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.stevenpoole.net