Philosophy in the World:  Choice and Humanity in “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”

Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”.   To me, an important part of philosophy is the critical examination of topics and problems within our lives, in order to gain a greater understanding of them.  I find that video games provide a particularly interesting method by which to explore philosophical questions due to their inherent design as a creative and artistic medium.  Firstly, unlike any other medium (literature, film, etc.) the player is actively engaged; instead of watching a relatively abstracted character make choices, they must make the choice themselves based on the information available and take responsibility for the consequences.  Secondly, the ability to build a vastly intricate and detailed universe that can be explored at the player’s own pace provides an opportunity to delve deeply into complex issues in a manner that the comparatively compressed and linear nature of other artistic mediums cannot.  Both of these elements are skilfully integrated in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (stylised as Deus Ex: Hum∆n Revolution) is a 2011 action/stealth role-playing game and prequel to Deus Ex (2000) developed by Eidos Montreal and published by Square Enix.  The basic plot is thus:  The year is 2027.  You, the player, are placed into the (cybernetically enhanced) shoes of one Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT officer who is now head of security at Sarif Industries, a private biotech company which is at the forefront of so-called “Augmentation” technology (“Aug” for short)—essentially, biomechanical enhancement of the human body through cybernetics and advanced prosthetics.  The plot starts with Sarif Industries preparing to announce a revolutionary technological breakthrough in the field of augmentation, when its headquarters are attacked by a mysterious team of enhanced mercenaries.  Jensen is fatally wounded and it is only through extensive augmentation surgery that he is able to survive.  Six months later, having recovered, he is tasked with uncovering the motive behind the attack, and stumbles upon a web of conspiracy that stretches from Detroit and Montreal to China and Singapore, and ultimately a high-tech research facility in the Arctic Ocean.

Although the game is rather delightfully over-the-top in certain respects (the protagonist has a pair of retractable sunglasses built into his face, and the main villains turn out to be the literal Illuminati), it poses several thought-provoking philosophical conundrums.  Although the world of Deus Ex is painted as a futuristic dystopia, it is one that is often uncomfortably close our own world.  With the current rate of real-life technological advancement and societal unrest, it is not difficult to imagine ourselves in a similar position within the foreseeable future, and the questions raised in Human Revolution, though fictionalised, bear close examination.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution essentially poses the question:  how would the people of today react to augmentation technology?  Humanity is at the cusp of a veritable technological Renaissance, and biomechanical marvels are produced at a rate never before seen; yet wealth disparity is huge and society is more divided than ever, corporations operate with little to no restriction, and corruption is endemic.  The optimism presented by the potential of augmentation is counterbalanced by the unethical machinations of shadowy organisations determined to twist these technologies for their own purposes.  Augmentation is a controversial topic that suffuses every stratum of society.  On one hand, it grants a decisive advantage: anything from artificial arms capable of throwing a vending machine with deadly force (yes, you can kill enemies with vending machines in this game), to a “social enhancer” that can manipulate other people via pheromone secretions.  This puts those with the wealth to afford augmentations in a physically superior position to those too poor or unhealthy to afford them, exacerbating societal inequality as people are essentially forced to become augmented in order to remain competitive.  However; there is a high cost to augmentation, as all enhanced human must take regular doses of specialised drugs for life or risk rejection syndrome, and must face the possibility that their augmentations may soon become outdated.  Augmented humans also face societal discrimination, which escalate to full-scale violent anti-aug riots as the game’s events progress.

Throughout the game, Jensen interacts with a variety of characters, each of whom provide a different perspective.  Some will compliment or express envy at your state-of-the-art augs; others will disparagingly refer to you as a “hanzer” (short for “enhancer”, i.e. enhanced human) or “chrome boy”.  Still others just wish you’d leave them alone and let them get on with their lives.  The pro-augmentation side is best represented by David Sarif, the founder/CEO of Sarif Industries and Jensen’s boss, who believes that augmentation is the natural and inevitable next step in human evolution—essentially embodying the philosophy of transhumanism.  On the other side, there is the Humanity Front and its leader William Taggart, who lobby for heavy government regulation of augmentation.  No view is presented as being morally right; each have their own valid arguments and drawbacks.  While Sarif genuinely believes in the future of augmentation technology, exudes an air of bonhomie, and cares for his employees, he also has an unpleasantly pragmatic dimension and is willing to do questionable things in order to accomplish his goals.  Taggart initially comes across as uptight and demagogic, and more dubiously has connections to anti-aug terrorist groups, but nonetheless makes a very compelling case for increased governmental restriction of augs.  The issue is framed like a Socratic dialogue, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  By examining this conflict through the eyes of Adam Jensen, who has a personal stake in all this, the player is forced to engage the debate head-on.  Ultimately, no choice is inherently preferable over another; it is up to the player to decide whether Adam feels gratitude or resentment for his unwilling transformation into an augmented human.

