Transhumanism spans a huge swath of intellectual territory, straddling bioethics, philosophy, science fiction, engineering, and computer science. Throw in conspiracy theories and cyberpunk nihilism and you have all the ingredients for Deus Ex.
I have no doubt that this game played a huge part in my initial interest in transhumanism. A combination RPG and FPS, the game was a technological marvel. It blended two genres of gaming largely opposed to one another by introducing the first-person shooter to the grid inventory, upgradable weapons, the skill tree, experience points, and NPC interaction.
Bioshock, Call of Duty: 4 Modern Warfare, and Mass Effect simply would not exist were it not for Deus Ex. It also introduced concepts like enemy-line-of-sight (previously only found in Metal Gear Solid), branching story-lines, and in-game problems solvable with multiple, divergent solutions. Just as an example, Deus Ex let you use nanotechnology to modify your weapons.
Let’s say you found an assault rifle. Over the course of the game, you could add nanotech modifications that made it silent, tripled its ammo capacity, and reduced the recoil to zero. Suddenly, it wasn’t just any weapon, it was your assault rifle that you had customized, cherished, used to get out of untold sticky situations, and had by your side for most of the time you’d been playing. Like the companion cube, Deus Ex taught you to love your technology.
For its influence in the game world alone, Deus Ex maintains the reputation as one of the greatest games of all time.
But what merits its discussion here is the fact that Deus Ex is, in essence, a meditation on transhumanism. The player is JC Denton, a UN operative who has been enhanced by nanotechnology, effectively making him enhanced via both mechanical and genetic means. Denton is a v2.0 operative, with his predecessors using more rudimentary mechanical prostheses (still far more advanced than a standard human).
Over the course of the story, Denton encounters nearly every possible sci-fi convention out there: aliens, A.I. (friendly and not), cyborgs, animal chimeras, arcologies, sentient robots, bio-warfare, nano-warfare, and a host of in-betweens. All of these entities exist within the Deus Ex universe, which is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Black helicopters, the Majestic 12, Trilateral Commission, Knights Templar, ECHELON, Men In Black, greys, FEMA and New World Order all play essential roles. The resulting combination leaves you not trusting anything or anyone, including yourself, while simultaneously being forced to make alliances with entities you may not entirely understand.
While the plot as a whole is largely unimportant for our discussion here, there are many elements that drive the plot that are incredibly intriguing for transhumanists. The first is that of jealousy. Not between “normal” humans and those with augmentations, but between v1.0 transhumans and v2.0 transhumans.
Denton, a v2.0, is the subject of jealousy and derision on the part of his senior agents, both of whom are cyborg super-soldiers. Their disdain for Denton is one of the first elements of paranoia introduced into the game, where you learn that the very officers training you may be planning your death. Amazingly, the unmodified human characters are largely uninterested in their own “inferiority” in relation to the transhumans all around them. In fact, Deus Ex portrays transhumans as mainly military and government agents, with “normal” humans wielding the most powerful positions.
Another utterly bizarre moment is when two A.I.s with whom you have been interacting begin to battle one another, linking to one another through the only mutual connection they have, your mind. Named Daedalus and Icarus, the two A.I.s seem to have been helping you, respectively altruistically and selfishly, but helping none the less. The result of their confrontation leaves both destroyed, creating a merged entity that refers to itself as Helios.
When before the only issue was to try and figure out what the A.I.s actually wanted, now the problem with Helios is that vis intention is quite clear: ve wants to merge with you (Denton) and become the supreme dictator of the world, benevolent and all-knowing. What is terrifying is that Helios, in spite of sounding quite evil and insane, is constantly right in predicting events and protecting Denton from problems. Furthermore, Helios is interested in you, not just merging with anyone, but you, whom, given your actions in the game, ve knows to be working toward the good and protection of society.
Even outside of the major plot, there are lots of very interesting transhumanist issues. MJ12 troops are humans that have been cyborged enough to effectively become robots: unquestioning soldiers of extreme power. One of my favorite groups to interact with, though, were the Omar.
Unlike typical gangs, the Omar represented a kind of posthuman cabal of traders. Modified beyond human recognition (most have faces like a gas-mask), the Omar have a hivemind that lets them remember you and how you treated their last interaction with them perfectly. Loyal customers get discounts, access to special stock, and may even be defended if an Omar is near by when said customer is under attack. Alternatively, try to pull a fast one on an Omar, or get rough, and you will find yourself either working very hard to re-earn their trust, or working very hard to stay alive in their presence. Like the Borg, the Omar refer to themselves in the third person or using the royal “we,” but do not look down on those who have not modified to their extent. They are something of a version of the Amish in reverse, instead of rejecting technology, they commit wholly to it, yet understand that there are others who do not share their vision and that they must share this world.
I could go on and on. The depth to be found in Deus Ex is astonishing. That it has been nominated as not just one of—but the best game of all time is a testament to the quality to be found, both in terms of fun and storyline. For transhumanists, it asks an unbelievable number of questions, presents a plethora of possibilities, and at every turn challenges every moral foundation you might think you have. An outstanding achievement and an essential entry in the transhumanist canon.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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