Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later


Steven Poole won­ders if games should see hack­ers as he­roes

Ev­ery­one’s al­ways go­ing on about how play­ing videogames makes you a se­rial killer, but it can also make you a real-life anti-es­tab­lish­ment hero – at least if you be­lieve what NSA file leaker Ed­ward Snow­den told the jour­nal­ist Glenn Green­wald, as Green­wald re­lates in his book about the af­fair. Snow­den, he says, learned sev­eral moral lessons from videogames. One was this: “The pro­tag­o­nist is of­ten an or­di­nary per­son who finds him­self faced with grave in­jus­tices from pow­er­ful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his be­liefs.” The pro­tag­o­nist is also of­ten an elf or a space­ship, but let’s not quib­ble.

An era that boasts poster-boy hack­ers such as Snow­den and As­sange is ripe for the re­lease of a videogame such as Watch Dogs, which has base­ball-cap-wear­ing su­pern­erd Ai­den Pearce for a pro­tag­o­nist, a hacker with a pop of fash­ion­able or­ange in the lin­ing of his coat. Oddly, Pearce has to glance down at his phone when per­form­ing his tricks of mu­nic­i­pal ma­nip­u­la­tion. Wouldn’t any sel­f­re­spect­ing para­noid su­pern­erd these days be wear­ing Google Glass so that cru­cial HUD in­for­ma­tion could be float­ing in front of his face at all times? No­tably, Pearce doesn’t have to glance at the phone to have an al­ways-on map of his sur­round­ings or see the tar­get icons over­laid on people and ve­hi­cles. The am­bi­ent in­for­ma­tion ex­ists in two modes for no good nar­ra­tive rea­son. And hack­ing is just a mat­ter of press­ing a but­ton, or at its most elab­o­rate – if you have to hack some­thing like a se­cu­rity router – a minigame in­volv­ing ro­tat­ing cir­cuit nodes. What, se­ri­ously? Con­nect­ing the wires? Pre­sum­ably even your aver­age NSA con­trac­tor has more so­phis­ti­cated chal­lenges than this.

The real ide­o­log­i­cal dis­con­nect, how­ever, is that Pearce’s hacker’s re­venge de­pends on him hav­ing the pow­ers of to­tal sur­veil­lance – even, or es­pe­cially, over in­nocu­ous or­di­nary cit­i­zens roam­ing around their mood­ily clean ver­sion of Chicago – that real-life hacker hero Snow­den de­plores when those pow­ers

Pearce uses a phone, but wouldn’t any self-re­spect­ing para­noid su­pern­erd be wear­ing Google Glass?

are in the hands of the NSA. To be fair to Snow­den, ac­tu­ally, he doesn’t think any­one should have those pow­ers. He has said he had them him­self while a con­trac­tor: “You could read any­one’s email in the world. Any­body you’ve got email ad­dress for. Any web­site, you can watch traf­fic to and from it; any com­puter that an in­di­vid­ual sits at, you can watch it; any lap­top that you’re track­ing, you can fol­low it as it moves from place to place through­out the world.” But then he gave up those pow­ers in or­der to leak the ma­te­rial.

Ai­den Pearce, on the other hand, rev­els in be­ing the watcher at the cen­tre of his dig­i­tal panop­ti­con. The game’s hack­ing me­chanic can be in­ter­preted, firstly, as an in­ter­est­ing mode of power fan­tasy. Sure, power can come from guns and other lethal gad­gets (as it also does here), but in a mod­ern first-world city, where so much is elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled, re­mote power over cam­eras, traf­fic lights and trains is ar­guably more im­pres­sive. In its best mo­ments, Watch Dogs pre­sents the il­lu­sion that you can bend an en­tire city to your will.

But an­other part of the game’s plea­sure, more trou­blingly, is pred­i­cated on the sheer voyeuris­tic thrill of un­cov­er­ing snip­pets of per­sonal data about passers-by (“Suf­fers from claus­tro­pho­bia”, “Col­lects cans and bot­tles”), which in a sense makes the game an ad­vert for ap­ply­ing to the NSA, rather than a crit­i­cal com­ment on mod­ern sur­veil­lance so­ci­ety. Cu­ri­ously, too, the game doesn’t pun­ish you for in­con­ti­nently steal­ing cash from ev­ery­one you pass in the street, which ar­guably leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

What’s most in­ter­est­ing about this in­ter­sec­tion be­tween news and elec­tronic fic­tion, per­haps, is that the NSA it­self seemed to take no small amount of rhetor­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion from videogames when big­ging up its own dig­i­tal su­per­pow­ers. Ac­cord­ing to one leaked slide, the agency’s “New Collection Pos­ture” gave videogamey monikers to its ex­cit­ing data-hoover­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. “Anal­y­sis of data at scale: ELEGANTCHAOS” (a pretty good de­scrip­tion of, say, Ti­tan­fall). “Sniff it All: Torus in­creases phys­i­cal ac­cess” in­evitably evoked an im­age of dough­nut­shaped por­tals en­abling me to walk through walls, while “Know it All: Au­to­mated FORNSAT sur­vey – DARKQUEST” clearly pic­tures NSA an­a­lysts as wield­ing mas­sive swords to de­feat spooky me­dieval gi­ant knights in un­der­lit caves. If govern­ment hack­ers as­pire to be like videogame char­ac­ters, then they’ll be more de­lighted than any­one when videogames re­turn the com­pli­ment by por­tray­ing hack­ers as he­roes. Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

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