Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Psychology of Deus Ex

It's been some time since we last had the opportunity to look at some psychology of gaming. For good reason, I assume, because in a sense it strongly resembles taking work back home for me. Nonetheless, I've decided to quit the excuses and head back to an old favorite of mine; emotions and games.
Why discuss emotions in computer games?
In a psychological viewpoint we attach ourselves to things that have meaning to us. It already reminds of us the old saying by Storm P; that psychology is what we all know in a language none of us understand. It seems like a very basic statement that things we can relate to are also the ones that stay with us, perhaps for the rest of our lives.
Nonetheless, I still read gaming-articles regarding the eternal question as to how to create a classic. A game that will be remembered as an evergreen; something that settles deep inside the mind of the player and captivates them for hours upon hours. And then beckons for them to buy the (often horribly executed) sequel.
Deep down, I believe most games appeal to various aspects and desires in us all, first and foremost. After all, why would we spend time with it? We're all people of different taste and preferences in so many aspects of life, be it visual style, food, sex, partners and even decoration; which just as well explains the discrepancy between various players in regards of preferred games.
And yet there are some games that just manage to stand out and appeal to the masses; games that cross the usual border of interest and drag in people who'd otherwise not be deep into this specific genre. And for those who are, it's an involving experience that speaks directly to the core of our mind and evoke strong emotions that simply won't allow us to forget about it for a very long time.
In this series of essays I've tried to put together some of my best examples of games that had such an emotional appeal and try to determine what psychological tangents they're playing that make them so damn special. We begin the series with a personal favorite of mine -
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
2011 has, far from incorrectly, been labeled one of the greatest gaming years as it blessed us with several great titles such as Skyrim, Arkham City and of course the inevitable Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.
I've never been into sci-fi myself, but the fact that DE dragged me in bears to show the excellence of how this game doesn't make that far of distance between its world and the one of ours. While plenty of other sci-fi settings seem so distant, DE appeals stronger to us in a psychological sense, as it potentially didn't have to be extremely far set into the future. There aren't really any aliens or sophisticated Mass Effect space-travels which psychologically makes it easier to get involved in the setting.
A cardinal trait of this game is how it at the same time manages to evoke feelings of fear, disgust and yet fascination about the future we as humans are about to reach, some day. And how machines and technology were originally meant to fit into our evolution as species. These are topics that are being discussed heavily this day today, along with the eternal moral notion we stick to; that Man should never be allowed to play God. Yet, so many of us are confronted with our internal, conflicting dualism every day, as we are all too often reminded of our mortality, be it war-victims on the news or a relative dying to an illness. Mankind has psychologically sought to cheat death for centuries, almost to the degree that one could wonder; wouldn't quite a lot of us welcome the opportunity to stay just a few more years in business, after all?

I clearly remember a story being told to me back in school; it made such an impact on me but sadly not enough to remember its title. It involved a woman whose husband was inflicted with a deadly disease spreading through his body, meaning the doctors had to amputate various parts and replace them with new, but working, tissue and parts. As it progressed, arms, legs, torso and finally head was replaced. In the end the woman sat crying loudly at the bed, her husband trying to calm her down like he always did. And yet, not like he always did. The million dollar question, of course, is; when does a person stop being that person? How much can we replace before he is lost? Even if the personality traits and cognitive capacities stored in the brain can be transferred in an intact state to a new body; hell, let's just say an exact replica body of mostly artificial material, when does a person stop being that person?
This story and question haunts me to this very day still, and can occasionally give me the chills.
In Deus Ex, Adam Jensen (our protagonist) is portrayed as a psychological platform in which you as the player can take off into this ethical debate. Jensen portrays the torment that would likely follow in having ones identity majorly altered, and yet the game never becomes entirely skewered in its sympathies. Instead it plays on our common notion of justice and the old gimmick of justice from beyond the grave, as Jensen is brought back to life to settle the scores, albeit through the means so many of us either fear or loathe. This is one harsh mix of emotions, one that is strangely appealing and very likely to creep down under your skin.
In this regard, DE tends to resemble the more concrete notions presented by some people, that if they were involved in a car accident and could come back to a normal life though augmentation-technology, they likely would. After all, it's not entirely unheard of today, albeit the technology is crude in comparison. On the other hand, however, I've heard some tell me that living with their partner or family in the same way would be much harder for them to accept or deal with. Hypocritical? Maybe. Split decision? Likely. Grey area? Pretty sure.
DE talks directly to our modern psychological task, especially of the western world, in which we constantly need to define and work out our life and how it fits into the world. On the same time, the world is growing so fast that we don't just need to decide what it means to be us, but what it means to be human. And yet we're having struggles even deciding for the very basic rules, and whether it's time or not for us to attempt to seize control over evolution.
This is a question that pertains to us all, as humans, and yet the process seems to resemble the theory of social loafing to some degree; the majority of us expect that there are 'top people out there to deal with this'.
But in the world of DE, in which augmentation technology is legalized to a liberal market, it's suddenly a personal decision that more or less forces you to at least have an opinion. And even then, what happens once it becomes more or less the norm? Are you suddenly the branch of evolution that is about to wither?
This game raises so many questions once you start thinking about it, which is likely the reason it spurred so many discussions and debates on the forums I frequented the months after its release. It fascinates you, in horror, of what mankind has become and what it's perhaps dangerously close at becoming. It's such an awesome force with so much existential meaning that our minds can't elude it. As it concerns some of the most basic premises of our existence, so shall we all have to form an opinion and relation to it, and Deus Ex is a brilliant introduction to this consideration.

I’ll blankly admit that this has all reflected in my very approach of the game. Some days I throw myself eagerly at it, others I know it really does things to me and makes me think and wonder about subjects I’d rather not consider this day. I believe that is something worth truly noticing in a game such as this. In addition, the various issues Deus Ex encounters in regards to gameplay, such as disappointing bossfights and few glitches seem relatively minor compared to the bigger artwork it portrays. It certainly has primed me for reading and watching more of the same genre, and that is some psychological strength to be found in a game.

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