Playing as the Police: Changing Cultural Perceptions

“So I Pulled Out My Gun”

How does one react to the red and blue lights of the police while on the road? Especially once one realizes the lights are directed at them. The emotions may vary. Reactions could span from annoyance to patient compliance. The same reactions and emotions could change drastically while playing a video game, where you could easily escape or pull out a TMP. In many franchises, the later serves as a popular response.

Antagonism towards police seems to be popular today in more realms than the virtual, as the news is keen to report. While confidence in police institutions diminishes, our entertainment can either reflect that sentiment, alter it, or contribute to a level of trust.

Witnessing the police in everyday life evokes different emotions for every citizen. Safety and security or frustration and fear are just a few reactions one may have to a police cruiser. The entertainment we digest contributes to these perceptions, and video games are no different.

To the shallow observer of video games, a glance at the options seems grim. It’s pretty fun to break the law, and developers know it. Payday, Need for Speed, Saints Row, and Hitman are all long running franchises that consistently pit the gamer against law enforcement. The success of the Grand Theft Auto series alone clings to the minds of cautious parents. 

Shooting at the Police
Our mothers’ nightmare video game at work.

While playing as criminals can be extremely entertaining and even convey narrative power, the experience hardly influences our cultural understanding of law and crime. GTA’s consistent stereotype of “dumb cops” subtly acknowledges this overt, one-dimensional portrayal. The opposite can be found in a handful of games where the player controls police officers.

Games such as Heavy Rain, LA Noire, and The Wolf Among us, all give the player a taste of what life can be like behind a badge. The presentation of these stories’ complex characters could be powerful enough to shift the perception of those who are quick to either trust or avoid the police.

Heavy Misdirection (Heavy Rain spoilers ahead)

Scott Shelby has been hired as a private investigator in Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. In this interactive drama, a group of character’s struggle against the Origami Killer, who seems to drown his victims during periods of persistent rainfall. In his first in-game appearance, Shelby reveals that he has been hired by the victim’s families to track down the killer.

He also serves as our perfect embodiment of premature trust. In that first appearance, the player can choose to rescue Lauren Winter from an abusive john. While he is not an officer, the player eventually learns that Shelby is a retired police lieutenant, which might help explain his selfless and heroic acts throughout the game.

In an effort to pick up the Origami Killer’s trail, he interviews the families of the victims and collects any evidence they have. Only later do we learn that Shelby is the real killer, and actually collects his own trail of evidence as he tries to get away with several child-murders.

Tragic experiences mold us for better or worse.
Tragic experiences mold us for better or worse.

This late game revelation paired with other frustratingly rude police officers seem to stack Heavy Rain’s decks against the player’s perception of the law enforcement community. The catch comes with Quantic Dream’s ingenious sprinkling of flashback and player choices revolving around Shelby.

The player can choose to have him save people from abuse, robbery, and depression-induced suicide. These choices seem to demonstrate true compassion from Shelby, who killed the children out of deeply rooted psychological problems. When he was very young, he watched his twin brother drown to death in a storm drain.  Another aspect of this traumatic experience stems from his father’s lack of concern when Scott pleaded with him to save his brother.

His seemingly compassionate choices also demonstrate the balance between good and evil within Shelby. The sheer fact that he seemed like a normal good guy the whole time reminds us of our own potential for good and evil.

A Really Real, Though Fictitious, Hero

Cole Phelps, from Team Bondi and Rockstar’s LA Noire, is a police officer and detective in a much different time and place. The player’s initial interactions will probably pin him as a standup guy, as he avoids the laziness and corruption that ensnares some of his colleagues in the Los Angeles Police Department of the 1940s. He also distinguishes himself as a non-racist, a rare trait during the time. To further his heroism, the player learns that they get to play as a former marine who earned the silver star in the Pacific tour of WWII.

LA Noire

As the player follows Phelps through his crime solving career, they learn more about his personality and faults. He starts an affair with Elsa, a jazz singer who has fallen into drug addiction, and moves out of the house where his wife and children live. Just as the player begins to question Cole’s character in this decision, they begin to learn that he had felt estranged from his wife because of the war, and could not stay with his family even though he still cared for them deeply.

Through flashbacks, we learn of several situations that compromised Phelps’s character during his Pacific tour. During the battle of Sugar Loaf Hill, he could not advance after his commander was killed. Everyone in the battalion has perished, including his best friend who died telling Phelps to advance. Phelps was the only survivor and was promoted to Lieutenant, despite the claims of cowardice from other soldiers.

The player later learns that Cole’s tenacity in his police work partly derives from a desire to redeem his horrific experiences in the war. While these horrific impressions contribute to a hardworking, redeeming attitude, they also color in a realistic portrayal of human experience.

Overcoming Big Bad Presuppositions

So Team Bondi and Quantic Dream provide excellent portrayals of stereotypical good police officers, and then do culture a favor by making them realistic. The situation is quite different in Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us, where the player controls the actions of villain-gone-hero, Bigby Wolf. Bigby heads up an investigation to arrest a serial killer in the fictitious section of Manhattan, Fabletown.

The Wolf Among Us
Subtitle best read in context.

Most citizens of  Fabletown share a distrust of Sheriff Bigby because of his past. They stereotype him for his one dimensional killing/eating/blowing habits of yesterlife. Telltale gives the opportunity for the player to conform to those stereotypes through in-game intimidation techniques.

TTG also gives the player an opportunity to break through Fabletown’s expectations, exhibiting compassion to its many hard-knock citizens. Even when attempting to break that mold, a tension arises when Bigby must choose between leniency and his police responsibilities.

While either path is highly entertaining, players can choose it based on a preconceived notion of how police act (stereotype), and/or how they would choose if they were Sheriff. Either basis for choice highlights both Bigby’s complexity, as well as the complexity of police work.

If one hates police and wants Bigby to be hated, they may realize that his job always tends to gravitate towards helping others. If one really want to aid all of Fabletown’s citizens, they will quickly notice that sacrifices must be made and that they cannot help everyone.

For example, Bigby begins the game by allowing his friend Collin to live with him. Collin is a talking pig, who does not use the town’s required magic to appear as a human. Collin cannot afford the magic, and by law should be sent off to a hideaway for poorer citizens. By turning a blind (yet caring) eye to Collin, Bigby endangers the entire community. Even if one chooses to act like a jerk and kick Colin out later on, they will be doing it for the good of the community without playing favorites.

Farm
The Farm is a bad, bad place.

It is worth noting that, according to TWAU’s wikiaevery recorded choice statistic demonstrated a common theme of compassion from Bigby. This record indicates that the majority of players experienced police work from an empathetic angle, even with all of the complexity and tension.

Conclusions

Do these games contribute to a negative view of the police, or a positive one? Neither. They promote a more realistic portrayal of humanity behind a badge. Hardly ever does a human being exhibit pure heroism, nor can they always make the right choice even when one is truly intended. The opposite is true in that the motives behind police action should not be denigrated to purely malicious.

As the games above remind us, police officers are three-dimensional people. By participating in that reality through video games, consumers may move past their constricting stereotypes.

Jared Randall
Video games have always been a part of my life, starting with handheld arcade-like games and moving through N64 and Gamecube, up to PS4 and 3DS. My top five video games in no order consist of: Ocarina of Time, Last of Us, Resident Evil 4, Undertale, and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. A hobby of mine is exploring religious and theological themes in video games. Someday soon, I will be kicking your ass in Gwent over a livestream.

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