Games in the age of surveillance

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Up until now the games released on the PS4 have not been especially great, but this was largely to be expected.

As with most next-gen consoles, the first thing developers do is simply beef up the graphics of previous games and rush them out. Hence, the graphically-superior-but-essentially-the-same, releases like Tomb Raider and Call of Duty. Now, though, the first games that are meant to actually showcase the potential for the PS4 have arrived, and the biggest two stand out more for their social commentary than the gameplay itself.

Watch Dogs and inFAMOUS Second Son, either through coincidence or design, are both based on very similar themes and say more about the era in which they have been released than any games we’ve seen before. And they reflect the mood of many people who are likely to be playing them.

In Watch Dogs (out this month) you play Aiden Pearce — a hacker-vigilante free-roaming the streets of a near-future Chicago controlled by Central Operating System, a Big Brother supercomputer that controls society. By hacking their technology you take on the government and fight back. Meanwhile in inFAMOUS Second Son you’re Delsin Rowe – a teen with newly-found mutant powers, free-roaming Seattle and taking on the totalitarian Department of Unified Protection who consider you a “bio terrorist”.

That both of these have been referred to in (p)reviews as Orwellian is not wholly inaccurate — especially considering the “Big Brother is Watching” theme that runs throughout — but the fact that people are looking for references in a book from 1949 when more accurate ones can be found in today’s news suggests that many are missing the social relevance.

While it’s unlikely that people will start to discover they have superhuman powers or become vigilante hackers (although note the rise and influence of groups like Anonymous), it’s clear that anti-government protests, increased surveillance, paranoia, censorship, monitoring and encroachment upon freedoms by governments looking to control an increasingly disenfranchised populous are themes of now. The rise of the anti-hero taking on the technologically oppressive regime is as current as it gets.

The celebration of civil disobedience, from destroying CCTV cameras, spraying cheeky anti-government graffiti (in a clear reference to Banksy’s stencils) to fighting the establishment in more violent ways, make great themes for a game. Wreaking havoc also happens to be wonderfully cathartic. But the creators are also making a social statement. Jonathan Morin, the creative director of Watch Dogs says: “This is a game that explores the impact of technology in our society. Privacy and paranoia are indeed parts of our themes. It would be hard for us to be more relevant than we are now that is for sure. While I think it is a great time to tell this story, I also believe these are the kind of themes we periodically need to be reminded of in order to make the right choices as a society. If Watch Dogs can feed the discussion even just a little I would see it as a great success.”

Sales of the PS4 have already surpassed seven million and the two biggest games for the console at this point are not just technically impressive. We live in the era of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, NSA privacy intrusion and increasing CCTV, smartphones, Anonymous and increasing government control. These big games are starting to reflect issues and speak to a generation of players who are increasingly finding their lives shaped by these themes.

There is, however, the bitter irony that Sony admitted late last year that it is now involved in the same sort of digital monitoring/intrusion issues that its games highlight. The updated terms and conditions for the PlayStation Network states: “Your use of PSN and our community features may be recorded and collected by us or sent to us by other users. Any information collected in this way, for example, your UGM (User Generated Media), the content of your voice and text communications, video of your gameplay, the time and location of your activities, and your name, your PSN Online ID and IP address, may be used by us or our affiliated companies…”

So beware of “The Man” – he’s everywhere now.

Watch Dogs released May 27th. InFamous: Second Son out now.

For Esquire magazine

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