There is an argument to be made that one of science fiction’s key concerns is the question of what it is to be human, and that thus a form of (post)humanist thinking lies at the heart of the genre. After all, one school of sf scholarship holds Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as the genre’s origin text, dealing prototypically with “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe” (Aldiss 8; cf. Freedman).

And Frankenstein certainly reflects upon the constitution of the human: the monster, scientifically created by man, but rejected as his equal, ponders his own state of being by asking, “Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?” (Shelley 128). Ever since this origin point, sf has dealt with questions of human nature and what to include in the definition of this category. But the genre has gone further, negotiating not just the ideal but also the changes to the boundaries established as human: changes that “are often the results of scientific discoveries and inventions that are applied by human beings to their own social evolution” (Csicsery-Ronay 113). As a being created through scientific progress (inspired by Luigi Galvani’s research in bioelectricity) and both physically and cognitively superior to humans, Frankenstein’s monster represents the posthuman in its colloquial definition: a being replacing the human, coming after the human, and existing beyond human capacity. The monster anticipates the posthuman condition. 

Posthumanism as a critical discourse develops in the late 20th century, expanding on the anti-humanist sentiments of an “end of man […] a particular image of us” (Hassan 213) and establishing a new “episteme which comes ‘after’ humanism (‘post-humanism’) or even after the human itself (‘post-human-ism’)” (Callus and Herbrechter §f). Posthumanism “articulates our hopes, fears, thoughts, and reflections at a post-millenarian time haunted by the prospects of technology’s apparently essential and causal link with the finiteness of the human as a biological, cognitive, informational, and autonomous integrality” (Callus and Herbrechter §g). But the ‘post’ in posthumanism also challenges conceptions of those inherent categories defining the human, those that applied, as N. Katherine Hayles has argued, “at best, to that fraction of humanity who had wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice” (286). In posthumanism, then, we can find both the hopeful outlook of changing the human through technology and the wary warning about entrenching existing inequa­lities inherent in the categories of humanism and expanding them into the new episteme. 

Science fiction as a genre provides venues of representation for both aspects of post­humanism. Posthumans, in one form or the other, have populated the imaginations of sf, from H. G. Wells’ animal-hybrids in The Island of Dr. Moreau to the robots of Isaac Asimov to the mutants of Marvel’s X-Men comic franchise. Fantasies of enhanced human power are present, as are critiques of humanist conceptions of exceptionalism. But posthumanism found its most articulated form in the 1980s, when the figure of the cyborg, fusing machine and human, became a dominant symbol of transgressed boundaries of the human, not only in cyberpunk science fiction, but also through the critical theory of Donna Haraway. Haraway argued that “we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras” (“Cyborg Manifesto” 177) living within the realm of technoscience. As such, we have become “entities in technoscience culture”, no longer able to claim to be purely human, but rather “a metaphor, a technology, and a beast living its many-layered life as best it can” (Modest_Witness 83).

In cyberpunk, the human-machine hybridity of the cyborg became a powerful cypher for a particular thinking of posthumanism that propagated the enhancement and ultimate transcendence of human biological limitations. Transhumanism sees technology as extension of the natural means of evolution, which “will offer enormous potential for deeply valuable and humanly beneficial uses,” should be freely available to all, and should be embraced by society as it allows for us to become “more human than human” (Bostrom). In their scope then, the questions posed by posthumanism should be negotiated by us all, as they touch upon universal ethical issues challenging us in the future. 

Cyberpunk fictions in literature or film can be understood as individual interventions into posthumanism, priming readers/viewers with information and arguing certain positions on the topic, but ultimately falling short of forcing active ethical decision-making. More suited to engage a topic through interactive response is the video game, a medium that is “processual,” as Thomas Malaby argues: “Every game is an ongoing process. As it is played, it always contains the potential for generating new practices and new meanings, possibly refiguring the game itself” (102). As simulated systems (mapping behaviour of elements from one system onto another), games expect players to “perform actions that will modify the behavior of the system” (Frasca 224), enacting decisions and actively shaping the materiality of the text—the game produces meaning in the process of playing; decisions shape the material system which differs for each player. Moreover, certain games use their processual nature to present players with “a complex network of responsibilities and moral duties” (Sicart 4), making the game an ethically relevant object. 

As an example of posthumanist science fiction, the Deus Ex game franchise is an ideal example of how an ethical video game can produce “a strong narrative that gives players moral purpose” as well as forcing them to ethically “reflect on the meaning of their actions” (Sicart 2). The most prominent game in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix, 2011), best exemplifies the transhumanist vision of human augmentation through cybernetic prosthesis, and via its game mechanics raises the ethical issues of a commodification of augmentations and of the politics involved in the cohabitation of ‘naturals’ and ‘augs’ in a volatile, corporate-ruled world. Playing as Adam Jensen, the security chief of Sarif Industries, a biomedical corporation and the forerunner of the augmentation industry, players have little choice but to accept augmentation, when Adam is badly wounded in a terrorist attack. The only way to save Adam’s life is to restore his body via full-scale augmentation, replacing all four limbs and several other body parts, among them aspects of his brain and cognitive system. Not a volunteer for enhancement, but forced into it because of injury, Adam is sceptical about the benefits of augmentation and wary about its abuse potential—all the while being a pivotal figure in the enfolding controversy over the use of the technology. 

During the course of the game, players are confronted with a world in which posthumanism is a reality and body augmentation has become a commodity that influences social and economic status. During his investigations, Adam encounters people discussing augmentation, in overheard conversations and in direct exchanges with other augmented characters with their own motivations for and issues with their enhancement. As Steven Joyce has pointed out, comments about individual rights to one’s body or the limits of human nature, “approximate contemporary debates on plastic surgery or abortion and allow the player to understand how close we are to having the transhumanist debate erupt into social consciousness” (164). How players position themselves towards this debate is central to determining the meaning that the game produces in gameplay. The game design foregrounds ethical dilemmas and simulates different outcomes depending on player decision. 

