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How gaming companies co-opt the language of oppression

Eidos Montreal’s “Augs Lives Matters” reference reveals the latest example of gaming companies’ casual ignorance of real-world race issues


 
Promotional art released by Eidos Montreal for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. (Eidos Montreal/Square-Enix)

Promotional art released by Eidos Montreal for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. (Eidos Montreal/Square-Enix)

The popular video game studio Eidos Montreal released marketing photos last week for its upcoming title Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Deus Ex is one of the most popular franchises in gaming; the original, having sold more than a million units, is always present in debates over which PC game ranks the best of all time. The series explores familiar dystopian themes in cyberpunk lore, including the unintended consequences of human innovation, unchecked growth of massive global corporations, and the secret societies twisting the aforementioned to their advantage. It also deals with class fractures among a technically advanced society—in this case, among “augs” (augmented humans who have replaced some of their limbs and organs with cybernetic prosthetics), and “naturals” (non-augmented humans who haven’t). In the marketing photos, protesters at St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow hold up an “Augs Lives Matters” sign before a mass of police outfitted in riot gear. In this, and the immediate backlash, Eidos Montreal hewed closely to another sci-fi convention: casual ignorance of real-world race issues.

The problem began at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (commonly known as E3), when Eidos Montreal teased the narrative of the upcoming game as “mechanical apartheid.” The online reaction was mostly negative, with some pointing out that the term “apartheid,” in the context of the Deus Ex world, makes a mockery of the actual brutality and slaughter inflicted on Black people by a white ruling class in pre-1994 South Africa. The forced analogy between that experience, and that of imaginary people rich enough to outfit their bodies with robotic parts, was too much. The game’s executive art director, Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, did the company no favours in responding to the criticism: “It’s a form of art, the people outside don’t think it’s art; it’s just stupid games … we’re fighting against those people. And then when we’re dealing with serious subjects suddenly we’re treated as little kids that are just doing video games again.”

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When the “Augs Lives Matters” photos were released last week, reactions went from negative to downright hostile. Manveer Heir, a designer with rival studio BioWare spoke with gaming site Polygon, and was blunt in his assessment: “It is bad optics and marketing departments of all departments should understand optics and how to react to the current state of the actual world.” In an exchange with the game’s executive brand director André Vu (who claimed the slogan was coined for the game before Black Lives Matter was coined for Trayvon Martin), he was less forgiving: “The fact that you went forward with posting the image & not realizing the optics/meaning of that image to people is incompetent.” Heir, an outspoken critic of misogyny, homophobia and racism in gaming, was not alone.

When I spoke with Tanya DePass, founder of the Chicago-based nonprofit organization I Need Diverse Games, she began the conversation with a resigned sigh. After the last Deus Ex game, featuring a Black woman named Letitia who spoke with an exaggerated Stepin Fetchit accent, DePass continues to find herself exhausted by the ongoing grind of game companies erasing, misrepresenting, and stereotyping our experiences. “When you’re giving markers of real-life oppression, but never talk about real-life oppression, it does a disservice to the audience because they think we can’t handle it.” When I told her  about Belletête’s comments, she was audibly rankled. “You don’t get to hold up a game as art if you can’t stand the criticism. Why should I give you my money when you don’t recognize my humanity? When you only see me as a dollar sign?”

Against the common wisdom that Millennial gamers and developers have more enlightened attitudes, racism and racial tropes persist across generations. This, despite the fact that Black and Latino youth are, per capita, spending more of their time and money on video games. For example Capcom, the developer for the popular horror game Resident Evil, came under fire in 2009 when the preview trailer for Resident Evil 5 featured a white, male protagonist shooting and punching his way through hordes of Black African zombies. Naughty Dog, developer of the Uncharted franchise, introduced its first Black woman as a main character in this year’s fourth and final installment of the series. Normally this would be a great thing, but for the fact that the main character—again, a white man—has to engage her in a fistfight mere minutes after their first encounter.

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I also spoke with Brooklyn-based fantasy author Daniel José Older. As someone who has pushed back against similar problems in the fantasy and sci-fi genres of literature, Older didn’t seem surprised to hear that this marketing campaign was Canadian-made: “Art can save lives, but it is a double-edged sword,” he said. “In these genres, racism magically disappears from the narrative. Writers don’t want to talk about race, but they do want to talk about oppression. It’s not the conversation that divides us; it’s the glossing over and flattening true forms of oppression that divide us.”

Older was quick to point out that he hasn’t played the Deus Ex games, but that hardly matters. In the science fiction genre, a Venn diagram between readers and gamers would form a slightly oblong circle. The problems within the genre, primarily concerning the lack of diversity among fictional characters and the creators themselves, also overlap. It is not sufficient for a group of creatives in Montreal to present a work that invokes real-life oppression as “art,” claim neutrality, and leave the rest open to interpretation. Especially when considering Montreal is not yet a year removed from the last time blackface was performed in a public theatre, or from the time two teenagers grabbed a Muslim woman by her hijab and threw her to the ground. It is not sufficient in the age of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the killing of Abdirahman Abdi.

