Just how accurate is Ubisoft’s depiction of a post-pandemic New York in upcoming squad-based RPG, The Division?
New York is writing the textbook on modern, Western society. It’s a bustling metropolis that effortlessly straddles the divide between cultures and eras, while feeling like it’s at the forefront of what’s next, be it technology, entertainment, fashion, sport or business. Its eight million people filter through a jungle of skyscrapers and layers of public transport every day, but if it all went dark, what would happen?
In Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster, The Division, a pandemic has spread through the city, and Manhattan has become a quarantined dark zone where survivors scrape together an existence from the meagre resources left behind by society’s collapse. As an agent in The Division, you’re in the thick of it, trying to rebuild some sort of structure in which people can live – read our hands-on here.
But just what would happen during a real collapse of society. We spoke to Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, an expert in social crisis and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, about The Division and the end of the world. Make sure you also catch our interview with creative director Magnus Jansen about splitscreen in The Division, and also our interview with the head of IP Martin Hultberg about where The Division sits in the Clancy range, the difficulty in licensing buildings and how the Dark Zone will appear in other future Ubisoft titles.
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Dr. Nafeez Mossadeq Ahmed
- Author and investigative journalist
- Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development
- Published works:
New York feels like a well-oiled machine where all the parts are human – does this make the city more susceptible to social collapse than other locations around the globe?
Big cities in general are vulnerable to certain types of collapse. Not a general collapse – it's not like New York could suddenly just break down randomly for no reason – but I think when you have a complex, big industrial society, a powerful type of shock can lead to a cascading effect, because everything is so interconnected. New York is a well-oiled machine, and the machine metaphor is really useful. If you have a machine and one part breaks down, then that can sometimes affect the entire machine; it just won't work.
Even if you're riding a bike, it can be a very simple thing that breaks down and then you just can't ride it. And when you have a complex machine like a society, then if one part becomes a problem – say the food delivery system, for example – then that will have an effect on everything else. And I think that's the question really; is it possible to have a shock or a crisis that can have an impact that is transmitted across all the different systems of a big city, which leads it to become paralysed?
So what is interesting about the scenario in The Division is that, if a pandemic were to hit New York, then the depicted scenario of all the different systems suddenly failing in a matter of days can very well happen. Scientists are becoming more and more aware to which cities like New York are vulnerable to that kind of impact. Now there's an awareness that "okay, we need to do a lot more to build a resilience to something like that."
So what is interesting about the scenario in The Division is that, if a pandemic was to hit New York, then the depicted scenario of all the different systems suddenly failing in a matter of days can very well happen.
What do you think would be happening in the rest of the world as Manhattan goes into lockdown and collapse?
This is interesting because in the scenario of The Division, there's a smallpox virus and we're not sure why or how it has comes up, but we know it is spread by the circulation of money. So if something like this was to actually happen to a city like New York, then I would expect that immediately all major cities around the world would see the risk of this pandemic spreading.
Obviously in the United States itself, you would expect that large areas around New York would go into a semi-lockdown situation where the government would feel like it needs to make sure that there isn't any more possibility of the pandemic being spread further. Also, I think very suddenly there would be a real reluctance to use cash money. People would think, "don't use cash. Just don't touch the cash." And if people could not use cash anymore, that would have a massive impact on businesses everywhere across the world.
I think that panic could lead to an unprecedented economic crisis. And that in turn could lead to all sorts of other crises as well, because people will only use their cash cards. All of that money in circulation – that's trillions of dollars and pounds and yen and whatever – suddenly unused.
However, then people would wonder, "what if my card is contaminated? I put it in the machine and it rubbed off?" So there would be a lot of fear. I think there would definitely be a response of people wanting to retract from society and wanting to hold up governments to make sure that they protect their citizens. People would be afraid of flying; afraid of travelling. So that kind of thing, I think, would be really devastating to the economy, and that in itself could lead to a ramifying cascading effect in all sorts of different systems. This could lead to a global scenario of a lot of social systems collapsing.
