Content Warning: Watch_Dogs
Trigger warnings: sexism, rape, human trafficking, racism, transmisogyny.
And a spoiler warning for the game. Long post, but I’m really enjoying the game Watch Dogs so far. It’s not without its problems though.
From a narrative, political, and ethical perspective, Watch_Dogs is a total mess. From the very beginning, the plot is driven largely by the suffering and death of women. Aiden Pearce sets out to investigate the death of his niece, Lena - a character who is more important as a victim than as a person. The same can be said of Nicole Pearce, Aiden’s sister, who is kidnapped and used as leverage. And of Clara Lisle, erstwhile ally. And the unnamed secondary characters who are assaulted and raped. The women auctioned off into sex slavery. The list goes on. None of these characters have narrative depth - they exist to incite action from the player.
I’ll be among the first to admit representation of women in video games are in dire need of improvement. That said, Clara (at least where I am in the game) seems to be a decent character. Nicole (thanks for the spoiler, by the way) seems to at least be written halfway decent. Is the kidnap trope overdone? Of course. But don’t completely discount the character just because something generic and cliche happens to her. What of Aiden’s nephew, whose character is reduced down to “He doesn’t talk cuz his sister died”? Would you prefer the neice be in his place? I have a feeling you’d complain just the same there.
Yeah, it’d be neat to see more female characters, but from what I’ve seen of hacking groups (or at least people who want to be hackers…) women are often ostracized (to the point that Clara straight up pretends to be a boy until you meet her)
You know who else doesn’t have narrative depth (at least so far)? Jordi Chin. Damien Brenks. Fucking Aiden Pierce. Nicole has a deeper character, in my opinion, than any of these three.
Whoops. But she got kidnapped. Blank slate. Prize to be won.
Racial politics in Watch_Dogs are similarly shallow. In the real world, many Chicago neighborhoods have a lasting history of segregation by ethnicity. The city is complex, and the citizens know it. This is not reflected in Ubisoft’s Chicago; instead, the developers condensed distinct minority neighborhoods into “the Wards”, a zone of low-income housing with a high crime rate. Characters are pigeonholed in much the same way; three of the four plot-critical black characters are murderers, and two are members of the same gang. The “Black Viceroys” are one-dimensional, violent, slang-spouting stereotypes, and the game spends no time trying to engender sympathy. They are enemies for the sake of being enemies.
I haven’t looked too far into these “wards” and I was a bit confused when I saw “Black Viceroy” as an occupation (I don’t even know what that word means!) but I’ve seen PLENTY of white gang members who were one-dimensional and violent.
And of course, there is the issue of the Profiler, Aiden Pearce’s primary toolkit. It’s a mobile hacking platform that exploits ctOS, Chicago’s infrastructure control system. Interacting with ctOS is the game’s big gimmick, and one of its features is scanning and summarizing NPCs. When Watch_Dogs generates one of these labels, it’s not influencing the world in any significant way. The developers are assigning a short description to a character who exists solely as a potential victim. The player might attack them, steal from them, or protect them from harm; that’s informed by the mindset of whoever is playing. What are these labels? Lots of ‘wacky’ sex stuff. Characters who are “skeptical about global warming.” And mixed in there, more serious subjects - “Illiterate.” “HIV positive.” “Transgender.”
"Watches anime." "Buys lottery tickets." "Avid churchgoer." As a trans person myself, I seriously cannot see the issue here. These little quips do nothing to affect the actual gameplay. "Satanist." Literally the only thing I’ve seen this affect so far is, every now and then when you’re stalking around, you can distract enemies by texting them about this information. "Recently bought a new sports car." Yeah, sometimes I’m a little squicked at what Aiden is texting when it’s something more serious, like the spread of Hepatitis C, but really other than that it’s just there to make you feel like a dick if you siphon hundreds of dollars from their bank accounts. "Artist." "Recently visited Africa." "Saving up for a new car." Or make it feel even more justifiable when they’ve committed heinous crimes. "Fighting game champion." "Addicted to online auctions." "Posts anonymously to racist forums."
Make no mistake - in the real world, being outed is a nightmare scenario, and including it in this context is horribly insensitive. (The developers seem particularly tone-deaf on gender disclosure as a whole - when Aiden Pearce learns that one of his hacker contacts is a woman, rather than a man, he fumes that “he is a she”.) People are frequently attacked just for being trans, particularly if they’re PoC. This is the sole facet of trans life reproduced in Watch_Dogs - the threat of being targeted for violence.
And Ubisoft saw it coming.
Now that it’s out there, I can’t wait to see how you guys abuse our poor npcs in #WatchDogs. Be sure to take screenshots!
A game purportedly about justice and revenge in the digital age, and the lead scriptwriter is encouraging players to abuse random passerby. He got his wish - people have been posting videos of themselves using the Profiler to target and kill minorities. Of course, the game doesn’t punish them for it, because there are no systems to reprimand players who commit hate crimes.
It does punish the player for it. Every time you kill an innocent NPC for any reason, your fame goes down. Do really good things, like stopping crime and whatnot, and pedestrians will fondly regard you as “The Vigilante” and won’t call the cops on you when you’re escaping. But keep killing people and they’ll hate you. Sure, there’s nothing for hate crimes, but honestly (and again, as a trans person living in the deep south), I’m more upset that there’s literally no punishment for stealing money from cancer patients.Could it handle these sensitive issues better? Definitely. But, come on, just saying a background model is trans is better than some of the shit GTA has pulled. I’m not far enough into the game to comment on the racism, but the male characters are written JUST as shallow as the women, at my point in the game at least. Please DO help put this game on best seller lists, because it’s got a bunch of nifty concepts, but voice your opinions so that the devs can see what they need to change in future installments, both in gameplay AND how it handles these social issues.
And to think this kind of overreaction made me believe Clara was trans and you had to out her at some point in the game. Ugh.