In new video game, Spider-Man helps the cops beat up drug dealers
Reviewers have said that the new Spider-Man video game is the game that “fans deserve,” “raises the bar,” and is possibly the “best superhero game ever.” But others have pointed to a darker side of the game: “the primary objective boils down to Help The Cops,” writes reviewer Tom Ley. “Not just any cops, either, but the NYPD specifically, because the game takes place in a true-to-life rendering of New York City.” Spider-Man’s enthusiasm for the police had one writer calling Spidey a “narc.” Another reviewer, Heather Alexandra, wrote that Spider-Man was “way more accepting of state power than I expected from a hero with a history of being wrongly maligned by the press and police.” Spider-Man is “no longer performing heroic deeds out of just the goodness of his heart, but also for the purpose of solidifying the existing power structure’s grip on the city.” While beating up drug dealers, Spider-Man taunts them by yelling, “If you just got real jobs you wouldn’t have to work so hard at being criminals!” [Tom Ley / The Concourse]
“Police are an unimpeachable group in Spider-Man,” writes Alexandra. “They show no real flaws and make no mistakes. They don’t feel like an integrated part of the the community.” When villains orchestrate a breakout at Rikers Island, she says, it is “treated as a crisis so dire that Spider-Man temporarily abandons his search for a potentially pandemic-causing biological weapon to help the NYPD bust skulls and put down prisoner riots. Without fail, every convict is violent and aggressive.” In real life, the conditions at Rikers Island and safety concerns are complex, but games like Spider-Man “flatten that complexity in favor of giving you criminal enemies to overcome. In Spider-Man, these prisoners function as generic thugs to fight in waves.” [Heather Alexandra / Kotaku]
“Spider-Man doesn’t just help the cops by catching armed robbers and putting deranged super villains in jail, he helps them maintain a high-tech, citywide surveillance network,” writes Ley. One of the missions of the game is for Spider-Man to repair surveillance towers that allow the NYPD to monitor people. Constructed by a fictional shady mega-corporation, Oscorp, these towers have eerie parallels to real-life Palantir-led projects to collect massive amounts of data from New York City residents. [Tom Ley / The Concourse] One scholar from the NYU Game Center noted on Twitter similarities between these towers and the security cameras that IBM recently used in New York City to make skin-color profiling technology.
Modern superheroes appear to be trending toward authoritarian extremes. Last year’s game Injustice 2 is based on the idea that Superman could rise to lead a “strict and heartless regime” after the Joker orchestrates Lois Lane’s death, writes Alexandra. “That incident, and its extremes, call to mind the reactionary shift in American politics since September 11th, 2001.” Even the heroes facing off against Superman in that game “share a similar authoritarian streak.” Batman has a “Brother Eye” surveillance system, which can spy on anyone in the world. [Heather Alexandra / Kotaku]
Although certain claims about video games––including President Trump’s suggestion that violent video games are partly to blame for mass shootings in America––are suspect, video games that align players with police are part of a culture that looks to law enforcement and prison as the solution to its problems. “NCIS,” a police procedural show about a team of special agents that investigates crimes, was the most-watched television drama in America for nearly a decade, and also became the most watched in the world. Crime shows often dominate the ratings charts. Many of them contribute, in ways that have been called “downright misleading,” to this narrative of law enforcement as savior. “If you look at a show where every week there are one two three homicides to solve, it gives the impression that in that neighborhood homicide is a common occurrence when really they’re quite rare … especially over the last few years,” says Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale. [Hannah K. Gold / AlterNet]
A 2009 study found that people who watched police shows like “Law & Order,” “CSI,” “Cold Case,” and “The Closer” estimated two and a half times more real-life murders than non-viewers. According to one of the study’s authors, “Heavy TV-crime viewers consistently overestimated the frequency of crime in the real world.” Cop shows also dramatically exaggerate the rate at which police solve cases, which contributes to faith in the system. The shows also play into racial stereotypes. A 2004 study looked at racial representation in “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue” and found that Black people are shown as suspects 40 to 50 percent more often than as victims, while white people are about twice as likely to be shown as victims, rather than offenders. According to Gray Cavender and Nancy Jurik’s academic article, “Policing Race and Gender,” “both primetime crime drama and reality television programs present crime in a manner that heightens fears by whites when they view persons of color,” relating not only to the numbers of people represented but how they are portrayed. The shows also disregard the prevalence of plea deals, the rampant violation of civil rights and liberties, and wrongly treat forensics as infallible. [Hannah K. Gold / AlterNet]
Crime procedurals have the potential to change viewers’ perceptions of police. A group of researchers surveyed over 2,000 Americans and found that “those who watched crime shows view police as better behaved, more successful at combating crime, and relatively responsible in their use of force, than those who don’t partake in, say, 24-hour marathons of ‘Law & Order: SVU.’” [Kate Wheeling / The Week] This is precisely the outcome that critics of the new Spider-Man video game fear.