Transhumanism & Overwatch: Reality Meets Futurism (and Minds Its Manners)
1. the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
The concept of transhumanism is often one relegated to the medical sciences, the jokes about Japanese robotics, and various forms of fictional cyber+ realms. The definition above is an extremely shorthand gist of a world so fundamentally part of our future that it’s hard, sometimes, to realize that the concept is in practice far more than we really think about.
Such as, say, in a video game. Possibly one like wildly popular and surprisingly successful Overwatch, released by Blizzard in May 2016.
But a video game isn’t, like, a cyber-arm or something, right? True story. But when we consider the concept of utilizing tech to evolve the human race, there’s nothing that says it has to be a physical augmentation. Aren’t social augmentations created by technology another aspect of surpassing human limitations?
For example, how many smartphone users actually remember phone numbers these days? In my youth—yes, pre-smartphones—I had to remember important phone numbers: my house, my best friend, my relatives. Now, I’m lucky I remember my own. Why bother?
“Hey, [insert smartphone thinly veiled secretary of choice], call my mom.”
I know I’m not alone in this shift of brainmatter. What was once a necessary memory muscle has now been replaced by a piece of machinery so integrated into daily life that we can’t imagine leaving the house without it. Those of you who remember numbers are now anecdotally (and arguably) among the minority.
Transhumanism, one might be fooled into believing, is about large and worldwide shifts in technology folded into daily life.
But don’t get complacent. It sneaks in along other paths, too.
Video Games: The Fantasy of Dominance Wrapped Within a Fantasy of Victory
I won’t get into the tired trope topic of GamerGate. If you’re a gamer, you know about it. If you’re a female-presenting gamer, you’re intimately familiar. If you aren’t, educate thyself here.
What this whole movement did is spotlight something that those of us who have been gaming for years already know: the wider video game environment is toxic. Rampant with sexism, death threats, slurs—the only thing your average comm or general channels have going for them is that they are equal-opportunity abusive. Even if the “easier” targets—women, LGBTQ+, and PoC (but especially Women of Color)—see the majority of the abuse heaped on their heads.
Speaking as a female-presenting LGBTQ+ gamer and an ally, I can count on one hand the number of times in the past 2 years that I have not seen abuse deliberately, maliciously, even casually thrown at people like me. But while the awful, ugly harassment on gamer channels is more readily targeted at those like me, it doesn’t stop at me.
Among the casualties: the gamers themselves.
I am Not an Anthropologist so I Shall Call This Mass Fuckery as a Rule of Social Law
When the topic of social mores and civility comes up (notably, “please don’t abuse me, bro”), there is invariably some apologist rolling up in the comments to say “that’s just how it is”. The rhetoric is much more about how it’s fine because everyone’s doing it—this goes back decades, centuries.
Peer pressure is only a part of the issue. I repeat I am not a scientist—but then, neither are most of the people who feel authoritative enough to condemn folks like me, so…
Here’s the gist of what happens: something begins. Let’s say, oh, trash-talk in a shared environment. Cool, cool, trash-talk has been a thing for ages. Whether you call it “banter” or “playing around” or “challenge”, the end result is taunting your opponent with crafted insults.
At first, there’s some side-eye about this. Some trash-talking back. Then it becomes a game, a contest—who gets the cleverest digs. The meanest comments. This grows and grows, until trash-talk becomes “a way of life”, and you opt-in the moment you hit play on whatever online game you’re playing (or so the community defense rhetoric goes).
Then someone, somewhere—maybe a person, maybe a collective, maybe just the next logical step—realizes that trash-talk extends farther than just the code-bros laughing it up. A woman, a gay man, another person beats them in a game they thought they dominated, and then trash-talk makes the leap into something more than just trash-talk. It becomes a wall, a flood of vitriol used to keep The Others out. Not just minorities (or as the case may be, majorities), but anyone they feel threatened by.
Every year, the ante goes up and up until it’s not about the game anymore, not really. It’s about the achievements unlocked, the status quo of abusing whoever crosses your path at all costs. It’s only partially about winning the game and mostly about scoring some imagined “points” in the great big wall of imaginary “wins”, all based on some incredibly toxic and demeaning fetishism of “manliness”.
Which means that in this day and age, many young gamers have never seen a time when communication—the sharing of facts and coordination to win a match, instead of trash-talk designed to amuse or enflame—was the norm.
The sad truth is, playing team-based games solo is an unfortunate end result of the culture of trash-talk the gaming communities have fostered.
Overwatch: Where Transhumanity and Gamers Meet—But At What Cost?
Overwatch was all set to be Blizzard’s biggest failure, but somehow, they turned it around to an incredible success. As a Warcraft player from way, way back (#hordecore or GTFO), I was initially skeptical about this latest launch. However as I’ve watched the streams and sideline ref’d the matches the filthy assistant plays (I’ll get to playing it when I’m not dying under deadlines), I’ve noticed something startling.
The first time I heard that, I barely gave it a notice. Tracer’s trademark cheery voice and British accent was only really noticeable to me in that it usually meant a Tracer player was trying to take out filthy assistant’s Mercy.
