Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Social Satire of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided


    I consider Deus Ex to be one of the more thoughtful and intelligent series around. The original game tackled such diverse issues as transhumanism, anti-terrorism as an excuse for government support of business, and solutions for failed systems ranging from more control to complete anarchy. Human Revolution continued this discussion with intelligent questions about false religious movements in the service of corporate interests as well as augmentation as symbolic of privilege.

    But what about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? Is it up to the same level as its predecessors or is it more like Deus Ex: Invisible War where the science fiction trappings arguably make any of its issues irrelevant (aside from a commentary on religion and materialism as a social control issue as framed through competing coffee chains). Deus Ex: Mankind Divided made a lot of headlines by co-opting words like apartheid and "Black Lives Matter" for their discussion of the oppression of Augments, who were previously a privileged caste in the Deus Ex world.

    Honestly, to begin with, I want to address the controversy over the choice to use real life issues of contemporary and not-so contemporary oppression  in context with their fictional oppressed minority. I believe such things are perfectly valid storytelling tools and allow complex issues to be examined from different angles as well as through self-projection into fictional groups. Andrjez Sapkowski discussed racial issues and terrorism through the Scoia'tael in The Witcher novels while the X-men have done an amazing job (and sometimes a not-so-amazing job) analyzing prejudice with their flexible mutation metaphor.

Adam's place as a privileged Augment gives him a unique insider's perspective to the Aug crisis.
    Certainly, Gilles Matoubo, one of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's directors had a great deal to say on the subject:  "Deus Ex is a very mature and thoughtful franchise that wants to hook gamers on essential questions and considerations: power, control, species, science, sociology, singularity, etc. Racism is a key dark part of our human nature and we wanted to treat this subject. It was especially important for ME to treat this. So it makes me sad and angry that these ignorant people just ASSUME that everyone behind this game is ill-spirited, stupid, and more importantly for me, that they that they are all WHITE (For them devs==white, gamers==white). What these bloggers and tweeters did to me here is beyond mere insults: They have degraded me and have literally erased my identity as a Black developer and as a Black creator that just wanted to share a piece of himself with this game. I wish that they will feel bad about it. I wish they will have the decency to apologize of their gross false assumptions and accusations. To apologize to all the people back in Quebec that have been working hard FOR YEARS to make this game to happen. But since they have no spine, no shame and no self respect they will simply ignore this post (once again denying me voice, legitimacy and identity) and will at best move on another AAA target to toss their freshly defecated shit at. They don't deserve anyone's attention. They don't deserve our industry, our games and the dedication we put into them. They disgust me."

    The premise of the game is after the "Aug Incident" at the climax of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where almost all Augs were driven temporarily insane by mad scientist Hugh Darrow, they have been segregated from society in specialized cities. Augs are treated with a great deal of fear and hatred by the public at large with an upcoming resolution called "The Human Restoration Act" being designed to permanently strip them of their rights or keep them in said cities. Adam Jensen, as a soldier for the United Nations' Task Force 29, is assigned the task of investigating Augmented terrorism in retaliation for this treatment.

Constant police harassment is a small but real annoyance in the game.
    Interestingly, before I begin, I'm inclined to rebuttal some more criticism that I think is unfounded. One of the common criticisms of this metaphor is the fact Augments make a poor substitute for minorities since they're people who have been subject to surgery to become more than human versus being born this way. Another is that, unlike real life prejudice, Augmented actually are something people have a reason to fear. This last one is one I have a particular issue with.

    Augments actually serve as a fairly decent substitute for minorities being persecuted as they are people who can't help being who they are. They may have been created through science but as we see with Adam Jensen, they often didn't ask for this. Even those that do ask for this are becoming who they feel they were meant to be. The metaphor continues to function because the government and society feel threatened by Augments despite the fact it is fundamentally the bodies of the people they are persecuting and it is none of their business. The choice to become Augmented can be a metaphor for religion, fundamental qualities of a person, or even medical conditions (which it actually is).

One man's saint is another man's agitator.
    The belief they need to be feared is also one which seems to miss the entire point of the game. A violent event occurred with Augments but any player of the game knows it was rigged by Hugh Darrow as a terrorist attack. They were victims of the attack rather than persecutors thereof. The game also makes use of ARC (The Augmented Rights Coalition) to discuss a fairly nuanced view of the still-controversial issue of terrorism and violent resistance. The Augments as a whole are blamed for the actions of the few or the one. It is literally impossible for Augments to go crazy and harm people unless someone wants to build another seventeen kilometer facility while replacing their brain chips.

