Rage 2 and the Lazy Design Aesthetic of Misusing Genetic Conditions

#1

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. :joy:)

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?

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#2

Whenever I see these sorts of “mutant” designs appear in post-apocalyptic fiction I can’t help but think of the influence of George Miller’s Mad Max series hanging over the genre. Those films —though especially the later entries in the series— feature a number of characters that are portrayed as disabled or with some kind of disfigurement, often in relation to the harsher climate the fiction is set in. The series is interested in showing that these characters are as big a part of the world as any other, and the power dynamics of who have access to prosthesis and autonomy makes up part of the core struggle in Fury Road. The films definitely aren’t perfect and don’t escape certain ableist stereotypes about what bodies are more desirable (and what disabilities are supposedly more villainous/monstrous) but they are at least more often than not showing a humanity & respect towards those characters.

The Mad Max movies have proven to be incredibly influential to games over the decades and I would guess part of where the gross misuse of genetic conditions in RAGE 2 comes from is stripping a series like Mad Max for its aesthetics, without ever doing the work to interrogate what they meant in their original context. It’s certainly not new for the games industry, you can point to dozens of examples of games —often those on the AAA side— appropriating aesthetics & ideas from other works or cultures without doing them justice or treating them with the care they need.

I think RAGE 2 is guilty of this on several fronts but nowhere else is it triter and more offensive than in the depiction of genetic conditions as “mutant” characters you are supposed to find gross & ugly. It sucks! I’m glad there’s been some coverage critiquing this element of the game and I hope to see more folks call this out when it happens.

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#3

I think those are great points, Emily. While I largely focused on the misuse of “mutant” and the direct cribbing of dysmorphic features that commonly affect actual people with genetic conditions, I do fully agree with you on the direct influence of Mad Max.

My blog post was cross-posted on Kotaku and one comment said, “People will get mad about EVERYTHING,” and honestly, it’s just disheartening that people put so little thought into the entertainment they consume.

I’m not mad about it. I just think it’s lazy and offensive design and that even with a small amount of additional effort, it didn’t have to be. Mad Max provides a counterexample of a fiction that seems to put more thought into how it represents people with disfigurement and disabilities.

I wouldn’t have been able to write this criticism if they hadn’t given essentially every last “mutant” cleft lip. If they hadn’t insisted on erroneously calling them “mutants”. That’s what it comes down to.

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#4

My fav thing about this in this case is that you have a fucking PhD (oops i forgot the rational logic warriors hate academia because it doesn’t tend to prove what they want it to) and you heap huge praise on the post-apocalyptic series beloved by nerd dudes everywhere, explicitly finding reasons to praise a series everyone already does instead of criticizing it.

It’s almost like there’s an ulterior motive to their complaining about people “getting mad”.

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