Reading the game: the philosophy Deus Ex: Human Revolution, part 1 “more or less than human?”

For this second Reading the game article, I will be taking a look at Deux Ex: Human Revolution, part three of the role-playing game series that started back in 2000, and will see its fourth installment, Mankind Divided, later this year. Human Revolution has some particularly interesting story elements from a philosophical perspective. This article discusses one of these elements and its potential in (philosophy) education in detail, leaving room for additional articles on some of the many elements of this game that have educational potential. Mind that this series is open to all educational applications, I merely focus on philosophy because it is my own field. I would very much like some biological (for example) perspectives on this game, so if you can provide some please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Spoiler warning: this article describes major plot elementsDo not read below this if you plan to play this game in the future.

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If you haven’t played the game and aren’t planning to, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a so called action role-playing game situated in Detroit, in the year 2027. Sarif Industries, the company for which you, Adam Jensen, work as head of security (official for corporate spy/detective), is one of the world-wide forerunners in augmentations, technologically sophisticated additions to or replacements of human organs that make their owners run faster, jump higher and think quicker (among many other things). The game starts with Jensen waking up after a life-saving surgery operation, now being kept alive by a wide variety of augmentations and prosthetic limbs.

“I never asked for this” is the iconic line featured in the announcement trailer of the game. While for most people in Deus: Ex’s world, getting augmented is a very costly option, and thus usually a conscious choice, for Jensen the question is still open (or: up to the player) whether he actually wants them or not. As the game progresses, the player is able to upgrade Jensen’s augmentations, up to the point where he is a walking tank seeing through walls with the ability to hack every object with a screen and an unusually sociable one at that. But so is the opposite, not upgrading a single augmentation and even completing the game without killing a single person.


“This technology. This strength. The temptation to use it is hard to resist. Am I strong enough to stay human?”
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
poses a wide variety of ethical and political questions, but has at least one theme that underlies the game’s story and gameplay from front to end, the question of what it means to be human, and more specifically: how one’s view of humanity relates to their actions. As one trailer has Jensen saying: “What have I become? Am I more than human, or less?” Central to the field known as philosophical anthropology (or: man’s philosophical attempt to make sense of himself), this is a philosophical question through and through. This particular field of philosophy is even receiving a lot of attention in recent years because of its relevance for questions of medical care, abortion, euthanasia, enhancements (augmentations in real life), et cetera. Every ethical theory (including every religious ethics) has an underlying view of what it means to be human, and that’s what makes this kind of intellectual pursuit so interesting, maybe even necessary.
Admittedly, many films have taken up this question before. In fact, you could make a philosophical analysis of The Terminator on the subject and no doubt this has been done. But Deus Ex: Human Revolution is arguably the first game where this question is, though often implicit, central to the story and gameplay, leaving the player to actively answer the question as the game progresses. This is what makes it a role-playing game: Although the story is largely linear, character progression is not. The player is largely free in determining Jensen’s approaches to his goals and his character development. Finishing the game with non-upgraded augmentations is possible, and so is killing absolutely every enemy you encounter with grenades propelled from your body (and everything in between).


Of course, killing everyone in your way brings up ethical questions pondering your means-to-end rationality. Maybe you never thought about it, maybe you deliberately chose to do so. Or maybe you considered the plain fun of your playing style more important than any considered course of action in a world that’s not real anyway. The interesting bit is that you can play the game as a different person than your own. It’s Deus: Ex‘s quality that it lets you pursue different paths in the game, but forcing you to consider your actions and their consequences whatever you do. The Director’s Edition even contains a section where, if up to that point you have killed anyone, one of your enemies asks you what makes you any better than him. Altogether, the game contains surprisingly many elements of the what is known as applied ethics; not just straightforwardly applying theory to practice but involving various stages of analysis and reflection. For this reason, I would consider Human Revolution as useful a part of an ethics education as reading about a case study in a philosophy handbook.
Summing up the above, I would say that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prime fit for a case study (sci-fi media are, after all, often just very elaborated thought experiments) in what the relationship is between philosophical anthropology and ethics, or what the relationship is between one’s idea of humanity and one’s idea of right and wrong. Or it would rather be a kind of test case, since as a role playing game it offers tons of variables to be experimented with.



The augmentation menu in-game. Source: MobyGames

Case study
Building on this, you could consider different playthroughs of Human Revolution as more specific case studies, carefully selected for answering Jensen’s question: am I more than human, or less?

Case 1: Stop-at-nothing death machine
For instance, one could role-play Jensen employing this technological advantages such to achieve the most efficient course of action possible, evidently involving many stabs, explosions, headshots or otherwise accurate gunfire. Generally, attracting much attention to yourself does not make your work easier, but nonetheless there are many sections where a few well placed headshots or a frag mine can save you lots of time and effort.
Case 2: Pacifist
The developers have made it possible to beat the game without killing anyone. The game even offers you an achievement called Pacifist if you manage to beat the game with no casualties by your hand. This generally involves sneaking, patience and clever use of stealth augmentations. For example, one lets you become temporarily invisible. Others let you see through walls, or predict the surveillance routines of guards for you.


Since other conditions remain untouched, this enables a substantial discussion of which of the two “Jensens” is the less human one and which the more human one, or even a discussion on whether that distinction makes sense at all. I will list some perspectives through which you could approach such a discussion.


First of all, let’s take two extreme opposites:
A Hobbesian view of humanity sees morality and the authority of laws strictly as derived from the state, preferably a totalitarian one. In this view, man is an animal unbound by considerations of morality except for when their violation results in punishment. A rash interpretation of Hobbes would say that stop-at-nothing death machine Adam Jensen would be no less human than pacifist Jensen. In fact, one might praise him for making smart use of his opportunities.
A Kantian view of humanity sees man as a rational being, which according to his theory of ethics means that we should at all times respect the rationality of other humans. A quick concrete example of an interpretation of this theory: we shouldn’t use others as means to an end, and Jensen’s goals are alike all others in that they can never justify killing other people for it.


These theories are fairly categorical in that they know little middle ground. Much more interesting in that respect is an aristotelian view of humanity.
An Aristotelian view of humanity sees man as a rational animal that wants to reach happiness. However, happiness isn’t our everyday conception of happiness but rather a full exercise of our human virtues, such as justice and wisdom. So being morally good is tied up with being virtuous, and being virtuous is tied up with achieving happiness. All of these are features of humanity, because they are enabled by our capacity for reason. Aristotle held that without reason, humans would simply be animals, and so there is a case to be made that when Jensen lets himself be led by his technological possibilities he surrenders his rationality and consequently his humanity.

Additionally, there is room for an interesting interpretation of his professional virtues, which he has as head of security. Jensen goes great lengths for his goal, which arguably is his job, but in some of his characteristics he might tend too much towards the extremes; determination to provide security for employees would seem a virtue, but the player can choose to provide this security by killing others. How far can the player go in remaining virtuous in the Aristotelian sense?

And so on…
And of course you can continue this list with the theories of the world religions and many other philosophers (Mill, Heidegger and Sartre would be the three next to come to my mind). Excuse me if I did not do any of these theories justice by rushing through them too fast, but my goal here is to provide an idea of what this game can do for education. So if you have any substantial critique to the above, please put your effort in a sound philosophical interpretation of Deus:Ex: Human Revolution. I would love nothing more.


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