The other possibility is that governments find a way to react a little bit more sensibly and say, "okay, there is risk, but we can contain the risk and we don't think it spread everywhere. It seems to be contained, so we don't have to have this panic." I think that push back is certainly something we would see as some people would try not to panic. Again, this is all speculative and hypothetical, so it's really difficult to tell.
In The Division there are citizens out and about trying to survive in this new Manhattan. But realistically, do you think people simply wouldn't be able to go outside during a collapse like this due to the risk of being targeted by other survivors?
It depends. I think it’s not realistic to expect that people would be able to just leave their homes. So even though there would definitely be a lot of people trying to leave, your immediate continuity of government plans would come into effect. And that would mean all your emergency response services would go into the mindset of, "we have to quarantine. We have to contain."
As a result people would be forced to live within the area they are situated and make the best of it. Even though supply lines have collapsed, medicines aren't available and hospitals have broken down, there would be kind of a forced containment situation of people not infected.
So, to some extent, I think that the reaction of people having to find a way to live within their existing surroundings would be inevitable. So the way the game has people on the streets trying to survive, I think that’s semi-realistic or plausible. What's probably not-so-plausible is the specific gaming scenario related to being a first-person shooter. By which I mean, you have to have shooting. So you've got The Division agents going around fighting, and you've got the factions rising. I think a lot of that is maximised for entertainment purposes.
At the end of the day, it's a game and it has to feed into the traditional purpose of gaming. So while some of what you see is based on plausible scenarios... I mean, we know when we've had societal breakdowns or natural disasters in the past, there are groups of people who go looting and rioting. So you do get that chaos. But you also get communities coming together to try and rebuild.
Look at what happened in New Orleans, for example, after hurricane Katrina. We had a combination of those things and, in the end, the human spirit prevailed and they managed to rebuild the city. And despite whatever negative elements that were there – and they were there: there were really crazy things going on – in the end, they managed to contain it. There was a sensible human response where people just wanted to live their lives and get on with it and help each other. So they just sorted things out and worked together.
I think that element of a collapse is not entirely realistic in the game. Instead the idea is that very dystopian dimension of violence in the streets, which while a possibility, isn’t as likely a result. But The Division, because it's a piece of entertainment and fiction set in the Tom Clancy universe, has to take that element and focus on it. It’s not what I think would actually happen.
So the idea of building an alliance with some sort of group to survive, which is typical of apocalyptic media, is not that important?
I think the most important motto in a survival plan scenario is, “don't hoard the baked beans.” If you feel like that's what you need to do, hoard everything, loot everything, take it all for yourself, well, in the end you can't survive like that. Ultimately, if you want to survive, you have to be able to work together with other people. And that's something which I think is very clear from the nature of our society – it doesn't work when it's just each person for themselves. It works because it's a machine that's interconnected and all the parts are working and everyone knows what they're doing; it's a division of labour.
And if you're going to survive in the environment of chaos, there's all the more reason for you to find ways to reach out to other people in order to work together and share your resources. To answer questions like, "how can we obtain food? How can we get clean water? How can we keep the lights on and keep the heating working?" You can't do all that by yourself; you know, you're going to need someone who's got engineering skills or someone who's got food growing skills, or someone who’s got...
… well, unless you take it…
Yeah, unless you take it, but that's not a strategy that is going to be viable in the long run. It may work for a couple of days, but if you think about it in the long run, what's going to happen after you fight and kill each other over scarce resources? That scenario leads to chaos, disaster, conflict. It's not a sustainable scenario.
But if you want to actually survive in the long run, the most sustainable scenario is not one where you're going to all fight with each other over scarce resources, but one where you’re like, "how can we manage this situation and actually find a way to use all the different skills that we have to work together?" Because there's going to be things that you, as an individual, don't know or can't do.
You might be able to run into a supermarket and steal the baked beans, but are you going to be able to get your heater working and keep it running when it breaks down? So there is that. There is always going to be an inevitability where you're going to have to get someone else's help, and you're going to be like, "aw shucks, I stole the baked beans from you. You can have it back."
What you're describing is a functioning modern society, but for the vast majority of human existence - from tribal through the twentieth century - it hasn't been about sharing the baked beans. It's been a mentality of “we're going to take it because we want it.” It feels like we’re very new at practising camaraderie, and well versed in the concept of conquering. Do you really think we won’t revert to our primal mentality?
