The Inconsistent Picture of Racism Painted by Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
by Ting Xiao
Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided were developed by Eidos-Montréal and published by Square Enix on August 23, 2011 and 2016 respectively. The two games are set in a near-future cyberpunk world where human augmentation has become reality. The two games follow ex-SWAT officer Adam Jensen as he uncovers a worldwide conspiracy by the Illuminati seeking to control humanity through human augmentation. Adam is now employed at Sarif Industries, a company based in Detroit at the forefront of human augmentation technology. Human Revolution begins with an attack on Sarif Industries, leaving him gravely injured. In order to save his life, his employer decides to augment him cybernetically, essentially turning him into a mechanical super-soldier. Through his investigations, Adam discovers the Illuminati’s plan of controlling augmented humans or “augs” (henceforth used to refer to augmented humans, with the technology being referred to as “augmentation(s)”) through an implanted microchip. Hugh Darrow, a member of the Illuminati and the inventor of human augmentation technology, went against the Illuminati’s intentions, modifying the microchip to instead cause augmented humans to go berserk when they receive a certain radio broadcast, in hopes that a violent cataclysmic event would cause mankind to abandon augmentation technology completely. Although Adam was able to shut down the radio signal, around fifty million people had already died at the hands of out-of-control augmented humans.
This came to be known as the Aug Incident. In the following game, Mankind Divided, which takes place 2 years later, Adam is now an Interpol agent working to capture augmented terrorists who are also influenced by the Illuminati, while also acting as a double agent for the hacktivist group Juggernaut Collective. Augs are now seen as a threat to the non-augmented majority or “naturals”. The game takes place mainly in Prague, where anti-augmentation policies such as the separation between train cars for augs and for naturals have been established. Benches with words “Naturals Only” draw a parallel to similar signages found in South Africa during apartheid. In fact, the developers themselves have used the word “apartheid” in the title of one of the promotional videos for the game – “The Mechanical Apartheid”.
It is clear that the developers wanted to paint the discrimination against augs as something akin to racism, by putting augs in a position akin to an oppressed minority race. In a 2016 Polygon article by Colin Campbell, a black game developer who worked on the game until 2014, Gilles Matouba, said “Racism is a dark part of our human nature and we wanted to treat this subject” (para. 6). However, as the same article also points out, unlike the black people who suffered during the apartheid, the augs are not victims of an invading force that were subject to oppression by a racist minority elite. Indeed, they “are a privileged and wealthy elite who mostly choose to put themselves above their fellow human beings through expensive technological enhancements” (para. 19). Due to the nature of augmentation technology, augs have to regularly purchase and use the expensive immunosuppressive drug, Neuropozyne, to prevent their bodies from rejecting the augmentations. This necessitates a certain level of income a person must have in order to maintain their augmentations Although there are exceptions like Adam who received augmentations because he would otherwise die, most augs are augmented by choice. Furthermore, they are also responsible for the deaths of fifty million worldwide, albeit unintentionally. The cataclysmic Aug Incident would unsurprisingly strike fear into the hearts of the naturals, serving as a trigger for the discrimination towards augs. Thus, this essay argues that while discrimination on the personal level is depicted realistically in Mankind Divided, contrary to developer intentions, the game ends up painting an inconsistent picture of black racism due to the mixing of different narratives of discrimination (black racism and terrorism) and the fundamental differences between black racism in our world and aug discrimination in the game.
The discrimination that augs face on a daily basis is presented in a realistic and immersive way, made even more so by the first-person perspective of the game. Since Adam himself is heavily augmented, the player can experience this discrimination personally through Adam’s eyes. Adam is often stopped by the police and asked for documents proving that he is legally allowed in the city and thrown derogatory slangs such as “cog”, “clank” or “wrench”. This is similar is the stop-and-frisk practice of the New York City Police Department where police officers detain, question and sometime search civilians for weapons or other contraband items. According to information by the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 50 percent of stopped civilians were African American while only around 10 percent were white (2020). In this case, the visible marker for profiling is not skin colour and is instead the visible augmentations that augs possess such as their mechanical limbs and other implants such as the built-in visor on Adam’s face. There is a parallel between the high proportion of stopped civilians being black in the real word and them being augmented in Mankind Divided. Just as “class does not protect black Americans from racism” (Hamilton & Cohen, 2018, para. 2), Adam’s status as an Interpol agent and his affluence do not stop the police officers from harassing him on the streets. To be fair, the police officers on the street do not know of Adam’s identity as an Interpol agent. Another instance of this discrimination was mentioned earlier – the benches with the sign “Naturals Only” painted on it. It is an obvious allusion to signs found in South Africa during the apartheid.
There are more examples of discrimination to be found, such as the separation of augs from naturals in the Prague subway system. Augs have their own lane for entry into the subway station, where they would first have to be checked by an armed police officer. Augs also have their own designated subway cars. Players can still choose which subway car to ride and when Adam chooses to take the subway car meant for naturals, a different loading screen is shown where the unaugmented citizens look at Adam with apprehension. When Adam alights from the train, a police officer detains him and asks him for his documents, after which they would tell him to “stay out of the Naturals’ section.”
The discrimination picture is further completed with depictions of police violence towards augs in the Utelek Complex, a ghetto where augs have been segregated into, which further alludes to the South African apartheid. All these instances give a believable depiction of the discrimination faced by augs in the world of Mankind Divided, made especially immersive due to Adam being an aug himself.
