As you can probably guess by the title image for this article, I’m going to be partially mentioning and talking about racially charged social debates such as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. So right off the top, I want to point out that while I won’t be giving my personal opinions on said debates, I am a white, middle-class, Australian male and, as such, do not have a personal experience of a lot of the social and racial issues that these debates revolve around. Nevertheless, these debates are especially important to talk about for this topic, as it pertains to how video games and, in a way, most fictional media try to tackle social and political issues in their own worlds in an attempt to spark conversations about the ones they reflect. More specifically, however, I want to talk about how I feel the recently released Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attempted to do this, but shot itself in the foot by doing so.
Before we get to that, I think I should do a quick bit of background to catch those of you who may not keep up with general gaming news up to speed with the controversy that inspired this topic for me.
Earlier this month, a piece of released concept art for Mankind Divided was criticised by many for its seeming appropriation the slogan and imagery surrounding the “Black Lives Matter” movement to market the game. Personally, I think people were justified in voicing that concern, considering the piece shows a protesting group of people facing off against police officers while holding up a banner with the words “Augs Lives Matters”.
The controversy around the piece however, appeared when the franchise’s executive brand director, Andre Vu, justified the release of the artwork on Twitter by stating that the game’s use of the phrase “Augs Lives Matters” was simply an “unfortunate coincidence”. Vu justified this by saying that even though the Black Lives Matter movement was coined in earnest back in 2013, the game’s story and “Augs Lives Matters” slogan apparently predated the movement.
After very obvious debates with people who were justifiably outraged at that sentiment, Vu ultimately chalked up the widespread and incredibly easy to draw interpretations of “Augs Lives Matters” as people aboard a “hate wagon” and piggybacking on the similarly named social media movement without understanding the context behind the artwork.
While my intention of this article is not to debate whether or not the “Augs Lives Matters” slogan was an unfortunate coincidence or not, let alone state my personal views on the “Black Lives Matter” movement, I would like to take a small moment to address Mr. Vu directly, one internet stranger to another.
While you are a racial minority yourself and you’ve stated on social media that you empathize with the racial and social tensions that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, the fact that your team went ahead with posting this image without recognising its very obvious similarities to a very real and very serious social debate is nothing short of incompetent. Being first doesn’t make you right. If the creative team behind the TV show Archer had the forethought to change the name of their in-world spy agency called ‘ISIS’ for obvious current event reasons, then what the hell was stopping you besides mule-worthy stubbornness?
Regardless of whether or not the use of these specific words was indeed a coincidence, it doesn’t change the notion that in 2016, long after creation of the real life movement that shares the similar slogan to your own, continuing to use and publicise these words while having at least three years to change them negatively impacts the Black Lives Matter movement for the sake of marketing a videogame. Either way, I guess Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has another horrible marketing strategy behind it.
Back on topic, however, I do understand the intentions of the game’s creative team by using imagery that reminds us of our own social debates. They’re creating a game with a story that tackles matters of segregation, civil rights issues, and apartheid. These are issues that are still prevalent in modern society whether we like to admit it or not. Mankind Divided is trying to “hold up a mirror”, as it were, to the issues and debates that see in our society, forcing us to look at different sides and arguments that we may never have thought of in order to spark a genuine political discussion.
I genuinely think it’s awesome that we’ve reached a point where creators and storytellers can use games as a brand new medium to pull this kind of thing off in their stories. But unfortunately, from what I’ve seen of the game so far, I just don’t think that Mankind Divided has been able to achieve this, despite its best intentions. And I think the reason this has happened is because of the game’s primary reflection of racial social issues, including Augs Lives Matter and the terminology of “Mechanical Apartheid” in reference to the current state of the in-game world, even though the game’s central conflict not having anything to do with racism in the first place. The fictional world’s conflicts and social issues are too different from the real world ones that it attempts to reflect.
To help explain what I mean by that, I want to use the X-Men comics and movies as an example of how a fictional property’s in-world social conflicts can mirror ones from the real world without dampening the effect of either. More specifically, I want to talk about how X-Men’s mutant social issues reflected real life LGBT issues. While mostly sub-textual, it was still easily recognised by many because of how similar the themes of X-Men’s in-world issues pertaining to mutant-kind are to those of the LGBT community.
If you think that’s a bit of a stretch, consider these points that the X-Men comics and movies bring up: Mutants have no choice in being what they are because they are born that way due to a matter of genetics. Some mutants are able to hide who they are, while others aren’t able to. Alternatively, some mutants are proud of what they are, but others aren’t. And ultimately, mutants are group of people that are treated with prejudice by non-mutants primarily due to fear and/or a lack of understanding or education. I think you can see where this is going.
Mankind Divided, on the other hand, falls flat on its face when trying to “hold up a mirror” because of how completely unlike the game’s in-world social issues are to its incredibly obvious real-world inspired racial parallels. After all, the modern racial issues we have today have hundreds of years worth of historical oppression surrounding a minority whose equality still hasn’t been completely recognised if we’re being completely honest.
This is trying to be reflected in Mankind Divded’s social issues, which surround a group of people who, in some cases opted to, have robotic body augmentations that caused them to become brainwashed and violent berserkers because of the actions of a small group of assholes. In the wake of this event, this group is now treated with extreme prejudice because non-augmented people fear that they may not even be in control of their own bodies anymore; essentially making them outcasts and second class citizens as a result.
This, I believe, is the unfortunate thing about Mankind Divided’s attempt to spark a genuine political discussion by creating parallels to our social issues in its own world. Because it uses references to, as well as terminology and phrases from real life modern social issues that it has no relation to, the game doesn’t really reflect our own political and social issues at all. At best, it dampens the discussion of that real life issue for the sake of entertainment. And at worst, it comes across as an insensitive parody that turns a serious political discussion into a joke, in turn breaking the game’s immersion and causing the player to not even pay attention to the discussion that the game wants to have.
Considering that a lot of reviews I’ve read since the game’s release either share this statement or don’t even mention game’s political commentary, I’m starting to think that Mankind Divided’s attempts have fallen into the later interpretation. I can only hope that storytellers learn from this mistake when creating future games that attempt to hold up a mirror to our own issues as a society. In fact, I look forward to seeing a successful attempt.