Future Technology in Video Games
It’s a common occurrence for ideas in science fiction to influence real life inventions. The creator of the first mobile phone, Martin Cooper, cites Dick Tracy’s two-way radio watch as an inspiration for his invention of the mobile phone. More recently, the tech company Oculus, who created the VR headset Occulus Rift, gives every new hire a copy of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which founder Palmer Luckey cited as an inspiration for creating the Rift.
Pop culture not only influences the practical, it influences the theoretical as well. It’s near impossible to enter into a conversation about constructing an artificial intelligence without someone bringing up concerns related to Skynet from the Terminator series or Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would personally say that no science fiction video game has defined technological conversations as much as those two movies. However, while they may not define the conversation about future technologies, video games do something those works don’t, by letting experience a perspective defined by technology. Almost all of the games that I played as a part of my research depict future tech in a grounded way, showing both how humanity could evolve through the use of technology and dangers involved with that evolution.
What are some ways that video games show humans evolving through technology? Deus Ex has a number of ideas, displayed most prominently through the game’s augmentation system. Players use augmentation canisters to upgrade different areas of their body. They can give themselves healing powers, increased resistance to environmental dangers, or cloaking powers. (There are a lot of augmentations in Deus Ex, and they’re all really cool, you should read the full list of the different augmentations here.)
The screen players use to manage their augmentations. Taken from Deus Ex: Game of the Year Edition with the mod Give Me Deus Ex installed (Ion Storm, 2000). Screenshot taken from my personal playthrough.
The advantages of these augmentations are obvious. After all, who wouldn’t want bullet-resistant skin? Who wouldn’t want to have a built-in flashlight in their body, or resistance to radiation? At the bare minimum, I know I’d appreciate the flashlight so I don’t have to keep replacing batteries on my headlamp I use to read at night. With how many different forms and functions they could serve, augmentations are probably the most exciting and practical way for humanity to evolve.
Though augmentations are probably the most practical and achievable technology, Detroit: Become Human and Nier: Automata both showcase an incredibly attractive idea: disposable bodies. In these games, there are instances of characters dying, only to have their consciousness put into a brand new body.
In Detroit, this ability allows the investigation android Connor to continue his duty even if he dies at different points in his mission. He does mention that this process does corrupt his memory, but if this technology were to be implemented in a way that humanity could use it, people might prefer some memory loss to an unexpected death.
The androids in Automata weaponized the idea of a personality being able to migrate to a different body. In gameplay, if a player dies in combat, a new model spawns at a dispensary, and continues in place of the old model, and can even return to the downed model to retrieve equipment. In extreme, unwinnable missions, androids can even activate a special reaction to destroy enemies in their immediate vicinity and download their memories into a model back on their base.
The final interesting piece of technology I want to talk about is Tacoma’s application of augmented reality. When aboard the space station Tacoma, tech on the station monitors the actions and speech of crewmembers. At a later point in time, anyone can play these recordings. They can follow the shadows of people as they walk through the station and get a solid understanding of what it’s like to be that person without them actually being there. Amy, the main character, uses this tech to solve the mystery of what happened to the crew members on Tacoma station. That’s certainly a notable application of tech like this, but it can be used for so much more. Think of someone, new to a job, but they have a real-time template to follow as they go about their day. Think of recording famous events and allowing people to walk among them, rewinding and pausing for time to think or analyze what happened.
Obviously, none of these technologies come without concerns. In the case of Tacoma’s augmented reality, using this tech comes with serious security and privacy issues. Capturing every motion someone makes, their personal communications, and speech is a terrifying amount of data that can easily be used for nefarious purposes. If this technology was active at every moment of every day without strict privacy laws, companies would know almost everything about you and would use that information in terrifying ways.
There are also serious concerns in relation to transferring consciousness to a different vessel. Even though being able to continuously restore Connor’s self is a miracle only made possible by technology, it isn’t an infallible system. Repeatedly dying cause his relationship with his partner to suffer and corrupts Connor’s memory. And if we do manage to work out how to transfer a human consciousness to a different vessel, it might have disastrous consequences to the subject’s mental state. In 2064: Read Only Memories, private investigator Wilson Dekker talks about his experience of being a human brain put into a metal body:
“But.. you know.. Accidents happen. And suddenly I was just a brain on life support. My family couldn’t afford the procedures to bring me back… Then Flower showed up, with promises of the old me. The old Wilson Dekker. So they signed away my brain, hopeful the old me would just waltz back through the door. The last time my family saw me, I was being hauled away by professionals. For ripping open my dog’s skull. Wanna know something? About being a brain in a box? You forget everything. About what it means to be human, even when you try. You can’t even KILL YOURSELF. Your COMPUTATIONS and ALGORITHMS keep you from doing so. YOU don’t exist for YOU anymore!”
We can’t say for certain that putting a “brain in a box” won’t turn out like that. Putting a consciousness into a different body could have horrible consequences and fundamentally change how they experience reality, or it could have no effect whatsoever.
The final and perhaps biggest danger about living with technology as a critical part of existence is the ability for it to be hijacked by outside sources. In Deus Ex, some characters have “kill phrases” programmed into them. If someone says a specific phrase near them, they die. It’s simple, gruesome, and something those individuals didn’t have a choice in doing. Almost every single android in Automata is hacked and corrupted by an outside source, and lose their personality and autonomy in the process. Even the main characters that survive this initial assault still have their mobility, combat ability, and visual sensors severely inhibited.
Despite the dangers of living with technology hardwired into one’s self, I can’t help but find the future presented in these games to be incredibly attractive. I mentioned already that I’d love to be able to have a flashlight on my person at all times to do some late night reading, but I also believe that experiencing events after the fact like Amy does in Tacoma would be an incredibly educational experience. Yes, there are absolutely dangers associated with modifying one’s body with technology. That fact is unavoidable. But that’s a reason to approach those technologies with caution, not to avoid them altogether. These technologies may never come to fruition, but video games and pop culture at large will still continue to be a source of inspiration for technological advancements, like they always have been.