Virtually Witness Augmentation Now: Video Games and the Future of Human Enhancement

Michael Foith



Ever-enduring advancements in science and technology promise to offer solutions to problems or simply to make life a bit easier. However, not every advancement has only positive effects, but can also have undesired, negative ramifications. This article will take a closer look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DXHR), a dystopian video game which promises to put players in the position of deciding whether the science of human enhancement is a way to try to play God, or whether it enables us “to become the Gods we’ve always been striving to be” (Eidos Montreal, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”). In this article I will argue that DXHR creates a space in which players can virtually witness future technologies for human performance enhancement without the need to alter their own bodies.

DXHR is special particularly in two respects: first, the developers have achieved a high credibility and scientific realism of the enhancement technologies depicted in the game which can be described as being “diegetic prototypes” (Kirby, “The Future Is Now ” 43); second, the game directly invites players to reflect upon the impact and morality of human enhancement. It does so through a story in line with the cyberpunk genre, which envisions not only the potential benefits of an emergent technology, but has an even stronger focus on the negative contingencies. The game and its developers foresee a near-future society that is split into two fractions due to human enhancement technologies which come in the form of neuro-implants and mechanical prosthetics; and they foresee a near-future setting in which people are socially and economically forced to undergo enhancement surgery in order to keep up with the augmented competition.

DXHR is set in the year 2027 and the player takes control of Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT police officer who is now the chief of security of Sarif Industries, one of the world's leading biotechnology companies that produce enhancement technologies. Augmented terrorists attack Sarif Industries, abduct the head scientists, and nearly kill Jensen. Jensen merely survives because his boss puts him through enhancement surgery, which replaces many parts of his body with mechanical augmentations. In the course of the game it becomes clear that Jensen has been augmented beyond any life-saving necessity that grants him superhuman abilities and allows him to find and defeat the terrorists, but the augmentations also challenge his humanity. Is Jensen a human, a cyborg, or has he become more machine than man?

DXHR grants players the illusion of immersion into a virtual world in which augmentations exist as a matter of fact and in which a certain level of control can be practiced. Players take up the role of a character distinctly more powerful and capable than the person in control, exceeding the limits of human abilities. The superior abilities are a result of scientific and technological advancements implying that every man or woman is able to attain the same abilities by simply acquiring augmentations. Thus, with the help of the playable character, Adam Jensen, the game lets players experience augmentations without any irreparable damages done to their bodies, but the experience will leave a lasting impression on players regarding the science of human enhancement.

The experience with augmentations happens through and benefits from the effect of “virtual witnessing”:

The technology of virtual witnessing involves the production in a reader’s mind of such an image of an experimental scene as obviates the necessity for either direct witness or replication. Through virtual witnessing the multiplication of witnesses could be, in principle, unlimited. (Shapin and Schaffer 60)

In other words, simply by reading about and/or seeing scientific advancements, audiences can witness them without having to be present at the site of creation. The video game, hereby, is itself the medium of virtual witnessing whereby audiences can experience scientific advancements. Nevertheless, the video game is not just about reading or seeing potential future enhancement technologies, but permits players to virtually test-drive augmentations—to actually try out three-dimensionally rendered prototypes on a virtual body. In order to justify this thesis, a couple of things need to be clarified that explain in which ways the virtual witnessing of fictional enhancements in DXHR is a valid claim.

Getting into the Game

First I want to briefly describe how I investigated the stated issue. I have undertaken an auto-ethnography (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner) of DXHR, which concretely means that I have analytically played DXHR in an explorative fashion (Aarseth) trying to discover as many elements on human enhancement that the game has to offer. This method requires not only close observation of the virtual environment and documentation through field notes and screenshots, but also self-reflection of the actions that I chose to take and that were offered to me in the course of the game. An essential part of analytically playing a game is to be aware that the material requires “the activity of an actual player in order to be accessible for scrutiny” (Iversen), and that the player’s input fundamentally shapes the gaming experience (Juul 42). The meaning of the game is contingent upon the contribution of the player, especially in times in which digital games grant players more and more freedom in terms of narrative construction. In contrast to traditional narrative, the game poses an active challenge to the player which entails the need to become better in relation to the game’s mechanics and hence “studying games … implies interacting with the game rules and exploring the possibilities created by these rules, in addition to studying the graphical codes or the narration that unfolds” (Malliet).

It is important to highlight that, although the visual representation of human enhancement technologies has an enormous potential impact on the player’s experience, it is not the only crucial element. Next to the representational shell, the core of the game, i.e. “how game rules and interactions with game objects and other players are structured” (Mäyrä 165), shapes the virtual witnessing of the augmentations in just an important way.

Finally, the empirical material that was collected was analyzed and interpreted with the help of close-reading (Bizzocchi and Tanenbaum 395). In addition to the game itself, I have enriched my empirical material with interviews of developers of the game that are partly freely available on the Internet, and with the promotional material such as the trailers and a website (Eidos Montreal, “Sarif Industries”) that was released prior to the game.

