For many, fictional media is an escape from real-life troubles and stresses. Of course, completely fantastic settings achieve this easily, but seeing an “our world, but different” setting can also provide this escape. This is becoming increasingly common, such as in our superhero fiction; the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set in our world, for the most part, with only subtle changes. The DC universe, while set in fictional cities like Gotham or Metropolis, still reflect our cities and sometimes have shoutouts to real-world locations. These reflections create a shorthand of worldbuilding and can certainly enhance the experience. However, what kind of responsibility does fiction owe to real-world realities?
I got to thinking about this topic during an Olympic-type promotion in Overwatch. Certain characters are getting new costumes to match their country and other bonus cosmetics. While I and many others were excited about the news, some critics pointed out that the character Lucio, a Brazilian freedom fighter, would almost certainly not participate in the Rio Olympics due to the poor treatment of the indigenous peoples and environment leading up to the Games. (Such as destroying many favelas.) When a fictional story references real places and real events, it opens itself up to criticisms for handling them poorly.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is facing this exact issue two-fold. In their world, there is a class divide between people with robotic enhancements, or “augmentations”, and those who do not. That rift is physical, causing economic issues and geographic division; basically it’s a kind of segregation. This divide is a not-so-subtle allegory for race relations. To be fair, this game isn’t the first to use an allegory for race as a story catalyst and it isn’t the first to create fantasy racism. Neither allegory nor outright racism-as-narrative-device are necessarily bad, but when used poorly, they cheapen the referenced real-world issue. Additionally, if the metaphor isn’t one-to-one, the message becomes blurry and can let it seem as if the creation team is making incorrect political statements. Since last year’s E3, Deus Ex has been marketed with the phrase “Mechanical Apartheid”, which, right away, makes the reader think of South Africa’s apartheid. Considering the weight of the subject, critics wondered if that naming was a bit insensitive. It’s not as if the word “apartheid” is used commonly without the reference. So the question becomes, will the story in Deus Ex give that narrative the proper respect? So far, it doesn’t seem more than a catchy marketing shorthand for “people are divided and unhappy about it”.
In the same way, Mankind Divided has released artwork containing a sign that read “Aug Lives Matter”, which obviously channels feelings of the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, I wouldn’t doubt that these characters feel marginalized. But it does feel as if the creators of the game are using this slogan as a quick way to generate exposition. They’ve said that the similarities are coincidental (although few people believe this), but even if they are, someone in PR should have pumped the brakes on this. When this comparison is drawn, we must ask: are augmented people discriminated against? Are they being killed disproportionately to non-augmented humans? Is the conflict between augmented humans and non-augmented humans equal to the conflict between Black people and white supremacy? If not, this use of the slogan can be very dangerous to the game’s message and to racial discourse outside of it. You can either get the idea that the augmented humans don’t have it as bad as Black people do and that the division in Deus Ex isn’t as extreme as promised; or you get the idea that the augmented humans aren’t that bad off (or are somehow to blame) and therefore, the same could be applied to Black people. Or worse, since the discrimination against augmented people is due to them turning violent (from an intentionally terroristic hack), that mindset could also be applied to Black people in the real world. It’s a possible lose-lose.
Overall, these situations call out the need to have a clear understanding of real-world events and what ideas mean to the parties they affect. Without proper care, messages can get mixed and damage can be done to real causes. And generally, this kind of oversight does lead to bad press. In the case of Overwatch, their Summer Games event was deemed insensitive. Mankind Divided has gotten similar criticism, as well as accusations of laziness. While this bad press most likely won’t be franchise-ruining, it certainly doesn’t help either game’s reputation. Blizzard is able to save some face with the fact that there is a fairly diverse cast in Overwatch, but the Deus Ex franchise has been in racial hot water before, and doesn’t seem to be great at taking criticism. As a resolution, I think it is probably a good idea to stay away from pre-existing buzzwords and slogans in a new-media setting unless those situations are being directly called out by name—that is, directly acknowledging their place in the world. If the references are only being used as allegory, the creators should be sure to avoid any unfortunate implications created by their shorthand. I think real-life parallels are useful to in-universe scenarios, but they should take all precautions to not be harmful to anyone real that was referenced. Proper use of reference can enrich the media by providing a quick jumping-off point for viewers and create useful commentary.