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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and the problem of 'mechanical apartheid'

Marketing slug aims for a sense of unjust division, but is it wide of the mark?

When Square Enix began publicizing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the company used the phrase "mechanical apartheid" to illustrate and market a fictional world in which society is divided by governmental decree.

Apartheid (literally "separateness" in Afrikaans) was the brutal governmental system of political oppression and racial segregation used by white rulers in South Africa throughout much of the last century.

Some have questioned the use of a word like "apartheid" to sell a video game. And with more details of the game's story emerging, it looks like any similarities between its story and actual apartheid are fanciful, at best.

At the time of the game's first trailers in 2015, some objected to this allusion. The writer Austin Walker tweeted, "How might we feel if they called it 'Robot Jim Crow Laws,'" and, "Apartheid isn't just a general term, it references a specific period of great trauma and oppression." Other journalists were troubled by the use of the word. Gita Jackson called it "wrong-headed."

Gilles Matouba, a black game developer who worked on Mankind Divided up until 2014, posted an angry response on Reddit, calling the criticisms "gross false assumptions " and "stupidity."

He added: "We actually wanted to offer to our audience something unique. Something that was close and very personal ... the experience of being torn between two worlds and two identities." He continued: "Racism is a dark part of our human nature and we wanted to treat this subject. It was especially important for me to treat this." Matouba currently works at Ubisoft in the U.K.

Despite the controversy, Square Enix is clearly doubling down on the use of the word. A trailer for Mankind Divided, released in May, was titled "The Mechanical Apartheid." At a recent press event, leading developers made frequent use of the word.

"Just using the word 'apartheid' in the game is a little risky," said executive art director Jonathan Jacques-Belletête in a recent interview with Polygon. "We're aware of that. But I think we own it. If you look into what we're doing, it makes sense. It's all part of that. These things are hard to do, and some of these themes are risky."

Jacques-Belletête also addressed the issue last year, when he said: "Humans will be bad to each other forever, as far as I'm considered. Segregating people that one casts ... as wrong or dangerous or inferior is a thing that will always sadly happen. Obviously we're not condoning it, it's an analogy for how sucky humanity is and showing how it can happen in the future with the technology we're dealing with."

The story is not about racism, it's about technology and choice.

Deus Ex games seek to tackle serious issues. Mankind Divided follows on from Human Revolution's theme of technology giving individuals previously unimaginable powers, making use of the legend of Icarus to press home its point that such advances are not without their risks and costs. The game poses the question, rather than offering any firm declaration one way or the other.

This sequel goes further, delving into societal issues of segregation. After the event in the first game, in which the Augmented murder millions of people, they are treated with suspicion and revulsion, even though it's clear they did not control their own actions.

The most recent live action trailer shows an evidently wealthy, white woman forced into an internment camp and separated from her husband. It's a compelling view of an arresting science fiction problem. But is it really "apartheid"?

The word "apartheid" has been used many times to illustrate all manner of human divisions, that have nothing to do with South Africa. It's even sometimes used for comic effect. In Tony Parsons' novel Man and Wife, written just 12 years after the end of apartheid, he uses the line: "But at all of Peggy's social gatherings, the sexes were now separated by a strict apartheid."

Gender apartheid is a well-known phrase that describes political systems in which women are treated as second-class citizens. Its Wikipedia page points out that it has nothing to do with South Africa.

The augmented in Mankind Divided are a privileged and wealthy elite.

The charge of "apartheid" has also been pointed at regimes that divide populations. Former UN official John Dugard (a South African) used the word to castigate the Israeli government for its treatment of Palestinians.

So the issue is not so much the use of the word in a context that is non-adjacent to South African history. Given the mutability of language, and the use of the word in comedic situations, it's difficult to argue that "apartheid" should never be used in any other context, not even to sell video games.

But there are troubling differences between apartheid in South Africa — and its serious usage to describe division and oppression — and what's going on in Mankind Divided.

Black South Africans were oppressed by a racist ruling elite who feared the consequences of any loss of their own power to a much larger, native population, whose land had been seized and whose culture had been suppressed by European invaders.

The augmented in Mankind Divided are a privileged and wealthy elite who mostly choose to put themselves above their fellow human beings through expensive technological enhancements. When these enhancements are manipulated by evil forces, millions of people are killed.