Sociotechnical Imaginaries

In this case study of DXHR I have not only investigated how augmented bodies and enhancement technologies are represented in this specific video game, but also attempted to uncover which “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Jasanoff and Kim) underlie the game and support the virtual witnessing experience. Sociotechnical imaginaries are defined as “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (Jasanoff and Kim 120). The concept appeared to be suitable for this study as it covers and includes “promises, visions and expectations of future possibilities” (Jasanoff and Kim 122) of a technology as well as “implicit understandings of what is good or desirable in the social world writ large” (Jasanoff and Kim 122–23).

The game draws upon several imaginaries of human enhancement. For example, the most basic imaginary in the game is that advanced engineered prosthetics and implants will be able to not only remedy dysfunctional parts of the human body, but will be able to upgrade these. Apart from this idea, the two prevailing sociotechnical imaginaries that forward the narrative can be subsumed as the transhumanist and the purist imaginary. The latter views human enhancement, with the help of science and technology, as unnatural and as a threat to humanity particularly through the power that it grants to individuals, while the former transports the opposing view. Transhumanism is:

the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. (Chrislenko et al.)

The transhumanist imaginary in the game views technological development of the body as another step in the human evolution, not as something abhorrent to nature, but a fundamental human quality. Similar ideas can be found in the writings of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Gehlen, who both view the human being’s need to improve as part of its culture. Gehlen described the human as a “Mängelwesen”—a ‘deficient’ creature—who is, in contrast to other species, not specialized to a specific environment, but has the ability to adapt to nearly every situation because of this deficiency (Menne, Trutwin, and Türk). Freud even denoted the human as a “Prothesengott”—a god of prostheses:

By means of all his tools, man makes his own organs more perfect—both the motor and the sensory—or else removes the obstacles in the way of their activity. Machinery places gigantic power at his disposal which, like his muscles, he can employ in any direction; ships and aircraft have the effect that neither air nor water can prevent his traversing them. With spectacles he corrects the defects of the lens in his own eyes; with telescopes he looks at far distances; with the microscope he overcomes the limitations in visibility due to the structure of his retina. (Freud 15)

Returning to DXHR, how do the sociotechnical imaginaries matter for the player? Primarily, the imaginaries cannot be avoided as they pervade nearly every element in the game, from the main story that hinges upon human enhancement over the many optional side missions, to contextual elements such as a conference on “the next steps in human evolution” (Eidos Montreal, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”). Most importantly, it impacts the player’s view in a crucial way. Human enhancement technologies are presented as controversial, neither exclusively good nor bad, which require reflection and perhaps even legal regulation. In this way, DXHR can be seen as offering the player a restricted building set of sociotechnical imaginaries of human enhancement, whereby the protagonist, Adam Jensen, becomes the player’s vessel to construct one’s own individual imaginary. In the end the player is forced to choose one of four outcomes to complete the game, and this choice can be quite difficult to make. 

Anticipation of the Future

It is not unusual for video games to feature futuristic technologies that do not exist in the real world, but what makes DXHR distinct from others is that the developers have included an extent of information that goes beyond any game playing necessity (see Figures 1 & 2). Moreover, the information is not fictional but the developers have taken strategic steps to make it credible. Mary DeMarle, the narrative designer, explained at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, that a timeline of augmentation was created during the production phase in which the present state of technology was extrapolated into the future. In small incremental steps the developers have anticipated which enhancement technologies might be potentially feasible by the year 2027. Their efforts were supported by the science consultant, Will Rosellini, who voluntarily approached the development team to help. Being a neuroscientist, he could not have been a more fitting candidate for the job as he is actively working and researching in the biotechnology sector. He has co-founded two companies, MicroTransponder Inc., which produces tiny implantable wireless devices to interface with the nervous system to remedy diseases (see Rosellini’s presentation at the 2011 Comic-Con) and Rosellini Scientific, which funds, researches and develops advanced technological healthcare solutions (Rosellini; Rosellini Scientific). Due to the timeline which has been embedded explicitly and implicitly, no augmentation appears as a disembodied technology without history in the game. For example, although the protagonist wears top-notch military arm prostheses that appear very human-like, this prosthesis is depicted as one of the latest iterations and many non-playable characters possess arm prostheses that appear a lot older, cruder and more industrial than those of Jensen. Furthermore, an extensive description employing scientific jargon for each of the augmentations can be read on the augmentation overview screen, which includes details about the material composition and bodily locations of the augmentations.