However, when one zooms out from the first-person perspective of Adam, the similarities between racism in the real world and the discrimination presented in-game are more untenable due to the two big fundamental differences between black people in our world and the augs found in the game world – the difference in their physical capabilities and the availability of choice. Unlike black people in our world, the augs have markedly different physical capabilities from the naturals, their mechanical limbs giving them more physical strength, speed and endurance. Two instances of this would be Adam’s ability to carry heavy objects such as vending machines and his ability to easily jump more than twice his own height. While this can be seen as an allegory of the perception of black physical supremacy, where “Black men tend to be stereotyped as threatening… [and] people have a bias to perceive young Black men as bigger (taller, heavier, more muscular) and more physically capable (stronger, more capable of harm) than young White men” (Wilson et al., 2017, p. 59), the allegorical nature of this comparison is compromised by the availability of choice when it comes to becoming augmented. As mentioned in the introduction, most augs willingly chose to become augmented for the physical benefits that it brings. In contrast, a person has no control over what skin colour they have and other genetic variables that affect their capabilities when they are born. As such, the perception that augs are physically superior to naturals is more justified, because if not for the physical benefits, why else would people willingly become augmented?
This physical superiority, that augs have gained through choice, with which the augs are now able to cause more harm to people around them is thus more like owning a lethal weapon such as a rifle than a mere biased perception that the naturals have. One needs to look no further than the main character Adam himself, who had received many weaponized augmentations, in order to see the fearsome potential of augmentations for violence. His augmentations include bulletproof skin, full invisibility, taser darts in his hands, arms that can punch through concrete walls – just to name a few. When one faces the unknown capabilities of an aug, it is natural to feel a sense of uncertainty that easily evolves in fear, especially given the undeniable fact that augs were responsible for more than fifty million deaths worldwide during the Aug Incident.
Speaking of the Aug Incident, it is apparent that it is the trigger for much of the discrimination towards augs we see in Mankind Divided. This is demonstrated in the game world through the differences between the state of the cities found in the earlier Human Revolution and the later Mankind Divided. In Human Revolution, which takes place before the Aug Incident, there is no widespread discrimination against augs – the LIMB clinics that give care to augs and services their augmentations are still in business, corporations like Sarif Industries are still alive. There is no segregation of augs and naturals in Detroit, no police officers who constantly stop Adam as he moves around in the city. In contrast, in Mankind Divided, we see that the LIMB clinics in Prague have been shut down and vandalised with graffiti saying, “BLAME THE CLANKS” (for the deaths of millions during the Aug Incident) and “A wrench is a tool not a human”. Augs have also been segregated into the Utelek Complex, clearly as a direct response to the Aug Incident, further solidifying the Incident as the root cause of this discrimination.
This phenomenon—this increased discrimination against augs—is more similar to the rise in Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks, when “a statistically significant increase in anti-Islamic hate crime occurred” (Byers & Jones, 2007, p. 43), than to any instance of black racism in the real world, detracting from the black racism narrative we have encountered earlier and presents a different narrative of discrimination. Both began with a big event that resulted in many deaths, perpetrated by a group of people that share some qualifier – augmentations in the game and extremist ideology in the real world. The discrimination against augs became justified by the people in the game as they killed others during the incident, similar to how Islamophobia became more normalized as the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack were Muslims, albeit ones with extremist views. The Czech government’s decision to segregate augs from naturals using the Utelek Complex can be seen as a more extreme version of President George Bush signing the PATRIOT Act that allowed for the indefinite detentions of immigrants in response to the 9/11 attacks.
In conclusion, Mankind Divided succeeds in letting the player experience a realistic depiction of systemic discrimination akin to racism on a personal level through the eyes of the augmented player character Adam Jensen. However, the developers’ intention to use the game to tackle issues of black racism in the real world is undermined by the fundamental differences between augs in the game world and black people in our world. Furthermore, the game combines two different narratives of discrimination, one being the discrimination faced by black people in both the United States (specifically New York) and in South Africa during the apartheid and the other being the increase in Islamophobia following the 9/11 attacks, which ultimately results in a failure to create a consistent picture of black racism from the depiction of aug discrimination.
Byers, B. D., & Jones, J. A. (2007). The impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on anti-Islamic hate crime. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 5(1), 43–56. doi: 10.1300/j222v05n01_03
Campbell, C. (2016, July 6). Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and the problem of ‘mechanical apartheid’. Retrieved from https://www.polygon.com/2016/7/6/11990828/deus-ex-mankind-divided-and-the-problem-of-mechanical-apartheid
Eidos-Montréal (2011). Deus Ex: Human Revolution [PC game]. Montréal, QB: Square Enix.
Eidos-Montréal (2016). Deus Ex: Mankind Divided [PC game]. Montréal, QB: Square Enix.
Hamilton, D., & Cohen, J. (2018, March 27). Race still trumps class for black Americans. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/27/race-trump-class-black-americans
New York Civil Liberties Union. (2020, February 21). Stop-and-frisk data. Retrieved from https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-data
Wilson, J. P., Hugenberg, K., & Rule, N. O. (2017). Racial bias in judgments of physical size and formidability: From size to threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1), 59–80. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000092