Audiences caught a glimpse of the future last week at the Human by Design conference last week, hosted by Square Enix and CNN’s Courageous studio. The event, held at the Paley Center for Media in New York City, was inspired by the upcoming game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and its vision of what a society with cybernetically augmented people might look like. The game, which some see as a window into the future, imagines a deep societal divide between ordinary people and those with cybernetic enhancements.

Experts and self-described cyborgs include the avant-garde artist Neil Harbisson, who has an antenna implanted into his skull that allows him to experience colors despite being color blind. Additionally, Steve Mann, who is credited for pioneering High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology for digital photography, spoke about his head-mounted computer, the EyeTap, which grants him an enhanced view of the world (such as seeing radio waves) using augmented reality and other technologies. In 2012, Mann was assaulted in Paris by people who mistook his eyewear for Google Glass, which makes him an ideal person to speak about society’s potentially violent reaction to wearable technology.

Human by Design was livestreamed on Twitch to millions of viewers and a documentary film version, developed by Courageous, is available to watch on Amazon Prime. Square Enix currently has a partnership with Open Bionics to develop a 3D-printed prosthetic arm inspired by the game’s main character, Adam Jensen.

Otto Bell, vice president and group creative director at Courageous (CNN’s in-house brand studio), talked with [a]listdaily about Courageous and how it worked in partnership with Square Enix to make Human by Design a reality and how a video game might shape the future.

How would you describe Courageous and its goals?

I would say that it’s editorially minded. It’s committed to high production standards, ensuring that we meet clients’ objectives and marketing objectives, but we do so in a way that is generally additive to our audience on the Turner Network. Either it provides some kind of utility, it deepens people’s understanding, or it makes them smile.

Otto Bell
Otto Bell, vice president and group creative director at Courageous

How did you partner with Square Enix to put together the Human by Design conference?

Square Enix came to CNN with what I would describe as a fairly standard media brief. They were looking for some page takeovers and some kind of high-impact day of announcement to coincide with the release of their new game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

The thing is, we’ve got a staff of Emmy and Murrow-winning journalists at Courageous, and they tend to scratch beneath the surface of every creative brief that we get. They started to dig into the story of Mankind Divided, which is set in the future. This installment deals with a world divided between people who have augmented their bodies and those who have not. So when we started to dig into this imaginary world, the guys discovered that a lot of the themes and tensions the game addresses are actually not science fiction. They’re kind of bubbling up to the surface in today’s society.

We’ve got Steve Mann here; he’s the first victim of a cyborg hate crime. Someone tried to pull that camera out of his head. You’ve got Neil Harbisson, who elected to add an antenna to his skull, and he’s a self-identifying cyborg. He sees this as a new organ—a new sense—that he has added to his body. These themes and tensions that the game handles aren’t future tense; they’re present tense. These are things that are happening today.

Once we realized that, we went back to them and said that we could do the page takeovers and traditional advertising, but right now there is a vacuum. There is a wide space that you can fill. There’s no bill on the floor of Congress. There’s no coordinated thinking about the implications of this rapidly developing science and what the ramifications could mean for humanity at large. We said that there’s a larger conversation to be had here, and we should pull together academics, scientists and people who identify themselves as cyborgs and bring them all together. Let’s thrash out some of these thorny questions about medical ethics, weaponization and choice. That’s what brought us here today.

How did the partnership with Amazon to create a Human by Design documentary come together?

The Amazon relationship came together through Square Enix as an important retailer for this upcoming game. I think when Square Enix walked into Amazon and showed them some of the early materials for the conference and talked to them about what they were doing with Courageous, Amazon (from what I’m told) was very enthusiastic about the level of thought Square Enix was bringing to this video game launch. Amazon, upon reviewing some of the early materials, said to Square Enix that if they could make this into a documentary, they’d put it on Amazon Prime. They believe that the conversation has sufficient editorial merit for them to put it on their channel and promote it through Prime Video.

The conference is being streamed through Twitch, but the half-hour documentary that we produced during the run-up to this conference is on Amazon Prime and is being actively promoted on the homepage. That’s not a paid promotion. That’s something that Amazon—after reviewing the content—believed in highly enough to place on their homepage and encourage people to watch it.

The documentary was put together by Courageous people. The same people who put together today’s conference were out in the field researching, meeting the participants and filming their stories.

How do you feel about a video game being a kind of window into the future?

I think a video game as a window into the future is entirely appropriate for the time in which we live. It used to be H.G. Wells and Jules Verne who would author books on imagined futures. Then it fell to great movie directors like Spielberg and Ridley Scott to imagine what the future could entail and what the tensions and challenges that we face as a race could be.

Given video games’ share of market, leisure time and mind, I think it’s entirely appropriate that a video game should weigh in, forecast and imagine what might happen to us all. It’s another art form in a long line of art forms that have looked to the future.

Human X Design Conference, August 3, 2016.
Prosthetic arm inspired by Deus Ex franchise. Photo credit: Courageous.

Given the partnership with Open Bionics to design a prosthetic arm, Deus Ex could be in a position to help shape the future. What are your thoughts on that?

I didn’t decide what Square Enix was going to talk about today in the keynote. They could have talked about their game and shown a bunch of adverts. I’m really impressed that they chose instead to highlight their partnership with Open Bionics because they are literally and figuratively stretching out a hand from science fiction into the real world. The choice of highlighting that partnership is a tasteful and appropriate way into today’s larger conversation. I think the work that they’re doing with Open Bionics is truly additive and it’s changing people’s lives. It’s a profoundly positive example of the fact that so-called branded content can also be great, important and life-changing content.