Is Deus Ex Human Revolution Truly Transhuman?

Deus Ex: Human Revolution launched August, 2011. Just a month earlier, Kyle Munkittrick, program director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies wrote an article for Discover magazine called “Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism.”

Munkittrick outlined what he envisioned as the essential changes in culture, ideology and human self-image that would signal the existence of a transhuman society, a society where people and technology—man and machine—had become so closely connected that the traditional idea of what constituted a person would evolve. “As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds,” Munkittrick wrote. “Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.”

Munkittrick’s essay is not an exhaustive prediction for how transhumanisn will come to pass, nor is Deus Ex: Human Revolution wholly reflective of a probable transhuman society. But given the proximity of the article’s publication to the release of the game, I can’t but consider to what extent Human Revolution lives up to Munkittrick’s seven conditions.

The first marker Munkittrick imagines is a shift in how prosthetics and artificial body parts are adapted by people. Rather than being used only in instances of medical necessity, in a transhuman society, prosthetics and cybernetic implants would be preferred over natural, biological limbs and organs. “Voluntary amputations” are what Munkittrick describes as an accurate test for when this change has occurred.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you meet several characters whose prosthetics are customised or colour co-ordinated, veritable fashion accessories which have been designed to connote status. One of the game’s weapon merchants, for example, has two gold-plated prosthetic arms. He illustrates how implants and cybernetics in Deus Ex have not only become preferred, but normalised and accepted to the point that they’re considered mere jewellery. His prosthetics imply a casual attitude to amputation, as if the technology has become so sophisticated and safe that you’d have your arms replaced simply because it looks good, rather than for practicality’s sake. Amputation has become voluntary in Human Revolution—artificial body parts are preferred—to the extent that debate seems to have concluded. It’s something that, like buying clothes or getting a tattoo, people just do.

Munkittrick also points to “better brains” as a marker for transhumanism, a situation whereby cognition and intelligence are improved artificially using drugs, genetic engineering or physical implants. Human Revolution lets you upgrade many of your prosthetics and augmentations, though mostly those upgrades are geared towards better combat and sneaking ability. One, however, perhaps reflects the improved brains referred to by Munkittrick—if you purchase the Social Enhancer implant, which is placed inside the cranium, you can use it to better evaluate how characters will react to your dialogue choices. The implant supposedly analyzes people’s subtle physical behaviours during conversation and feeds back to the user the most appropriate response, in effect artificially gifting a “better brain,” at least in regards to social interaction. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is largely centred on action and stealth, so a lot of the augmentations, rather than a more idealistic vision of a transhuman world, where cybernetics are used to improve intelligence and understanding, are geared towards typical videogame mechanics. But the Social Enhancer is a small nod to Munkittrick’s signifier.

Amputation has become voluntary in Human Revolution 

Same goes for Human Revolution‘s heads up display. The HUD is a pervading videogame trope, providing the player with information on location, health, weapons and so on, but rarely is it characterised as a diegetic part of the player character’s world: it exists as a formality to the player, not as something within the game’s fiction.

But Human Revolution makes it known that the HUD is something visible to the character, also—at the beginning of the game Adam Jensen must report to his technician to fix a bug in his personal HUD, thus connecting the game to Munkittrick’s vision, which says, in a transhumanist society, augmented reality will be integrated into “personal, everyday behaviours.” Essentially, Adam has his own HUD: just as information is fed visually to the player, he receives it also. “AI assist with AR overlay will radically improve human functioning,” writes Munkittrick, and as Jensen’s functions as a secret agent and assassin are to spy and fight, his HUD, which provides locations of guards, and health and ammo stats, improves his functioning.

“Amazing average age” is another of the key changes Munkittrick envisages in a transhuman society, and it has a very tangible connection to Human Revolution in regards to mechanics. “Our social understanding of ageing will lose the ‘virtue of necessity’ aspect,” writes Munkittrick “and society will treat ageing as a disease to be mitigated and managed.”

Not only is Adam Jensen brought back from the dead using augmentations, after suffering mortal wounds at the beginning of Human Revolution, the player has the choice to finish the entire game without killing anybody. “Pacifist” is an achievement given if you finish Human Revolution without murdering anyone (save for the boss enemies, who have to be killed) and it’s entirely possible to complete the game without using a lethal weapon (again with the exclusion of boss fights.) Just as aging and by extension death become unnecessary and are treated as illnesses in a transhuman world, in Human Revolution, contrary to almost every other videogame, killing is an option rather than an inevitability. Jensen is revived and guards can either be dispatched non-lethally or avoided completely, and so death becomes a condition rather than a finality, a possibility rather than a certainty.

