By now, you’ve probably heard about “Augs Lives Matter,” the phrase used in a promotional image for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided that the franchise’s executive brand director, Andre Vu, claims only “coincidentally” echoes the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Regardless of how offensive you find this, there are really only two scenarios we can agree upon here — either Vu and the Deus Ex team used a legitimate social movement as a transparent cashgrab, or Vu is glaringly incompetent and the Deus Ex team is comprised solely of mountain dwelling hermits and time travelers from the year 200 AD.

This article isn’t about “Augs Lives Matter” — at least, not directly. For one thing, Jim Sterling said pretty much everything I would have in his own article on the subject. For another, the “Augs Lives Matter” debacle is just one more cringe-worthy, tone deaf incident to add to the roster Deus Ex has already accrued during its marketing campaign. This is, after all, the same game that advertised itself as being about the so-called “mechanical apartheid.” Yeah. Apartheid. You remember Apartheid — that terrible, awful real thing that happened to real people?

I guess the Yikes Factory was giving away free samples that day.

I guess the Yikes Factory was giving away free samples that day.

To repeat: this article is not about “Augs Lives Matter” — it’s about the trend and creative atmosphere that inspired “Augs Lives Matter.” Recently we’ve seen several games that parody oppressive structures that exist in the real world. Robots seem to be a frequent go-to in games with even a sprinkle of sci-fi in them — video games include every variety of oppressed robot you could ask for, from the Geth, to Overwatch’s omnics, to Deus Ex’s augmented. In the fantasy realm, it’s Elves who get the business end of the poop stick — in every iteration of Dragon Age, for example, an Elf player can look forward to a cavalcade of bigots and microaggressions direct at them and other Elves because of their race.

But none of these games are willing to go into actual oppression that really exists for a huge percentage of their player base — and even when they do (think Bioshock: Infinite), these games frequently have messages that paint both the oppressors and the oppressed as equally guilty of wrongdoing… which, in the real world, they aren’t.

And it’s strange that so few games seem willing to touch realistic depictions of oppression with a ten foot pole. As organizations like Black Lives Matter and oppressive hatemongers like Donald Drumpf create a national dialogue about the future of oppression in the US, justice is at the forefront of the modern social discourse. Oppression of fictional groups in video games is an obvious allusion to this; a reasonable desire by game designers to keep their products relevant. But why is it that game designers feel so at liberty to co-opt that experience of oppression and fictionalize it, rather than presenting a faithful, realistic version within the more relatable human elements of the story?

Well, it’s pretty simple — most game designers have no idea what it’s like to experience actual systemic oppression. To them, an oppressed robot is just as relatable as an oppressed human. Oppression isn’t a thing they have to deal with in their day-to-day life; it’s a fun storytelling tool. Like kidnapped princesses. Or antiheroes. Or a gun that shoots junk.

The Meat of the Problem

"'Backalley hackjob' is a great way to describe what we're going for with this story."

“‘Backalley hackjob’ is a great way to describe what we’re going for with this story.”

Narratives about oppression aren’t the problem. Earlier this year, I wrote about 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which is all about a real event where the Iranian people tried to throw off an oppressive government in a revolution that ultimately consumed the country. It’s an excellent game — fun, and introspective, equal parts educational and experimental — and I’ve never played anything like it before or since. When I wrote that article, I searched for other games that I could compare to it, games that covered the same or similar subject matter, and outside of explorations of fictional prejudice, I couldn’t find a single one.

Narratives about oppression aren’t the problem. Discussions about oppression are topical and timely. Video games are a fantastic medium for players to investigate and simulate their own relationships with oppressive structures — to examine how they interact with the world and other people in it. In fact, it might be the best possible medium for this, because it’s the only medium that’s currently interactive; it can teach players in a way that books and television can’t by allowing them to explore and disassemble their own thought processes through live experiments with cause and effect in-game.

The problem isn’t even what Mankind Divided is trying to do — depictions of fictional oppression can be a good way to get otherwise obstinate or ideologically opposed players to interface with the subject matter. There can be a good way to create an analog to the source material, especially if they’re done in good faith, with respect and in-depth knowledge of how oppression operates in the real world, and acts on both the people who experience it, and the people who benefit from it.