Eidos Montreal’s executive staff would do well to pay attention. They’re not fighting against those who consider their work to be child’s play. What they’re fighting is an audience who takes their work seriously, and are critiquing the art they’re putting forward.

Time for them to grow up.


 

How gaming companies co-opt the language of oppression

  1. If you know anything about the history of Deus Ex, their narratives depict a reflection of real-world issues, but within the context of their alternate, yet parallel universe. The game allows you to weigh in on these issues through the choices you make – and the game adapts and responds to your decisions accordingly. Player agency dictates, and ultimately shapes, how the story unfolds. This is complex, but it is embedded within the DNA of Deus Ex. The game has a story to tell, but it is up to us to decide how it is told and perceived. It’s imperative that this subject matter is tackled because it is predicated on human nature’s Iignorance to discriminate and judge what is not understood or familiar – as you, Tanya, Heir, McIntosh, and others alike have alluded to with your ill-informed and reactionary opinions and perspectives.

    Eidos Montreal has conducted a lot of research for this game, which has influenced every aspect of this game – from the science and technology, to human nature and socio-political issues – and the prospect of this future is possible if we continue to tread the way we have and are. It is a projected reality, an intellectual allegory of a probable future. This is art, it is sci-fi, and it’s philosophical literature, whether you like it or not.

    In reference to their response, specifically Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, what they’re saying is:

    We aren’t trying to sway you in any direction. We’re not going to preach you. We’re just holding up the mirror. Then we decide how to tackle those issues and perceive the circumstances. That has been very clear. The only difference is that people aren’t used to this because other mediums – such as literature, music, cartoons, and movies – aren’t designed to consider, let alone allow, user agency to interact with and determine how the story develops or how its subject matter is perceived beyond what is portrayed. This is unique to gaming and why it’s paramount that games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided continue to tell mature stories that have the power to provide insight and perspective about real-world topics/issues (through the use of metaphors and analogies) that would otherwise be misunderstood or completely disregarded in reality.

    It’s perplexing to me how people like you are coming down on Eidos Montreal for content without context. People need to step back, relax, and wait until the game is experienced before passing judgments. More reflecting, less reacting. Consider it a life lesson and advice to improve your ‘journalism’.

    • Fyi, BioShock Infinite also received its own share of controversy and criticism regarding its narrative, but it turned out to be one of the best stories in video game history. Many critics even hailed it as one of the most profound stories ever told. Here’s a refresher:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioShock_Infinite#Controversy

      Controversy[edit]

      George Washington stands tall above a throng of racist caricatures. This Columbia propaganda poster, showing the xenophobia of the Founders, was briefly used by the National Liberty Foundation.
      Infinite’s themes of racism, extreme religion and an ideological society caused controversy. In the various reveals of the Founders and Vox Populi before release, Levine and Irrational Games were criticized by various groups; upon demonstrating the Founders, people that favored the ideals of the Tea Party including Levine’s relatives felt the game was attacking that movement; on the announcement of the Vox Populi, Levine found some websites claiming the game was an attack on the labor movement, and one white supremacist website claimed that “The Jew Ken Levine is making a white-person-killing simulator.”[211] Levine considered that Infinite, like BioShock before it, was a Rorschach test for most people, though it would be taken negatively in nature and upset them, as his vision in crafting the stories was “about not buying into a single point of view”.[211] Some of the game’s imagery has been used by conservative groups. In 2013, the National Liberty Foundation, a group in the Tea Party movement used a propaganda mural from the game espousing the Founders’ racism and xenophobia on their Facebook page before its source was recognized and later taken down.[230] Fox News created a logo extremely similar to the BioShock Infinite logo for a segment titled “Defending the Homeland” relating to immigration control.[231]

      Zachary Comstock’s portrayal as a zealot was also deemed to offend “gamers with strong religious backgrounds,” as a member of the BioShock Infinite development team even threatened to resign over the game’s ending,[232] believing the game was saying “Being religious causes you to be evil.”[233] Comstock was altered after Levine spoke with this developer, who helped Levine to reconsider the notion of forgiveness in the New Testament and set to figure out why people came to follow Comstock and to understand the ecstatic religious experience they would be seeking. Levine did not consider this reinvention of the character to be censorship, instead a means to present the story better to a broad audience.[234][235][236] In another case, a player that considered himself a “devout believer” of Christianity was offended by the forced baptism that Booker receives prior to entering Columbia proper, prompting him to request a refund due to being unaware of this content in the game.[237] Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku considered that the baptism scene was “admirable” in the context of video games as an art form, and the scene elicited numerous responses on social media.[237] The baptism scenes throughout the game were also interpreted by some not as a critique of Christianity or religion, but as a representation of themes such as free will, evil, rebirth and redemption.[218][220][221][238][239]

      • Bioshock Infinite also comes under fire from an angle not even mentioned in your comment, and that is that the oppressed peoples fighting back against the oppressors are just as bad as their oppressors. Interestingly this part isn’t actually discussed all that much. I think there’s a *huge* failing and gap with respect to games criticism because this viewpoint is super apparent to me. Ergo, I don’t defer to it very much.