I think it's a popular mythology that human nature is all about take and history is all about conquest and that's it. It's something which is related very much to the entertainment factor of the dystopian narrative, especially glorified in films and games.
It’s unfortunate because it takes away from a lot of examples in human history where we see that, in order to survive, people do work together. When you do look at history, yes, there's always that conquest element and societies or people who will do anything to get into power. But there's also lots of cases of people or communities working together and cooperating.
For example, when we go back to some of the earliest primitive societies - whether it's the [Indigenous peoples] - we find that the mythologies of backwards tribes massacring each other are highly exaggerated. In many ways, some of these societies were ahead of even what we see today in terms of their compassion for each other, their values and their willingness to cooperate. So I think there's somewhat of a mythology about the darkness of human beings and the inherent darkness of human nature.
To me, it seems that it's purely a case of open choice. It's not set in stone or history. I get the point that we’ve seen a lot of bloodshed in history, but it's always been a result of choice and it's not a necessity. I think where we find ourselves now is in an interesting environment where suddenly, because of globalisation, you have all sorts of different colours and ethnicities and communities suddenly in contact with each other.
So there is an opportunity there for a more cosmopolitan approach for people to say, "actually, you might be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or whatever, but we can still be mates. We can still talk to each other. We don't have to be killing each other over this." There's also people who are extremist and are like "we have to fight and we have to kill." So, we see that choice all the time, too.
One of the things that comes up in my work, as someone who studies social crisis and the link to violence, is that a catastrophe opens up the element of choice. Because there's a breakdown in your prevailing sense of what is working, people suddenly feel like, "okay, we need to do something about this." And there's always a choice. As a result, you then find there are political groups that say, "it's them who are the problem,” to capitalise.
Let’s look at Nazi Germany. There was all this context of crisis, geopolitics and the Great Depression; the economy was falling apart. And then, conveniently, Hitler and the Nazis were like, "it's the Jews. They're the bad ones. We need to do something about them." And that's the dark side; that's the dark path that sometimes people choose. But there's are other cases where there has been a crisis and people haven't gone crazy and opted for genocide.
In a crisis like the scenario we see in The Division, it will be about choice and it won’t be set in stone. And that's, in a way, where the struggle is. That's what makes The Division so interesting; it’s going to give players the opportunity to make those choices in a risk-free environment. Are they going to do the right thing, or are they going to go into the Dark Zone and start killing everyone? There’s no ramifications.
It's going to be very interesting to see what actually happens and how the game develops. Is it going to become a dystopian hellhole or are we going to see more cooperative dynamics developing in the way different groups form? Because you can do anything.
We’re probably going to shoot each other in the face to be honest. I’m curious, when you run all these tests and simulations what's the big unknown? What's the curve ball you can’t predict that could just flip all your studies on their head?
Whenever we do a project, we always look at many other games. We play games all the time, we get inspired and we see how they solve different problems. We decided quite early on that we actually wanted to try to make a real New York, not our take on New York, which is often the case otherwise. Usually you are influenced by a city and you make something that is clearly mimicking it, but it's not the actual thing. We wanted to stay very close to the real New York.
That provides quite a problem in itself and I don’t think other games had really addressed it in a way that could help us figure out how to solve it. I mean, there are many issues you have to consider with branding and marks on walls like posters, not to mention legal issues with buildings and all that stuff. So we had to pretty much find our own way from the get-go.
So there was a fair bit of negotiation involved between Ubisoft and the buildings and the brands that are displayed in the game?
All the brands in the game are brands we created. Actually I won't say all, but definitely most. Otherwise it's a licensing deal and you have to talk to people, so it's easier to create your own brands so you have total freedom. If you don’t, you will almost certainly get restrictions as some brand team will say, “oh, but you can’t blow up our car,” or “you can’t shoot our logo,” etc. You need freedom with that so we made our own brands, but they are inspired by real brands so they still feel like they fit.
