Playing for Transcendence

Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Disability


[This commentary contains spoilers.]

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), the player controls Adam Jensen, the chief of security at Sarif Industries. Human Revolution is a role-playing first-person shooter that takes place in 2027. The game commences with an attack on Sarif Industries, and with your discovery, upon reawakening from surgery, that the company has not only saved your life, but has also equipped you with advanced biomechanical augmentations. Another attack against a company warehouse sets events in motion, and you travel through Detroit, Hengsha, Montreal, Singapore, and the Arctic Panchea facility to uncover a vast corporate conspiracy. As you progress through the game, you visit L.I.M.B. (Liberty in Mind and Body) clinics to upgrade your augmentations.

Human Revolution explores the philosophy of transhumanism, or H+. Transhumanism is in many ways an extension of Renaissance humanism; transhumanists continue in the tradition of Enlightenment thinkers who believed that rationality and science would improve human life (Wolfe xiii). Art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête has explained that he and his team created a ‘Cyber Renaissance’ look for the game, which involved blending sixteenth-century clothing fashions and architectural designs with cyberpunk noir amour, weapons, and cityscapes. This style was developed to draw attention to the connections between the anatomical drawings of the Renaissance and developments in cybernetics. While the Renaissance as a cultural and scientific revolution was characterized by new discoveries about the workings of the human body, for many characters in the game, a tranhumanist era of augmenting the body promises a similar cultural revolution. Tranhumanists today share the belief that technology will unlock human potential. The first principle of the Transhumanist Declaration reads:

“Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet earth.”

In practice, the methods and theories of transhumanists vary, from roboticist Hans Moravec’s dream of downloading human consciousness into a computer, to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s belief that death is uneconomical, to  “scrapheap transhumanist” Lepht Anonym’s biohacking.

Overcoming the limitations of the flesh is a recurrent theme in video games that is central to the mechanics of play. Religious studies scholar Robert A. Geraci suggests that many transhumanists value connections between transhumanism and gaming. His study participant, referred to as “Gwydion”, explains:

“In a sense transhumanism is gaming. It is the same idea that you can become something more than yourself. Thus, anytime you build a character and go “in-world” you have created an idealized or specialized extension of your being…” (qtd. in Geraci).

My commentary takes up the relationship between transhumanism and gaming in Human Revolution. I discuss narrative support for and against transhumanism, and argue that theories of posthumanism offer another area of inquiry with respect to embodiment. I suggest that as the game explores how technology changes our understanding of human ability, it also points toward how disability does not consist of a set of deficiencies, but is instead shaped by environments. Finally, I contend that the game’s inaccessibility is instructive for considering its imbrication in a culture of difficulty that valorizes overcoming the body.

Human Enhancement

Many non-player characters, including your ex-girlfriend, scientist Megan Reed, and your boss, David Sarif, express faith that augmentation will improve the human condition because everyone has the potential for improvement locked within their DNA. While wandering the streets, you learn that augmentation technology and its exclusivity have exacerbated existing social divisions. Only the wealthy can afford augmentations and neuropozyne, a fictional drug that prevents the body from rejecting implants. While you encounter opposition to augmentation from civilians who react to your appearance, the game also features organized opposition to enhancement. Purity First is a radical organization responsible for attacking the Sarif warehouse in the opening mission. Adherents have an essentialist conception of the human being and refer to individuals with augmentations or “Augs” as “body polluters”. Humanity Front, an organization that ostensibly favours peaceful tactics, presents another source of opposition to unregulated augmentation. Finally, Jensen, despite working for Sarif, voices skepticism in the game’s opening sequence. Megan assures you that augmentations are not only designed for military contracts, but for teachers and other professionals. As you pass a demonstration of the typhoon, or human landmine augmentation, Jensen quips, “A teacher would just love having one of those things”. As the player, you are able to select the views you want to express about augmentations based on sets of responses.

The game demonstrates how opposition to augmentation technology can stem from the fear that to develop this technology is to play God. Adam’s name suggests parallels to the biblical story of the tree of knowledge from Genesis. In the game’s trailer, Jensen appears on an operating table in a sequence referencing Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”. He rises above the operating theatre and flies toward the sun until his wings catch fire. Adam’s flight is an allusion to the Greek myth of Icarus, a story that illustrates the perils of hubris, of attempting to overcome human limitation.  While many characters oppose or approve of augmentations, or occupy a space between both poles, the liberal humanist subject remains central to competing factions in the game. While Purity First adherents view augmentations as impure, biotechnology companies believe that each new product version represents an ideal form. Yet these groups similarly understand the body in ways that render certain forms normative and desirable.

