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Opinion: We need more Marcuses

Marcus Holloway is a brilliant hacker and the new protagonist in Ubisoft's upcoming Watch Dogs 2--he's also a young black man. Katherine Cross argues how video games need such morally complicated characters of color.

Marcus Holloway, the new protagonist for Ubisoft’s upcoming open world game Watch Dogs 2, is a gifted hacker living in the Bay Area, who uses his physical and intellectual talents to fight corrupt social systems.

Marcus is also a young black man, much to the consternation of a few very angry gamers. While unsurprising, it should finally put paid to the content-free argument advanced by some that "inclusion is okay as long as there's a reason for the character to be x identity." If ever there was a video game character who met this otherwise nebulous standard, it's Marcus.

He is actually a prime example of a character whose race feels very necessary to the constitution of his role in the game’s story, and as such his backstory has the potential to make a triple-A video game a highly relevant work of speculative fiction.

In an age where police brutality has moved to the top of the US’s political agenda, where the Black Lives Matter movement has left a lasting impact on our politics, and where many commentators--myself included--express concern about how new technologies can be abused by over-militarized police forces, a black Oaklander video game protagonist who A) was profiled and wrongly arrested because of a police algorithm, and B) becomes a hacktivist as a result seems to be the perfect vehicle for exploring issues that games do not take on as often as they should.

Why a black man specifically? Well, it is certainly true that predictive algorithms used in law enforcement can ensnared whites or Latinos, there appears to be a problem where such software is pre-programmed with a specifically anti-black bias. Marcus’ story, then, has a five-minutes-into-the-future verisimilitude; why not make a game where a black man victimized by such software becomes a vigilante? Indeed, while we should never operate on the principle that a non-white/non-male character needs a “reason” to exist in a story, this is one case where there is a reason and it’s actually pretty damn good.

***

On the other side of the ideological divide, some people have complained that because Marcus uses his technological skill to frame innocent people for crimes they did not commit, it undermines the story and the virtues of creating a character with his background. Telling a story about police brutality and then having the lead character employ it for his own ends? Some read this as a failing of the game. For the moment, I strongly disagree; we need morally complicated characters of color in games, badly.

 
"Indeed, while we should never operate on the principle that a non-white/non-male character needs a “reason” to exist in a story, this is one case where there is a reason and it’s actually pretty damn good."

Moral complexity is no small part of what unites us all in our shared humanity, and there is no better philosophical starting point for rich debates and fan discussions than a character who is something less than a moral paragon (see: my favorite video game character of all time, Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2, who is a fully rendered course in advanced moral philosophy). We will see what actually transpires regarding Marcus’ motivations and how the game handles or frames such actions.

The worst thing that could happen is that he does this morally dubious hacking without comment or examination. This was the problem that befell Nilin’s signature “memory editing” ability in Remember Me, where you played thoughtfully-crafted minigames that saw Nilin changing a person’s memory of key events in order to influence their present behavior. In one particularly chilling scenario, you edit the memories of a police chief to make him believe that he had brutally murdered his girlfriend in a fit of abusive rage; he commits suicide as a result.

To say this is ethically dubious feels like an understatement; summary executions prompted by a violation of a person’s most intimate self? It would have made a fascinating layer for Nilin’s character if this were explored at all, but it’s not. This was part of a larger failure of the game to explore the pratfalls of “ends justify the means” activism, which it was uniquely positioned to do considering Nilin’s motivations and actions (like flooding an entire district of a city because it housed the upper classes).

If Watch Dogs 2 fails in the same way, then I’ll regard Marcus’ behavior as cheap gameplay gimmicks. Until then, however, I will hold out hope for a morally complicated anti-hero that makes us ask difficult questions.

Really, that’s what we should be asking of games like this--to give meaning to the violence that constitutes the bread and butter of so many similar titles, and to join the stream of conversation that comic books, young adult fiction, sci-fi/fantasy novels have been engaged in, using the speculative medium to reflect our own society back to us in ways that are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. We developed a whole genre--cyberpunk--out of our anxieties, hopes, and dystopian fears about the dawn of the Information Age. Video games have the potential to spearhead new genres in much the same way; protagonists like Marcus might be one of the keys.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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