Deus Ex paper for FROG

Update – Yeah ! I will be presenting this at F.R.O.G in Vienna in September. The long version of the abstract is posted as a comment.

Embodiment, disability and ‘dys-appearance’ in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

D. Carr, draft May 2013

In this presentation the relationship between cultural contexts, player embodiment and onscreen representations will be explored through an analysis of Adam Jensen, the gravely wounded and radically augmented protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

Digital game studies accounts of embodiment and play will be reviewed. A key argument is this presentation is that interpretation is shaped by context and experience. Experience is embodied, and bodies vary. This suggests that there is a need for a theory of player embodiment that acknowledges the links between embodied experience and meaning making. Cultural theories of disability inform this work. For example, Paterson and Hughes’s work is relevant because they discuss the relationship between discourse and embodied experience (1999). They use phenomenological theory (Csordas, 1994; Turner 1994) in combination with autobiographical material in order to describe the experience of a non-standard body encountering normative social practices.  They analyze these experiences while referencing Leder’s description of the absent body (Leder 1990).  Absent bodies are those that fit so well within a particular context that they are not consciously experienced. Leder contrasts the absent body against the ‘dys-appearing body’: a body that would be consciously experienced, exposed or rendered problematic in these same contexts.

The game begins with the protagonist Adam Jensen being terribly injured at work. He is then reassembled and extensively augmented on the orders of his employer. The game-play structures augmentations as a strategic necessity, while the game narrative (broadly defined) depicts augmentations from a variety of perspectives: as consumable, as resisted and as lived. The depiction of augmentation as consumable is most evident in corporate contexts and commercial outlets. In these contexts (such as the LIMB clinics and Sarif headquarters) augmentations are associated with volition, self definition, advantage and self improvement.  From the perspective of the resistance, augmentations are associated with perverted authority (‘playing god’), transgression and diminished integrity. The most ambivalent perspective on augmentations within the game could be described as ‘augmentations as lived’. This perspective is expressed in ambient dialogue (civilians and bystanders chatting about the pros, cons, risks and pressures associated with augmentations) and in quests such as ‘Rotten Business’ which refers to vulnerable workers being forcibly augmented. Each of these perspectives on augmentation involves the body being constructed and positioned in a particular way. For instance, early in the game a character described as anti-augmentation engages Jensen in a conversation about the questionable wisdom and risks associated with elective evolution via technology. He describes augmentations in terms of choice. In other words, Jensen is confronted by a perspective that nullifies his experience. Throughout the game Jensen encounters discourses that construct his body and its augmentations in distinct (and incompatible ways). He participates in social exchanges that dys-appear his body, and potentially disconcert the player.

Deus Ex:Human Revolutions shows social roles and practices shifting in the wake of evolving technologies, and it explores these changes in relation to bodies and status. The game depicts a social context where norms and notions of deviancy are in flux and where the previously advantaged (non-augmented bodies) are at risk of reclassification. In other words, the game makes it clear that disability and ability are socially constructed, and that ‘disabilities appear or are highlighted in environments that produce disability’ (Davis 1995). In this presentation it will be argued that a player’s experience will shape his or her relationship to Jensen’s body, and to the various discourses of bodies, disability and augmentation that Jensen encounters in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.  The need to develop theories of player embodiment that do not assume a standard physicality will be discussed.

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One Response to “Deus Ex paper for FROG”

  1. playhouse Says:

    Long version of the abstract
    Embodiment, disability and ‘dys-appearance’ in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, for FROG September 2013

    D. Carr, draft May 2013

    In this presentation the relationship between cultural contexts, player embodiment and onscreen representations will be explored through an analysis of Adam Jensen, the gravely wounded and radically augmented protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. The aim of this work is to contribute towards the development of a theory of player embodiment that can accommodate difference.