But Mankind Divided is indicative of the actual problem: narratives about fictional oppression that are done in bad faith. One of the reasons why the exploitative, tone-deaf marketing for this game comes as no surprise is because it’s baked into Deus Ex’s very foundation. Much like any other narrative about a fictional type of oppression, Deus Ex tries to make the struggles of it’s own fictional minority relatable by taking inspiration from the real experiences of oppressed people. But it doesn’t do it responsibly — augments, for the most part, chose to become what they are, and are socially ostracized in no small part because of an event where they (albeit unwillingly) perpetrated acts of mass violence. In the real world, people who are oppressed don’t choose to be; regardless of what the Rachel Dolezal’s, Justin Bieber’s and fake tanning companies of the world may think, you can’t choose to be Black. Moreover, people aren’t oppressed because their community has inflicted acts of violence against others — if they were, Neo-Nazis would be the most oppressed minority on the face of the Earth. Oppression doesn’t happen for good reasons — it happens because certain people come to believe they should have social power over others for… insert reason here.

Moreover, Deus Ex takes place in a universe that isn’t so much adjacent to ours as it is identical — most major world events still happened in exactly the same way, there’s just now a new exciting Plot Device™ to pay attention to. Ostensibly, all the same bigotry that exists in our world should also exist in theirs — but much like in every other game where there’s a type of fictional oppression to pay attention to, this has all been hand-waved out of importance. Note that I don’t say out of existence; most games like this do still have remnants of the sexism, racism, queer- and transphobia that dominate our world, except that it’s usually dismissed without comment. The real problem, the game will tell you, is the oppression that’s central to the fictional world you’re in, not the oppression that’s central to… apparently every world.

(I’m not really talking about Deus Ex anymore, though it certainly does have this problem — I’m more talking about Mass Effect and Dragon Age, which both have an issue with casual sexism and transmisogyny that creates a major dissonance with even their own lore and central themes, but which gets totally handwaved in lieu of focussing on the fictional oppression narratives instead.)

On a more granular level, one of the most consistent problems with narratives like this is that they try to give equal weight to both sides of an oppressive struggle, either by presenting both sides as equally problematic in their own ways (Bioshock Infinite), or by presenting oppressors as inherently good but benignly ignorant of the pain and grief their actions cause (the Quarians in Mass Effect come to mind). When representing actual gun-and-sword conflicts, these narratives are fine — in a war, both sides usually are equally problematic in their own ways. No one side is usually completely in the right. But in matters of social justice, that’s not the case; oppressors and the people they oppress aren’t equally problematic. There is a correct opinion to have in terms of social justice, because it’s justice — anything else is, by its very nature, unjust.

It’s All Fun and Games

"I never asked for this... but, I mean, every other Aug kind of did, so. It... sort of undermines the metaphor a little."

“I never asked for this… but, I mean, every other Aug kind of did, so. It… sort of undermines the metaphor a little.”

When people who don’t experience oppression try to compose a story about what it’s like to experience oppression, this is the type of stuff that happens. People are astoundingly bad at understanding what it’s like to experience something when they’ve never experienced it themselves. Even if people literally tell you what it’s like, you’re not likely to believe them, which is why we have so many cringeworthy “social experiments” where people pretend to be a member of an oppressed group only to realize that members of that oppressed group have been right all along about what it’s like to be them.

I’ve talked about this in plenty of previous articles, but suffice to say, lack of diversity in the games industry means a lack of diversity in narrative. People can’t responsibly tell stories about things they know nothing about — they can’t meaningfully capitalize on narratives about oppression when they don’t have anything to say about it. Oppression against augs in Deus Ex is a lot like oppression against mutants in the wastelands of Fallout: conceptually interesting, but narratively shallow. In the cases of these obvious stand-ins for racism, the designers don’t have much to say about it except “racism is bad.”

This prejudice also never something you, as the player, directly experience — as VG24/7’s Adam Donaldson pointed out in his review, Deus Ex’s main character is often held apart from incidents of injustice, shielded from it in a way that keeps the player from ever interfacing with it as anything other than observer. This is a fairly common theme in games with an oppression narrative, or even oppression-related undertones or vignettes; players can meet people who are being oppressed, but they’re always somehow kept from experiencing it firsthand… which makes sense when you realize that’s the relationship most — if not all — of the game’s writers have with all types of oppression in the real world.

