Feature Editorial: Strength and Vulnerability

It seems a fair bit of controversy has arisen over the E3 trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, owing to its depiction of Lara Croft speaking with a therapist. For the tl;dr crowd, I direct you to my tweet from earlier embedded below, but for everyone else, I’d like to talk about context and comparison.

First, some real talk: It takes a lot of strength to admit that you have a mental problem and need professional help, especially given the way in which mental illness is stigmatized by our culture. It also takes a lot of strength to open up to a therapist, something which Lara may be struggling with, depending on how you interpret her fidgeting in the trailer. Absent context, Lara is being depicted as a strong character who is doing something many people who have experienced similar trauma are unwilling or unable to do.

In context, though, Lara is a video game protagonist whose trailer was played at the same event as trailers for a new Halo game and a new Witcher game. Master Chief and Geralt are not known for experiencing trauma, as we understand it. They kill innumerable enemies and have their lives threatened on countless occasions without batting an eye. Consider the opening act of Halo, in which Master Chief escapes the crashing Pillar of Autumn in a pod full of marines, all of whom die on impact. He doesn’t even pause to reflect on the deaths of so many around him, instead simply picking himself up and moving on. We are so inured to this emotionless approach in games that this doesn’t even scratch suspension of disbelief.

Even when video game protagonists aren’t portrayed as emotionally dead to trauma, they remain fully functional. Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution has experienced a great deal of physical and emotional trauma, having been nearly killed, lost the woman hNVcWce was supposed to protect (and was obviously carrying a torch for), and having been invasively augmented without his consent. The game drops indications that he isn’t coping well all over the place: The broken mirror in his apartment, his drinking, the use of his sunglasses as a barrier between him and other people, and his obsession with the incident that caused all this trauma. But he never sees a therapist and he never experiences any difficulty being a hyper-competent commando.

Lara Croft is strong to seek therapy, yes, but depicting it depicts her as vulnerable in a way other (male) protagonists are not. This vulnerability is easily mistaken for weakness, especially when we mistake the emotional invulnerability of other protagonists as strength. It should come as no surprise, then, that people are rankled by seeing one of the few female protagonists in mainstream gaming once again being portrayed as vulnerable. I imagine few people have forgotten that prior to the previous Tomb Raider coming out, we were told by executive producer Ron Rosenberg that their aim was to encourage the player to want to protect Lara rather than project themselves into her place. It’s hard not to see this as a continuation of that thought process.

It would be nice to interpret the Rise of the Tomb Raider as a straightforward step in the direction of portraying video game characters as human beings as opposed to sociopathic murder gods, but the fact that it’s Lara and only Lara casts doubt on that narrative. The best solution would be more vulnerable male protagonists and more female protagonists of varying vulnerability, but that is probably too much to hope for from the likes of Microsoft, EA, or Sony. That said, I haven’t exactly done a thorough survey of the gaming landscape. If anyone can point me to more examples of video game characters seeking out therapy or mental help, whether from AAA developers or not, I’d love to hear about it.

The Ethics of Transhumanism in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, like any good piece of science fiction, explores the future to comment on current issues as well as issues that might arise from proposed or envisioned technologies. The game uses its concept of “mechanical augmentation,” or advanced prosthesis that restore or enhance human capabilities to explore a variety of issues. One issue explicitly explored is the ethical problems that arise when doctors are forced to make far reaching decisions about the health and quality of life of a patient whose life is in danger and who is unable to give consent due to being unconscious. Adam Jensen’s “bionic man” montage is peppered with snippets of conversation dropping lines like “He doesn’t need that,” indicating that decisions about what to keep and what to replace are being made without his input. This problem is continually invoked by the game, both in Jensen’s own ambivalence to his augmented state (spawning the viral meme “I never asked for this.”), and in a side quest where Jensen discovers a man who has been shot in the gut and is paralyzed from the waist down and wishes to be euthanized rather than get augmented legs to restore his ability to walk or spend his life in a wheelchair. Jensen (and therefore the player), faced by a man who has the opportunity to make the decision that was made for him, has the option of complying with the man’s wishes and giving him a lethal dose of morphine, talking him out of his desire to die, or simply leaving him and calling an ambulance. In this way, the game addresses quality of life issues and the right to die in a thoughtful manner and asks the player to make (or avoid making) a decision.

An interesting issue that is almost entirely subtextual in the game, on the other hand, is the question of how the ability to enhance human capabilities can be turned into an excuse to shape other human beings for our own benefit. Arguably, the really ethically questionable part of Jensen’s augmentation is not that his organs and limbs were replaced without his consent, but that the augmentations went so far into making him into an unstoppable killing machine. The current idea of prosthesis is to, as much as possible, restore the functionality and quality of life lost, and our current level of technology generally falls short of this goal. Mechanical augmentation in Deus Ex:HR is capable of completely restoring functionality, but the augmentations given to Jensen go far beyond that. They don’t just replace his arms–they give him arms with hidden blades that are capable of punching through walls. They don’t just restore his vision, they give him eyes capable of seeing through walls, and so forth. Jensen’s employer, David Sarif, essentially turns him into his own private super-commando, treating him as a tool to be shaped towards his own ends. Surprisingly, the question of how much this cost and whether Jensen is obligated to stay with Sarif industries until that liability is equalized is never raised. Nor are the ethics of enhancing Jensen beyond human capabilities without his consent really raised except in a couple of snippets of text you can easily miss if you don’t go snooping around hacking into other people’s computers and poking about the back area of the local LIMB clinic. This idea is raised in a side quest in Hengsha which deals with prostitutes being forced into augmentations for the pleasure of their clients, and it is also briefly invoked by the anti-augmentation figure Bill Taggert in the latter stages of the game, but it is rather surprising that Jensen himself doesn’t raise the question of whether they could have installed basic augmentations and asked him about going further after his life was saved instead of implanting a prototype explosive device in his arm while he was unconscious.

If technology moves in this direction, either in the field of prosthesis or in genetic engineering, this is a central issue that will have to be addressed. Is a life threatening accident or the loss of a limb an excuse to make someone “better” than human? What happens when “augmentation” (whatever its form) becomes a requirement to certain jobs, or for promotion within certain careers? Will people of lesser means attempting to improve their lot be forced to take on loans or enter into what is essentially indentured servitude to afford the means for upward mobility? Or are we already dealing with this issue now, in the mushrooming student loan debt and the reliance of small businesses on credit to get off the ground?