This article is a continuation of the last article on Detroit: Become Human. In it I explore the game’s controversial relation with references to historical forms of oppression, as well as the lead developer’s (lack of) answers to this situation.
Spoiler Warning: this article will spoil plenty of Detroit: Become Human, if you wish to play the game yourself, you might want to read this article after doing so.
As I mentioned in my previous article on Detroit: Become Human (DBH), the game is not without its controversies. So much so that I felt that I needed to make an extra article on it, explaining why the game is so controversial. This article can be seen as an add-on to that previous one. I will present a short – and not entirely comprehensive – overview of the controversy around this game. There is no need to go extremely in-depth on this issue, this post more so aims to address these issues, and not leave them unsaid. I will explain the problematic references to historical oppression that are in this game, what David Cage, the game’s creator, had to say about them, and why this matters.
Androids Facing Historical Forms of Oppression
I will immediately get to the crux of the issue: DBH is filled with references to historical forms of oppression. In one of the earliest scenes in the game, the player sees that Androids have a separate compartment in the back of a bus (shown in the banner to this article). Some might already find this to be an obvious reference to history, as the Androids are at this point already framed as being oppressed. But, of course, one might say that this is just a coincidence.
But then, there is more: Shops have signs that say no androids are welcome, which reminds a bit too eerily of the old use of “whites only” signs. Androids wear badges that show they are androids, which has been likened to the use of Jewish badges during WW2. Markus, one of the player characters, can tag places with the text “We Have A Dream”. This is not a comprehensive list of all the references, but I think it is enough – if you want more examples, you can find some here. At some point, the idea that the game is not referencing historical forms of oppression is impossible to uphold. The references are too abundant, and too on the nose.
One of the more straightforward references, that is essentially undeniable, is the combination of Markus describing the androids as being enslaved, and Kara, one of the other player characters, fleeing to Canada. The movement of enslaved people to Canada during the 1800s is well-documented, and it is hard to see any other reason for a similar migration to happen in this game.
So how did David Cage, the game’s creator, respond to these references being found in his game when he was asked about it in interviews? He stated that he was not trying to make a political game, and that “If people want to see parallels with this or that, that’s fine with me. But my story’s about androids who want to be free.”
So, he basically denied any references to history being found in his game. Which is impossible to understand, considering that he also claims that Markus was, at least partly, inspired by the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And he can state that “We Have A Dream”, as mentioned before. This denial also directly ignores the political issues at play in the game. Markus has to play a political game, choosing between a violent uprising or a peaceful protest. Connor, the last player character, is an android in law enforcement, a political entity. Politicians are who, at the end of the game, choose what happens to the freedom of the androids.
This defence is lackluster, and seeks to deny any historical references, rather than explain the reasons for the presentation of the game’s story. At worst, this argument is hurtful: denying the similarities with history comes across as ignorant, or as denying history itself. If it is not a reference to history, then surely Cage could explain why the androids are at the back of that bus?
Why Does This Matter?
Okay, so a game references historical oppression. Why is this a problem? It is something that happened, after all.
Well, firstly: It is happening to androids. While the game presents the androids as possibly gaining sentience, it is undeniable that these are machines in a science-fiction tale. Machines, whose suffering is being equated to real-world suffering, that real people have gone through. There are ways to write stories about androids that are oppressed: the Blade Runner movies are a great example of a story about humanoid androids facing oppression, in which the oppression never references historical suffering as directly as DBH does. Equating the suffering of these androids to the suffering of actual people in history is not just ignorant, it is disrespectful to the experience of those people.
But that is not the most important reason. In 1985, Indian-American scholar Gayatri Spivak wrote an essay called “Can The Subaltern Speak?”. Subaltern refers to a group of people in society who have no voice of their own, or a limited one, due to oppression and/or social status. Spivak asks whether the subaltern can ever speak for itself, and mentions that when academics speak about these groups, they speak on their behalf. These academics assume what is best for the group they discuss, and – even if they mean well – they take their voice away from them.
In a sense, DBH does this too. By referencing historical forms of oppression, and creating an oppressed group, it suggests what that experience is like. And by taking that history away from the group the oppression was aimed at, and placing it on androids, it does not just reference a history, it removes it from the people who should be the ones to speak about it.
The game does not just take this history, but it also suggests how to solve it. In one of the endings of the game, Markus can achieve freedom for androids through peaceful protest. The politicians give androids their rights. It is, essentially, almost like pressing a button to solve racism. It is jarring, but it also suggests solutions to real-world problems, especially with the game constantly referencing them.
That is where the problem with DBH lies. It references a history that should be told by those who lived it, by those whose voice is still to this day too often silenced. When it comes to the voiceless, references to oppressive historical events should be left well alone in fictional works such as these.