With Deus Ex: Mankind Divided to be released later this month you would think the marketing department would do everything possible to avoid drawing the ire of potential costumers, but alas this is not the case. For the third time since the game has been announced Mankind Divided finds itself the subject of controversy, and I think its time we had an honest talk about it. For those unaware, the marketing team for Mankind Divided released some promotional material with the phrase “Aug Lives Matter” used, an obvious reference to the Black Lives Matter movement (though the games executive brand director, Andre Vu, argues it’s simply a coincidence). With part of the game world also being referred too as a “Mechanical Apartheid” many have begun to wonder if the developers are too willing to use language associated with racial discrimination in order to fake a since of narrative depth.
While there is a lot to unpack here let me start off with this: conceptually, I don’t really have a problem with the developers using this imagery so blatantly. Video games, as an art form, should be free to address real world issues, and clear illusions to real life political and social movements is a good way to do that. In fact, if done right these illusions can give a mythic weight to their real life counterparts. It is in that same vain, however, that we reach our first point of contention. If handled poorly this could not only convey some unintentionally racist connotations but it could also serve to undermined these same movements.
For the sake of simplicity let’s focus on the “Aug Lives Matter” part of the controversy. Illusions like this tend to work by using call backs to other material (fictional or otherwise) known for handling the themes the artist making the connection is. As such, it’s is possible that the developers are going to try and tackle the issue of police brutality, the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, making the games illusion seem fitting on a surface level. But BLM was more specifically about fighting police brutality towards a disproportionately black citizenship. Because of this, if Mankind Divided does not aspire to be more diverse in its cast than other games coming out it runs the risk of saying to player not “police brutality is a problem” but “police brutality is a problem only when white people suffer from it”. I very much doubt that this will be the message anyone at Eidos Montreal or Nixxes Software are aiming to make the thematic core of their game but this is why careful, nuanced and thoughtful use of illusions must be used and portrayed.
For a good example of this, we only have too look at the franchises recent past. One of Human Revolution’s major motifs was wealth disparity. When it came time for the developers to make reference to real life, the drew inspiration from the then relevant Occupy Wall Street movement. While Human Revolution and OWS both had their flaws, this connection wasn’t as divisive as the games themes and OWS’s goals were similar enough to justify that connection. The sad truth is, with Mankind Divided this doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t thinking the illusion to BLM was done thoughtlessly, but I do think it has been handled carelessly.
And the real kicker? This franchise, by it’s very nature, is in the perfect position to handle topics of discrimination but for a group that gets almost no notoriety elsewhere.
While Augmentations and Prosthetics are not exactly the same thing, if you really want to make Deus Ex a story about discrimination it could easily be made to fit. At the end of the day, we are still talking about a group of people who’s bodies, for whatever reason, can’t function the way society expects them too and yet that same society is unwilling to make nearly any kind of concessions for them. There is a good story about discrimination and segregation there, one that doesn’t get told nearly enough. But instead the developers have been trying to associate transhumanism with racism, which are too distinct as concepts to make that comparison seem anything other than lazy.
What Mankind Divided is aiming for in nothing new. Science Fiction and Fantasy has a long history of drawing upon modern ills for its content. But there is a right way to do it and Mankind Divided has yet to prove it understands this. I hope I’m wrong, but only time will tell.