A Triple-A video game release featuring one of Marvel’s most iconic characters has found itself at the center of an absurd yet predictable controversy.
On Friday, Sony and Insomniac Games released their feverishly anticipated Marvel’s Spider-Man, the latest video game adventure featuring everyone’s favorite wall crawler, exclusively for the Playstation 4 (PS4). Upon release the game was met with resounding critical and commercial success, garnering adoration from critics and players alike while also setting international PS4 sales records. The game has been heralded as one of the best superhero games to date, and an exceptional love letter to Spider-Man fans.
However, for a vocal minority, enjoying the bevy of unlockable costumes and swinging through the streets of New York City from web lines seem to take second place to accusing the game of promoting authoritarianism and taking swings at the game’s neutral-to-positive portrayal of the New York Police Department.
The first article to be written concerning this supposed controversy was written for Deadspin (bizarrely enough), a sports news blog, by the websites Managing Editor, Tom Ley. The article, titled “They Turned Spider-Man Into A Damn Cop And It Sucks”, makes its claims based on the opinions and emotions of the author and his negative opinions of general law enforcement, rather than any inherent agenda by the game’s creators:
“[S]o far the primary objective boils down to Help The Cops. Not just any cops, either, but the NYPD specifically, because the game takes place in a true-to-life rendering of New York City. It’s dumb to expect video games to be responsible reflections of real life, but it is also impossible, for me at least, to not feel some ickiness about the game forcing me into cahoots with even a fictionalized version of the NYPD, an organization that routinely oppresses some of the most vulnerable residents of the city I live in.” -Tom Ley, Deadspin, 10 September 2018
Unfortunately, Ley was not alone in his opinions, as numerous articles soon began to be published, all pushing forth the idea that Spider-Man is now an authoritarian crony, attacking and victimizing those who cannot defend themselves. While reading said articles, one imagines that these writers may have had a similar experience to Ley, who boasts in his second paragraph,
“Granted, I am only a few hours into the game” -Tom Ley, Deadspin, 10 September 2018
How can anyone who only plays a ‘few hours’ of any given game claim to know the entirety of what the game is about? At two hours, most players have barely begun to roam around the vast expanse of NYC’s skyline, much less discern all the themes and messages of a story. These writers have chosen to ignore most of the game’s presentation in favor of projecting their own issues and agendas upon Spider-Man.
A common complaint in these articles centers around Spider-Man’s use of Oscorp Industries surveillance towers.
Justin Charity in The Ringer writes:
“To reveal portions of the game’s map, players must bound across Manhattan and repair the dozens of surveillance towers that Oscorp Industries — a devious conglomerate — has installed to serve the NYPD. In fact, the towers resemble surveillance equipment that the NYPD now uses, in real life, to sort suspects and other people of interest by physical tags, including skin color, based on closed-circuit footage. Spider-Man does occasionally hint at the potential for civil rights abuses — it’s Oscorp technology, after all — but the game has rendered ubiquitous surveillance stations and drones as an otherwise benign, irresistible fact of modern life in a big, crime-ridden city.”
His sentiments would be echoed by Heather Alexandra in Kotaku:
“One of the earliest things you do in Spider-Man is go around activating security towers, made by Oscorp but used by the NYPD, that make it easier for Spider-Man to track crimes as they happen. Narratively, these towers allow the police to better surveil citizens; they also give Spider-Man access to police frequencies. They’re always listening, giving out calls to car chases and telling the player about break-in attempts that Spider-Man can thwart before the crime occurs. The uncritical use of these towers struck some players, especially those who live in New York, as odd. An NYU Game Center scholar took to Twitter to note similarities between these towers and the real world real NYC security cameras that IBM recently used to make skin-color profiling technology.”
In the game, Oscorp has installed a city wide surveillance system intended to assist the police in lowering the crime rate. Spider-Man can hack into the system’s many towers to unlock more sections of the world map and pinpoint collectibles and side missions (such as old high school backpacks Peter left webbed up, Fisk’s construction sites which are acting as money laundering fronts, or even the pigeon companions of one of Spidey’s homeless acquaintances).
