Content Warning: This post discusses genetic conditions and dysmorphic features from a relatively high level scientific perspective, so if that kind of thing bothers you, please take care!
A recent article by Chris Plante at Polygon got me thinking seriously about the way genetic conditions and the term “mutant” can be misused in video games and in sci fi generally. Plante discusses how he had cleft lip as a child and how the original Rage and now Rage 2 both feature “mutant” enemies who almost uniformly seem to feature cleft lip. To him, this feels like Rage 2 is throwing his own genetic condition back at him and calling him “subhuman”.
His article and subsequent Twitter thread as well as a Twitter thread from Steve Spohn of AbleGamers really go into the issues of how portraying the disabled and people with genetic conditions as “monsters” is immensely problematic and are worth reading.
These inspired me to finally get off my butt and write about why misrepresenting genetic conditions this way is lazy and offensive from my perspective as a PhD geneticist. I wrote a thorough blog post about it (please please read it if you’re interested), but I want to also see how others think and feel about this issue too.
From my perspective, I take major issue with the way “mutant” is misused in sci-fi generally and in Rage 2 specifically. Rage and Rage 2 generally seem to have very light stories and world building despite being post-apocalyptic and having the dramatic setting of a world altered by an asteroid collision.
When I hear the word “mutant,” for me it implies biological and genetic alteration. The “mutants” were changed somehow–by radiation or chemicals or experimentation. “Mutant” itself is a technical term in genetics that means exactly that–DNA or RNA or protein that is “changed” from one state or function to another.
In the genetics field, we don’t really use “mutant” to describe human beings, but rather to describe genes. And even then, it has largely fallen out of common use in favor of “variant”. This happened because over the years, our understanding of the human genome evolved such that now we see it as a massive collection of naturally-occurring variation, not a monolithic DNA code.
That said, I don’t think in the field that “mutant” is a derogatory term. But I do think that there is a stark difference with how it is used in pop sci-fi literature, film, and video games. In media, “mutant” is often just another one of those common “othering” words that gets thrown out there. But even still, I think it keeps that implied biological/genetic meaning. For example, a virus that creates zombies by altering their DNA might be creating “mutants”, but if zombies are being resurrected with dark magic then they’re not really “mutants.” (Change my mind. )
So while “mutant” is just another way of saying “monster,” it does include a bit of specificity, which is another reason Rage 2’s use of it is so immensely disappointing. First of all, there appears to be no actual lore reason (I had to) for calling them “mutants.” They are “failed experiments” of “the Authority” and they were altered using “Nanotrites” (“symbiotic computers”) or some such. But the “Nanotrites” seem to be contrived to basically justify everything in the game–the hero’s powers, the “mutant’s” existence, et cetera. There’s no indication that the “Nanotrites” are going in there and modifying the DNA or proteins in such a way that they’re doing what we’d call “mutating”.
But more than that is the issue addressed in Plante’s piece–that the “mutants” all feature physical phenotypes that exist in actual people with genetic conditions: Specifically, cleft lip and hypertelorism (widely-spaced eyes). Yet there’s no reason that I can discern why all the “mutants” would have these phenotypes. As I describe in my blog post, cleft lip can be caused by a very large number of different genetic variants and tends to be non-syndromic, meaning it is the only consequence of those variants. So to have it show up in all the “mutants” would suggest it was specifically selected during the Authority’s genetic modification experiments.
But why? No reason is given as far as I can tell. Which leads me to conclude that the reason is pure laziness in the design. They looked at common dysmorphic features, saw cleft lip and hypertelorism, slapped them on their monster designs, and decided to call them “mutants.”
And that sucks. Because it’d be one thing if they actually had put thought into it and gave reasons for these common features. It’s another completely if they use genetic conditions that inherently “other” real human beings in order to “other” their fictional monsters.
So I’m curious what others here think about this issue. Does this kind of thing bother you? Do you think we should hold our sci-fi to a higher standard even when it’s relatively low quality fare like Rage 2?