Marketing for the upcoming sci-fi RPG Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has proven controversial, adapting current racial politics and messaging to fit its dystopic cyberpunk future.
BioWare Gameplay Designer Manveer Heir has joined the conflagration, arguing the issue with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Global Executive Brand Director Andre Vu on Twitter.
Heir believes that regardless of team diversity, the marketing in question does not show that the Mankind Divided developers understand the inherent issues well enough. Vu counters with statements about people jumping to conclusions, joining the “hate bandwagon” because it’s easy to do, and making a decision about the game without context.
Heir does make one clear point: Marketing in and of itself doesn’t provide the context necessary to defend itself.
Without making this a long-winded analysis of an online slap fight, there are two very notable points in this conversation that will no doubt echo through many more in the future:
That’s one heck of a coincidence. The bickering continues, with a virtually hopeless defensive position assailed by another grown man with an equally hopeless offensive one.
But coincidence or not, unless Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was developed and marketed by a colony sealed in an underground bunker, claiming to have come up with the slogan first doesn’t exempt the team from backlash over hitting the big red button on their marketing. And let’s face it — this is exactly the sort of thing that marketing wants to accomplish. Everyone is talking about Mankind Divided now.
But what does Manveer Heir and BioWare have to do with decisions made by Andre Vu and Eidos? And is a game literally called Mankind Divided context enough for imagery depicting division and strife? For that matter, what about the [Human Revolution spoiler warning] context provided by the previous game, and all of the other marketing thus far?
Regardless of which side you take, both arguments feel just a bit disingenuous. The marketing team for Mankind Divided should have — and almost certainly did — expect this to get people talking about its next major title. So far, reactionary outrage is keeping the conversation from becoming a genuinely constructive one.
In the recently released concept art for the next iteration of the Deus Ex franchise, cities across the globe are shown as they exist in that grim future. A “mechanical apartheid” has forced early adopters of cybernetic augmentation into segregated areas. They are treated with distrust and abused by those in power and their fellow citizens.
One image in particular — a depiction of rioting in Moscow — has ignited controversy among the gaming press. A protester is seen holding a sign that reads “AUGS LIVES MATTER” in obvious parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement. The marketing is being called “insensitive,” and the people behind it accused of playing too lightly with heavy issues.
This isn’t the first time Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has attracted this sort of attention. The aforementioned “mechanical apartheid” was a source of many of those same criticisms. Gilles Matouba, former director of the game, responded in a Reddit post to /r/KotakuInAction to explain that he “wanted to offer to our audience something unique. Something that was close and very personal to us: The experience of being torn between 2 worlds and 2 identities. Augs calling you the ‘uncle Tom’ of the non-augs, non-augs always insecure when you’re around, always deeply being scared or appalled by your mechanical body.”
Somehow, it was our own individual stories… We wanted to share a little part of our own life experience (on a super dramatized degree, of course) as visible minorities in a world of prejudices sometimes not well tailored for us.
We also used the reference of south africa, israel, even brasil, french and american ghettos and any country ressorting to walls in order to segratgate a part of their own population. We meant it. This was important to us to not half-ass these analogies. BECAUSE THIS IS DEUS EX.
Deus Ex is a very mature and thoughtful franchise that wants to hook gamers on essential questions and considerations: power, control, species, science, sociology, singularity, etc.
Racism is a ey dark part of our human nature and we wanted to treat this subject. It was especially important for ME to treat this. (sic)
He’s not wrong. Science fiction and fantasy have a long and storied history of examining real world issues through the lens of imaginative fiction. The detachment allows us to look at issues from angles that might otherwise be too uncomfortable for many people and has been an essential part of rounding out conversations in popular culture.
Deus Ex in particular has never shied away from discussions on everything from systems of government to law enforcement, the balance between freedom and security, government and corporate overreach, corruption, and even the ethics of scientific study. Mankind Divided isn’t treading new ground for the series so much as carrying on a bold tradition of addressing our fears and prejudices head-on.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that no one should feel any discomfort in seeing a current and violently divisive matter referenced in a video game. Gaming, as a newer medium, is still seen as more provocative than traditional media. But why is discomfort viewed as a bad thing?
If anything, Mankind Divided draws attention to Black Lives Matter, using it as a reference point for the next evolution of humanitarian crisis. Agree or disagree, it’s a chance to safely explore the principles involved, outside our current circumstances.
Executive art director Jon Jacques-Belletête has previously called such controversy “completely ridiculous,” lambasting people for treating them “as little kids that are just doing video games” whenever a “serious subject” is addressed in a virtual world.
If games are allowed to tell stories, there will always be those with which someone disagrees. I’m not sure that means we should all stop telling stories. On the contrary, history has proven that the ability to employ metaphor in attempt to better understand both our world and ourselves is vital, perhaps now more than ever.
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