Ghost Recon Wildlands

Why I enjoy killing sicarios: the moral meaning of Ghost Recon Wildlands

Vegard Ottervig Aesthetics, Ethics, Politics

While being an addictively fun game to play, Ghost Recon Wildlands also highlights the tragedy that is the war on drugs and gives American elite soldiers a well-deserved homage.

Ghost Recon Wildlands is a 2017 tactical shooter video game by Ubisoft, featuring a vast and beautifully rendered open world and a lot of shooting. The premise of the game is that a fictional Mexican drug cartel—Santa Blanca—has succesfully managed to take over an entire country, a similarly fictional version of Bolivia.

After an American agent is tortured and killed while working undercover in the cartel, the US sends a squad of four elite soldiers to dismantle the cartel piece by piece—by killing sicarios («hitmen» in Spanish), disrupting operations and extracting key personell.

Fun to play

You are the squad leader and embark upon the hefty mission that is to kill or imprison every boss, underboss and buchon (around 27 in total)—after first destroying several of their operations within influence, security, smuggling and production. You control the team and can give them orders, but most of the time they handle themselves—although they are not a substitute for you.

The controllers are generally seamless and user-friendly, and nothing is cooler than the «sync shot»—where you can tag up to three sicarios for your fellow team members to snipe when you give the sign, either by shooting a fourth yourself or just by giving the order. Destroying a nationwide cartel is going to be repetitive work, however, even with the aid of local Bolivian rebels. You can choose to reach your objectives in any way you like in the various settlements, camps and fortifications—from stealth master to guns blazing—but a repetitive structure is there and will put off some gamers who crave for more gameplay variety.

Beautiful propaganda?

All in all I think the gameplay is great and I have had many hours of fun playing this game. Gameplay mechanics aside, the rendition of the world is simply stunning. The country is enormous and spans across forests, swamps, deserts, canyons, mountaints, salt flats, coca fields, rainforests, urban areas and almost everything in between. Creating a credible and organic world like this is a feat that must be commended.

Visuals and gameplay are an important and integral part of any video game, but Ghost Recon Wildlands also have more to offer. Although the story is quite fantastical and over-the-top, it does underscore several truths and essentials of the real world, like any great piece of art. Most critics have criticized the game for being a propaganda vessel for «American imperialism» or for being a clichéd macho fantasy. Even people who claim that Ghost Recon Wildlands is an underrated game deride the «pro-military, Republican nationalism» and «Bush Sr.’s wet dream diary».

What are the essentials here? Is Ghost Recon Wildlands an innocent piece of entertainment with the occasional foray into US military flattery and whitewashing, or is there a deeper meaning behind it all?

The deeper meaning of Ghost Recon Wildlands

I will start this section by saying that I do believe that the international war on drugs, where the US and Mexico are prime players, is a total failure and an immense tragedy—destroying countless human lives. Further, US foreign policy is marred by bad thinking and even worse decisions. How, then, can I defend a game like Ghost Recon Wildlands, where you act as American soldiers going on a rampage in a foreign country?

The reason is this: The elite US soldiers represent the very best of the US military—a dedication to both bodily and mental superiority, stretching the limits of human physique and the human mind as far as possible under extreme conditions. Working behind enemy lines in cold or hot climates, never knowing if you will be killed or captured and tortured next, never feeling safe and always being on the edge of your existence—this is a state the fewest of us can even begin to imagine what is like to experience.

Representing top-notch human physique and mental capacity is not enough, however. Some totalitarian regimes have had similar elite forces, but what sets the United States apart it the foundations they are built on. The US was the first country in the entire history of the world that was built on the explicit ideal of individual rights and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The US was the result of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and experienced the largest growth in living standards, scientific advancements and technological proliferation the world had seen.

This is what the elite US soldiers represent: reason, self-esteem, purpose, the protection of individual rights and, above all, values like the ones mentioned above. Granted, the founding fathers did not craft a waterproof system, resulting in the gradual erosion and destruction of individual rights in the States we have seen the last 120 years. But the original core of the United States is still present, even though it becomes smaller and smaller every day.

Life versus death

The American elite soldiers in Ghost Recon Wildlands are essentially fighting for values like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness against an evil cartel. As some of you might know, the Mexican drug cartels are unspeakably evil—with torture, execution and fear tactics making the Islamic State look like innocent choir boys in comparison. The ban on drugs have caused the war-like situation in for instance Mexico, but the cartels themselves pour gasoline onto the fire and then throw in dynamite for good measure.

Several of the operations you dismantle in Ghost Recon Wildlands reflect the terrible tragedy the cartels cause for civilians and innocent people—from kidnapping and murdering entire villages to disposing bodies in grotesque acid factories. Underlying this, both the governments’ ban on drugs and the cartels extremely nihilistic response, are bad ideas—bad philosophy—bad epistemology. When people do not learn to think properly through school, media, the community and so on, the results can only be wholesale death in the long run.

Drug cartels might not be the ideal enemy to compare with the original US sense of life and goodwill, but they are real and they are evil—against human life. Remember, there is a real tragedy out there in the war against drugs, involving the lives of real human beings. But there is also the rays of sunshine from a better world—a world represented by the core American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is worth fighting for, and that is what I see in these fictional American elite soldiers.