How video games prepared Edward Snowden to leak NSA secrets


This photo, taken June 9, 2013, in Hong Kong, provided by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency. (AP Photo/The Guardian)

It's no secret that Edward Snowden, the former national Security Agency contractor whose leaks led to vast revelations about government surveillance, is a gamer. Shortly after his identity was revealed last June, he was tied to a user account on Ars Technica's forums where he offered a review of the game Max Payne 2 and at one point announced the change of his gamer name to "Wolfking Awesomefox."

But in his new memoir about reporting out the Snowden stories, Glenn Greenwald explains that games were not just a mere pasttime for Snowden. Instead, Greenwald writes, they were an integral part of his moral development  -- something he says Snowden explained with a "hint of embarrassment."

The lesson Snowden had learned from immersion in video games, he said, was that just one person, even the most powerless, can confront great injustice. "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. And history also shows that seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries."

This idea that a seemingly normal lone individual can conquer seemingly insurmountable odds is as old as time -- and one certainly not limited to video games. But from the lowly plumber who saves a princess in the Mario series to the journey from prisoner to savior that plays out in the Elder Scrolls saga, video games give players the chance to actually inhabit the characters taking on those vast challenges.

Regardless of your opinion about Snowden's decision to leak classified information about NSA spying practices, from his actions and subsequent public statements it's clear that Snowden believed disclosure was the right thing to do. In his mind, Snowden felt he had a moral obligation to the public to reveal what he considered injustice being perpetrated by an organization whose power far outstripped his own. What better preparation for such a task than years of facing similarly unbalanced odds in digital worlds?

For Greenwald, there's clearly a bit of a generational gap between Snowden's experiences with digital entertainment and his own. But he notes that while he would have "scoffed" at Snowden's description of the role of video games in his moral development years ago, he now realizes that video games "played no less serious a role in molding political consciousness, moral reasoning, and an understanding of one's place in the world that literature, television, and film" for the former contractor's generation.

While Greenwald's peers might debate whether or not video games are art or if they're hurting the precious children, the Snowdens and Switch reporters of the world grew up on Super Nintendos and Playstations. We experienced a sort of golden age where gaming's narrative elements matured along with its role in the marketplace.

Obviously, not all of us took away the same lessons as Snowden or there would be a lot more classified documents just floating around. But Snowden's credit to gaming for his moral development is just another data point that reveals just how influential gaming has become in our social and political landscape.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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