Spider-Man at no point promotes their use, even stating to himself that the stations make him uncomfortable due to their potential for abuse and civil rights violations. Spider-Man is only taking advantage of a piece of technology his enemies have installed to better protect the people of New York City; he utilizes the towers not to boost the effectiveness of the police force or increase surveillance, but to be able to be a more attentive hero by receiving police radio broadcasts and 911 calls. To accuse the game of supporting this technology ignores its unique use as a seamless game mechanic used only by Spider-Man to save more lives and places unnecessary weight on the stance of a fictional character over the ever prevalent ‘Big Brother’ debate that is common in our technologically advancing times.
Another complaint found across these articles is the portrayal of the NYPD police force as something other than a militaristic, fascist army of storm troopers. Justin Charity opines:
“In general, the Marvel Cinematic Universe disgraces its fictional cops. Marvel’s television shows for Netflix — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders — often characterize the NYPD as a seedy reserve corps for any criminal mastermind seeking henchmen and moles. […] So Spider-Man can seem to be a late and overcorrective effort to repair Marvel’s regard for police. The NYPD is a beleaguered organization with a hyperactive PR department. Recently, the NYPD hired Spike Lee — a flamboyant critic of the department and civil rights advocate — to consult on advertisements. The NYPD didn’t pay Marvel for the courtesy of turning Spider-Man into Spider-Cop. Still, it is easy enough for the player to observe the advertisements for themselves: the helpful surveillance towers, the Spider-Cop routine, the hero cop memorialization. The character Spider-Man may flatter the NYPD, but the game Spider-Man presents a police force so extremely benign and uncontroversial, if only because it barely exists. The characterization isn’t subversive, exactly: The subtle slights are numerous, but they’re also, apparently, unintentional, produced by a skeptical subconscious forced to develop a dubious text.”
And once again Heather Alexandra offers a similar opinion:
“Police are an unimpeachable group in Spider-Man. They show no real flaws and make no mistakes. They don’t feel like an integrated part of the community; they pepper cutscenes and sometimes walk the streets but mostly show up as an allied faction in procedurally generated crime events. Even if Spider-Man’s New York is largely a fiction, it points towards a real place. New York is many things, but it is also the city of Eric Garner, stop-and-frisk, and Palantir. Rikers isn’t some fake pastiche location like Arkham Asylum. Real life police are a complicated presence in New York, but in Spider-Man they’re part of Spider-Man’s vigilante quest for justice, rather than members of the communities they’re supposed to protect.”
They are joined by Zack Kotzer of Dot eSports:
“The creative directors seem to love the NYPD more than most New Yorkers. Spider-Man regularly reiterates that he’d love to go by “Spider-Cop.” Plot threads revolve around the sacrifice of the NYPD and putting small time crooks in their place. Superhero stories as parallel to playground games of cops n’ robbers is old news. Superheroes, many of them, use their supernatural gifts or blessed wealth to reinforce the state. It’s a fascist undertone to many comic books that’s kept at bay by outrageous and menacing foes, with no resemblance to those persecuted in an out of whack prison state. But it’s still noticed. Usually by people with less baggage to comic books or those too deep in them.”
In the game, Spider-Man works closely with the NYPD, and to a more personal extent with Police Captain Yuri Watanabe. As you work in concert with Watanabe to trade information on Fisk, Osborn, and Spidey’s rogues gallery in the hopes of putting a stop to their criminal enterprises, there are also moments where Spider-Man will run across a random crime, such as a drug deal or a breaking and entering, where he will assist the cops in defeating and subduing a given criminal.
While it is no secret that the NYPD of our world has an extensive record of corruption and misconduct, most players are able to separate fiction from reality. They understand that not every piece of media needs to constantly hold a mirror to the real world and are able to enjoy the super hero experience offered by the game while still being aware that there are bad actors in the NYPD.
It is evident that these writers cannot fathom a world where a police officer isn’t an antagonist, and unfortunately this refusal to look at the world in a shade other than black and white is projected upon Spider-Man. These players see Spider-Man punching crooks, stopping terrorists, and taking down organized crime only to incorrectly assume that Spider-Man “aids in state surveillance, standing unquestioningly alongside an overly idealized caricature of the police”, when the reality is that Spider-Man is helping the people of New York, not the cops. At multiple times throughout the game, after stopping a crime, Spider-Man will remark that he needs to leave before the cops show up, as they don’t hold him in a positive regard, true to comic book fashion.