When it comes to buildings, certain buildings are trademarked and licensed. So you can't reproduce them exactly like they look in reality. You have to change certain things. And some buildings you can’t even have at all unless you get licensing rights to them. Even the New York Police Department is licensed.
Can you talk me through an example of a building that you put in the game where there was a process you had to go through to allow it to happen?
The Empire State Building is protected, for example, with many rules around how you can use it. Sadly it's one of the most iconic buildings in the entire city, so you can't just not have it. We had to deal with its licensing teams, respect their guidelines, talk to them about how we could do it and submit through legal processes.
They often start by telling you, “ok, these are our rules that you have to follow when you feature our building in your product.” We look at those rules and say, “ok, you need us to do X, Y and Z, and maybe change the profile of the building slightly. Or we can't use certain colours, or whatever.” We then do a version we think follows these guidelines and we submit that for approval – first internally to our legal team, and then the legal team takes it up with other legal teams outside of Ubisoft if they have to.
If it's approved, likely there will still be some back-and-forth and changes. It’s only once everybody's happy with what we have that we're good to go.
Do you have a rough idea of how many buildings like that you've encountered in doing Midtown?
There aren't that many that are actually, process-wise, that difficult. Maybe between five and ten are a pain to try and recreate. The rest are fairly easy to do. So I would say there are somewhere between five to ten buildings that were a struggle to recreate.
In regards to the book that was done to compliment the game: what's your take on the definition of good transmedia?
It’s always human behaviour – that's the thing. When you run models like this, you put in all the parameters and you just let it run. You ask the system, "if we do this, what's going to happen?" So if you look at some of the models we've got running now in my university at Cambridge, for example, they're working on a big, big model that inputs loads of complex data about the economy, GDP, food production, climate change and all these different things.
Then they literally just run it forward to see, "okay, if we continue on this current business-as-usual trajectory, where is it going to end up?" And when they do run it forward, it's like "okay, in the next 20 to 30 years climate change accelerates. We carry on doing what we're doing now to counter it, which is not enough, then it's an absolute disaster scenario." Like, food crises accelerate, half the planet is in drought, societies begin to collapse, etc. It's crazy.
But the problem with this model is that we literally just run it forward. And in reality, when you run things like that forward, people don't just sit there and be like, "look here comes a brick wall but I’m going to carry on driving." What happens is, you start to see the brick wall and you think, "I need to change my direction."
So instead you look at past crises and you see what people’s prediction models said the outcome would look like, then compare that to what the outcome was actually like. Things haven't worked out exactly as we predicted because people change, people adapt, people respond. And it's not just because we're selfless or there is an altruistic component, it's just human nature to be like, "we want to survive. We don't all want to die."
In terms of the collective human survival as a species, if we want to survive on the planet, I think what our crisis predictions are telling us is that you're not going to do it by just fighting each other or killing each other. When it comes down to it, if you want to survive as a species, there's going to come a point where you need to say, "okay, we need to work together on this one, guys. Otherwise, we're going to be extinct." What's interesting is that I think, within human nature, there's definitely a survival mechanism there to do what is required.
The question is, is it going be too late when that mechanism kicks in? Is it going to really ramp up in time to do something meaningful about what we're seeing at the moment? Or are we going to go the way of the dinosaurs? So when we're looking at what's happening now with things like climate change, there's no doubt that people are responding. The scientists are all saying, "there's stuff happening, guys. We need to do something."
Maybe, in a way, we've got a bit more lead time to do something than previous civilizations because we've got science and we can kind of look ahead into the future using our modelling and say, "this is what is likely to happen in a pandemic." Whereas in the past, they didn't have that level of knowledge about what was going on in the world.
The Roman Empire, for example, didn't realise there was overreach in their conquering and resource problems. They didn't understand what would happen if they actually continued on that path. Whereas we can now look back at the Roman Empire and look at those dynamics and we can see parallels today. In fact, there are scientists and historians who are doing that kind of analysis and saying, "these are the risks that we have today, and we can actually learn something from the past."
To some extent, even though we have unprecedented global risks, we also have unprecedented global understanding of how those risks are working, which didn't happen in the past. We also have answers that we didn't have in the past as we know more about it. We know we need to invest in renewable, for example.
