At the Intersection of Police Brutality and Vigilante Tourism in Games

It’s hard to say what time it is, but it’s night. It’s always night in Gotham. Perched on the top of an abandoned factory I listen for the voices of two-bit thugs pulled up from the surrounding streets by a coastal wind.


I cut the noir bullshit and don my detective vision. Now I can see Arkham’s deadliest–their every polygonal twitch screams out for true justice. And I will give it to them because I am that justice. I am also Batman. Even if I’m only playing digital make-believe at being him.

I lunge off the rooftop and begin my graceful descent. A wave of brutality descends with me and together we strike the first thug square in the chest, my jet-black jackboots smashing every bone in and around his upper torso. After demolishing two more before performing dual-takedowns in rapid succession, I spring for the fourth and only remaining hooligan. He emits waves of green radiation. This means he knows something about the Riddler. I knock him around a bit, threaten his life, and terrify him until he all but shits his pants. Sure enough, he talks. They always do. All it takes is a little coaxing and some patience.

On its face this fascist wet-dream of fantasy criminal behavior and crime fighting practices is ridiculous. But so are a lot of things in video games, and the level of absurdity to which they often soar has rarely, if ever, been a determining factor in how much we end up enjoying them.

Then again, a variation on this law enforcement philosophy does in fact persist in real life. Indeed, many of the more ludicrous doctrines embodied in, or implied by, the video game worlds we inhabit are so abundant in the ones we escape from that to ignore them would be, at the very least, critical malpractice.

Torture and forced confessions are only part of the unsettling overlap between video game violence and those game-like systems which promote actual violence in the real world. There are also the jingoistic narratives of most war games, and the ever necessary use of violent
force in order to accomplish the in-game goals laid out for players by developers. Proponents of our digital hobby have argued for decades that violence in video games does not translate to violence in the real world. But that does not mean it fails to relate to violence in the real world, or un-thoughtfully reflect it.

How, for instance, does one truly keep separate the pleasure of brutalizing a room full of alleged criminals and that small but real emotional pay-off so many of us feel when actual villains get what we always knew they had coming? In Arkham City everyone who walks, talks, and hangs out in certain areas are fair game for the righteous fury of my caped crusader.. There are the “political prisoners” in the walled off slums, and then there’s everybody else. The game is very good about making those it designates as enemies throw the first punch or fire the first bullet. But even this breaks down in the number of instances I am not only encouraged, but in which it is wholly necessary, to electrocute people from afar or prosecute silent “takedowns.”

In other words, from the basic premise of the game (Gotham moves all its criminals into one group of neighborhoods) to the level-designs it corrals your through (in which you constantly hone your “predator skills”), Arkham City succeeds in making punishment crisp, clean, and ever so satisfying. It’s a spectacularly fun game. But hey, it’s just a game—right bro?

If that’s that case, maybe real life is more game-like than we prefer to admit. I’m not talking about crowd sourcing medical research or getting holes punched on a card whenever you purchase a cup of coffee. I mean the fact that when it comes to urban crime and how the law is prosecuted, the society we’re a part of is not so different from many of the digital ones we play in. Criminals are caught, sent to jail, eventually let go, then commit more crime, and are sent back to jail, in such a regressive cycle that more than one unsettling parallel can be made between predictable feedback loops predicated on violence and a broken justice system.

Cities, like Philadelphia where I live, have “the bad part(s) of town,” where anyone who doesn’t have to shouldn’t want to go. Sometimes these areas are sectioned off by highways, rivers, and industrial parks.  In other places, barriers aren’t strictly physical, even if the lines which delineate them are no less clear. The university campuses of Temple and Penn, for example, run flags to clearly denote their territory, while bicycle security and police patrol the nearby streets to create a buffer between  the zones where crime is expected to occur and those where it will absolutely not be allowed to happen. The difference, of course, is that there isn’t a Batman, or any other uber-powered protagonist, jumping in and out of alleys where the elevated subway cuts through housing.

