Last week, alone in my Brooklyn apartment, I fired up my Xbox and began playing Tom Clancy’s The Division.
Clancy, who died in 2013, was a fantastically successful author and the unofficial poet laureate of the Department of Defense, and best known for his Jack Ryan series. Video-game developers have been releasing titles under the Clancy imprimatur since the late ’80s, and the Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series has been a gaming staple since 1998.
In The Division, a man-made virus has turned present-day New York City into a desolate and wintery morgue. All of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn have been quarantined. Abandoned vehicles choke the streets. Deserted military checkpoints can be found at major intersections — remnants of the government’s impotent attempt to check the virus’s spread. Now they are marked only by stray dogs and piles of body bags. Here and there, survivors hang on in desperation. You see them fighting in the streets over a bottle of water or crying among the mountains of garbage, inconsolable.
The game environment, representing a 1-to-1 virtual re-creation of New York, from Chelsea to Times Square — down to the Sbarro across from Madison Square Garden — is a work of art, created with eerie, elegiac fidelity. It is the best video-game rendering of the city that I have ever seen.
The player controls an Agent, a member of a shadowy people’s militia called the Division. After federal, state, and local agencies quit the island, the Division is activated. The citizen-agents of the Division are the last line of defense against the rioters, looters, and various armed factions who roam the city. These people are the player’s enemy. They are to be killed on sight.
When faced with the question of how to design The Division’s antagonists, the game’s publisher, Ubisoft, settled on … guys in hoodies. Other featured villains include former sanitation workers who wield flamethrowers to burn away the virus. Government, in all its forms, is the bad guy. In The Division, a well-meaning man with a gun — and the more guns the better — is the most trustworthy form of authority. It’s the game for a post-Trump America.
There’s no “scoring” in a conventional sense. You play the game to acquire new and better goods, and you do that by completing missions and killing enemies, which prompts random rewards to drop. Beating a boss character might result in a rare piece of gear or an awesome weapon. Or it might drop a lesser-quality item. The very best items are rare, and the game hotwires your desire to consume and acquire.
Like gambling, the novelty and unpredictability of the reward is the hook designed to keep players grinding, chasing that one golden drop.
The heart of the game is the Dark Zone. In the D.Z., a sliver of midtown centered on the New York Public Library, players can kill more-powerful enemies for better loot drops. Items taken from the D.Z. have to be ferried out by helicopter, which the player calls to from designated extraction points. But as soon as you use a flare to signal for a chopper, other players are alerted. And in the D.Z., players can kill each other for their currency and items. Attackers are marked as Rogues, and their positions on the map are indicated by flashing red skulls. Waiting for the chopper while playing solo in the D.Z. is nerve-racking. Forget rebuilding society or getting the electricity back on — The Division is about the thrill of taking other people’s stuff at gunpoint, and the fear that they want to do the same to you.
The game is fun if you don’t think too deeply about what it means. The map covers only a sliver of Brooklyn, so I couldn’t go to my apartment. But Madison Square Garden is there. And my base of operations is the post office across the street. It’s packed with virtual refugees and various war profiteers who sell guns and gear. I returned there after a recent successful trip to the D.Z. I had managed to extract a rare submachine gun and couldn’t wait to try it out. While crossing virtual Eighth Avenue, it was bright and sunny, and snow was on the ground. In real life, I had filled out my passport application at that post office.
This piece originally appeared in the March 18, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.