Futurism, Realism, Racism: Deus Ex & the Quest For Credible Science Fiction

If you follow videogame news you’ve probably heard about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and the missteps its developers and marketing team have had over the past year (the game came out Aug. 23rd). At issue is the game’s co-opting of language and themes related to black history and systemic racism and oppression experienced by black men and women. This appropriation has been noted and condemned by critics. What I want to do here is look at Mankind Divided within the larger context of science fiction, futurism, and realism. In this larger context a trend in the Deus Ex series becomes apparent, one in which futurism and realism is explored in an increasingly narrow, more technological sense, neglecting in the process realism as it pertains to race, discrimination, and prejudice.

The focus here on futurism and realism comes from science fiction itself. Sci-fi narratives, especially those set in the near future, often take themes relevant to the present day and extrapolate them through changes in science, technology, society, and culture. George Orwell’s 1984 is a fitting example here where the author’s grounded predictions regarding technology, government oppression, and personal liberties anticipated the modern surveillance state. The merging of futurism and realism is reflected in the origins of the Deus Ex series as well. The original Deus Ex (2000) drew inspiration from a range of contemporary technological, social, philosophical, and historical events, ideas, and values. For instance, the plot of the game revolves around the democratizing potential of the internet; your adversaries consist of those who stand to lose power and influence in the information age and the lengths such people are willing to go to retain that power.

This made Deus Ex rather prescient in its vision of a future where governments seek to control access to networks of knowledge, where laws are enacted to restrict the rights of those not powerful enough to afford them, and where the response to terrorism is to make citizens more afraid of their governments than they are of ‘terrorists.’ In short, the game did what most good science fiction does — it acted as a distant early warning system (to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan), preparing us to think through and process complex but potentially imminent realities from a (relatively) safe distance. At a time when technology is so intertwined with the world and how we perceive it, science fiction is our means of exploring how technology influences and is influenced by society, culture, and history. But when the Deus Ex property moved to Eidos Montreal, the series began treating science and technology with a degree of relevancy and objectivity that the developers seemed unwilling to ascribe to history, cultural studies, and politics.

Techno-Realism in Deus Ex

The privileging of science and technology in the Eidos Montreal entries (Human Revolution and Mankind Divided) is evident in their focus on transhumanism. Transhumanism explores how technology, such as advancements in biomechanics and cybernetic implants, might allow us to exceed or even transcend the limitations of our bodies and minds. In the Deus Ex prequels the eponymous human revolution and subsequent divide turn on the merging of the mechanical with the biological that takes place in the game’s narrative; the various factions in the game are split according to their views on technology, with posthumanists, transhumanists, moderates, and body purists making up the spectrum of ideologies at play.

This focus on transhumanism and technology is matched with an emphasis on techno-realism, or the grounding of the fiction, including its relevancy and believability, in the veracity of its science and technology. In fact, whenever the dev team has talked about the research they’ve conducted for the game, it is almost always research specifically on science and technology. Speaking in an interview, Mary DeMarle, lead writer on Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, states that, “We often talk about the [Deus Ex] license being anticipatory fiction rather than science fiction, and we do a lot of research into transhumanism and the science and technology, and try to make it as credible as we possibly can.” This focus is reiterated by others on the dev team, such as the art director, Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, and his reading list. (To offset these science- and technology-heavy readings, I’d like to suggest Edward Said’s Orientalism, Lisa Nakamura’s Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, and N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman as texts that belong on a reading list for creating globe-spanning stories about humans and technology).

Texts by science and literary scholars, such as N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, position technology in a larger socio-cultural and historical context than those focused specifically on the science behind the technology.

The notion that science and technology are the cornerstones of realism in Deus Ex is given further evidence by the contributions of Will Rosellini. Rosellini is an ex-MLB pitcher who now works as a researcher in the field of biomechanics. In the lead up to the launch of Deus Ex: Human Revolution Rosellini reached out to Eidos and offered his services as a scientific advisor, believing that “there is a correlation between the amount that science fiction is based on actual fact and the success of a game.” This attention to scientific accuracy began with the original Deus Ex which described its in-game abilities and power-ups, referred to as ‘augmentations,’ in the language of contemporary biomechanics and nanotechnology. For Rosellini this attention to scientific detail is a large portion — perhaps the defining quality — of what makes the games realistic, believable, and even profitable. As it turns out, members of the dev team agreed as Rosellini worked as a consultant to help ground Human Revolution in credible science and technology research.