        Transhumanism is super interesting and stands alone well enough especially in the context of Deus Ex’s universe. Hugh Darrow did a thing and augmented people are literally quite different from an individual that has no augmentations. This isn’t like real world racist oppression.

        When you draw an analogue to “Augs Lives Matter” though, you’re going to create a comparison to racism. If we concede that “we aren’t going to preach to you” or “we’re not going to sway you in any direction” once we’re looking at the issue of racism, would this mean then that JJB is feels the merits of racism is open to interpretation? Because I do think that that is a valid question to ask regarding transhumanism especially given the events that happen in Human Revolution. I think that that is a poor position to take, however, regarding racism. “Augs Lives Matter” ends up coming across as a failure to really understand our world if they’re making the comparison that augmented people are equivalent to people of different ethnicity. At this point, I think people that are disagreeing with what Eidos did are in effecting taking the mirror provided and turning it back on the developers. Though, interestingly, the developers are doubling down on the idea that the audience isn’t allowed to do that. I think it’s unfair and agree with the assessment that you cannot claim to be art while ignoring critical analysis of your art (or the marketing materials of your art).

        As for coming down on the game, that is part of the issue with why this is a bizarre *marketing* decision. We cannot glean context from marketing and I don’t think “you don’t understand the context” is a valid defense with respect to marketing materials. It’s impossible for people to get that context as it stands.

  2. “Eidos Montreal’s “Augs Lives Matters” reference reveals the latest example of gaming companies’ casual ignorance of real-world race issues”
    That’s the exact opposite. Maybe the ignorant one is the article writer, who doesn’t know anything about the game’s story and is talking shit about the game.
    Maybe augmentations and stuff are not real, but there are some comparisons that if we make between the game and the real world, the game has a very intimate parallel with the real world’s issues.
    “mechanical apartheid”, “aug lives matter” and other expressions are used by some self proclaimed anti racism movements that are “opressed”, I don’t get why the article says that this is “language of opression”. If this is really language of opression, wouldn’t the article writer be assuming that black lives matter is an opressive movement?
    ” in the context of the Deus Ex world, makes a mockery of the actual brutality and slaughter inflicted on Black people by a white ruling class in pre-1994 South Africa” Really? Why would they do this? The expression is a comparison to the real world apartheid, it’s almost like a parallel world comparison, to show us that prejudice is totally unfounded.
    This isn’t mockery, it’s a depiction of real world issues. I bet that the writer thought “hmm, a game that criticezes prejudice, and depicts real world issues, how can I make this sound bad?” and wrote this article

  3. “Time for them to grow up.”

    I find it ironic that the author is saying this to the game company. If someone takes offense or cannot handle the content (Deus Ex is a mature sci-fi touching on tough real world issues), then this is likely not the game for them.

    I will provide a link to the other side of this argument. This is important since the majority of journalism does a very poor job of understanding and reporting on gaming culture and trends.

    http://heatst.com/culture-wars/video-game-deus-ex-mankind-divided-under-fire-for-appropriation-of-black-lives-matter/

  4. First and foremost let’s understand one thing- this game has not yet come out and you’ve judged the entire game on a throw away hashtag slogan crammed into the far corner of a single piece of concept art. If you want context in a single piece of concept art you are out of your minds. Second, and this shows the ignorance of the person making the statement, it’s not the rich who can afford augs in Deus Ex. If you actually played the game you run into people who have no money to pay for the maintenance of their augs and in one case a downtrodden penniless man willing to take a shotgun to his supplier just to get the necessary meds for his girlfriend. Some people are rich and get wildly expensive augs like Zhao Yun Ru or Bob Page but most people in the LIMB clinics are regular people who have had bad accidents. Also there are many many examples of people being coerced into augmenting their bodies. Some either get them or lose their jobs or in the case of the Hengsha brothel the player visits the girls are abducted and forced to get their limbs replaced and are forced by their handlers to come to them for the meds to prevent rejection. If you want to talk about oppression THERE IT IS. Deus Ex references megacorporations taking advantage of the average person, the poor class, and the downtrodden masses. All of this aside, Deus Ex games ALWAYS show massive context and references to its conundrums with magazines, emails, newspapers, books, and conversations that go so deep you need refresher classes in both history and philosophy. If the writer of this piece had the foresight to watch any of the game trailers you see the police monitoring the segregated augmented people as a second class threat and in the last trailer actively beating and killing people whose only crime was having a replaced limb. You tell me- where’s the context, where’s the references to real world examples, where’s the beef?

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