New video games mirror debates about data privacy, hacking

February 22, 2013

A man shuffles down the street, phone in hand. He appears to be reading a message, but in fact he’s hacking into city computer systems and peering into the pockets of passersby — flicking through their bank accounts, government records and personal details.

This kind of nightmare scenario is the feature of a new video game called ‘Watch Dogs,’ one of a number of new video game titles that put the player in the role of the passing hacker.

Hacking and cyber warfare are not new themes for video game makers. But new titles that center on constant data threats and government surveillance are resonating now because they hit a little too close to home.

Cyber attackers have put major companies with troves of data in their sights— Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest have all disclosed some kind of cyber breach in in the past month. News of hackers targeting government systems, think tanks and media companies — including The Washington Post — have also dominated headlines and prompted recent cybersecurity action from the White House and further discussion on Capitol Hill. All these disclosures, combined with growing awareness of the amount of data users are putting into cyberspace, have brought privacy and security issues into sharp focus.

“Every day there’s another headline of a data breach or a company reaching too far,” said Jeffrey Chester, the president of the Center for Digital Democracy. “This focus on surveillance and on hacking is really a digital mirror about our own behaviors and our fears.”

Video game makers are taking advantage of leaps in processing technology to sculpt increasingly realistic alternate worlds that reflect the fears players face in their own lives. For example, another upcoming title from publisher Sucker Punch, “Infamous: Second Son,” plays into surveillance fears and features a rebellion against an oppressive government in an alternate version of Seattle where cameras closely follow citizens’ every move.

Much like novels and movies, games offer a way for people to process and face these kinds of fears in a safe space, said Chris Melissinos, who curated a recent Smithsonian exhibition on the art of video games. But they also offer the unique ability to put players in control of the very things they don’t understand.

“In the real world you have little control over things that sit within a very large system,” he said. “You can’t control timing of traffic lights or how fast the mail comes. ... But in a video game it lets you assume the mantle of authority and power.”

Data privacy and security are certainly becoming a growing part of the national conversation, particularly in the face of high-profile cyber attacks and growing concerns about the amount of information private companies hold about users’ personal lives.

Sony itself announced that its new system, for the first time, can use past purchasing information to predict what you may want to buy next — minutes before Ubisoft demonstrated Watch Dogs’

As useful as the information pulled from reservoirs of big data may be, Chester said he takes this sort of trend in media as a signal that consumers, companies and the government are ready for a larger conversation about data.

“It’s an increasingly out of control system that tracks and collects and targets us,” he said. “I take it as a wake-up call that [there] needs to be a national debate or global debate about what the rules and limits are here.”

Related stories:

Chinese cyberspies have hacked most Washington institutions, experts say

PlayStation 4: Sony announces it, but doesn’t show console

Zero Day — A special report on the threat in cyberspace

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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