Playing the Cartel War

Playing the Cartel War

Games mishandle the Mexican drug conflict, but they don't have to.

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Thank you for writing this article, The Escapist has just gone on a run of exceptional articles that feel so important. Stuff like this shifts the 'games as lifestyle' and 'games as art' into a far less hipster and surface world where the attention is no longer on the games but the serious world issues and how they can be viewed through a game as any other artistic prism. I feel much happier thinking about games as lifestyle if people are using it to explain contemporary real world issues to us, than as a kind of iPhone social badge.

I don't feel like a Sim builder or an RTS would be a good choice of game for this though, they're very removed and emotionally dry normally and I'm not convinced they could convey the complexity in a meaningful way. You could make a really excellent game if you built it from the ground up to convey a purpose like this though, not necessarily fun, but completely engaging. If it was a kind of Deus Ex/Dishonoured/Spec Ops hybrid it could be incredibly powerful. Particularly the Spec Ops part, it could even work well as a shooter as long as it was intelligent and like Spec Ops, didn't suggest that the shooting was fun.

I believe someone following your advice could make a good, mostly accurate, even educational game about the Mexican drug conflict. However, I don't think Mexico would be any happier about that. Maybe that's a lost cause, so an improvement on one side of the border's good enough.

A pretty interesting article. It is a shame though that the gaming industry prefers to produce the equivalent of action popcorn flicks in order to avoid alienating their audience or god-forbid invoking serious thoughts.

I would love to see a game like Beyond Good and Evil, with a journalist trying to uncover criminal activities and who mostly refrains from using a gun.

I am loving this column! I am in awe of this holistic, well-researched approach to issues that lie at the intersection of video games and large-scale real world problems. The concise, smooth and well-organized writing is just a bonus. I am now officially a fan.

To Robert Rath: I am curious about how you pick the topics for each week. Do you choose something that is interesting and then do lots of research on it? Or are these issues in which you have been interested for a while and are now distilling down to weekly articles? Judging by your website, I would guess that the latter is case.

AvtrSpirit:
I am loving this column! I am in awe of this holistic, well-researched approach to issues that lie at the intersection of video games and large-scale real world problems. The concise, smooth and well-organized writing is just a bonus. I am now officially a fan.

To Robert Rath: I am curious about how you pick the topics for each week. Do you choose something that is interesting and then do lots of research on it? Or are these issues in which you have been interested for a while and are now distilling down to weekly articles? Judging by your website, I would guess that the latter is case.

Thanks! I really appreciate having a venue for this kind of writing, and I'm bowled over at how positive the reception has been.

I choose topics in a number of ways. I'm a research paralegal by day, and I'm often called upon to write security briefings or analyses for clients that live or work abroad. So you're right, sometimes I'm amalgamating years of research (on the Cartel War, for instance) with things I've learned from being a gamer.

Other times, like with last week's article on self-censorship in China, I've read an article or heard a news story about the topic, perhaps years ago, that connects to a recent game or controversy. When that happens, I dive in to find out as much as I can about it before my deadline.

Still other times--like with next week's story--the topic is an item that appears in the gaming press that I know almost nothing about, so I do a research crash-course and try to understand it on a deeper level.

So really, it's both. My only goals are that the resulting column is interesting, well-researched, and has to do with the intersection between games and reality.

You remind me of one episode of Extra Credits.

http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/call-of-juarez-the-cartel

saintdane05:
You remind me of one episode of Extra Credits.

http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/call-of-juarez-the-cartel

That's probably because I contributed to it! I nudged the EC team to make the episode and provided them with about 200 pages worth of research documents so they could discuss the political aspects of the Cartel War. They did a really good job with it, and I'm very proud to have had an (admittedly small) part in making it possible.

But believe me, they barely scratched the surface on the awful stuff in that game. If they'd have done an exhaustive list, that episode would've been an hour long. My own analysis of all the things that were either wrong, distorted, or misrepresented was twice the length of this column.

Robert Rath:

That's probably because I contributed to it! I nudged the EC team to make the episode and provided them with about 200 pages worth of research documents so they could discuss the political aspects of the Cartel War. They did a really good job with it, and I'm very proud to have had an (admittedly small) part in making it possible.

But believe me, they barely scratched the surface on the awful stuff in that game. If they'd have done an exhaustive list, that episode would've been an hour long. My own analysis of all the things that were either wrong, distorted, or misrepresented was twice the length of this column.

Whoa.... could you post it? That would be a fun read...

As a Mexican, it makes me very happy that there are people in the States that legitimately care about the proper representation of this problem, so thank you very much.

It's funny reading that article because now when I think about games that involve Americans involed in foreign conflict I just laugh because it's ridiculous how we love to focus on how righteous and awesome we are.

A properly told game would be moving and heroic, and relay a struggle of life and death in Mexico. It would not sell a dime.