(Above Left: Crime map of Philadelphia/Above Right: Map of Gotham featuring Arkham City).

There are the police though, whose preemptive interrogations and self-defense can be no less threatening. And there are places which bear such an uncanny resemblance to Arkham City, with their abandoned factories, boarded up row homes, and disproportionate crime, where the law is something beyond flexible, if it exists at all.

Beyond the simple architectural similarities though lies a more striking one: the pervasive emphasis on punishment over prevention; incarceration over rehabilitation. The Arkham games forgo the possibility of redemption or of ever fixing what has left Gotham broken. And if the struggles for these outcomes are rejected, the only thing left to take their place is a policy of retribution, of vengeance, of Batman, especially when whole swaths of the city are already mentally designated as “battlegrounds” and “warzones.”

Our environment isn’t just something we encounter, it’s something we interpret, and in part, create, based on a variety of factors. Anyone who plays video games knows this intimately. Areas rife with potential threats are completely transformed after being cleared of enemies. And other places known for their tranquility take on a fundamentally different character when the people and events which inhabit them become violent or even deadly.

It’s not just theories of broken glass or graffiti, but systemic violence which occurs, and is so often ignored, because of where it occurs and who is involved. No one cares that Batman is a serial breaker of the law, at least not enough for the Arkham games to ever address it, nor is repeated abuse on the part of actual law enforcement an important issue for most people. The simple reason being that most of us will never be victims of it.

Most of us are not, won’t be, and never will know someone like Anthony Anderson, a Baltimore resident, whose recent unarmed encounter with law enforcement occurred at a vacant lot on the corner of East Biddle Street and Montford Avenue. He was in the middle of a drug deal when they found him, two detectives claimed. They alleged he died from choking on these drugs. His death actually occurred as a result of blunt-force trauma, due to “standard” takedown maneuvers. No one disputes that what happened was a homicide. The only thing left to decide is whether it was legally “justified” or not.

According to this logic, I have committed more homicides in Arkham City than probably any other single character in the game. But mine are “justified” within the game’s logic, or so I suspect, although I don’t think anyone in the Gotham City District Attorney’s office will be wasting their time to investigate.

Angel Moore was a victim of similar excess at 76th and Halsted on Chicago’s South Side four years ago. Police stopped her and her twin sister for being out past curfew. They were both 20 years old though, but still a confrontation ensued in which one police officer punched the back of her head, threw her to the ground, and kicked her. Moore is now nearly blind, and the city must pay her $800,000, though it won’t admit any wrong doing, and may even appeal the court’s decision.

In other cases, a little girl was shot through the head, a man was tasered repeatedly until loss of breathing caused significant brain damage, and another was beaten severely after allegedly resisting arrest. The places where these events occurred are different, and attempts to over-generalize across states and cities would be irresponsible. But you can’t help but notice the things which they share in common: an entrenched drug trade, poor employment prospects, and civic abandonment. These are not the places that people shopping downtown or going to classes at the universities know, care, or often think about. They are the types of places where the war on drugs happens, where stop-and-frisks are common, and where Batman-style justice is most likely to occur.

What Arkham City really misses, beyond a complex story or nuanced characters, is a civilian population to be terrorized by my drop-kick interrogations. To the degree that the game establishes a detailed place with haunting connections to the outside world, it settles for an invisible ghost populace that players never need trouble themselves over. Like in Max Payne 3, we play the vigilante tourist who knows so little about where he has travelled to that the only thing available to us is to break everything in sight.

Media, whether artful or purely entertaining, should, at the very least, never seek to confine or deter our imaginations and capacity for empathy. Arkham City falls short even of this Hippocratic oath however, imprisoning both of these human endeavors without being honest about doing so. I am Batman after all. I am a super hero. I don’t use guns—only fatal takedowns. Like its open-world designed for me to explore, Arkham City acts as an open-air prison where our bodies are free but our minds are not. And if I can just beat up one more villain I might make the world a better place. Except it won’t. Arkham City isn’t real, but many places like it are, and their problems are not so easily solved.


