, is more faithful to the genres the games are based on, thanks to a long cinematic and literary history of using criminals as obstacles. Games do all this while being in an escapist medium known for bombastic portrayals, with most games having a heavy emphasis on fun and entertainment over realism and nuance, much less social commentary.
Is it any wonder, then, that games continue to depict criminals as aggressive groups of roaming obstacles that you get to use as punching bags in order to make use of some fun fighting? And, more pertinently, why would it be bad that games are doing the thing that games were designed to do? After all, I can already imagine what people would say to this: “Games aren’t meant to be realistic, they are meant to be fun!” So, why am I being the “fun police” by saying games are problematic for doing something that makes them enjoyable?
I’m not. I’m saying it is problematic that they are only doing that.
So, Then, What’s the Problem?
If I don’t think it is an actual problem that games are including these incorrect portrayals of criminals, then why am I writing this essay? Clearly, whatever issue there is something I’m willing to look past for the sake of fun games – after all, I play Saints Row and Spider-Man without having a fit every time criminal groans “Oh, how am I going to murder any more old ladies now?” as I take him out. I even enjoy those games where you gun down rival gangs or leave Arkham escapees in a slump on the floor. They are, after all, fun. I wouldn’t want those experiences to be dragged down by realistic portrayals of small, tragic urban crime that sees me maiming a 16-year-old in poverty when all I want to do is beat up some baddies. Even though it is a problem, it’s one where some solutions might just make things worse.
The problem, in my opinion, is that there are essentially no alternatives. There are no games that really present for a counternarrative, nothing with any real substance that does look at crimes in a more realistic, sympathetic, or nuanced way. Games have rapidly matured as a medium, and their potential as storytelling art is really coming to fruition, and yet, there has been no artistry surrounding criminality.
Moreso than ever, games are not only mindless pieces of entertainment. They can be that, of course, but more and more games, made by more and more people, seek to elevate their experiences into something more serious. While not all games are going to be like Disco Elysium, more and more will be with time. Yet, when it comes to crime, games have not yet made that leap.
Let me explain by comparing crime in games to the Wild West in films. Stick with me.
The Western genre has been a cinematic fixture since the dawn of cinema. But, when it started, it was all just mindless, inaccurate entertainment, almost completely dissociated from the “real” Wild West (if it ever existed). I love John Wayne and Clint Eastwood classics as much as the next person, but they were filled with problematic elements like racism, mythologization, and historical revisionism. And right now, that’s where games are with crime: problematic, but fun. Mindless entertainment that has yet to look inward, at least in regards to this specific issue.
It wasn’t until the 80s and beyond that filmmakers really started making more nuanced “Revisionist Westerns” like Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men, and Dances With Wolves. While these films were not free from issues, they sought to tear down and reexamine the problematic elements of those early Hollywood films. It is important to note, though, that these “Revisionist Westerns” did not replace the classic adventure-oriented Westerns, which still saw releases like Deadwood and The Hateful Eight.
This is what video games have yet to do: there has been no “Revisionism” when it comes to crime in games. The problematic elements are there, then, completely uncriticized, with no real alternative narratives to “set the record straight.”
Gaming Can, and Has, Done Better
Games, as a medium, have had these revisionist titles in other genres and for other themes already. Most notably, war, perhaps the one concept more misused in gaming than crime, has undergone some intense scrutiny in recent years by developers. Just look at Spec Ops: The Line, which reimagined the military shooter genre – at the time overwhelmed with Call of Duty’s and Battlefield‘s that are pure action-move escapism – to tell a gritty, harrowing story that is actively critical of the genre it is in and grapples with real, sobering realities of war, conflict, and violence.
For another example, take This War of Mine, which does away with the soldier-centric perspectives of most war games and replaces them with the perspectives of citizens, trying desperately to survive in the bombed-out cityscape of their former home. Taking the approach that “to show war is to ennoble it,” the game opts to show the consequences alone, and what war drives regular, untrained, unready people to do.
Clearly, then, games can be subversive, and bitingly critical. They can be serious about a topic, and explore it in a meaningful way — even in ways that directly criticize other games in their depictions. And, importantly, these “revisionist” games can and do coexist with the more traditional, escapist fantasies. After all, it isn’t like Call of Duty: Blacks Ops II tanked in sales just because Spec Ops: The Line was released earlier that year and essentially lambasted the “Call of Duty formula.”
So, then, where are the games that do this, but for crime instead of war? Games like A Way Out have sympathetic portrayals of criminals, but not exactly revolutionary ones – the narrative in that is about as far from “revisionist” as it gets. We Are the Police and Disco Elysium get closer, and at least avoid the pitfall inaccuracies in how they depict crime, but they are focused on police corruption and societal collapse, respectively, with crime still serving as a gameplay element more than a critical thematic one in both. And maybe simulation games have found ways to poke holes in the typical gameplay stereotype of criminals, but I wouldn’t exactly call Prison Architect a tour de force of narrative and thematic heft. Not in the same way Spec Ops: The Line is, at least. In short, even when games have better depictions of criminals, they still don’t really have much to say about them.