But Munkittrick’s final three markers are not so tangibly represented. “Responsible reproduction,” whereby, rather than biological imperative or accident, “having children will be framed almost exclusively in the light of responsibility,” isn’t covered in especial detail by Human Revolution. The ideas that parenting will be more closely planned, that births will be managed to match replacement rates and that licenses may be required in order to have children in a transhuman society don’t appear in Human Revolution in the direct sense. But Jensen, we discover, was as a child part of an experiment to find a person whose genetic code could freely support augmentations.

The prosthetics and cybernetics in Deus Ex require a drug called Neuropozyne in order to function—it prevents a build-up of scar tissue around the augments, meaning that electrical signals from the brain can continue to flow to them uninhibited. Jensen, however, doesn’t need the drug: his body simply does not develop scar tissue around augmentations. And so, inasmuch as he is a child with a specific purpose and significance, and was raised as part of an experiment that weeded out random and unnecessary participants, Jensen is the product of responsible reproduction. From birth, he is selected—his genetic code, and its discovery, mean that rather than a child produced through biological happenstance, his life and purpose have been already delineated. He is produced with a responsibility already waiting for him.

aging and by extension death become unnecessary 

That’s about as far as Human Revolution goes with Munkittrick’s ideas about reproduction, however, and although his other two markers are more concretely reflected, they are not affirmed.

“Transhumanism cannot happen without a legal structure that allows individuals to control their own bodies,” writes Munkittrick, citing that “actions such as abortion, assisted suicide, voluntary amputation, gender reassignment, surrogate pregnancy, body modification, legal unions among adults of any number, and consenting sexual practices would be protected under law.” Again, as an action game largely preoccupied by stealth and combat, Human Revolution isn’t fascinated by these more nuanced social questions. On the contrary, it depicts a world where control of one’s own body hasn’t become absolute—the transhuman marker outlined by Munkittrick, in this case, isn’t attained.

The aforementioned Neuropozyne prohibits the acquisition and ownership of prosthetics to a privileged, willing few. To possess augmentations in Deus Ex, you need both the money and the inclination to use Neuropozyne, excluding many people, especially the underclass, from taking full control over their physiology. Also, Jensen receives his augmentations involuntarily—he is forced to have them after being killed at the beginning of the game, and constantly asserts that he “never asked” for them. The player has control over their character’s body in the sense that they can customise the augmentations in various directions, but Jensen is not a transhuman, in the sense that what happened to his body was not something he chose. The agency over one’s physicality, espoused by Munkittrick, is not something Jensen assumes—it is thrust upon him. By this particular marker, the world of Human Revolution, or at least the player and Jensen’s experience of it, are also not fully transhuman.

Lastly, Munkittrick imagines a shift in discussions about human rights, away from “common humanity” and towards what constitutes “personhood.” “Using a scaled system based on traits like sentience, empathy, self-awareness, tool use, problem solving, social behaviors, language use, and abstract reasoning,” writes Munkittrick, “animals (including humans) will be granted rights based on varying degrees of personhood… When African grey parrots, gorillas, and dolphins have the same rights as a human toddler, a transhuman friendly rights system will be in place.”

This aspect of a transhuman society seems to have been both attained and not attained in Human Revolution. On one hand, there is Eliza Cassan, a fully formed artificial intelligence that serves as anchor for the Picus news network. Nobody is aware that Cassan is in fact an AI, but the fact she has ingratiated into media and culture without detection perhaps implies that personhood, inasmuch as having status, a career and being considered human by the public, has been achieved by non-traditional persons.

On the other hand, the world of Human Revolution seems to be still largely rooted in the race and gender politics that characterise our own, non-transhuman society. Adam Jensen, his bosses David Sarif and Hugh Darrow, and anti-augmentation activist Bill Taggart—the central power players in Deus Ex—are all wealthy white men. Insofar as the world is controlled by corporations, and the majority of these are headed by men like Sarif and Darrow (Tai Yong Medical, owned by Zhao Yun Ru, is an exception) the social politics and rights discourse in the world of Human Revolution don’t seem to have shifted much from our own. Far from a society where equal or equitable rights have been extended wholesale, even encompassing some species of animal, Human Revolution seems even further entrenched in the exclusionary politics of the 20th and early 21st century middle classes. It’s a society where issues of common humanity, and separation between races, genders and sexualities appear to still exist.

the central power players in Deus Ex are all wealthy white men 

Munkittrick posits that for transhumanism to be completely attained, so must all of his seven conditions. By that reckoning, the world of Human Revolution is in flux, partway to transhumanism but blindsided by the allure of exciting new technology. Customizable prosthetics, brain implants, augmented reality technology and extended lifespan have all been secured—the tangible, marketable, flash aspects of transhumanism are in place. What’s missing is meaningful social change. The invisible components of a transhuman society—encompassing a new approach to parenthood, redefining of self-image and body ownership, and a shift in rights discourse—are still not present. The “cybernetics and robot bodies” described by Munkittrick exist, but the “social and political progress” does not. And so aside from in the physical, technological sense, in Human Revolution, a transhuman society is still a futuristic dream.