Conversely, as evidenced in the aforementioned quotes, these same articles also complain that the NYPD is almost non-existent. This however seems to ignore the fundamental concept of a video game: if the cops were stopping all the crime in NYC, what would be the point of having Spider-Man controllable throughout the city? In video games, immersion plays a very important factor, and if there are no crimes for Spider-Man to stop, the city and world would not feel believable (though it does seem odd that, in the same breath, these players condemn the game for both not showing the police as corrupt as they are and for not showing the police as active members of law enforcement). Yes, many cops still prevent and assist in the resolution of many crimes, but realistically law enforcement cannot stop every crime: to present a world where cops respond to and handle every single one of these crimes would make for a wholly unenjoyable and immersion-breaking video game experience.
There has also been a lot of focus put on the criminal element of this game, with some saying that his treatment of drug dealers and drug users border on fascism.
Zack Kotzer at Dot eSports explains:
“Diving in from storeys above to pummel drug pushers (and presumably drug users) feels like a petty and lunkheaded form of vigilante work for Spider-Man. A literalist War on Drugs manifestation, the type that felt dated and dangerous in the 80s and more tiresome now.”
“The game subjects its criminal suspects to an equal but opposite simplification. On patrol, Spider-Man mocks the motivations and intelligence of every suspect he encounters. The game’s developers have rendered Manhattan in astoundingly faithful geographic detail, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block; but then the game disregards the social details that should inform criminal activity, such as local poverty or a neighborhood’s unique relationship with policing. The core story line further simplifies matters: In the game’s most chaotic mission, Spider-Man swings through Rikers Island to suppress an armed prison uprising. The game’s island is a hellscape, overrun with liberated meatheads who all relish the opportunity to pummel Spider-Man and the prison administrators to death.”
And Jeremy Gordon in The Outline puts his down:
“But one aspect of Spidey’s fictional crime-fighting sticks out nonetheless: The way he fights drug dealers.
Here is how a typical encounter works in the game: You get a notification from the police scanner about a drug deal taking place in an alley or, confusingly, on top of a skyscraper. As you get closer, you hear the masked dealers spout villainous lines like, “You ain’t never seen anything like this stuff” and “scientists who cooked this up ain’t never heard of the Geneva Convention.” (I’m serious; I have the captions turned on.) Then, you kick their ass as Spider-Man quips away: “Drug deals and criminals go together like cookies and milk!” “Knocking the living stuffing out of drug dealers is my anti-drug!” “Fellas, you can’t keep ducking income tax like this!” You web them up, and leave before the cops show up.
That’s as far as we go. Okay, sure, it’s just a video game, though the idea that video games should be stridently apolitical is a recent one, bolstered by the disingenuous Gamergate movement. It’s also inherently conservative, as it ignores the invisible connections between just about everything, and insists on the freedom to have personal fun without thinking about anything else.”
No, Insomniac Games did not forcefully inject real world political issues into Spider-Man, but neither have they turned Spider-Man into a Dredd-esque enforcer hell bent on savagely beating pot dealers. Through out the course of the game, Spider-Man gets alerted to drug deals taking place within his city. If the player chooses to investigate, upon their arrival, every participant present at the drug deal will attack Spider-Man, with anything ranging from their fists to fully loaded automatic rifles. These are not victims of addiction or people casually getting high; Spider-Man is essentially acting in self-defense while also attempting to remove violent criminals from the streets.
While the opioid crisis grows within the United States and the failed War on Drugs begins to be dismantled, Spider-Man’s drug dealers are designed by Insomniac Games to be markedly and explicitly ‘violent criminals.’ This also makes sense when considering the medium: in a game reliant on fast combat and travel, taking time out of a fight to check if someone shooting at you is down on their luck or in need of assistance breaks the flow of the game and jarringly breaks the immersion of a superhero fantasy. When faced with multiple guns being fired at him, one cannot blame Spider-Man for punching a few enemies and webbing another to a wall to save himself and prevent others from being harmed.