Sad as it is to say, a great deal of gamers are immature about subjects like this, viewing games an purely entertainment and ignoring the other aspects. Not all of them, but way too many to be comfortable. Many would see this through the eyes of a stiff caricature, like Carlos Mencia, rather than through the eyes of a hero.

And these statements depress me.

Surprising and remarkable article -- I honestly feel somewhat ashamed I'd never given these issues a second thought. Of course, I also feel slightly ashamed getting offended on someone else's behalf. In short, I'm not entirely sure how I feel on this issue, and that's an uncommon state for me (I like that, in a way).

The incredibly strong "play it safe" mentality of the current gaming market is to blame here, though. They simply cannot fathom that a young, white male could relate to a character that is not all of the above (or perhaps none).

There was a survey at one point, I'm sure, where they asked a bunch of young, white males to choose from a bunch of pictures which character they'd most like to play as... and because they are humans, they chose the one that looked most like themselves -- because in the absence of all other information, that's where our preferences tend to go -- and forever doomed us to believing that all such people would only want to play characters that look like themselves.

(Oh, and that everyone has to sell their games to the same person.)

The cultural insensitivity of these sorts of games is an unfortunate side effect of that process. Of course, that doesn't diminish its impact any more than being hit by a car accidentally hurts less than being hit on purpose.

As for the "everything's shooting," that's just lazy design. The easiest way to create conflict is to make the game about fighting, and shooting is the type of fighting games have perfected to the greatest degree.

The thing you have to understand Mr. Rath is that the portrayal in many of these games your criticizing is pretty accurate, it's just not politically correct. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and the entire science of sociology is based around them, they are why things like advertising work and people make millions upon millions of dollar by understanding stereotypes and exploiting them. Not all stereotypes are nessicarly negative, but some are. You also have to understand that in practice a stereotype is a list of traits that you can check off which a given person or type of person is likely to fit. Most people won't hit every "mark" of a stereotype but will hit far more of those marks than they miss. Also people will generally conform to more than one stereotype simultaneously and can be targeted or identified from multiple directions. In general stereotyping and sociology is only an issue when it's negative or used to address big problems, then the politically correct brigade gets all upset. That doesn't prevent it from being accurate for most purposes though.

At any rate, you know some stuff about the "Cartel War" but really I think your missing a big part of the equasion. The USA is pretty much the point of the entire war. Due to drugs being illegal here huge prices can be commanded for them, despite those drugs being relatively cheap and easy to grow in other countries where it's not illegal, or there isn't adequete law enforcement to curtail it like there is in the US. The border wars are all about who pipes the drugs into the US for sale. We could argue the whole morality of drugs and whether they should be illegal, and how legalizing them would change things, but for the purposes of the arguement we're pretty much the victims here not just because of the violent spillover, but because of the drugs heading over the border that are coming in, in violation of our desires and presumably contributing to a lot of social problems.

The Cartel War being viewed from a mexican perspective is kind of pointless because on that end of things it all comes down to money, it's pretty understandable overall. It's a bunch of bad people fighting over exploiting the US. A big part of the problem is also that while Mexico does try and crack down on this due to their agreements with the US, there is a lot of anger and a feeling of entitlement to sell drugs in the US because it's something mexicans can obtain cheaply and feel should be valued, allowing them to have better lives, even if we disagree. Despite numerous "crackdowns" to say the actual efforts have been half hearted from within Mexico is an understatement, because other than good will with the US, Mexico has very little to actually gain from stopping drug trafficing. Indeed if the US was to ever loosen up it's laws, Mexico could loosen it's own, and woul be in a position to make a bundle through legitimate trade. From a Mexican perspective, attacking drug lords, as bad as they are, is pretty much shooting themselves in the foot for the benefit for a foreign power that doesn't want to accept their trade.

The idea of Americans going in and resolving this is common because in the final equasion we're pretty much the "good guys" as far as such a thing goes, since at the end of the day our entire motivation is simply to decide what happens in our back yard. Hence the "power fantasy" of kicking so much butt that the problem ends (or at least is reduced). For a lot of people in the US it's kind of maddening that we can't just go in and nail the guys involved when they are over a border we currently respect.

There is some truth that our free access to firearms (well relatively) especially in the south and in some of the border states means that a lot of the weapons used in the cartel wars come from us. Not to mention that guns 4 dope is a pretty straightforward trade for those who can get firearms in bulk.

When it comes to the issue of mexican civilians, you have to understand that when your dealing with video games, your dealing with the portrayal of a very specific situation intended to be exciting. To be fair in the middle of a cartel war zone where some gun toting spectre of vengeance is going to run into many civilians, everyone there being a narco isn't surprising because anyone who wasn't would have gotten the hell out of dodge by that point. Also understand that these games are also single focus, they don't even claim to show all of mexico (which has some very nice areas, and some incredible tourist traps) the stereotypes used are indicative of the kinds of people you'd expect to be around in an envirment ready to break out into a massive gunfight any second.

