52 Weeks/52 Games — Understanding the Important Cultural Implications of Watch_Dogs

This is the fifth in a series of 52 posts. Find all of the posts in the series here

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Cruising the suburbs in the evening.

This post comes as a sort of response to this wonderful Paste review of the game, which points out and explains, better than I ever could, many of the particulars of the experience and mechanics. Thank you Alice Daer for sharing it with me.

This morning, I ran into Target at 8am to pick up a copy of Watch_Dogs for my PS4. I have played about two hours. It’s not enough, by any means, to have a keen grip on its plot, but hopefully enough to understand its mechanics and its implications. As someone who studies the internet, studies data and data collection, Watch_Dogs–released today from Ubisoft–makes note of and raises numerous questions and concerns about the nature of hacking, of the availability and usefulness of big data, and, perhaps most importantly: privacy and power.

We don’t live in a private world. We think, or, we want to believe, that if we expunge ourselves from the internet, scrape away our Facebook profiles and our Twitter accounts, that we’re effectively erasing ourselves from the grid. Like we never existed at all. I notice, especially in my routine data collection on Imgur, that every once in a while a post will surface. I’ve seen it hundreds of times–it’s a charming infographic that essentially explains how to ‘erase’ yourself from the internet. Source: LifeHacker. The comments made on it are typically mixed; some thank the original poster wholeheartedly for sharing the information, others, typically more cynical, are keen to point out that to erase oneself is almost completely and totally impossible.

In the wake of recent news stories that unsurprisingly reveal apps, like the ephemeral photo-sharing hit Snapchat, are still collecting and maintaining data it promises its users that it is deleting, we as a society are coming to terms more and more with the somewhat crushing realization that we can no longer be anonymous. It started with the NSA, continued with issues of Net Neutrality and control, and somehow, ended up in a game long in development from Ubisoft Montreal.

In Watch_Dogs, players play 38-year-old hacker Aiden Pierce. The introduction explains how Aiden was one embroiled in a hack-job gone bad, later suffering retribution in the form of a forced car accident that took the life of his young niece, Lena. Aiden is a typical beardy white male out for vengeance and walking a fine moral line,  inevitably not a particularly unique entry as far as video game protagonists go. The game itself is highly reminiscent of another popular crime-game series Grand Theft Auto,  but sports quite the vibrant, living landscape with graphics as beautiful and eye-catching as those seen earlier this year on Infamous: Second Son. Indeed, walking rainy Chicago streets, particularly in suburban neighborhoods, seems as if it could have peeled itself right from Infamous, though instead of spray painting graffiti onto the sides of construction zones and air conditioning units, I’m hacking traffic lights to cause major accidents. T-rated violence, meet M-rated violence.

Watch_Dogs is all about data. Its host city, Chicago of an alternate present, is run entirely off of one (1) operating system, CtOS. That’s right–due to a blackout caused by a hacker (Aiden), the city decided to put THE ENTIRE CITY OF CHICAGO ON ONE SINGLE OPERATING SYSTEM. Road blocks, bridges, security cameras, traffic lights, electrical grids, pipes and water mains–even the L-Train. What could go wrong, am I right?????

Aiden, through the use of his smartphone (explicitly not an iPhone clone, such as that used in the recent Grand Theft Auto V [which I wrote on here and here] but instead something reminiscent to the Galaxy S4) has, naturally, complete and nearly unobstructed access to any point of data he could want, and control of all of the aforementioned civic systems. In the span of seconds, Aiden can steal money from someone’s bank account by connecting to their phone, hack into a security camera to profile a potential criminal, check into a location using a FourSquare clone and compete with other players for mayorship, and listen in on the private conversations of others. That’s just what can be done in casual freeplay; aside from the main storyline, players can also engage in alternate reality games…within the game, spy on others through ‘Privacy Invasion’ missions, and, in online contexts, ‘hack’ the games of other players and cause havoc in their parallel Chicago universes.

Data, in all its glory, is everywhere. For the first time, players have access to information about every single NPC. Names, important facts, occupations, and incomes–all available freely just from hovering over their faces with the aiming reticule. Indeed, half of the challenge of Watch_Dogs is knowing what information to pay attention to, how to become keenly aware of the NPCs that carry valuable information, especially on bustling city streets where 30 people co-mingle at any given time of day, even in the middle of the night. Morality, though the game does have it, does not seem to come into account when it comes to bank account hacks, and repeatedly have I found myself cleaning out the accounts of people that had barely $100 to their name without a second thought. “Is that right? Should I be doing that?” I ask myself, but no answer is readily available. Watch_Dogs encourages players to stop crimes and murders before they happen but in reality, couldn’t particularly care less about robbing the poor and downtrodden.

