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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Deus Ex: Human Resources

Also from my tumblr, a ramble-y thing that really should have gotten edited, but I'm not going to bother doing so even now.

So, a bit more than a week ago, I went down to gamestop to buy Halo 4. I’ve been a fan of Halo for quite some time, but you couldn’t actually call me a long time fan, even though that’s what it feels like. I remember very clearly, in eighth grade, before my parents actually allowed me to play them, Halo and its story was the shit. One of my friends told me the story up until that point (this was before Halo 3 came out) in installments during art class, and he told it well. I was captivated. This was really one of my first exposures to a lot of the pop culture tropes that contemporary gamers would have found common.

Since then, I’ve moved out into the gaming world, but I still defend Halo as still being perhaps the best multiplayer shooter franchise out there, even though the rest of the world either plays CoD and thinks Halo is for nerds, or plays TF2 and thinks Halo is for CoD kiddies. And honestly, TF2 is probably the better online multiplayer shooter, and certainly a lot of the audience Halo previously had locked has moved on to CoD.

So I went down to gamestop to buy Halo 4, but I wasn’t as exited as I might have been. I arrived, and gave the used games a look over while I was there, and one caught my eye. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I had heard great things about this game, and it was only 17 dollars. This, I figured, was an excellent deal. What of Halo 4? I figured I’d buy it later. Deus Ex was cheaper, and probably a better game. So I walked out of there with Deus Ex instead.

And now, just recently, I beat it.

This is old news by now, I expect. People know about how cool the setting is, how smart the writing is, how dumb the boss fights and third act are, and all that. I agree with most of the common consensus, though I honestly did enjoy the fight against Federova, but by that point I had dermal and leg augs, which helped tremendously by allowing me to bunny hop and machinepistol my way to victory.

And I imagine that people are also pretty tired about hearing how interesting the commentary on transhumanism is. If I wanted to weigh in on this fully, I’d devote a whole post to it, and it’d go something like this. There is no real higher level ethical debate to be had about transhumanism. If you want to establish that it compromises your humanity, and therefore you shouldn’t do it, you must first establish two things. You must establish that humanity requires having flesh and blood and lacking these causes the rest to be irrelevant, and you must establish that this conception of humanity is in and of itself ethically valuable. Both of these are highly problematic, and I have trouble coming up with an answer to either that does not veer off into magical thinking.

Fortunately, Deus Ex HR Department does not focus so much on that. It at the same time acknowledges these feelings, creates characters with whom you may sympathise about, but at the same time, it does not force that particular issue. It’s used in a far more interesting way in a very memorable conversation with an injured and dying anti-augmentation detective you meet some way through the game.

Instead, Deus Ex HR focuses on the practical upshot of transhumanism: it costs money. Augmentation isgreat for those who can afford it and can also afford the neuropozyne to avoid rejection symptoms. But it deepens the disparity between rich and poor. Humans can still compete with transhumans for now, but the bar is getting steeper and steeper. Ignoring the social problems is difficult even for those who would normally not see it as a problem at all, as it’s possible society itself may not survive long enough for augmentation to become so cheap and practical that, as Edison put it, “only the rich will burn candles.”

And really, ethics does not concern itself nearly enough with road tests. In the traditional thought experiments, outcomes are epistemologically certain, always. If you don’t flip this switch, five people will get run over by the murdertrain. If you do, you will kill a man on a different rail, even if you yell at him to run. But few things in the real world are so certain.

This is why Deus Ex makes such an interesting case. You can augment humanity, make yourselves gods, but if you try, the world could easily destroy itself before that happens. You could regulate augmentations, but then you’d be regulating the human body itself. If you leave it unregulated, it may not change human nature, but it turns potential tragedies into potential nightmares. The consequences of your actions are amplified along with your abilities. Augmentation changes the premises.

For instance, in Deus Ex, you routinely come into situations where you are under fire and can justifiably call any killing you do as in self-defense. It’s an intuitive response. But you are playing as Adam Jensen, a transhuman man of the future, who can just as easily knock a guard out cold as stab him with an arm blade. Given that, is Adam in any way remiss for killing a guard in defense instead of simply subduing him, where otherwise, he might be perfectly justified in murder? Where is the threshold between feasibility of non-lethality and the justification of lethal force?

I think it’s difficult to ascertain any moral weight of the distinction (I’m actually not sure if moral weight should look quite how it does in modern ethics), but it seems to me that Adam, if he acts rationally, should prefer non-lethality.

But whatever. Adam has retractable sunglasses implanted in his skull, and that automatically justifies anything he does.
So yeah, Deus Ex Human Revolution is a really cool air vent crawling simulator, and y’all should play it if you haven’t already. The characters are very well written, the gameplay is solid, and the atmosphere is great.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a big Halo fan but haven't gotten Halo 4 yet either. I've never heard of Deus Ex before but it sounds cool, thanks for recommendation.