On The Commodification Of Pain

1974, South Africa. After decades of segregationist law-making, known as apartheid, only whites enjoy unfettered access to all the amenities of modern life. All other minorities must abide by a complex and confusing set of laws that deny them basic human freedoms and prevent them from living a normal life. Millions are forcibly relocated to segregated neighborhoods, political dissidents are jailed, and a widespread culture of racism revels in the public humiliation of its critics.

2014, America. A young man by the name of Michael Brown is gunned down by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In his testimony before a grand jury, Darren Wilson expressed his fear of Michael Brown - a teenager about to go to college - describing him as superhuman, gigantic, and nearly immune to bullets. He was none of those. A movement called "Black Lives Matter", first started in response to the death of Trayvon Martin a year earlier, spreads across the United States in the wake of excessive police brutality during the Ferguson protests. Their goal: to protest the regular abuses black people suffer at the hands of police in America.

2029, France. Some people have cybernetic enhancements, and other people are afraid of them. Rightfully so, it turns out; only two years previously, a secret command triggered everyone with augmentations to go berserk and attack people at random, killing them with superhuman strength and embedded weaponry. The world's governments, fearful of further widespread murder by cybernetically-enhanced superhumans, begin to restrict their rights.

If these three situations seem equivalent to you, you might be the target audience for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided! But to the rest of us, these parallels are insulting and degrading. Rather than leaning on and discussing issues that might actually be relevant to the concept of limb replacement - the militarization of civilian technology, gun control, or disability rights - the comparison is to race.

That's perhaps the most baffling element of this entire fiasco. The act of cybernetic limb replacement is directly tied to the concept of disability rights, because the natural use for bionics is to help people with missing limbs. By including superhuman strength and embedded weapons with those cybernetics, there's also a potential message about the proliferation of weapons amidst a civilian population. But rather than discussing these topics - or the transhumanist complexities present in the original Deus Ex - Mankind Divided takes a group of people who voluntarily decided to get cyber arms and compares them to a group of people who had no choice to be born into a society that treats them like dirt.

It's most egregious when looking at the marketing. With phrases like "mechanical apartheid" and "aug lives matter", Mankind Divided seems to wholeheartedly embrace comparing black people living under police states to superhuman killers. It appropriates the struggle of people living today and turns it into rage fuel for a marketing campaign gone off the rails. It is, in short, profoundly disrespectful and thoroughly repugnant, not just because the comparison is similar to the "superpredator" stereotype about blacks, but also because it commodifies a very real struggle for equality.

This isn't an isolated issue. Spec Ops: The Line conflates PTSD with hallucinatory episodes. BioShock Infinite asserts that minority blue-collar workers, if given the opportunity, would kill everyone in the upper classes. Whenever a game begins to approach having a real message, it is perverted and twisted by the desire for bigger, better, more. It's turned into a selling point. "Look at how we ask the hard questions," marketing assures us, "that's how you know our product is good. Please buy it."

The nature of capitalism is to exploit. Whether it's the exploitation of natural resources or the exploitation of people, capitalism is primarily concerned with how much productivity can be squeezed out of a system. It doesn't concern itself with the health or sustainability of those it exploits. In a way, capitalism is the ultimate devouring monster; a juggernaut of money, consuming everything in its path. Naturally, this includes art.

By turning art into an industry, we've turned pain into profit motive. Writing about the suffering of minorities inside complex and interlocking systems designed to keep them down is a great way to win awards, but it's not something that people think of as real, as immediate, as still ongoing. The perspective of someone trod down by the system, bleeding out in the streets as a police officer kneels on their back, is just another powerful aesthetic. A way to sell a piece of media, a way to win awards, without challenging anything. Their grief is a product. Their hardscrabble lives are a product.

This is the principle of oppression tourism. Whether it's class tourism (living as a poor person despite being wealthy) or race tourism (pretending to be black and joining the NAACP) or religious tourism (putting on a hijab to film a YouTube video) or gender tourism (dressing up in drag to fan the flames of trans panic) doesn't matter. We see these struggles, this pain, and say "oh, how daring and dramatic, surely this is what art is meant to be," and do nothing, say nothing, feel nothing. We want so desperately to feel the plight of the oppressed, but we don't want to live with that oppression. At the end of the day, we go home and feel good that we experienced those perspectives, while leaving the people living those lives to scratch out an existence inside a system that actively hates them and commodifies their pain.

By referencing and compartmentalizing the experiences of the oppressed into discrete, salable chunks, we create another product. Representation is a vehicle to sell to underutilized markets, rather than a way to examine and deconstruct the forces which damage the fabric of our society. Difficult and complex questions are reduced from nuanced problems to simple emotions easily digested and spat back up again. Art is reduced from a medium for reflection into a wall of meaningless games with even more meaningless messages.

That's why people are angry about Mankind Divided. By taking a powerful message about the persecution of black people at the hands of cops and turning it into a slogan for faceless NPCs, Eidos indirectly mocks the struggle of those same people. It's window dressing, a slogan without a soul, to sell games and pretend at being high art. By pretending to imbue their game with a deeper message on race, Eidos invited the criticism of all those people affected by the real issue of racial police violence, and the result isn't pretty.

The callousness and tone deafness of Eidos' response to this criticism is very revealing as well. The game's director asserted that "Augs Lives Matter" was a slogan developed before Black Lives Matter, but even if this is true, they had two years to change it. In contradiction to this, the artist in charge of the marketing material said that the phrase was his idea, but even if this is true, it should've been caught and shut down before it ever saw the light of day. In either case, use of that phrase is negligence on the part of Eidos. Whether it was willful or ignorant negligence is debatable, but it was negligence nonetheless, and Eidos' responses to criticism do not engender confidence that it was ignorance.

Unfortunately, the wrong people always profit. Mankind Divided, despite all this controversy, will rake in huge profits by comparing black people to cybernetic killers. It successfully turned the iconography of a very real racial struggle into a way to make money for a huge corporation.

How ironic for a game set in a cyberpunk dystopia.

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