“Sentry online,” Summetra says over the in-game sound, and all you have to do to trigger this notice is place a little sentry turret down.
“Sniper ahead!” warns McCree.
“Sniper removed,” Soldier 76 adds tersely.
And so on, and so forth.
Do you know what’s happening here?
If you think it’s players using Blizzard-supplied emotes or headsets, you’re only a fraction right.
Please & Thank You, Like It or Not
When Torbjorn the dwarf is done collecting scraps, a smart Torbjorn will scatter armor around the defense zone so his teammates can pick it up. “Armor for you,” he announces over the game.
The teammates intent on keeping the zone secure run over. “Thanks,” they all say, in various ways and methods according to character. Loud and clear, the Torbjorn player hears that their offering was accepted and they have contributed positively to the team.
Somewhere on the offense team, a player toggles the emote requesting armor.
“You are now shielded,” Symmetra replies when her player uses the skill.
“You’ve got my thanks,” returns the character shielded.
The player never has to toggle a thank-you emote (although some rare few do, which declares thanks twice—extra bonus gratitude!). Symmetra’s player never had to do anything but fulfill the request.
Throughout the match, the game’s “brain” keeps players appraised of the situation, with minimal input from the players themselves. Turrets are applied and found and destroyed, snipers are located and taken out, zones are contested and the characters in it request back-up. Like clockwork, these team-based social mores—information-sharing, courtesy, civility—are rolled on out like it’s an everyday occurrence.
Which makes the occasional mic-rant all the more jarring.
“Get on the fucking point,” yells a male on mic chat who hasn’t realized that most of the team have grouped up on Reinhardt for a push. (My guess is he missed the “Group up on me!” toggled bellow from said Reinhardt, or chose to ignore it.) “What are you, fucking stupid— ugh, heal me, bitch!” (A nod to Mercy, the female healer.) “Fuckfuck, like, whatthefuck, you assholes! Are you even fucking listening to me? Fuck this shit!”
“Turret located,” adds his Reaper, a jarring counterpoint to the player’s venom. He is dead soon after. His diatribe is angry and filled with blame.
Within seconds, another game-brain call is issued. The point is being reclaimed. By said healing bitch, who has been flanking the tank since the “group up” bellow was issued.
Not a peep from her player on mic.
Blizzard, it seems, wants players to remember that games like this are all about coordination and teamwork—and the backbone of this are, as it turns out, verbal cues and positive expressions of gratitude.
The Intention Versus the End Result
Now I can’t speak for the folks at Blizzard. Maybe this was a deliberate effort to remind gamers across the board the common courtesy and human decency are welcome, normal, and with enough repeated prompting by the game-brain, can become the norm again.
Who knows? Certainly there are many studies out there—including our own anecdotal experiences—that suggest behaviors are learned or shed in tandem with the behaviors that are normalized or shunned by our social circles and tangent crowds. And with a little (or a lot of) help from the technology gamers are playing on, maybe this little bit of tech can help overcome a community’s limitations in the subject of common freaking decency.
On the other hand, this poses a not uncommon risk when it comes to the concept of technology and human capability: what happens if the human brain or nature simply adapts to the tech—that social augmentation, as it were—and begins to rely on the game-brain to do all the “nice” things?
It could be a simple matter of getting used to the fact that something else is “doing the work”.
So what then? What do we do if by relying on tech to remind gamers that civil courtesy is cool again, we encourage those very same people to get worse, because the need for them to even remember “please” and “thank you” are completely taken over the tech they use?
I have no answers. I have a great deal of interest in this issue, given that I see our world moving far more rapidly into the arena of “tech as replacement” than we are necessarily comfortable with.
I also have a vested interest in my enjoyment in the gaming communities I grew up in—although I suspect that any real results from a long-term social experiment like this will deliver results far too late. Maybe I’m a cynic.
Maybe I’ve just been around gamers too long.
Either way, I both commend Blizzard for its efforts to return the “team” back to team-play, and side-eye the company for taking the onus of behavior out of player hands. Because if we need a manners-minder, we may already be lost.
Whatever comes, for now, it’s just nice to hear a little positivity coming out of gaming speakers.
K. C. Alexander is the author of Necrotech, an aggressive transhumanist sci-fi out with Angry Robot Books in September 2016, and of “Four Tons Too Late” at Fireside Fiction. She specializes in sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction of all stripes. More at kcalexander.com.
Feeling generous? You can support her Patreon for good works and good words.
Special Thanks Goes To:
Kevin Sonney // Tim Moore // Fireside Fiction // Andrea // Keith Antul // Jane Hammer // Devin Harnois // Margaret McNulty-Beldyk // Beth Wodzinski // Lisa // Christine Forshner // Cara // Adam Jury // Amanda Arista // Chanie Beckman // Aaron Roberts // Rob Hall // Nicolette Reed // Janae Cram // Megan Sutton // Anna Rudholm // Stephanie Embry // Estelle Pin
You are awesome people!