Another pertinent question posed in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that of what constitutes humanity itself, in a world where extensive augmentation surgery is increasingly becoming the norm.  The name Deus Ex itself is a play on the Greek expression Deus Ex Machina (literally “god out of the machine”), both a pun on the literary plot device and the concept of transhumanism, which allows humans to evolve beyond the limitations of the human body through technology.  However, despite his new-found power, Jensen is clearly uncomfortable with his current state.  It is heavily implied that he has fallen into severe depression and questions his own humanity as a result of the Sarif incident and his involuntary “upgrade”.  As the game progresses, Jensen encounters and fights the mercenaries who attacked the Sarif HQ, who themselves have replaced their natural limbs with mechanical arms with retractable miniguns or unguligrade leg prostheses, becoming more akin to living weapons than actual human beings.  This is especially highlighted in the penultimate “boss fight” of the game against the mercenary leader Jaron Namir, which takes place in a maze-like room filled with life-sized Bodyworlds-esque statues.  The only part of Namir that still appears to be organic is his face; the rest has been replaced with armoured plating that closely resembles the human musculoskeletal system—a skilful yet obviously artificial facsimile of the human body.  The contrast highlights the question: what is the cost of augmentation?

On a personal level, I find that a close philosophical examination of an artistic work helps me gain new insight into my own life and the world around me.  Video games are particularly adept at deconstructing and examining an issue.  Although a video game is ultimately a fictional simulation with no real-world consequences, the decisions made can be meaningful nonetheless.  One particularly noteworthy example in Human Revolution is a near-replica of Thomson’s Trolley Problem.  At one point in the story, Jensen infiltrates a mysterious facility owned by a private security company, and discovers a secret research complex in which kidnapped prisoners are being forcibly experimented upon.  A dissident lieutenant-commander and a scientist working there are willing to turn whistle-blower and expose the unethical doings of the base, but when the base’s commander catches wind of Jensen’s presence, he issues a lockdown order and releases a poison gas that will kill both the prisoners and the scientist.  The gas can be re-directed to save one or the other, but not both.  Suddenly, I was forced to make a complicated moral choice under time pressure.  Is the life of a single person more valuable than the lives of a hundred?  Does the exposure of the facility justify the cost of letting innocent people die?  These were the questions I was asking myself as the timer was counting down.  A Utilitarian such as John Stuart Mill might argue that the exposure of the facility would ultimately prevent more such incidents and lead to greater happiness in the long run (according to the Greatest Happiness Principle)—after all, without intervention, prisoners and scientist will die.  On the other hand, if “right trumps utility”, then it is surely preferable to save the lives of several hundred prisoners held against their will as opposed to a single scientist who voluntarily chose to work at the base (albeit without full knowledge of the ethical violations).  While I was familiar with the Trolley Problem in its various iterations, I never before had to confront the consequences of actually making a decision like this myself.  By being placed at the epicentre of a moral conundrum, I am forced to consider a perspectives that ordinarily may not even have occurred to me.   It is examination of moments like this in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and other works that have allowed me to gain a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.

 

Works Cited:

Plato, The Apology, 38a.

Eidos Montreal, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011).  Video Game.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Trolley ProblemThe Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985)

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)

Philosophy in the World: Video Games and Life

Video games are a unique and interesting form of entertainment. What differentiates them from other common forms of entertainment, such as books, movies, etc., is the added element of player interaction. The story within a book or movie will continue forward whether or not the ‘viewer’ is present, but the story within a video game will remain incomplete without the ‘player’. You could perhaps make a simple comparison to a ball sport, as it is not the ball or the stadium that make the match or sport you love, but rather the men and women who play. In this sense, the player is the final piece for a game, completing the mural portraying an epic tale of various genres for many to enjoy.

Philosophy to me is the act of understanding life, not on a scientifically physical level, but on a fundamental human level. What I mean by this is the pursuit of an answer concerning for what reason do we live life at all, and why do we live life the way we do? Answering such questions allow a person to have a greater understanding and appreciation of life itself.

A variation of the question above that we must first ask though is one of Albert Camus’, “judging whether life is or is not worth living” (“The Myth of Sisyphus” 3). Camus illustrates this question using the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, where Sisyphus is essentially trapped in a never ending cycle of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to ultimately return back to its starting point. The story illustrates the ‘absurdity’ of our lives (3), as in the presence of a contradiction between what we wish for and what the world actually provides; we are in a continuous search for an ultimate purpose, but as far as we know there is none.