More Info Section of the Cybernetic Arm Prosthesis as it appears in-game

Figure 1: More Info Section of the Cybernetic Arm Prosthesis as it appears in-game (all screenshots taken with permission from Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), courtesy of Eidos Montreal)

More details are provided through eBooks, which are presented in the form of scientific articles or conference proceedings, for which the explorative gamer is also rewarded with valuable experience points upon finding which are used to activate and upgrade augmentations. The eBooks also reflect the timeline as each eBook is equipped with a year of publication between 2001 and 2022. Despite the fact that these articles have been supposedly written by a fictional character, the information is authentic and taken from actual scientific research papers, whereby some of these articles even include a proper scientific citation. 

Example of a Darrow eBook

Figure 2: Example of a Darrow eBook 

The fact that a scientist was involved in the production of the game allows classifying the augmentations as “diegetic prototypes” which are “cinematic depictions of future technologies … that demonstrate to large public audiences a technology’s need, benevolence and viability” (“The Future Is Now” 43). Diegetic prototypes are fictional, on-screen depictions of technologies that do not exist in that form in real life and have been created with the help of a science consultant. They have been placed in movies to allay anxieties and doubts and perhaps to even provoke a longing in audiences to see depicted technologies become reality (Kirby, “The Future Is Now” 43). Of course the aesthetic appearance of the prototypes has an impact on audiences’s desire, and particularly the artificial arms of Jensen that have been designed in an alluring fashion as can be seen in the following figure:

Adam Jensen and arm prosthesis

Figure 3: Adam Jensen and arm prosthesis

An important fact about diegetic prototypes—and about prototypes (see Suchman, Trigg, and Blomberg) in general—is that they are put to specific use and are embedded and presented in an identifiable social context.

Technological objects in cinema are at once both completely artificial—all aspects of their depiction are controlled—and normalized as practical objects. Characters treat these technologies as a ‘natural’ part of their landscape and interact with these prototypes as if they are everyday parts of their world. … fictional characters are ‘socializing’ technological artifacts by creating meanings for the audience, ‘which is tantamount to making the artifacts socially relevant’. (Kirby, “Lab Coats” 196)

The power of DXHR is that the diegetic prototypes—the augmentations—are not only based on real world scientific developments and contextualized in a virtual social space, but that the player has the opportunity to handle the augmentations.

Virtual Testing

Virtual witnessing of the not-yet-existent augmentations is supported by scientific descriptions, articles, and the appearance of the technologies in DXHR, but the moral and ethical engagement is established by the player’s ability to actively use the augmentations and by the provision of choice how to use them. As mentioned, most of the augmentations are inactive and must first be activated by accumulating and spending experience points on them. This requires the player to make reflections on the potential usage and how a particular augmentation will lead to the successful completion of a mission. This means that the player has to constantly decide how s/he wants to play the game. Do I want to be able to hack terminals and computers or do I rather prefer getting mission-critical information by confronting people in conversation? Do I want to search for routes where I can avoid enemy detection or do I rather prefer taking the direct route through the enemy lines with heavy guns in hands? This recurring reflection of which augmentation to choose and their continuous usage throughout the game causes the selected augmentations to become valuable and precious to the player because they transform from augmentations into frequently used tools that facilitate challenge and reduce difficulty of certain situations. In addition, the developers have ensured that no matter which approach is taken, it will always lead to success. This way the role-playing elements of the game are accentuated and each player will construct their own version of Jensen. However, it may be argued that DXHR goes beyond mere character building.

There is a breadth of information and opinions on human enhancement offered, but also choices that are made invite players to reflect upon the topic of human enhancement. Among the most conspicuous instances in the game, that involve the player’s choice, are the conversations with other non-playable characters. These are events in the game which require the player to choose one out of three responses for Jensen, and hence, these determine to some extent Jensen’s attitude towards human enhancement. Thus, in the course of the game players might discover their own conviction and might compose their own imaginary of human enhancement.


This article has explored that DXHR enables players to experience augmentations without being modified themselves. The game is filled with various sociotechnical imaginaries of prosthetic and neurological human enhancement technologies. The relevance of these imaginaries is increased by a high degree of credibility as a science consultant has ensured that the fictional augmentations are founded upon real world scientific advancements. The main story, and much of the virtual world, hinge upon the existence and controversy of these sorts of technologies. Finally, the medium ‘videogame’ allows taking control of an individual, who is heavily augmented with diegetic prototypes of future enhancement technologies, and it also allows using and testing the increased abilities in various situations and challenges. All these elements combined enable players to virtually witness not-yet-existent, future augmentations safely in the present without the need to undertake any alterations of their own bodies. This, in addition to the fact that the technologies are depicted in an appealing fashion, may create a desire in players to see these augmentations become reality. Nevertheless, DXHR sparks an important incentive to critically think about the future of human enhancement technologies.


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Image Credits

All screenshots taken with permission from Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), courtesy of Eidos Montreal.


videogame; Deus Ex; imaginaries; prototypes

Copyright (c) 2013 Michael Foith

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