The political messages and satire in games have long done a disservice to the real-life issues they purport to address, especially in games with technocratic visions of the future. The Metal Gear Solid franchise, though a personal favorite for its meta-political intrigue, explains away key character motivations by inserting nanomachines conveniently. In Bioshock Infinite, you must kill a "villainous" rebel dissident who is one of the game's few African-American characters, and by the time you reach her boss battle, you've killed more people more indiscriminately than her. The Watch Dogs developers said they were finally going to give Chicago the video game representation it deserved, then failed to portray the city's crime-stricken south side and the real political issues that, say, the game's enterprising hacker protagonist might take on to fight the system. Earlier this year, Homefront: The Revolution presented an alternate American history where the North Koreans occupy Philadelphia, an interesting science-fiction idea botched by stereotypes and a gross portrayal of sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this same way, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, coming later this year, is blowing it before anyone gets to play it. During E3 2015, the Deus Ex Twitter account tweeted a link to an in-game trailer with tone-deaf "mechanical apartheid" phrasing to describe the game's story. Apartheid was a South African system of racial segregation enforced by its government that lasted nearly 50 years before being abolished. Using that word has some political weight, some of which you might not want to associate with entertainment.
Now we have concept art for Mankind Divided showing a protester holding an "Augs Lives Matter" sign (shown above in this post's header), referencing the current Black Lives Matter movement against racial inequality in America.
In addressing the apartheid controversy, the game's art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete said:
"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. This whole thing is completely ridiculous."
-Jonathan Jacques-Belletete, in an interview with Polygon's Justin & Griffin McElroy, 6/19/15
It isn't much of a stretch to imagine what the developer response to "Augs Lives Matter" might be, especially when an unaffiliated panelist at a Deus Ex-branded event dropped a reference to "All Lives Matter" (skip to 1:40:00 in video below):
Video games have more to say than just appropriating the language and politics of our times, slap a brown-hued paint coat over it, call it the future, and leave the issues for us to sort out. They can say something meaningful about humanity, pointing out our flaws and real problems we face, and about the imperfect solutions to these issues. Spec Ops: The Line questions what it means to be a brave patriot while also giving us an incredible portrayal of mental illness. Papers Please gives us commentary on immigration by making us empathize with a government bureaucrat wrestling with serving his country, supporting his family, or helping other strangers' interests. Even the original PC classic Deus Ex gives us conspiratorial dystopia and alternative politics against a backdrop of domestic terrorism, somewhat predicting the surreal events of September 11, 2001.
Instead, what we hear often from developers and players alike is "get your politics out of video games." It's an attempt to try to neuter anything that approaches political statements in this medium. In Grand Theft Auto V, an in-game talk radio station satirizes oversensitive political and social justice culture, but even when Rockstar goes there, its saying something politically charged. If you're going to do the work of bringing up a movement or political statement in your video game, you should provide at least some kind of commentary on these issues: don't just idly bring them up. The point of holding a mirror up to real-world issues is to encourage a dialogue with the people playing the game.
There are also a few examples of game developers acknowledging a subtext and leaving it without any obvious stance. This year's Tom Clancy's The Division tried to go after this notion that you could save New York City and its people by killing the people tearing it apart. That's a deliberate choice you might argue is extremely political considering we have multiple publications tracking police-related deaths this year. Well, what about other ways of solving The Division's urban crisis? The only thing The Division lets you do is shoot a gun to take down the city's gangs. The game's Dark Zone mode furthered this desperate "Us Vs. Them" mentality by letting you kill and loot other players' bodies for loot. But aren't you all, in the rest of this game's fiction, on the same side? David Polfeldt, the managing director of Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment, said:
"...[the agent's] job is not to kill people. His job is to save people, actually. So sure, there will be lots and lots of action in the game, and cool destruction, and everything you want from a shooter, but behind that there's a layer of 'Shooting is not the answer, actually.' If the agents could choose, they would not shoot anybody. That's really why they're there."
-David Polfeldt, in a developer Q&A with GameSpot, 3/7/16
"Shooting is not the answer, actually" is an inherently political statement, just the same as making the choice of putting "Augs Lives Matter" into the new Deus Ex is. That's not an apolitical or "completely ridiculous" thought. Video games do not exist in a vacuum and they are often inspired by real world current events. The metaphors, imagery, and context conjured up by developers matter, particularly when we're talking about popular AAA games like The Division or Deus Ex. For as heavy handed as Deus Ex: Human Revolution was about its themes, returning protagonist Adam Jensen's main quest was uncovering the corporate conspiracy misleading the public and the world, reflecting real-life theories about the true nature of government. So, why are the developers of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided running away from the idea of suddenly saying something political when the last game did so?
I'm sympathetic to the argument that video games are an escapist form of entertainment. We often play video games to escape our own harsh reality, to unwind from a long day of work, to open ourselves to immersive worlds and fantastical scenarios. The truth is, however, that there's no escape when our games ask us to think more about us and them. You can't present complicated ideas without at least challenging the concepts that get us to buy into these worlds in the first place. Imagine Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 without its "No Russian" level, that the line between being labeled a terrorist or a hero is which side of history you're on. Even Deus Ex: Human Revolution blurred the line between Jensen's employers, allies, and real enemies. The best video games don't just suspend your disbelief. They subvert your expectations of what they are trying to say. As players, we should want more of this kind of entertainment, even when we are slinking away from the outside into our consoles and PCs.
When you use words like apartheid and the coded language of protest movements, you are invoking powerful, meaningful, and hopefully thoughtful context. The pre-release marketing around Deus Ex: Mankind Divided using these conceits has been anything but.