  1. awa64

    Batman’s takedowns aren’t fatal. Hell, the Detective Mode stuff explicitly shows knocked-out convicts with a heartbeat. They’re perhaps more brutal than necessary–or even justifiable–but rule #1 of Batman is “Do Not Kill People. Ever. Under Any Circumstances.” If Batman does it, it’s non-lethal, by virtue of being Batman.
    That might be part of the problem, though. People see the kind of brutality inflicted in a game like Arkham City as “non-lethal” and are more willing to use that kind of brutality in real life, expecting similar consequences, and are shocked to discover that human beings are actually pretty fragile.

  2. qwallath

    A significant parallel you draw here, thank you.
    Many of us (I hope) have been thinking about the nature of violence in games for quite a while. Part of the problem might be that ‘enemies’ in games are very often set pieces in a game design that have only one particular function: obstacles to overcome. Multi-path / non-lethal design approaches sidestep this issue, offering a less or non-violent solution to overcome these (living) obstacles, but the core remains the same.
    More nuanced are, for example, characters like Zevran in Dragon Age, who is first an obstacle only, but can become an ally through conversation and mercy. That said, this again sidesteps the consequences of violence should you choose to treat him as an obstacle rather than a potential friend. Like in almost all RPGs, you can safely dispose of enemies (even potential friends like him) without significant repercussions in the game world, other than a (minor) change in approval rating from your current companions.I’m currently playing The Walking Dead, where things are perhaps a bit different. Conflict between the human characters is tense and suspenseful – everyone is a potential ally *or* a potential enemy. Even the generic enemies – the zombies – are at times treated as more than just something to stick your hatchet in. There are numerous occasions where zombies are (re)humanised, forcing you as a player to consider the appropriateness of violence in different situations. I think The Walking Dead deserves (and will likely soon get) more study from this angle.

  3. GTElephant

    We can ignore for a moment that all the things Batman does are fictionalised as “non-lethal”, because as Ethan points out even “standard” Police “takedown” techniques have a proven track record of causing death and severe physical injury.
    Arkham City makes a half hearted attempt to contextualise the violence within the confines of its prison within a city by linking the violence and crime to the poverty of the area through the environmental design. Unfortunately this itself is just playing into an established notion of the reasons for crime and violence in society; economic status is not the single defining factor for a tendency towards criminal or violent behaviour. The other ways in which criminals are contextualised are just as problematic, they are either “horribly people who blithely discuss murder and rape and therefore deserve everything they get” or “mentally damaged individuals who don’t know any other way to exist” both are gross oversimplifications of criminality and the latter is a particular harmful stereotype of those suffering mental health problems.
    Is Arkham City on its own actively harmful? Probably not, but it does reinforce a notion of crime and punishment that strips it of any nuance or complexity thus making it easy to justify any police brutality because “well they were in a bad neighbourhood so they must have deserved it somehow”. After all, these thugs are within the confines of  Arkham City so they must be bad right? Because it’s not like innocent people have ever ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time is it..?

  4. fmobliv06

    This is idiotic. Yeah, it’s tragic that police brutalities like this happen. Behavior such as that is often driven by a person with an inability to cope with power being put in a position of power. These guys are egomaniacs who will gladly abuse any advantage they have over others just because they can. That’s why police brutality happens in the real world. Not because somebody played Batman and thought, “hey, why not?” Not every game we play needs to be filled with shades of grey, just like not every movie needs to be Schindler’s List or Munich. Incidents such as the ones you described above happen because of real people with real psychological issues. Issues which, by the way, it is heavily implied Batman/Bruce Wayne suffers from just as much as those he fights. So what’s the point here…?

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