Your also correct that there is creative liscence taken, the cartels have never bombed a DEA building. They have killed cops and such (interfering with their business US side) but a massive display like that would invite exactly the kind of response these video games propose. The US might very well finally lay down the law with Mexico and say "you will tolerate the DEA going in and kicking butt, or our military will invade you given the extent of this attack" in a way you generally don't see happening. BUT that is exactly why the real cartels won't attack on that scale, they want to skirt around making themselves that much of a problem. The idea of some unusually crazy cartel leader who doesn't "get that" going too far makes for a great set up for some action fantasy though.

When it comes to human trafficking, it works both ways. When it comes to sexual slavery girls who are differant/exotic from the norm in a given area are always popular. Thus human traffickers will sell say Asian or Latino girls in the US, and white girls in Asian and Latin markets, it works both ways, and those really into it are unlikely to trade in only one direction. Globally speaking whites are in high demand internationally because we are perhaps the smallest and most exotic percentage of humanity, the Chinese alone counting for like 1/3rd of the human population, with India counting for almost another third and set to overtake the Chinese. According to many studies (census accuracy is difficult) Africa and South/Central America's now-indigious populations outnumber the white countries by a substantial amount also. Wealth is also a factor, getting a white girl is a little more difficult (though not terrible so with the state of some european and slavic countries) than other ethnicities.

Finally, you mention a Mexican protaganist. Don't get me wrong, I am not going to say that Mexicans can't be heroic in many situations, but when it comes to the cartel war I don't think the perspective really makes for much of a sympathetic game. The best you could hope for would be a game that seeks to put the blame on the US, basically from the perspective that if we just backed down and bought all the drugs legally these cartels couldn't operate. After all that is the central tension that drives the whole thing. That might earn some points in Mexico and other drug producing countries, but not so much in countries that don't want drugs, or have very strong attitudes about their right to decide what's imported into their country in general. In the final equasion that is the only real "ultimate perspective" that is going to work in the big picture, and few of those who play video games would go for that.... though admittedly many left wingers who themselves want to legalize drugs might agree with it on that level alone.

first off: great article

second: making a game about it... this gives me thoughts.

plot... journalist or kidnapped family member/lover would definitely be the thing to do. why not both? possibly multiple perspectives, something like COD4(but more varied-politician, cop, ect.), though im not sure how well that would work in an RPG with a branching plot.

im thinking the engine from skyrim or deus ex human revolution (possibly the former with some tweaks for stealth and dialogue boss gameplay), add in combat, but make it realistic and very lethal with suprise being a huge advantage-to encourage suspicion and mechanically add consequences to 'good' options making them inherently more dangerous than just killing NPCs youre suspicious of (assuming noone catches you) and emphasizing the scariness of trusting random NPC's just because of what theyre wearing (though 'good'-or at least politically expedient- options would be inherently more rewarding in the long term, and one may regret killing an NPC if you later found out they were a potential ally)

a community opinion mechanic (and definite faction reputation things, with spy/corrupt NPCs appearing to be one but acting in private on another), so that if you just run around murdering police who might be corrupt without exposing them first youre likely to be killed by both cartels and law enforcement. rewards (and risks) for publicly exposing things and increasing trust communities/organizations have for you(and how much they like you-busting the corrupt-but-beloved politician might get you recognized as honest, but not terribly well liked) ect. would require good writing. really really good writing.

as for showing mexico as JUST this conflict... well conflict is the part thats interesting. not that its at all interesting without contrast. im thinking the kidnapped family member/mate might be a good thing, especially if you have to play through it. perhaps a bit before it; something like the start of fallout3 where you use it to assign your characters starting stuff and through that and the first few minutes start establishing your characters personal motivations/players empathy with the characters?

if i werent lazy, whiter than bleached snow, and mostly ignorant of mexican culture beyond rampant sexism(not that we dont have that here) aztecs and nachos(i assume theres more; at least subsistence agriculture/magic and sex to make tacos and new generations of women to oppress? maybe a language? again; not an expert.) i would absolutely do this. as it is... anyone else want to take a crack at it?

RTR:
As a Mexican, it makes me very happy that there are people in the States that legitimately care about the proper representation of this problem, so thank you very much.

I completely echo this sentiment. There's very little I can say say besides a whispering, teary eyed "thank you", Mr. Rath. I really never thought I'd see an article like this on the Escapist, but you're column is proving to be on the list of things that keep me coming here.

It is rare when you see an article as accurate and educational about the Cartel Wars on the internet, let alone a game site.

I would love to see a game like that! Games like Spec Ops have really showed me you can tackle issues like these in a mature manner, and I do think it should be made, because if it's accurate enough, and if at least one person is educated about this, it would be a win for the world.

Thank you for it, congratulations!

I'd totally play a stealth adventure game done entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. Mexico City Noire would kick all kinds of ass.

 

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