For example, in the “Bar Tab” side quest, the player needs information from a crime syndicate. In exchange, they are asked to collect payment for a social augmentation that was installed in a broker. The augmentation is designed to read minute physical cues in other people and manipulate their reaction accordingly, even producing pheromones to get the wished-for result. When confronted, the broker complains that she has already paid for the enhancement in full, but because she is no longer competitive in her job without the augmentation, the syndicate decided that she needed to pay ‘rent’ for her use of the technology. The player now has several options, depending on their emotional involvement with the character and their view on augmentations as necessary tool for social and economic success. They can take money from the broker, kill her, take the augmentation chip (with or without killing her), or pay off the gangster. The ethical decision is probably to extract the woman from the extortion scheme that her enhancement has placed her in. For the crime syndicate, though, the augmentation is a revenue stream and any interference (even returning the chip) is undesirable—the only way both sides get what they want, is to pay out a lump sum of 20 monthly ‘rent’ payments. Here, the player becomes aware of posthuman augmentation changing the economic make-up of the world and how its commodification entrenches social inequalities, a critical view on posthumanism that challenges the notion of freedom through enhancement. The player then must decide a course of action, implementing an ethical choice with unclear consequences. And the choice is meaningful in that further dealings with the syndicate are complicated by it, a meeting and relevant game-mechanics (upgrades for their own augmentation) are withheld, making other paths through the game necessary. 

On the whole, the game mechanics make obvious the fact that augmentations are a necessary and inevitable part of the system and in order to win, the player must, at least for the duration of the game, embrace posthuman enhancement. As Alexander Galloway has pointed out, flaunting “informatic control” (the rules that govern the system and how to use them) is part of video game design: “To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. […] I suggest that video games are, at their structural core, in direct synchronization with the political realities of the informatic age” (90-91). Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s rules demand that players augment their character and use his abilities to overcome obstacles and enemies. Without the augmentations, players will be unable to finish the game as certain objectives are beyond their scope. Even though levels offer several solution paths, favouring stealth, hacking, fights, or diplomacy, all of them at some point demand related augmentations that grant specific actions (jumping from great heights or being invisible, breathing poisonous gas, lighting fast cognition, the strength to punch through walls, reading micro-expressions). This is best exemplified in the game’s fights against other augmented soldiers, who each have similar special powers as are available to Adam and that need to be countered. During the game, the player comes to rely on their augmentations to overcome biological limitations and solve the problems set before them. As such, the game represents ‘the political realities of the informatic age’ in that the option to enhance human abilities will be used for advantage and personal gain, that transhumanist technology is a means to ensure power structures and exert control over others. Deus Ex: Human Revolution flaunts this informatic control, lays bare the rules of the posthuman system, but also presents the player with the consequences of using the technology.

Critical storytelling and game mechanics come to fruition in the final decision at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution after a global terror attack involving every augmented person. The story allows the player the choice to use their gathered information on the different involved political groups and their positions regarding transhumanism to decide among four possible endings. Through a media broadcast about the terror attack, the player can either manipulate the public to revolt against augmentation, to embrace it, to restrict and control it, or they can choose not inform the public and leave the future of augmentation up to chance. Interestingly, no option is without a trade-off and none are black or white, good or evil. In all the options, the fallout is unforeseeable, and people will get hurt as the aftermath of the terror attack gets sorted out. As Joyce points out, the “active choice of the player is required to bring the game to a close and the process of choosing is more likely to encourage sustained thought and discussion about what a satisfactory ending to the transhumanist debate would look like” (168). In its insistence on the decision of the player, Human Revolution rejects any notion of neutrality regarding posthumanism and the challenges that thisdystopian cyberpunk future poses. Whereas in literature the position of the author is a guidepost for readers to align themselves, the game mechanics of ethical player choice introduced by Deus Ex force a decision. Players need to involve themselves in the political conflict, addressing transhumanism, power structures, and commodification in order to find their individual position—and that is in keeping with the premise of the best science fiction. 

Works Cited:

Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973.

Bostrom, Nick. “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity.” Bioethics 19.3 (2005): 202–214. Web. Accessed Mar 20, 2018.

Callus, Ivan, and Stefan Herbrechter. “What’s Wrong with Posthumanism?” Rhizomes 7 (2003). Web. <>. Accessed Mar 20, 2018.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Marxist Theory and Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 113–24.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Simulation Versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology.” The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. 221–36.

Freedman, Carl. “Hail Mary: On the Author of ‘Frankenstein’ and the Origins of Science Fiction.“ Science Fiction Studies 29.2 (2002): 253–64.

Galloway, Alexander. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2006.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1986. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149–81. 

—. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Hassan, Ihab. “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthumanist Culture?” Performance in Postmodern Culture. Ed. Michel Benamou and Charles Caramello. Madison: Coda, 1977. 201–20.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Joyce, Steven. “Playing for Virtually Real: Cyberpunk Aesthetics and Ethics in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.”Cyberpunk and Visual Culture. Ed. Graham J. Murphy and Lars Schmeink. New York: Routledge, 2018. 155–73.

Malaby, Thomas. “Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games.” Games and Culture 2.2 (2007): 95–113.

Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Ursprünglich erschienen als:

Schmeink, Lars. „Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) – Posthumanism.“ Sci-Fi: A Companion. Hg. Jack Fennell. Lang, 2019. 67-74.