Over the weekend I took a break from studying to finish playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game I started playing before I moved to Germany. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, it’s a first person shooter/stealth game where you play a guy who’s kind of like Robo Cop crossed with Terminator in a dystopian future where there is great societal tension between people with cybernetic body augmentations and those without. Beneath the game-play the plot deals with issues of morality, scientific advancement, class, corruption, and social conflict, among others.
The fact that these themes are in a video game might come as a surprise to you if the last time you seriously looked at a video game was sometime around the late-80’s mid-90’s. Story driven video games have long been used as a vehicle for discussing political and moral topics through the player’s interaction with the world around them. This is most prevalent in role playing video games that offer a high degree of customization and player choice driven story lines.
These games often present the player with several choices during the course of the game that will effect the outcome in some capacity. Despite the availability of these choices, I’ve sometimes felt a few games try to subtly nudge you in one direction or another; which betrays the developers’ moral/political bias. On a few occasions I’ve completed a game and found myself strongly disagreeing with the underlying message beneath the game-play. (Bioshock: Infinite‘s view of anarchists as just the opposite side of the coin to fascists is one example that comes to mind.) Deus Ex: Human Revolution is similar. The game often stereotypes science and scientists as a-moral meddlers who violate natural law with their experiments. The game asks the loaded question “Has science gone too far!?!”, with the self-righteous answer (yes) subtly buried in the game-play. That question has always bothered me because it betrays an ignorance of what science actually is and how science is done. More offensive, it asserts that there are aspects of reality that we should not try to understand, that in some cases ignorance is preferable to knowledge.
But I digress. This is not meant to be a discussion on morals and ethics in video games. I bring up Deus Ex: Human Revolution simply because there was a part of the game that really struck me:
At one point in the game I am on a secret military base that is acting as a secret black-site prison. Here there is a prison cell block that houses a lot of civilians who have been kidnapped off the streets to be used in unethical augmentation experiments.
As you move around the cell block you hear the prisoners pleading with the guards to let them go. Some prisoners cry out that this is a huge mistake, that they don’t belong here, others implore that they’ve done nothing wrong, one or two demand to see lawyers or have their embassy contacted.
What really struck me about this scene was the extreme asymmetry of power in the situation between the civilians and the guards and how the civilians were reacting to it.
Here the guards had all the power. There was absolutely nothing the civilians could do. They were trapped and truly powerless to change their situation. Their very lives were at the mercy of their captors. If their captors were to kill them, (and they do, depending on player choices) nothing would be done to stop them or seek revenge. In the verson where the prisoners are executed, they scream and flail around in their cells as the toxic gas is pumped in to kill them, but despite all their desperation and cries, they are just as helpless to stop their murder as an ant is helpless to stop a boot from smashing it.
This asymmetry is shocking and appalling, but it’s a case of art imitating life. This type of asymmetry of power is all around us and you can see it playing out in the news daily. There are people with power using it to enforce their will on those without. This is how it has always been, and how it always will be as long as people are kept powerless.
Shortly after the scene with the prisoners in the cell block, there was a second scene that also struck me when taken into consideration with the first. The main character in the game, Jensen, is an ex-cop. Often at times he has a very Batman like feel to him as there is a law & justice theme running throughout the game. Well in this second scene, Jensen is talking with an employee of this secret black-site prison who happens to be an undercover agent for INTERPOL. The two of them discuss how they can expose this whole operation and get INTERPOL to come in guns blazing and shut it down.
I find that it is an interesting appeal to authority when all the other authority figures/institutions in the game are corrupt. The corporations are performing unethical experiments for profit, the government officials are corrupt and being bribed by the corporations, and those with power are using it to abuse those without.
And again we see art imitating life.
Some people are desperate for an authority figure. They want to believe that there is someone out there that is watching and will enforce justice to eventually right all the wrongs. This often takes the form of a government or a deity. It’s a really comforting idea, and it gives people the hope they need to continue to suffer things beyond their control, but ultimately I think they’re just trying to avoid the existential panic.
The panic sets in when you realize that there is probably no magical deity that will one day hold everyone accountable for the injustices they committed in life.
The panic sets in when you realize that governments are comprised of fallible people with their own agendas, prejudices, and flaws.
The panic sets in when you realize there is no ultimate arbiter of justice, no concrete and incorruptible father figure you can appeal to.
We are alone in the void.
Justice is a responsibility we have to ourselves, but it is one we have historically failed at time and time again.
Here is the formula, I think you will recognize it from the headlines:
“[X] group is doing [insert injustice here] to group [Y], but [insert authority figure group such as a government agency or international body here] is [either not responding, refusing to respond, undecided on how to respond, or paralyzed by political wrangling]”
The sad reality is that justice is never a consideration when governments are deciding on what to do. Governments are businesses responsible to their shareholders, the people who have the most stock in the government and the society. As such, a government will not act if there is nothing in it for them.
The US is the easiest example. America likes to style itself the world’s police. We have the most powerful military and we claim the right to be able to use it where ever and whenever we want, just ask the sovereign nations we operate in. Well there are a lot of injustices going on daily in the world. Genocides, starvation, brutalization of civilian populaces, inhuman treatment or women, slavery, you name it. The US will not act unless they have a political/financial interest in the outcome.
We don’t invade another country to liberate their people from oppression out of the goodness of our hearts. We invade when there is a financial and political interest to do so. We don’t provide military support to stop genocides or massacres unless those committing the genocide pose a financial/political threat to our interests.That is how it has always worked, and it is not limited to the US government.
Back to the prisoners in that video game.
When they are shouting to see a lawyer or their embassy, they are appealing to an external justice that doesn’t exist. As if their words had magical powers and if they only said the correct words in the correct order it would have some kind of power over their oppressors. Guard: “Oh my! He said he wants to speak with his lawyer! Well the rules of fair play dictate that I must let him speak to his lawyer, because that’s only fair!” And then the prisoners scream as the chambers fill up with gas.
I can only imagine the shock someone must have in real life when they are raised from birth to believe in a system that is supposedly governed by laws, only to watch as those laws are then disregarded when inconvenient to those in power.
Justice for the sake of justice is a myth. Justice is only enforced by those who have the power to enforce it when it is convenient for them to do so.
So what can you do? I’m not entirely sure there is anything you can do. This post is more of a stream of thought, a reflection on the state of the world, rather than a “here’s the problem, here’s the solution” because there are often times in life when there really are no good solutions.
I guess I would like you to think about the asymmetry of that situation in the video game between the guards and the civilians in the cells. I know that’s just a video game, but there are plenty of examples in the real world.
Injustice is only possible when there is a power imbalance between the the perpetrator and the victim. Powerful people never lack for justice for the things done to them.
I would also like to remind you of what power is while you’re thinking about this.
Power is the ability to quickly and efficiently enforce your will, ultimately reducible to the threat of violence, on another person. The ugly truth about the world is that we are all mortal. The fear of pain and death is a universal currency. Thus, violence is the foundation for all power. If someone does not have the ability to use violence to defend themselves from someone else who is using violence on them, then they are powerless to resist that person. The larger the gap between the two parties’ ability to quickly and efficiently deploy violence, the greater the power imbalance and the more vulnerable one group is to injustice committed by another group.
Extrapolate from that what you will.