Saturday, 2 March 2013

The Philosophical Gamer: Deus Ex - Human Revolution

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts on philosophical themes in the video game industry. This will be of most use to Philosophy of Media and Philosophy and Everyday Life students, but it's aimed at everyone and will hopefully provoke some interesting debate!

Enjoy :)

TL;DR: (too long, didnt read) Deus Ex's major themes are transhumanism, existentialism, artificial intelligence, and capitalism. Try it!

Prequel to the original and critically aclaimed Deus Ex, "Human Revolution" delves further into philosophical themes largely skimmed over in the first game, namely Transhumanism. But first, lets get some context.

The Setting

Whereas the orignal was set in a more "far future" setting where every man and his dog has whimsical cybernetic gizmos coming out of their ears, Human Revolution is a much more "near future" experience, set years before when cybernetic "augmentations" are just beginning to make an impact on society.

You step into the shoes of Adam Jensen, cop turned corporate security chief, and due to a rebuilt-after-accident gimmick, (something totally not exploited in modern storytelling) the most augmented human on the planet. You also have a unique immunity to the side-effects of augments, i.e. the human body not being ok with bits of metal jammed in it, thus he doesnt need to take the medication to avoid this, but this will be explored later. Jensen is hired on to the security wing of a leading cybernetics company when stereotypical shadowy military types storm the building, kidnap the love interest alongside box-of-top-secret-whatnot, and render Jensen crippled and on the brink of death. His boss, taking a page from the Umbrella Corporation School of Human Resources takes the opportunity to cram Jensen with more cybernetic gadgetry than the space shutte. Voila! One gritty superhuman with a chequered past and an axe to grind.

Now referred to as the next stage in evolution by his employers, and an unnatural bucket of bolts by his enemies, Jensen will wander a neo-renaissance Earth and see first hand the effects of the revolution of cybernetics and, as is customary, uncover a deep conspiracy and save the earth. Hurrah.

The Themes

- Transhumanism
At the core of DE-HR's story is the fundamental question of what it means to be human. Indeed, Jensen himself is quite literally "more machine than man", who among other things, can see through walls and is immune to toxins. But on top of that, while Jensen is superhuman by pure accident, many people in this world choose to replace their original body parts with new augmentations. Does replacing body parts with durable, reliable machinery make you inhumane, or unnatural?

On the one hand yes, it does. Humans are organic life which evolves, sustains itself, reproduces and dies. Intergrating something synthetic into that means that you can no longer really call yourself an organic lifeform. You're robbed of the need to evolve, you can live an unnaturally long life, perhaps even become quasi-immortal if machines replace vital organs. As a matter of fact, during this story you can hear a young couple lamenting over their choice to "augment". They can no longer feel each other when they hold hands. Just cold metal. At another point, you hear a woman tell of how she needs, not wants, needs to be augmented in order to keep her job as a stock broker, else she'll lose out to people who can afford the implants.

But on the other hand, if we are to call this unnatural then we must look back at the entirety of human history and ask a serious question; aren't we already unnatural beings? Right now, I'm not actually talking to you. I'm sitting at home in my PJ's, creating my message on a device created in a factory, which can access this profoundly unnatural realm of exitance, i.e. the internet. Those of us with short or long sight, use synthetic lenses to correct our vision. If we break our legs, we are given a crutch. Even when you read a book, you're utilising something unnatural to convey ideas that cant be expressed in the "natural" world. We already use technology to enhance our lives, so why is this such a big moral leap?

- Capitalism
More of an undercurrent in this story, or more the effects of hypercapitalism on the poor. It's one-sided but also makes a poignant observation. Cybernetics dont just magic themselves into existence. Someone has to make them, and nothing in this world is free. The rich can pay for the very best implants, as well as the medication to stop the body rejecting them. Those struggling to feed kids can afford no such luxury, thus creating an elite of wealthy near-superhumans, who are in some ways mentally and physically superior. The game exaggerates this, but it's not entirely unrealistic. Just look at education here, or healthcare in the United States.

- Some Theoretical Perspectives (very brief)
Marx would be apopleptic at the state of the world in DE-HR. Not only are the working class ruthlessly explioted by their corporate masters, but this obsession with augmentation, replacing human parts with machinery absolutely shatters the sense of authenticity in life.

Nietzsche would perhaps see this as the "Superman" coming to fruition. A new type of sentient being which is quite literally exempt from natural laws and protocals which govern "normal" humans. All hail our cybernetic overlords.

So, in summary, I hope you enjoyed reading and I hope that this will inspire you to see the philosophy all around us.

Now lets have some debate in the comments!