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The place of artificial intelligence in the future of humanity has always been a staple of many science fiction stories. Indeed, as study into artificial intelligence continues to move steadily forward, it’s understandable that the topic of AI would remain an active topic that fascinates both writers and the public.
This brings us to the topic of Detroit: Become Human, the latest in the extensive list of David Cage’s half visual novel, half quick time event games, and a game that attempts to use the element of human-like androids as an analogy for many of the issues involving prejudice and bigotry that still plague the world.
Like many of David Cage’s other games, Detroit: Become Human attempts to use a large array of player choices to push the story in a simply breath-taking amount of possibilities, containing within it hundreds of different choices, many of which have at least a noticeable effect on the unfolding of the narrative.
It would be very impressive if said narrative wasn’t complete nonsense.
Yes, another thing Detroit: Become Human has in common with Cage’s previous projects is that the actual story within the game is a mess, where the very basic elements of the setting itself falls apart under the tiniest scrutiny. To name just one example, a minor detail in the setting is that part of the resentment towards androids stems from them taking so many positions in society that America now has a 40% unemployment rate. For reference, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was never higher than 25%, yet rather than being a central part of the narrative, the main effect of this unimaginable loss of jobs is limited to a few grumpy men in bars moaning about androids taking their jobs, in much the same tone that real life bigots claim immigrants steal jobs.
This actually ties into the main issue I personally have with Detroit: Become Human, and frankly the most damning flaw in it’s entire story, that it takes elements from real life historic moments related to race relations and prejudice and throws them into the setting with no regard for greater context or understanding of how those issues developed or came about. In trying to use these elements to make some grand point about the future, the game makes a mockery of very real tragedies in history for the sake of provocative imagery, and in a way that misunderstands the very nature of bigotry.
The imagery taken from history is about as subtle as a brick with the words ‘Racism is Bad’ written on it thrown at your head. Androids are made to stand at the back of the bus, are forced to wear identifying armbands and are shot on sight by police for looking even slightly questionable. Basically, any and all trite methods to link androids to real life minorities is on full display here, but as mentioned, divorced from any of the greater context of the historic events and why they were troubling. To give just one example, why do androids need to be identified with armbands when they already have distinctive LED lights in their temples, or for that matter, why do they even look human at all?
Furthering this confusion, an important detail in Detroit’s story is that most humans, and even some androids legitimately don’t believe that androids are actually sentient beings, rather than particularly well-designed machines, basically possessing as much true intelligence as a very advanced smartphone or computer, as indeed seems to be among androids’ many uses. Yet this portrayal is inconsistent with the way humans treat androids, regularly insulting them, assaulting them and even blaming them for taking jobs, actions that would make sense, if humans believed androids were capable of thought. As it is, if we take the setting at face value, then said actions are less prejudice and more along the lines of people getting irrationally angry at something they apparently believe is just a machine, basically the equivalent of someone today trying to pick a fight with Alexa or a chatbot.
While real life prejudice does tend to make heavy use of dehumanisation, it’s usually in service of making the target looking eviller than they are, not non-sentient. For example, your typical anti-Semite would not claim that Jewish people are mindless automatons, but would instead claim that they are devious, untrustworthy money grubbers, patently untrue, but not denying that Jewish people are capable of thought. Real bigotry does not deny sentience, it downplays, or twists said sentience into a way to villainise the target, but doesn’t pretend the target is non-sentient, as that would technically absolve the target of their alleged crimes.
Perhaps a bigger issue in relation to equating the androids in Detroit: Become Human to actual victims of bigotry however, is that androids, in story, are actually a threat to humanity. Part of the reason sane people today reject bigotry is that we know that our comparatively minor differences do not put any one group over another in any way. White people are not innately smarter than black people, while black people are not innately stronger than Asian people and so forth. Yet in Detroit, androids possess several advantages over humanity that the story glosses over in it’s efforts to score cheap shots against strawmen bigots. Aside from being stronger, faster and immortal, androids also feel no pain, have innate access to a vast database of information, can telepathically communicate with fellow androids and even heal wounds faster, the one area you’d think we’d beat robots on!
To be blunt, androids in Detroit: Become Human raise the question of how we could accept beings who are superior to us into our society. In addition to being physically superior in every way, the androids are also more intelligent than humans, and just as equally sentient. Accepting these hypothetical androids into human society would not be bringing more different, but equal people, but an over class of immortal supermen that would be able to outperform a human in any category, athletic, academic or even artistic. Assuming the androids are as ‘human’ as the game makes them out to be, it would only be a matter of time before what is objectively a superior species would realise this and many would want to take control over civilisation. This statement would be paranoid ramblings if I were talking about any real life minority, but androids bear very little real similarity to any of said minorities, not least of which being that they are firmly established as unequal to humans in all fields, having more in common with how racial supremacists view themselves in comparison to all other ethnicities.
These misunderstandings of how real life bigotry actually functions, as well as some truly repulsive uses of shock imagery, including an outright android concentration camp later in the game, reveal Cage’s complete lack of understanding of the nature of prejudice and his shallow attempt to use the topic for cheap drama. Rather than seriously ask the question of if androids could be a part of human society despite the truly vast differences between the two, Cage resorts to the most base and elementary shock imagery to drum up cheap sympathy for the android characters without having to address any of the issues that would come with the rise of a new form of synthetic life that is dramatically different from anything we’d have seen before. Just to hammer the final nail, Detroit came out following the releases of games such as Nier: Automata and to a lesser extent Fallout 4, games that addressed this exact same question with actual nuance and complexity, something that, as has long been established, is utterly lost on David Cage.