But the game, in spite of its flaws and successes, poses a very real scenario that is worth taking note of and, perhaps, one that is even more important to those that study digital data as I do. While I would hope we as a society are smart enough to not run an entire, major city off a single operating system, it reminds us that for those looking for us, for our data and our information–its out there. The more we connect, the more we integrate ourselves with the virtual, the more we bank on our phones, install cameras in our houses (my PS4 camera, for example, has learned to log me into my PSN account by facial recognition), the more vulnerable we are to those that might want to take the better of us. Identity theft is real, big data collection is real–these are crimes made salient by our digital age and ones that, despite our best efforts, we aren’t in control of. In Watch_Dogs, every citizen is implied to have a smartphone, is implied to have a traceable, digital paper trail that accounts for salacious secrets and personal details spilled across the web. While we may not see a Facebook account given to every child at birth along with their social security number, even for those that live mostly offline, they end up tagged in photos, in bank statements housed digitally, are talked and tweeted about without their knowledge–information is out there. Somewhat ironically, an early leak of Watch_Dogs–an illegal download of the game that surfaced on Saturday–came paired with a Bitcoin mining application that destroyed the CPUs of many excited to play.

Users illegally download copies of a game about hacking that effectively hacks them for monetary gain in return. Can we even rightly call Watch_Dogs an alternate present?

Watch_Dogs, while a veritable examination of our wholly digital world–and an incredibly important one at that– is also very much about power. Aiden has power–and he shoots and runs around with his ridiculous gun arsenal as does any Grand Theft Auto character. Unlike Ubisoft’s other supermen, particularly the various protagonists of the Assassin’s Creed series (written about here), Aiden is not a parkour champion whose innate assassination skills and inhuman upper body strength give him the edge over his opponents. No, Aiden’s power comes from the connected. Instead of shooting and killing the innocent (which is, of course, still possible in this game as it is in any open world game with cars and guns and beardy white dudes), he robs them. He spies on them. He uses them to his own gain. He exposes us to a new, perhaps even more chilling kind of crime and reminds us of how vulnerable we are, no matter how hard we try to stop it. Aiden IS the one who wants to take the better of us–perhaps sometimes to help us, sometimes to screw us over. He has power the police don’t have. He is untraceable. He is a part of the void.

Aiden is ultimate power without magic or superhero abilities. He is a tangible everyman that is a real, if not exaggerated, threat. While the particulars of Watch_Dogs might not come to pass, much of what it addresses already is happening everyday. When can we know how to draw the line between fact and fiction? How much are we actually in control of what appears online? How much can we believe those that promise to protect us when we ourselves cannot?

I won’t lie and tell you Watch_Dogs is the next King Lear or 1984. Much of it is kind of humorously terribad, such as the player’s ability to hack digital billboards and replace them with old, forced memes, a testament, perhaps, to how long this game was in development. The main story isn’t particularly unique, nor are Aiden and his Max Payne inspired, tortured Batman growls. The game feels, as the Paste article pointed out, sometimes too much like Grand Theft Auto V, which, I would argue, features a more interesting cast of characters with equally interesting conflicts and personalities. Again, I haven’t played much worth mentioning of the Watch_Dogs main storyline and, as such, I’ll inevitably be writing about it in a retrospective when I finish it outright, both to honor the playtime put into the game and to hopefully make up for any assumptions made in the writing of this piece.

What is important, is this: Watch_Dogs, while it confuses itself on its own stance regarding big data, provides an ultra realistic space that reminds us about where our data goes and who can potentially have access to it. It reminds us that we will never be private people, that it’s nearly impossible for us to even try–not when there are those far bigger than us who have access to its dissemination. Aiden is a walking Heartbleed, he is the thing we try to stop but not necessarily can. Watch_Dogs reminds us of how much of ourselves live online, and, as I might hope, reminds us that we still have some control into what we release, that we, ourselves, are the last line of defense against privacy invasions and big data collections. We are not sheep, nor should we allow ourselves to be. If Google won’t sell your data to a man in a facemask and hat like some emo anthropomorphic Anonymous, know that he may very well take it.

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