Camus argues that regardless of whether or not life has meaning, life is nonetheless still worth living (“The Myth of Sisyphus” 4-5). He argues that we should be happy like Sisyphus, that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (3). This sentiment is similar to the words of Robert Nozick when he speaks about the ‘Experience Machine’, where “[p]erhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)…” (“Anarchy, State, and Utopia” 45). What both Camus and Nozick highlight here is not merely the experience of doing something, but the actual act of it. Camus proposes (and to an extent, also Nozick) that we must acknowledge this absurdity and work towards finding something beyond it (even if it’s not there, the struggle is key not the result). In other words, we should find life itself to be the reason for our existence and our associated actions.

So how does this connect with video games? Well in my opinion, video games can be seen as a philosophical activity that can actually help illustrate both Camus’ and Nozick’s point of views, while also provoking us to wonder about the 2nd part of our fundamental question, ‘why do we do things the way we do?’. This may seem contradictory at first glance, as video games can be seen as something similar to Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’, simply a form of escape from reality, but bear with me.

A majority of games have an overarching goal for the player to achieve, some story to conclude that pushes the player along. What happens as a result is that the universe has shrunk from the constantly expanding void we deal with to something tangible and comfortingly limited to the screen before you, providing a small but albeit significant sense of comfort, no matter how temporary. It provides the player a temporary higher purpose, that there is some end to their struggles. You immerse yourself into a role within this smaller setting, that you are the ‘Hero’, the so called ‘Chosen One’ who has an ultimate destiny only you can fulfil. I’ve started numerous games on a similar note, and the feelings of excitement alongside purpose always return to me. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the game does not move forward without the player’s actions. In these ways, it temporarily alleviates the feelings of absurdity (although others may fall deeper into denial, it is a rather thin line of distinction). To be more precise, it deals with two different versions of absurdity. The first being the ‘absurdity of life’, where the game engages you and temporarily takes you away from the daily responsibilities and struggles of reality; the second being the concept of ‘absurdity’ itself, where due to the game having a final goal of some kind, there is no ‘gap’ between what we want and what the universe (the game) can provide. In this way, video games can be seen as an escape from reality, but that is not all that happens.

The moment we put the controller down and watch the credits roll onscreen, the resulting tide of melancholy makes us realize something. That it was the journey that brought us the most joy. The ending of a game may have provided some sort of satisfaction or relief, but the joy and wonder was had during the game, not after it. Most of us do not play games to reach the ending as quickly as possible, but instead we play in a way that creates the most amount of joy and memories. This idea parallels both Camus’ view, where the player can be seen as Sisyphus, where we are alright with the boulder returning to its starting point, because it means another run through the journey that we can enjoy, and Nozick’s view, as we play the game not just to get to the ending, but because we are enjoying the reality of going through it.

With this realization in mind, we can draw a parallel to our real lives. Just as we continue in a game with an overarching goal in mind, the part we nonetheless concentrate on is the gameplay. It is the same in life, we continue forward in our lives with goals created almost daily, but it is almost always the journey that rewards us with the most vivid of memories and emotions. For example, close friendships. The ultimate goal of creating such a bond is a person who you can depend on in any situation in life. However, as much as we enjoy the benefits of such a thing, it is actually getting to know that person and the events associated with that journey that stay with us; and even after we’ve established such a rapport, a majority of the joy comes from the moments we share together rather than the mere knowledge of knowing that such a person exists. Hence, why we usually make friends with those that interest us and not merely with people who benefit us (I am speaking of ‘true’ friendship in this case, as in the bond shared is something authentic). The parallel provokes us to really contemplate our history and actions, and this is why I argue video games are a philosophical activity according to my definition of philosophy, because it can make us assess whether it is for the journey itself or the goal we wish to reach that we continue living.

Actively contemplating for what reasons we act the way we do is not something most do on a daily basis; but in the moments where people do ponder, it can put life in an interesting perspective. This is something I personally do on a weekly basis, and it is enlightening. To begin with, a question I occasionally ask myself after a session of gaming with my friends was did I have a good time because I was interacting with people or because I won more rounds than the others? I then ask similar questions about majority of the things I did during the week, schoolwork, sports, so on and so forth. Did I enjoy and learn something meaningful during the journey or was I only fixated on the goal? Just as life constantly changes, so do my answers, and it is always fascinating to see how I rationalize my existence with my chosen actions, especially whenever I mature or learn something new that may change my perspective. Thus, I continue to ponder away.