To make a game the core concept of which hinges upon an experience most of the people in the writer’s room haven’t had makes for a weaker, less relatable product. And the solution is pretty easy: there should be more people of color, more women, more trans people, and more queer folks working in video game production. Simply by the benefit of their experience, they bring vital assets to the table.

There are a growing number of examples — both in the AAA and independent sector — of how to write a story about a protagonist who breaks from the “traditional” (read: white, cis, heterosexual, male) mold. What we see is that these changes don’t just originate with people who break that “traditional” mold themselves — it’s also the only way they’re skillfully executed. Female protagonists in Dishonored 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate were introduced and written by women to great effect. Navid Khonsari’s 1979 Revolution: Black Friday was semi-autobiographical; the upcoming Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders is written by a Chinese man who grew up with stories of the famous detective, and is working to bring those stories to others. Breaking from that “traditional” narrative works best when done by creators who know what the heck they’re talking about.

Lack of diversity in the writer’s room and on the development team also leads to the sort of borderline-offensive fumbling we’ve seen with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s marketing campaign. If there had been several Black developers working on Deus Ex, would the team have been quite as quick to appropriate the “Black Lives Matter” slogan for their marketing campaign? Probably not. There would’ve been at least one person in that room who could’ve said, “Hey, that’s a pretty garbage idea, how about we put it out with the rest of the trash?”

The solution to the “Augs Lives Matter” controversy isn’t just a simple apology and an ownership of the situation on the behalf of the team — the solution is a creative overhaul to an industry desperately in need. Mankind Divided isn’t in the wrong for wanting to tell a story about oppression. It’s in the wrong for not making people who experience oppression a bigger part of that storytelling process. Oppression isn’t a gimmick; but with the help of a more diverse creative team, it could be part of a really amazing video game.

  • Louis

    I want to tell you a story. A story about Deus Ex and the entire point of how augs are represented in the game’s world.

    See, in Deus Ex, getting augmentations is not a be all, end all solution to any and all problems in the world; in fact, it creates more problems than it solves. Augments result in the human body building scar tissue between the mechanical replacement and what is, for all extents and purposes, an open wound, and to prevent this scar tissue from building up and detaching the machine from the rest of the body, augs need to take a regular drug known as Neuropozyne.
    Now, Neuropozyne is developed by only one company, VersaLife, which owns a monopoly on the chemical production. Combined with a shortage of the drug in the year 2027, Neuropozyne is an incredibly expensive drug which is vital to the survival of hundreds of augmented citizens. (The reason protagonist Adam Jensen does not rely on the drug is because of experiments performed on him as a child by VersaLife.)
    In other words, taking into account the high cost of keeping your body running with Neuropozyne, keeping your augmentations in regular working condition, and the price of augments themselves, only two groups of people will have augmentations: the rich and elite, who can afford it, and the working poor, who can’t afford anything else.

    Because in the world created in Deus Ex, the working class need augments in order to thrive. If a factory worker loses a limb in an accident, the only way for him to still have a job is to get an augment. Some companies will have a hiring bias towards those with augments, because a man with robot parts will naturally work more efficiently than one without, so some healthy workers are forced to get augments simply in order to compete in their field. In Human Revolution, there are even prostitutes who were forced to get augments by their pimps to appeal to high-paying robot fetishists.

    Speaking of Human Revolution, a certain event takes place in that game that directly leads into the setting of Mankind Divided: the Aug Incident, a situation where someone hacked into every augmented person in the world and drove them into an insane murderous rage. This event resulted in the deaths of fifty million people, including politicians and celebrities.

    So here are the issues behind augmentations in Deus Ex: they drive the working class into poverty. They create prejudice in non-augmented towards augs for taking jobs away. They raise issues of the Theseus Paradox, asking how far a person can go with replacing body parts before they’re no longer truly human. And as of 2027 and the Aug Incident, the entire world is now completely paranoid that augs will go insane and murder people again.

    As a result, following the Incident, Augmented people are now blatantly discriminated against in society. They’re segregated into aug ghettos, such as Útulek Complex in the Czech Republic, and subject to government resolutions such as the Human Restoration Act, which is basically like how the government tried to catalog mutants in X-Men. Guess what the word is for a policy that enforces oppression and segregation based on race, ethnicity, caste or etc.? AN APARTHEID. IT’S CALLED THE MECHANICAL APARTHEID BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT IS. IF THESE AUGS WERE ALL ROUNDED UP AND SHOT DEAD IN THE STREETS, IT WOULD BE CALLED A MECHANICAL HOLOCAUST BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT IT IS.