It is not unreasonable for any government or any people to seek protection against a repetition of mass murder. Whether internment is the right policy is debatable and worthy of investigation. How governments cope with powerful individuals is a common strain in modern science fiction, played out in recent X-Men and Avengers movies. Arguably, these are all proxies for individual vs society arguments that focus on issues like extreme wealth and gun ownership.

But this fictional separation of augs from the non-augmented is not the same as South African apartheid. The victims in this case are the vessels for a major crime. They are inherently dangerous to the common good, even if they don't want to be.

This is not the same as a people oppressed by invading settlers and generations of their descendants, who have sought to impose their own alien culture through force.

The native people of South Africa did not make any choice in their own oppression, let alone a consumer-orientated choice based on a desire to be personally enhanced. Nor did they commit mass murders that might have been used to justify the policy of apartheid. The Augs are oppressed because they chose to become too powerful and it went awry. The people of South Africa were oppressed in order to maintain their lack of power and equality.

Despite Matouba's protestations, the story looks to be less about racism and more about the consequences of connected technology and consumer choice. Square Enix's developers are making a tenuous connection with racism in order to enhance their fantasy.

When I put this point to Jacques-Belletête, he made the argument that the augmented are victims, because they had nothing to do with the murderous event that led to their misfortune.

"They're not necessarily the ones in control of the tech," he said. "The people who possess augmentations aren't the people who invented them or fully understand them. I have a car, but I have no idea how my car functions in detail. If it breaks down I don't know how to fix it.

"The masses among the slice of society that's augmented are not the ones who invented the tech or control it or sell it. Also, they need a drug, Neuropozyne, that they have to take so their body doesn't reject the augmentations. It's a bit like if you get an organ transplant from someone else. There are all these anti-rejection drugs you take."

These are arguments to technology that don't fully address the core problem: that Mankind Divided alludes to racial ghettoization and fully embraces the language of racial abuse, but is so far from being about racism that it doesn't appear to even take a stand on the issue.

I asked Jacques-Belletête if the story encouraged the player to sympathize with the Augs, or to take the view that, like Icarus as portrayed in Human Evolution, they are the agents of their own destruction.

"We never say in the game if we're on one side of the debate or another," he replied. "If you think they deserve it, that's perfect. If you don't think they deserve it, that's perfect." These words do not really suggest a story that is about apartheid, unless you believe that maybe the people who suffer from apartheid "deserve it", which is a position I feel certain the developers do not intend.

Novelists and scriptwriters who address social injustice or political controversies — for example, governmental racism — generally pitch a point of view that the reader or viewer is supposed to follow. On the whole, we are supposed to feel, adamantly, that racism is wrong.

There are almost no works of art about South African apartheid that leave it up to the viewer to decide, one way or the other, how we are supposed to feel. Yet this is exactly what Square Enix says it's doing with Mankind Divided.

"We like to present the issues ... without judging you or your actions."

"It's difficult," said Jacques-Belletête. "We're trying hard to not to take a side." He explained that taking a side would necessitate limiting player choices, and that players should be the ones who decide how to approach the world they enter.

"One of the mistakes we made in Human Revolution was that the endings were basically different buttons you pressed. At the end, all the augs went crazy, and you picked ending A, B or C. It told you what it meant for the world and it was a matter of just deciding, 'OK, this is how I feel right now. This is my value system.' If you wanted, you could reload and try another one. That's not going to happen now. Now it's going to be based on how you approach the game, based on who you are and how you decide to play."

Polygon requested a statement from Square Enix on its use of the word "apartheid." We received this statement, attributed to Eidos Montreal:

"When we made the decision to embrace a term such as 'Mechanical Apartheid,' we did it with a lot of thought and specific concern about how we're doing it. What we are also trying to do with Deus Ex, is to look at the world, and try not to judge it, but to present it with shades of grey.

"We like to present the issues to the best of our abilities without judging you or your actions, so that you can make up your own mind about it. You have to present them in way which is as neutral as possible, to let players interpret them in their own way. Obviously, there will be people who are very sensitive to those sorts of things, and we recognize that. But we are trying to be as truthful and honest to the world we're creating as we possibly can. We're not trying to be preachy here, just holding up the mirror. And that's one of the things about science fiction: it embraces concepts that are hard for society to see."

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