By Jeremy Hidjaja

 

 

Philosophy in the World: Life is Strange – The Video Game

*Spoiler alert on the video game: Life is Strange

Life is Strange is a video game published by Square Enix (2015). It is a “story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in-game actions and decisions will impact the past, present, and future” and at the beginning of the game, the player is told to choose wisely (Square Enix 2015). The player wakes up as the protagonist, Maxine Caulfield, in the middle of a forest during a storm. She makes her way to a lighthouse and sees a tornado heading towards the town, Arcadia Bay. The lighthouse is about to crumble and fall on her. As the lighthouse falls, she wakes up again in the middle of her photography class at Blackwell Academy, wondering what just happened because she doesn’t believe she was daydreaming. Max finds out she has the power to rewind time when she witnesses her childhood friend Chloe getting shot. She decides to use this power to become an “everyday hero”, and her first task so the save from getting shot. Throughout the game, the player realizes that the decisions made set the butterfly effect in motion and that Max actually brought the tornado to Arcadia Bay by going back in time to save Chloe. The final decision that needs to be made in the game is to sacrifice Arcadia Bay to save Chloe, or to allow Chloe to get shot and save Arcadia Bay.

To me, philosophy is about the pursuit of knowledge and understanding the truths about ourselves and the world around us, as well as living with those truths. Part of this is understanding that we are in fact only human and cannot control the universe nor can we ask anything of it, which relates to the game Life is Strange. The decisions we make every single day are based on morality, what we think is good or bad, right or wrong. Based on this definition, the decisions made by the player in Life is Strange clue into what is thought to be morally right or wrong.

This definition ties in with Judith Thomson’s view on the trolley problem. The trolley problem is a train is heading down a track that splits, with one person on one track and five people on another, and the train is heading towards the track with five people (Thomas 1985). A bystander can pull a lever to change the track, making the train hit the one person instead of the five people (Thomas 1985). This decision will be based on what the bystander believes to be morally right. Thomas (1985) argues that, morally, it is okay for the bystander to switch the lever, allowing the train to hit the one person instead of the five people because killing five would be worse than killing one. Stereotypically, humans would agree that given this kind of situation, fewer fatalities would be the best route to go. This is acknowledged as a truth. By the definition of philosophy given, understanding this truth will allow the bystander to live with the decision made because they will have believed they did the right thing.

Life is Strange allows the player to make decisions which impact the future. Max sees going back in time as a chance to help others. Going back in time allows Max to change certain events to make sure fewer people get hurt in the future, but in doing this, she actually hurts more people. Her power caused the storm she first wakes up to in the beginning of the game. Max begins to realize that her decisions have consequences and that she cannot control everything. The last decision that Max has to make is to save Chloe or save Arcadia Bay. This is similar to the trolley problem. It is like having Chloe on one track and the town on the other, but in this case, the train is heading towards the track with one person on it and this one person is Chloe. Max goes back in time to the very beginning, the day Chloe gets shot. As the last decision in the game, Max can pull the lever like the bystander, making the train hit the town, ultimately bringing Arcadia Bay to its doom or she can allow nature to take its course, allowing Chloe to die. By the definition of philosophy given, Max learns and understands the truth that actions have consequences and although she may be trying to do good, it doesn’t always end up that way. Changing the events in the past will disrupt the order of the universe, causing more harm than good. The truth is that Max is only human and must accept her role as a human. Just because she has this power to time travel, doesn’t mean she should go against the order of the universe and change events in time. Throughout the game, Max was in pursuit of what she should do. She was in pursuit of knowledge of the situations of her friends and this led her to difficult situations which she again tried to understand. After witnessing the outcomes of her decisions, Max gains more knowledge about what is morally right or wrong since the universe retaliates against her decisions.

I engage in philosophical activities outside of the classroom through my religion. I was raised as a Catholic and I went to Catholic school my entire but I didn’t always practice my faith. Coming into university, I began to open up to the idea that there may actually be a God. By my definition, I am in the midst of searching for the truth and if I ever find that truth, I’ll be able to live knowing the truth and understanding the truth. I may end up fully believing the truth to be that God exists. However, this sort of truth is difficult to determine. Because of this, the decision to fully believe in God or not will be based on the research I’ve done and will do, as well as experiences I have and will experience. It will also be based on what I believe to be true.

Creative Commons: Life is Strange (6)” by Videogame Photography is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Bibliography:

Square Enix, 2015, Life is Strange, video game, Linux, Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Square Enix, Japan. 

Thomson,  J 1985. The Trolley Problem, The Yale Law Journal, vol. 94, no. 6, pp. 1395-1415. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/796133 [31 March 2017]