So even if we're not doing it as much as we need to, there is a growing awareness of a need to change. It's really difficult to tell where actually things are going to go in reality, because humans do adapt and they do change; they do make choices. So it's always important to remember that when a scientist makes a prediction using a model, at the end of the day, it's just numbers. It's just a model, and the real world is never going to work according to your models. The world is just way more complex.
In a weird way, are you guy kind of excited when a crisis happens, as it can help you refine your models? Like hurricane Katrina, for example.
Something like a hurricane doesn't really count as it’s a weather phenomenon. It's not like we sit there and think, "there's a hurricane, hooray." But what a climate scientist would want to do is look at the record of the frequency of natural disasters or extreme weather events over the last year or several years to understand, "is this somehow related to climate change or is it just weather?" So it's a pure case of simply wanting to understand how the phenomenon works. Where it is coming from?
Whether it happens or it doesn't happen, it doesn't really in itself add to knowledge, but it's the pattern of events that allows you to understand where it's coming from and if it is related to something else. And actually, most climate scientists would be really happy to have extreme weather events disappear and then they would be able to explain that and say, "Hey guys, this is why it's disappeared." Unfortunately, that's not happening.
Do you feel like the fear of a big global pandemic could be self-perpetuating? In this age of global communication and easily accessible media, people see these shows and play these games and think that is what will happen. So is it possible a false alarm could bring about the hysteria that could bring about the decay of society anyway?
I think there are two issues there. One is basically, is there a risk of a pandemic? And I think, scientifically, we know that there is a real risk and there are real vulnerabilities. And in terms of probabilities, it's one of those things that the consensus among the scientific community is that we have a huge level of unknowns to deal with because of the very nature of what happens when you have a pandemic. There's mutations, there's adaptations of the virus, and there are all these modern vulnerabilities like factory farming and the reduction of anti-micro resistance. There are all these factors that is making it more likely.
But that's what you know and that's what I know but...
Yes, so there’s reality, but then there's also the issue of popular culture and the danger that if something happens somewhere and it becomes a social media headline, it creates panic. And there was this really interesting example where it actually happened during a recent hurricane in New York a couple of years ago.
There was this dude in the city who was literally tweeting out nonsense about how "New York's been shut down. The subway has been shut down. Everything has been shut down." And he was going viral. Everyone was re-tweeting it and people were writing headlines about it. Luckily, within 24 hours some journalist figured out that it was not actually happening, that it was fake, and actually outed the guy. But that kind of gives us quite a real example of how…
You can start it, anyone.
Yeah, you can create panic. And sometimes it can be significant. If people start to panic and they're scared, it could lead to all kinds of things. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy before something even happens.
So if you're in Manhattan and a pandemic like the one in The Division happens, what would you do?
Pick up a gun. No I'd probably start hoarding the baked beans, and maybe what I'd then do is realise I shouldn't do that and follow my own advice. I've been telling everyone don't hoard the baked beans and share, because if you hoard it, everyone is going to start fighting each other. So it's like, "No, no, no. Be nice. Go out there with your little tin of baked beans. Let's all share."
Do you think people will share with you?
I think most people wouldn't share, but I think some people might. At some point, you're going to have to grow your own food. That's reality. The one thing that is clear is that you can't live alone by yourself in the wilderness and think you are going to survive all by yourself forever. You need to have community. Can you imagine trying to grow your own food in New York by yourself?
What media outside of The Division do you think is best at showing the decay of society?
The Walking Dead is pretty good. There's a lot of interesting stuff that is out there, though. I watched recently was Wayward Pines by M. Night Shyamalan, which is one of the most left-of-field popular culture explorations of the whole “society in its current form is doomed” theme, because it explores the concept within the context of this future bubble society.
The rest of human civilization has kind of regressed into zombies, but the people in Wayward Pines have not; they're just these crazy predators who are really powerful. So that's what human beings have become. And there is this scientist who is basically running this really autocratic, crazed, top-down society to keep order. It asks, “do you need to have compassion and working together, or do you need to have a strong central government that is going to keep people in check and use fear?” It was really cool.