    The reason Mankind Divided uses Aug Lives Matter is because what augs face in the game’s entire world is as bad, if not overwhelmingly worse, than what black people face in America. It’s a face that the game uses to relate the viewer to what is going on. It’s meant to illustrate what augs face in Deus Ex, not to mock the real-life movement.

    Isn’t this entire argument over a month old by now? Isn’t this website for talking about indie games? Have you run out of things to call racist by now?

    • Louis

      I saw what you wrote about me on Twitter, Sheva. Is there any particular reason you couldn’t have said it to my face? There’s a perfectly lovely comment section right down here where anyone can voice their opinion, debate one another, whatever you like. And instead you decided to vent inside your own safe space, where you can get instant gratification from your 138 followers. Are you not aware that you have permission to write down here and speak to me personally, or are you afraid to confront me?

      I’m guessing it’s the latter, considering what you wrote about me: that I said the “mechanical apartheid” was worse than the real life apartheid. This is a complete misrepresentation of my argument, and I can only assume you either didn’t properly read what I had said or purposely rewrote it to make me look like even more of a bad guy. First: not once in my comment did I even mention the real-life apartheid, I said that what the augs faced was, by the definition of the word, an apartheid. Second: my comment was about the issue of “X Lives Matter”, whether the augs are treated worse in their setting than black people are here. And the answer to that is yes, they are. Our government does not segregate black people into ghettos and give armed militia forces explicit instructions to attack them with extreme prejudice. And third: STOP ACTING LIKE FICTIONAL EVENTS ARE SOMEHOW DETRACTING FROM REAL-LIFE EVENTS. THEY ARE SEPARATE THINGS. A BUNCH OF FICTIONAL CYBORGS BEING OPPRESSED BY EVERY FICTIONAL GOVERNMENT AROUND THE FICTIONAL WORLD IS NOT A REFERENCE TO OR DRAWING ATTENTION AWAY FROM OPPRESSION THAT HAPPENED IN A THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY OVER TWENTY YEARS AGO.

      Why are you even still allowed to write editorial pieces? The fact that you can’t even respond to an online comment fairly and without misrepresentation just tells me you’re not emotionally fit to be sharing any opinions. You can barely differentiate between fiction and reality, for crying out loud. You think Final Fantasy is racist because the player characters look too white. You called what I said “mansplaining”; nothing about this had anything to do with gender or our personal experiences. You’re a complete hack who can’t face criticism head-on.

  • [THIS IS THE REAL-POST. WORDPRESS’S SYSTEM IS 20TH CENTURY. GEEZ. PLEASE DELETE THE COPY/PASTE ACCIDENT POST. THANK YOU.]

    I think I correct Jim Sterling on that cited article where he’d used the word “undue” out of habit, where his meaning was clearly “due.” While I was doing that I noticed looking at the link I’d copy/pasted that “Aug Lives Matter” looks suspiciously like the “All LIves Matter” thing that is somehow a thing in the U.S. That alone seems very tone-deaf, unless it’s intentionally so.

    Anyway, I agree with Louis above (or below) even though I think think the reason the author cross-posts on Twitter (which I think is a very bad habit) has more to do with not wanting to post things in bad taste on this website. (It is in bad taste and unprofessional, and I wouldn’t bring it up, but I’d like to see this website do a bit better, and keep the conversations on the actual website–as crazy as that is.)

    Video games clearly are not going to allocate a budget for even a single experienced screenwriter. It’s not surprise that they wouldn’t higher an entire writer’s room with a diversity of representation (as all writer rooms will have.) Presumably they’ve done the math, and their calculus is expressed in dollar bills … they’re obviously not concerned about any appearances. It’s not surprising that productions about robots and elves focus on robots and elves. I don’t know if the solution is to force publishers to produce compensatory video games. In the current climate it’s not even clear how to “gamify” things that are not about guns or magical sparks flying. Let them at least write passing fairy tales on the order of grail literature before they graduate to postmodern anything deserving of an English diploma.