    The area where I think Mankind Divided most excels is it's discussion of the issues behind modern terrorism and how individuals on both sides of it take advantage. Adam Jensen, as a former police officer turned Interpol agent, doesn't ever justify terrorism. He may sympathize with the people or believe they were driven to lash out but his decisions are always to take down those individuals involved. Even so, the game does an excellent job of showing the vicious cycle which results in terrorists inciting the government to crack down on minorities before said minorities are radicalized, so the terrorists recruit them to continue the cycle.

    Interestingly, the issue of terrorism is one which benefits the series' archvillains in the Illuminati. The activities of ARC, once its radicalized, provide them an excellent smokescreen to put through laws they consider beneficial to themselves. Picus News, more transparently a substitute for Fox News this time around, particularly does everything to inflame public opinion against Augments to benefit its sponsors. Dog-whistle politics where hatred against minorities, immigrants, and other disliked groups framed as "anti-crime" or "anti-terrorism" has been a case in many dictatorships as well as free world societies.

Ghettos remain an unfortunate reality across the world.
    The idea of radical augmented terrorist, Viktor Marchenko, being a agent of the Illuminati is a bit conspiracy theorist (In Deus Ex? NEVER!) with his real-life analogues being true believers of their rhetoric. Even so, the use of him as nothing more than a larger-than-life villain for the public to hate upon is a criticism of the real-life War on Terror. Osama Bin Ladin and other terrorists were turned into supervillains which justified all manner of criminal activity to track them down when the actual discovery was more a matter of standard investigation as well as intelligence work.

    Law enforcement is treated with a nuanced depiction in the game with the police of Prague having been radicalized by the recent bombings but also are riddled with corruption. Even so, they are nowhere near as brutal as the police of Golem City. The police of Golem City are not composed of Augments, however, and are surrounded by a hostile populace they abuse because they're ordered to as well as afraid of while the public hates them since they know they're not there to benefit them. Technology like exo-suits and drones show the police have also become much more militarized than probably beneficial for keepers of the peace.

    Yet, despite this, we see plenty of police officers who don't favor the current situation or are doing the best they can. Despite being catspaws of the Illuminati and establishment, Task Force 29 is composed almost entirely of individuals who believe they are doing  the best job they can. They are, however, pressured by political forces to place the blame for terrorist attacks wherever their civilian leadership tells them to.

"Villains" are often created in order to justify war.
    Being a member of Task Force 29 puts Adam Jensen in an interesting place, socially, as he's essentially an Augment who can avoid the majority of the problems which come with his status. Minorities in positions of authority like police officers (or wealthy enough to avoid most consequences of their status) are often loathed by both sides. Adam Jensen still getsregular police harassment but his position of privilege allows him to ignore the plight of "his" people if he wants--as long as he comes down hard on them.

    The Augmented Rights Coalition is also an interesting group that has many real-life equivalents. It's an organization which is accused of being a terrorist organization and has an extremist offshoot who are terrorists. The organization is a much more complicated than a group devoted to anti-human violence. It is also as close to a local government as exists within Golem City but one unrecognized by the Czech government. They provide for the locals both in terms of resources and security as a government but also force Augs to follow their ideology or else. When the group as a whole moves from one charismatic leader to another, it also takes the entirety of its members with it.

The police constantly abuse those beneath them in the game--because they're afraid of being killed.
    Mankind Divided also has an interesting idea on ethnic homelands as well as larger issues of segregation versus integration. Aside from the Human Restoration Act, a major goal of the Augments in the game is to reach a sort of "Holy Land" where they will be safe. This is where Augments draw from Jewish folklore and the game makes a subtle joke with Golem City in Prague. The original golem being created to protect the Jewish ghettos of Prague. The city of Rabi'ah (Rabbi-ah) is one which many Augments believe will be their hope for the future but it can only hold a tiny minority of them. Likewise, other Augments believe this is either running away from their problems or a trap which won't save anyone.

    In conclusion, I believe Mankind Divided is a far more intelligent game than people give it credit for. It takes a very strong stance on the idea of prejudice, terrorism, militarization of the police, and other major issues by presenting them as horrifying. It also, however, allows the player to express their own views on the subject through their avatar in Adam Jensen. That kind of interactive social commentary is perhaps the best thing which a video game can give to the ongoing debate about many world issues.

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