And yet while the history and language of science and technology are accepted prima facie as the building blocks of realism, the history and language of various cultures and communities are not. This has become especially pronounced in how the games portray people of colour, and how the narrative relates to and co-opts black history. These issues first began to crop up with Human Revolution. The game features the NPC Letitia, a ‘street-wise’ black woman whose actions and role embody numerous stereotypes. For instance, Evan Narcisse describes her voice acting as “horrible broken English…[that] is so far removed from any actual slang that it renders the character practically extra-terrestrial. It’s not from an alien planet, though. That slang harkens back to the worst blackface minstrelsy of the last century.” The character was called out in numerous publications for being so out-of-place, so outrageous, and…well, so downright offensive that it permanently marred an otherwise laudable game. It was a good opportunity for the Eidos team to reflect on whether it was realistically depicting people alongside its credible representation of technology (certainly for many of us the character of Letitia was far more disruptive to our sense of immersion in the game than the plausibility of the science behind the game’s augmentations).

That opportunity for reflection, however, appears to have been missed. In the director’s commentary on the game the character and criticism thereof is acknowledged but ultimately written off due to the fact that the voice actress for Letitia was black. This would not be the first time that someone working on the Deus Ex prequels excused racist content by asserting that people of colour worked on said content. But the issue I want to focus on here is the dissonance between techno-scientific realism and socio-cultural realism, which is even more prominent in the next installment in the series.

Mankind Divided

Following the release of Human Revolution, the Eidos team began working on the sequel. At E3 2015 Mankind Divided was shown to audiences and the dev team was on hand to unpack the focus of the game. During that presentation the team, somewhat excitedly, proclaimed that the game would deal with what they called a ‘mechanical apartheid.’ In the fictional universe of Deus Ex some people have for professional or personal reasons elected to augment their bodies with mechanical implants that can enhance their physical abilities. The ‘apartheid’ refers to their forced segregation at the hands of non-augmented individuals who feel threatened by those who are cybernetically altered or enhanced. But, as anyone who’s glanced at a history book can tell you, the word ‘apartheid’ has a particular significance attached to it, one most commonly associated with racial segregation in South Africa. And it’s hard not to see the team’s use of the word ‘apartheid’ as anything but co-opting a historically significant term relevant to black history in order to enhance the perceived realism of the world (i.e. the logic seems to be ‘apartheid was an actual historical event, we want to ground the segregation of certain peoples in our fictional world, therefore apartheid can do that grounding for us.’).

This appropriation is further exacerbated by the fact that the main character and the advertising of ‘mechanical apartheid’ itself depict white augmented persons being the subjects of persecution. In fact, one begins to wonder whether augmentations are a way for the game to create a futuristic world in which white people can and do experience the same or similar discrimination, abuse, and violence that people of colour experience today. In this way the ‘mechanical,’ and its grounding in science and technology research, co-opts the ‘apartheid,’ expunging its association with race to create a (supposedly) more universal (read: white) metaphor.

Since revealing the game’s focus on ‘mechanical apartheid’ and its subsequent criticism, the developers have tried to justify its presence in numerous ways. One employee jumped on the subreddit Kotaku In Action, known to many as a gathering place for members of Gamer Gate, to decry the criticism. Gilles Matouba (one-time game director on Mankind Divided) states that he and Andre Vu (brand director of the Deus Ex franchise) coined the term ‘mechanical partheid’; Matouba notes that he is black and Vu is Asian and both are French. His post begins by writing off the criticism as premature. This is a fair point given that no one outside the dev team was, at that point, aware of how the term would be used in the game but it’s still a point tempered by the tumultuous and bleak history of apartheid, the effects of which are still unfolding. And the fact that it was co-created by a brand director seems to suggest marketing was at least one of the driving forces in the coinage. Matouba goes on to dismiss those critiquing the term on social media, stating that such people “don’t deserve anyone’s attention. They don’t deserve our industry, our games and the dedication we put into them. They disgust me.” One wonders whether Matouba is equally disgusted by those critiquing the game’s specious science as well.

Since then the dev team’s openness to the literature and advice of experts in science and technology has only grown in contrast to their resistance to the literature and advice of experts in history and cultural studies. The game’s writer, Mary DeMarle, would go on to defend the term by stating that “what we are…trying to do with Deus Ex is look at the world, and trying not to judge the world but to present it in a very — we like to talk about shades of grey. So we like to present the issues to the best of our abilities without judging you or your actions, so that you can make up your own mind about it. It’s one of the things I’m constantly telling the writers on the team is that you can’t write dialogues that are judging, you can’t come up with choices where you’re slapping people in the face for their moral decisions.” To even intimate that apartheid is something one can be morally ambivalent towards is troubling, to say the least. But while science is sacrosanct in Deus Ex, history, including the present, is something the developers seem to be treating as open to debate.

Ahistorical Science Fiction

A bench in Mankind Divided that echoes the ‘Whites Only’ signage typified in racially segregated spaces.

What’s more, we are told that the moral ambivalence towards apartheid was intentionally made in the interest of being ‘honest,’ ‘truthful,’ and realistic. As DeMarle writes about the use of the term ‘mechanical apartheid’ and the issues it relates to: “Obviously, there will be people who are super sensitive to those sorts of things, and we recognize that, and we feel bad when we offend someone but we are trying to be as truthful and as honest as we possibly can.” While the developers are willing to take a stance on issues that some misinformed and malicious groups consider debatable — e.g. climate change, the scientific effects of which play a prominent role in the games — there’s something troubling about the dev teams’ persistent denial that race and the history of racial segregation are relevant to the conversation.