Disability and Science Fiction

The interaction between narrative and play in Human Revolution demonstrates how what we consider an able body in a science fiction setting differs substantially from our definitions of an able body in 2013. The experience of the player whose difficulty navigating the game space depends on his or her chosen augmentations reinforces this idea. As Will Slocombe suggests in reference to the first two Deus Ex installments, augmentations, “demonstrate the weakness of the non-modified human in a technological environment; without such augmentations, the avatar would be, quite literally, ‘dead meat’” (38). Slocombe’s point illustrates how vulnerability is contingent upon the space that we inhabit, which points toward how disability is not rooted in fixed individual deficits. At the level of narrative, the poverty of individuals without augmentations illustrates how disability is connected to social identities like class. However, when disability is explicitly mentioned in the game, it is in the context of providing support for augmentations. The use of prostheses, for example, complicates the Purity First belief in wholeness. When Jensen remarks to Sarif’s assistant that, “Human augmentation can be pretty scary,” she replies, “Tell that to all the war amps whose lives have been improved because of it”.

Many scholars do suggest that individuals with disabilities are often the first users of new technologies, even as inaccessible design remains a concern. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway suggests that people with disabilities often have “the most intense experiences of complex hyrbridization with other communication devices,” which leads her to reject that our bodies end at the skin. N. Katherine Hayles similarly rejects wholeness as an ideal in her study of information and embodiment.  She argues that the belief that subjects possess bodies and are not understood as being bodies informs the ideas of both liberal humanist thinkers and transhumanist thinkers, who share the perception that the body is separate from the self (5). Rather than clinging to a conception of the liberal subject, Hayles argues for the importance of materiality, offering her dream of “a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technology without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that celebrates finitude as a condition of human being…” (5). Often the result of merging the body and technology in science fiction, however, does not celebrate the generative possibilities of hybridity that Haraway and Hayles offer,  but instead enacts the erasure of bodily difference or even materiality. A common trope in science fiction is the use of technology as a medical ‘cure’ that normalizes the disabled body (Allan). For example, in the film Avatar, wheelchair user Jake Sully escapes his body by transporting his consciousness into an alien avatar (Palmer).

The most prominent disabled character in Human Revolution is Hugh Darrow, the leading developer of augmentations, who ironically uses a cane. Eventually, I learned that this was not Darrow’s choice, but that his character did not possess the genes that allow for compatibility between the human body and augmentations. [Spoiler] In the final level, I uncovered that Darrow’s turn against his technology was motivated by his resentment that he would be unable to participate in the ‘human revolution’. While it was interesting that his experience with vulnerability led him to skepticism regarding the use of his technology for military purposes, his instigation of a biological attack to make his point evoked an uncomfortable history of associating disability with villainy in narrative and film (See Garland Thomson, Mitchell and Snyder, and Quayson). As I persuaded Darrow to abandon his violent plan, he exclaimed, “I was betrayed by my own genetics! Ruined by my own flesh!”. It is worth noting, in the face of Darrow’s resentment against his own body, that many disability rights advocates resist the idea that disability is an illness in need of a medical cure, or that speaking, for example, is favourable to signing. They argue that the built environment should change as opposed to the bodies of individuals, a view which is instructive for thinking about game design.

Accessible Game Design

In many ways, gaming would seem to allow for the realization of fantasies of disembodiment. After all, the player’s avatar transcends her physical limitations within the space of the game world.  Yet while the accessibility of virtual space, in contrast to built space, is often celebrated, many barriers to access are present in mainstream video games. To return to the theory that transhumanism is gaming, we can focus on the materiality of the body manipulating the controls.  Michael Herron’s “Inaccessible through oversight: the need for inclusive game design” offers Human Revolution as an example of a popular title missing many crucial accessibility features. He notes that the texts found on in-game computers present difficulties for individuals with visual impairments, and that control mapping for console users is limited to inverting the x/y axis. While the game includes difficulty levels and allows for multiple play styles, boss fights are incredibly punishing for individuals who choose cranium enhancements over combat abilities (Herron 35).  The AbleGamers Community gave Human Revolution an overall accessibility rating of 3.8/10, noting that despite some useful aiming features, the need for speed and stealth on the lowest difficulty level make this title unreasonably challenging for gamers with precision concerns. Commenting on the representation of disability at the level of narrative versus the lack of consideration for disability at the level of design, Scott Puckett notes:

“Interesting philosophical questions aside, Deus Ex: Human Revolution presents a number of significant accessibility concerns for disabled gamers, which – especially considering that the game specifically discusses disabilities in the debate over augmentation – seems somewhat ironic.”

