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.
Plato, The Apology, 38a.
Eidos Montreal, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011). Video Game.
Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Trolley Problem. The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 6 (May, 1985)
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)