It should go without saying that denying the connection between apartheid and its historical instantiations risks equivocating past, present, and future instances of segregation and discrimination. And yet this is precisely what happens. When asked about the term ‘mechanical apartheid,’ executive art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête replied: “Humans will be bad to each other forever, as far as I’m considered. Segregating people that one casts … as wrong or dangerous or inferior is a thing that will always sadly happen. Obviously we’re not condoning it, it’s an analogy for how sucky humanity is and showing how it can happen in the future with the technology we’re dealing with.” Gone is the connection between segregation and race that apartheid has historically denoted, replaced by a bleak and equivocating acceptance of the inherent evil of humanity — an evil that, apparently out of coincidence, just happens to have throughout history disproportionately impacted people of colour, women, and other marginalized peoples.

Jacques-Belletête’s stance brings forward the crux of the matter: on the one hand the devs are open to consultation and guidance when it comes to creating credible, believable science and technology, but on the other hand, when it comes to accepting feedback on history, discrimination, and racism there’s an ambivalence, as though the ills of racial segregation and discrimination are (apparently) too open-for-debate to be taken as fact and must be up to the player to decide whether they are truly harmful.

Colin Campbell touched on this bias in an article for Polygon in which he interviewed Jacques-Belletête and asked him specifically if the game would take a moral stance on its depiction of apartheid:

“We never say in the game if we’re on one side of the debate or another,” [Jacques-Belletête] replied. “If you think they deserve it, that’s perfect. If you don’t think they deserve it, that’s perfect.” These words do not really suggest a story that is about apartheid, unless you believe that maybe the people who suffer from apartheid “deserve it”, which is a position I feel certain the developers do not intend.
Novelists and scriptwriters who address social injustice or political controversies — for example, governmental racism — generally pitch a point of view that the reader or viewer is supposed to follow. On the whole, we are supposed to feel, adamantly, that racism is wrong.
There are almost no works of art about South African apartheid that leave it up to the viewer to decide, one way or the other, how we are supposed to feel. Yet this is exactly what Square Enix says it’s doing with Mankind Divided.

Much could be said here about contemporary games and how they are frequently designed to function as power-fantasies that reinforce the player’s beliefs and values even when those beliefs and values are deeply sexist, racist, ableist, and/or xenophobic. But there’s something else at work here. The moral ambivalence towards racially-based discrimination suggests an ahistorical approach, one that does the unthinkable: whitewashes race from apartheid.

Co-Opting Credibility

An ebook in Mankind Divided titled “An Inconvenient Aug.” Perhaps a passing reference to the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” but more likely a nod to Thomas King’s “The Inconvenient Indian,” which would suggest that the writers were treating ‘augs’ as a catch-all term for any oppressed group.

All of this without mentioning the most recent controversy surrounding Mankind Divided. Just prior to the game’s release promotional art for the game was posted online, with one image featuring the phrase “Augs Lives Matter” as part of a fictional protest scene. The phrase echoes ‘Black Lives Matter,’ further indicating that Mankind Divided is (intentionally or not) co-opting the strife and struggle of people of colour to ground and market its science fiction narrative. Despite the phrasing we are told that it is not in fact a play on the contemporary protest slogan. According to Andre Vu — the same brand director who helped coin and trademark the phrase ‘mechanical apartheid’ — the phrase ‘Augs Lives Matter’ predates the Black Lives Matter movement; the similarity is simply an “unfortunate coincidence.” You can find a fitting critique of the phrasing here. I mention it here to emphasize a pattern that has emerged throughout the development of these games — a pattern that is if not at odds with the ethos of the progenitor of the series, is certainly at odds with laudable science fiction that recognizes that science and technology are inseparable not only from class (which Human Revolution handles quite well) but from culture, race, politics, and history.

Science fiction is at its best when it merges its futurism with realism, and that realism needs to be not just technological and scientific, but historical, cultural, and political as well. Given that the Deus Ex team works with consultants to make the game’s retractable wrist blades, subdermal sunglasses, and ballistic-launching appendages scientifically credible, it is worth considering whether someone who studies gender, race, disability, and/or culture could also approach the studio and offer their services on making the game’s representation of women, people of colour, persons with disabilities, and global cultures more realistic. After all, there’s a reason people aren’t taking issue with the science of Human Revolution and Mankind Divided but they are dismayed and troubled by its treatment of history and race. While the former (apparently) warrants a consultant and studious research, the latter is passively and actively delegitimized. That should give us all pause to reflect on the relationship between futurism, realism, and racism at work in these games and it should galvanize those who work to hold devs to account for what their games represent and not just to students of science and technology either.