While reaching to connect Spider-Man with any given political hot button issue, the authors who purport these sentiments ignore almost completely the core of who Spider-Man, or more specifically Peter Parker, is as a character and what he stands for.
Tom Ley in Deadspin writes:
“What this new game does is put Spider-Man up on a perch where he doesn’t belong. He’s 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.”
Justin Charity in The Ringer echoes him:
“Peter Parker romanticizes policing, and so Spider-Man asks the player to humor the character’s law-and-order obsession through its narrative and gameplay.”
And Heather Alexandra at Kotaku provides an extensive description:
“Spider-Man’s portrayal of policing feels divorced from reality, to the point that it feels out of line with Spidey’s comic book heritage. Comics often speak to what’s happening in the real world. Captain America assumed the role of Nomad in 1974, the same year that Richard Nixon resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. The X-Men have a history of allegorical representation of minoritized and persecuted groups. Spider-Man doesn’t seem interested in reacting to the real world.”
From his very first appearance in 1962 , the character of Spider-Man has always performed his super heroic duties in service of the ordinary citizens of New York. Whether he has had to give up his potential fame as a masked wrestler, refuse a pay check while a member of the New Avengers in favor of keeping his identity secret, destroyed his own international technology conglomerate, or simply paying for his own airfare to stop a crime in Europe, Peter has never desired any compensation or reward, whether it be money or “solidifying the existing power structure’s grip on the city.”
[LIGHT SPOILER FOR SPIDER-MAN (PS4)]
In fact, at a certain point in the game, Peter is rendered homeless thanks to his scientific funding being pulled and an eviction notice from his landlord. At no point does he stop being Spider-Man in order to demand someone pay his rent; every action Peter has ever had while clad in his webs has been to save another person or improve their lives. These baseless accusations would sound more natural coming from the game’s harshest Spider-critic (and Alex Jones Parody) J. Jonah Jameson, rather than a player who claims to be familiar with Spider-Man’s history.
[END LIGHT SPOILER FOR SPIDER-MAN (PS4)]
As for the aversion to Spider-Man’s “policing,” it should come as no surprise to players that Spider-Man has a history of going on ‘patrol,’ wherein Spider-Man spends his time wandering New York searching for any crimes in progress that he can stop or a person in need of assistance that he can help. It should come as even less of a surprise that this wandering is an integral part of Spider-Man’s gameplay. There’s no forced obsession with law-and-order in this game, but rather an accurate portrayal of Spider-Man’s nightly activities.
Furthermore, while Spider-Man has dealt with many serious issues throughout his 56 year publication run, and the game does touch upon certain issues (such as mass surveillance, government corruption, and pollution), it does not feel the need to force a political narrative or opinion upon the players. Heavy handedly forcing a political narrative into the game always leads to massive debates, division, and even locking a game’s relevance into a given year. By avoiding opinionated political grandstanding, Insomniac Games has ensured that as many people as possible will play their game and enjoy being Spider-Man, instead of dragging players out of their escapism and making them confront the stark truths of reality. Spider-Man’s latest outing is bringing together fans from across the world together instead of dividing them apart over political opinions in an all too volatile social atmosphere.
Spider-Man does not portray a hyper-realistic and intimate New York City Police Department, nor are there any elements that reflect the current political atmosphere of The United States, but ultimately there is nothing wrong with that. Insomniac Games and Sony never set out to write the next political thriller or create a triple-a title that explores racial dynamics within law enforcement, but they did set out to create an experience that allows players to suit up in their tights and leap headfirst off of skyscrapers. To this end, they have undoubtedly and impressively succeeded with Marvel’s Spider-Man.
It is not necessary for every piece of media to deal with real world problems or reflect upon political dynamics. It is supported, even encouraged, that people engage with things that make them happy, whether it be an amazing comic book run or a phenomenal video game. Thankfully, Spider-Man allows every player to escape into the world of Spider-Man, even if just for a moment. One can let the digital wind run through their hair as they backflip over a four story brownstone while forgetting about what troubles them, whether it be a personal issue or a non-troversey started by a disingenuous writer who only played a few hours of the game (and who, in the aftermath, has taken to twitter to deflect criticism about his article by mocking his critics).