    Digital game theorists have adapted a range of theories in order to explore aspects of embodiment and play, drawing from screen studies, performance studies and phenomenology (Crick 2011, Farrow and Iacovides, 2012, Young 2005). This literature, while relevant, generally implies a standardized player body. For similar reasons, accounts of embodiment that draw on cognitive psychology to discuss affect and game interfaces (e.g. Gregersen and Grodal, 2009) have limited applicability to this inquiry. Gee’s essay on embodied play and learning also draws on cognitive theory, yet his paper is relevant to this analysis because he connects experience and cognition, and emphasizes that cognition is culturally situated (Gee 2008 p 255). However, Gee’s essay is about cognition, while here the focus is on issues of interpretation. In this instance, culturally situated interpretation is theorized according to Bennett and Woollacott’s work on reading formations. Reading formations encompass both texts and users, and involve ‘the situationally determined frameworks of cultural and ideological reference which supply the grids of intelligibility through which different groups of readers read and interpret a given text’ (Bennett and Woollacott 1987, p 60). The key point is that interpretation is shaped by context and experience. Experience is embodied, and bodies vary. This suggests that there is a need for a theory of player embodiment that acknowledges the links between embodied experience and meaning making.

    Paterson and Hughes’s work is relevant to this inquiry because they discuss the relationship between discourse and embodied experience (1999). They use phenomenological theory (Csordas, 1994; Turner 1994) in combination with autobiographical material in order to describe the experience of a non-standard body encountering normative social practices. They analyze these experiences while referencing Leder’s description of the absent body (Leder 1990). Absent bodies are those that fit so well within a particular context that they are not consciously experienced. Leder contrasts the absent body against the ‘dys-appearing body’: a body that would be consciously experienced, exposed or rendered problematic in these same contexts. Leder’s work has been applied to questions of player embodiment. For example, Young (2005) analyses FPS games, arguing that the player’s sense of his/her body fades during play to the extent that the body becomes absent. For my purposes, however, it would be more revealing to use textual analysis undertaken from the perspective of a reflexive player-analyst in order to consider the jarring moments when bodies within Deus Ex: Human Revolutions dys-appear, and when the relationship between an onscreen and off-screen body is experienced as momentarily broken.

    The game begins with the protagonist Adam Jensen being terribly injured at work. He is then reassembled and extensively augmented on the orders of his employer. The game-play structures augmentations as a strategic necessity, while the game narrative (broadly defined) depicts augmentations from a variety of perspectives: as consumable, as resisted and as lived. The depiction of augmentation as consumable is most evident in corporate contexts and commercial outlets. In these contexts (such as the LIMB clinics and Sarif headquarters) augmentations are associated with volition, self definition, advantage and self improvement. From the perspective of the resistance, augmentations are associated with perverted authority (‘playing god’), transgression and diminished integrity. The most ambivalent perspective on augmentations within the game could be described as ‘augmentations as lived’. This perspective is expressed in ambient dialogue (civilians and bystanders chatting about the pros, cons, risks and pressures associated with augmentations) and in quests such as ‘Rotten Business’ which refers to vulnerable workers being forcibly augmented. Each of these perspectives on augmentation involves the body being constructed and positioned in a particular way. For instance, early in the game a character described as anti-augmentation engages Jensen in a conversation about the questionable wisdom and risks associated with elective evolution via technology. He describes augmentations in terms of choice. In other words, Jensen is confronted by a perspective that nullifies his experience. Throughout the game Jensen encounters discourses that construct his body and its augmentations in distinct (and incompatible ways). He participates in social exchanges that dys-appear his body, and potentially disconcert the player.

    Deus Ex:Human Revolutions shows social roles and practices shifting in the wake of evolving technologies, and it explores these changes in relation to bodies and status. The game depicts a social context where norms and notions of deviancy are in flux and where the previously advantaged (non-augmented bodies) are at risk of reclassification. In other words, the game makes it clear that disability and ability are socially constructed, and that ‘disabilities appear or are highlighted in environments that produce disability’ (Davis 1995). In this presentation it will be argued that a player’s experience will shape his or her relationship to Jensen’s body, and to the various discourses of bodies, disability and augmentation that Jensen encounters in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. The relationships between experience, non-standard corporeality, cultural contexts and social practices will be explored with reference to disability studies literature. The need to develop theories of player embodiment that do not assume a standard physicality will be discussed.

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