The “War on Drugs” is one of the most enduring legacies of Ronald Reagan. While the term itself was technically coined by Richard Nixon in 1971, it was Reagan’s announcement in 1982 that illicit drugs had become a threat to national security that kicked off the militant crackdown on street-level drug crime and the surge in anti-drug policy that has characterized the War on Drugs ever since.
35 years later, the U.S. is still fighting the War on Drugs (at least on paper, though the landscape that shaped the initial “conflict” has changed dramatically). Reagan is gone, as are both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama. Cabinets have turned over multiple times, and there are Senators today who were children when Reagan first announced the War on Drugs back in the ‘80s. A lot has changed in America over the past 35 years, but amid the evolving face of its citizenry the War on Drugs inexplicably remains a mainstay of the country’s cultural zeitgeist.
Spanning multiple administrations and more than three decades, the War on Drugs is one of the longest continuing conflicts the U.S. has “fought.” In 2014, illicit drugs accounted for 17,000 of the country’s recorded deaths. Some 1.5 million Americans were jailed for drug-related offenses in 2015—the vast majority of these were marijuana-related charges, and some 84 percent were merely for possession. All told, the American taxpayers spend around $51 billion each year prosecuting a war with no real enemy except for the lower-class and urban Black and Latino populations of America. We’re still fighting the War on Drugs. Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is a bullet fired from the high-powered rifle of anti-drug propaganda.
Wildlands is a game that takes the idea of the War on Drugs, turns it literal, and then injects it full of steroids and strips it of any social awareness in favor of the chest-thumping machismo we’re used to from games like Call of Duty, mixed with the racism, classism, and xenophobia of the American Right. It is the pinnacle of the vaunted Videogame Power Fantasy, a terrifying look into what it would be like if the U.S.’ foreign policy was penned by 16-year-old suburban boys wearing Tapout shirts; the kind of people who will blithely play 40 hours of a game about executing civilians for drug offenses before going to a house party and posting to Snapchat about how they smoke weed, without a single ounce of irony or awareness.
Videogames are capable of narrative nuance, but you wouldn’t know it to play Wildlands. The player and her squad of three other American special forces soldiers, working for the CIA (the eponymous “ghosts”) infiltrate Bolivia, which has itself been taken over by a drug cartel from Mexico called Santa Blanca. The player’s goal is simple: Eliminate Santa Blanca. The means are equally simple: Murder your way through street-level cartel members, wreaking enough havoc to enrage and draw out the lieutenants, then the underbosses, until finally the head of the serpent itself, the giant, facially tattooed El Sueño, is in your crosshairs.
It’s the same format that numerous open-world military shooters, like Far Cry or Mercenaries, have used. But even if the uninspired checklist-motivated core design loop were well executed (it’s not), Wildlands fails right out of the gate, tripping over its subject matter and shoving both its feet into its mouth by virtue of its very existence. On the surface, Wildlands is a game about fighting a military conflict. Similar to how the War on Drugs is framed as a public good, fought in the interest of protecting the health of Americans, you actively battle to curb the existence of drug dealing. But at the nuts-and-bolts level, Wildlands substantiates little of its stated objective. Wildlands is a game about acquisition. The player drives, flies and bikes around Bolivia in the sole interest of gaining more stuff: unlocking more weapons, more vehicles, more missions, more in-game points and more resources, all of which enable the player to then continue collecting, ad nauseum. Players spend much of the game staring at a giant map, tantalizingly sprinkled with icons denoting missions and skill points; superficially players are encouraged to fight members of the cartel, but the central drive in Wildlands is to bling out your avatar and AI comrades as much as is possible.
This is an open-world game, which drops the player into a giant, beautifully recreated facsimile of Bolivia. The world is not empty. Towns, settlements, and farms dot the landscape, and these are often populated by virtual working-class folk, the exact people the player is presumably in-country to protect and “liberate” from Santa Blanca. However, these citizens are invisible to the player, who can’t interact with or speak to them in any way. The closest the player can get to engaging with the civilians of Bolivia in Wildlands is to shoot them accidentally in a firefight. And even this indiscretion is permitted, provided players don’t do it too much or too often. This dichotomy is the most succinct characterization of how Wildlands betrays its subject matter: Much like the real War on Drugs, the game’s conflict isn’t about protecting or saving the poor and downtrodden, but rather acquiring power through the collection of Stuff—one is reminded of how the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) over the past decade has seized $3.2 billion from people not charged with any crime.
Paradoxes litter the narrative design of Wildlands. The game struggles to perpetuate the myth of the dangerous drug lord without contradicting the image of the invulnerable American Military superhero. How can you sow a feeling of fear of toward the game’s enemy when you also need to reinforce to the player that she is invincible? The incongruities of conflict in Wildlands are astounding. Players sneak through favelas using high-powered binoculars and even portable drones to spy on and mark the location of enemies wearing basketball shorts. If you do your job correctly, you can secretly dispatch entire outposts of enemies with your state-of-the-art silenced rifles. But even if you’re seen, there’s no real penalty—the under equipped drug enforcers, with their noisy secondhand AK-47 rifles are no match for your crack squad, which can dispatch multiple foes at once through the magic of American military training.
These paradoxes and missteps are dangerous. After playing Wildlands for dozens of hours, I left with no further understanding of the War on Drugs, its belligerents, or how it impacts people in Latin America and the U.S. All I knew for sure was what videogames have always told me: Brown people are bad, American military might is unparalleled, and if we stay the course we’ve been on for 35 years, we’ll surely beat drugs once and for all. We’re constantly just another dead brown body away from accomplishing our missions.
The sad truth is, a game about the War on Drugs is not only possible, but in our day and age, necessary. With millions of young, poor Americans languishing in prisons, awareness of the social and political circumstances which led us to this point is essential.
And that’s the main problem with Wildlands, indeed with the War on Drugs itself. If you frame a situation as a military conflict, military solutions will present themselves. Our country has spent the past three and a half decades under the assumption that bullets and espionage are what are required to eradicate the allure of the illicit drug trade. When the people—all of whom are fellow Americans—are painted as enemies, it colors our entire worldview and narrows our solutions. Making a military shooter out of the War on Drugs is irresponsible. Wildlands perpetuates foreign policy and social ideals that have already been proven to be false.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Bullet Points podcast, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.