I agree, but I also think that this irony is instructive for what it reveals about Human Revolution as an example of how design reflects ideology. In “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Jay Dolmage uses the metaphor of steep steps to describe the ways that the pedagogical space of the academy, like the physical space of the university campus, has traditionally excluded disability by fostering a culture that valorizes those who overcome barriers to make it to the top (14-15). While comparing video games with university classes and campuses might seem unusual, I think that gaming culture can also foster a culture of difficulty and a belief that only certain players deserve to advance. Consider the backlash against Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler’s suggestion that players should have the option to skip combat like they can skip narrative sequences. While I would not argue that backlash in this case represents a calculated dismissal of disability, a belief that games should be ‘hard work’ leads to exclusion.

If we believe that games are important artistic products that can foster empathy, inspire change, and encourage reflection, then accessible design is crucial. Human Revolution encouraged me to rethink my habits as a player. My assumption that I could spend my time hacking into computers and searching for credit chips instead of prioritizing a hostage scenario had clear narrative consequences. As well, because the reward system of the game consists of the augmentations that form the game’s central conflict, I questioned my desire to upgrade. And, unlike many similar games, Human Revolution allows you to create a relatively pacifist character who stuns rather than kills enemies. But I wonder how an accessible version of the game that affords greater inclusivity might influence our impressions of the ideological space of the game.

Drawing on Althusser’s concept of ideological state apparatuses, Slocombe contends that the first two Deus Ex games “dramatize the process of ideology masking its own presence” because they allow players to imagine that they have defeated ideology, when the constraints of interactivity reveal that the game is also playing the player (48). He attributes this effect to the ‘possibility space’ (Smith) generated by the interaction between the player and the game environment, an interaction that shows how Henri Lefebvre’s argument that ideology is inscribed into architectural space is relevant to game space as well (45).  The game world of Human Revolution, including a decaying Detroit, and the layered city of Hengsha, in which the wealthy literally reside above the poor, shows how bodies are being designed to accommodate spaces, rather than the other way around. A limiting design that makes play nearly impossible for some gamers parallels the extent to which the future setting of the game welcomes some bodies and excludes others. While at the level of narrative, players can choose where they side with regard to augmentation technologies, the design reveals how the ideology underpinning the game mechanics is also informed by the belief that the player should overcome certain limitations, or more simply, that the player, as opposed to the game design, should evolve.

Works Cited

Allan, Kathryn. “‘Curing’ the Disabled Body”. Tor: Science fiction. Fantasy. The universe. Web. excerpt from “Introduction: Reading Disability in Science Fiction”. Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. Ed. Kathryn Allan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door”. Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Brenda Jo. Brueggemann, and Jay Dolmage. Boston; New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2008. Print.

Eidos Montreal. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Square Enix, 2011. Personal Computer.

Geraci, Robert A. “Video Games and the Transhuman Inclination”. Zygon. 47.4 (2012): 735-756.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Web.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature,      and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Humanity Plus. “Transhumanist Declaration”. Web. 18 August 2013.

Palmer, Sara. “Old, New, Borrowed and Blue: Compulsory Able-bodiedness and Whiteness in Avatar”. Disability Studies Quarterly. 31.1 (2011). Web

Puckett, Scott. Review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Xbox). AbleGamers Community. Web.

Slocombe, Will. “A ‘Majestic’ Reflexivity: Machine-Gods and the Creation of the Playing Subject in Deus Ex and Deus Ex Invisible War”. Digital Gameplay: Essays on the Nexus of Game and Gamer. Ed. Nate Garrelts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005. 36-51.

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

One Comment

  1. Enjoyed this commentary, but I have one question. In the conclusion, citing Slocombe, you say that the game’s ‘ideological trick’ is an effect of the game’s possibility space. My understanding of possibility space, per Salen and Zimmerman, is the field of possible actions a player can take given the game’s rules. Are you using a different sense of the term? Or can you otherwise clarify the relationship between ideology and possibility space?

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