So, games have an issue with crime. They contain constant, inaccurate portrayals of crime for the sake of gameplay and simplicity, and in order to not challenge gamers. There haven’t been any real counters to this, no new games which seek to subvert or examine these depictions and their problems. But none of that answers the question: “Why does this matter?” Why does it matter if games are doing something to make their gameplay more fun? What harm does it cause?
Well, the answer is… It’s uncertain, but the prognosis isn’t great. There have not been any studies about whether gamers are any more or less likely than average to view criminals as dangerous compared to the general population. Obviously, we know that playing games does not increase someone’s likelihood to commit violence itself, but we do not know whether playing games, especially those where crime-fighting is central to the gameplay loop, impacts how people view criminals.
Except, to turn the tables again, we know that it does. Because every piece of media we consume shapes how we view the world, and this includes video games. Studies have shown, time and again, that the biases we hold in the real world are heavily impacted by the media we consume. People who watch Law and Order have more confidence in the legal system, people who read romance novels are more likely to have unhealthy expectations for relationships, and, yes, people who play Call of Duty tend to view militarism more favorably.
What, then, must consuming hundreds of hours of content showing psychotic, wholly-evil criminals result in? I don’t think it’s hard to guess that it might lead to people viewing criminals as widespread, inhuman, unable to reason, and entirely violent.
This, of course, feeds right into problematic media narratives about rising crime rates (even as crime rates have been falling or staying steady in most places, with only a few notable upticks in recent years). In fact, it creates a feedback loop, where nearly all media conveys global, rising, and ever-present criminality, and where that criminality entails roving gangs of supercriminals (it keeps coming back to that, doesn’t it?). Something which, put plainly, is not happening in real life.
Fear of criminals is valid; crime really does pose danger to people in society. However, the fear of criminals is rarely proportionate to the actual danger they pose to the average person. And that disconnect is growing. People are getting more afraid of something which is less and less dangerous over time.
This has real effects on real people. Overpolicing, over-sentencing, for-profit prisons, punitive sentencing, poor mental health services, privacy restrictions, and much, much more can all be justified under the guise of fear of criminals. This fear can also limit the opportunities of anyone who has been associated with crime in the past, even long after they’ve served prison time or left criminal pursuits. And is it any wonder? If the popular conception of criminals is what it is in gaming, why would it be surprising that people are scared enough to avoid contact with criminals and scared enough to support actually harmful systems in order to stay safe from them?
The popular conception of criminals as antisocial and extreme societal threats, then, is what enables actual oppression to continue and grow. Whatever issues you care about, I can all but guarantee some of them are made worse via the justification of criminal fear. And video games, with their largely unchallenged, inaccurate depictions of criminals as organized mobs of chaos, only further this narrative.
We are talking about the largest, fastest-growing medium in the world. That should come with some responsibility, especially because of how it has contributed to the demonization and fearmongering surrounding criminals. And that needs to change.
So, What Do We Do?
Depictions of crime in video games needs to change. And I have faith that it will, with the current trajectory. Developers are more experimental than ever, and more people can make games than ever before, to greater success. As mentioned previously, more people want games to act as pieces of art, with all the critical ability and seriousness that entails.
This problem does not need a dramatic, systemic solution – and advocating for those rarely works out anyway. All it needs is for developers to make games with more accurate, sincere depictions of crime, and for gamers to play them. That’s it. Though, of course, we can accelerate this process by taking an interest.
These games don’t even need to replace those other titles, the ones where you beat up legions of thugs en masse. They never could anyway. They just need to exist, so that games have a counternarrative, something for gamers to think about between sessions of battling waves of robbers and killers. It has worked for war, and gamers now are more critical of titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield because of more thoughtful games like This War of Mine and Spec Ops: The Line. Ten years ago, you would be laughed out of a Black Ops lobby if you pointed out that you are playing as terrorists and torturers. Now? Counting how many war crimes are featured in the newest Modern Warfare is an annual joke, and pointing out ways in which Battlefield distorts history can net hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
Without realizing it, the existence of those counternarratives to militarism in gaming changed how gamers view war. There is no reason to think that the same wouldn’t happen with crime. If gamers are presented with a more accurate narrative, one that combats some of the most pernicious elements of other games, it tends to stick. And, as games are becoming more and more respected as an art form, more and more people will play games for their messages, and it will stick more. All without doing away with your favorite superhero brawlers or GTA-like shooters.
The solution, then, could not be simpler. Let’s make more games, with more artistry, and then let’s play more of those games, especially those that are making improvements and doing better. I love games, and I want them to be part of what allows us to progress in society and do better, rather than being something that holds us back. But games depicting criminals badly are not going anywhere any time soon; so, let’s encourage developers to make (and gamers to play) games that can counteract those negative depictions. And maybe, this will lead to more people knowing about the reality of crime, and in the long run, will help dissolve those arguments used to make things worse for everybody (especially criminals).
At the very least, let’s hope that some critique will keep games like The Callisto Protocol from so brazenly depicting nearly every prisoner as a depraved lunatic. That would be nice.