FEBRUARY 19, 2017
IN WATCH DOGS 2, the city of San Francisco is so submissive that you might forget it’s a real place. Everything in the game’s rendition of the Bay Area, from stray dogs waiting to be either pet or shot to streetcars that arrive at the exact moment you need them, feels as if it’s been placed, if not with care, then at least with purpose. Boredom has been banished from the cradle of digital civilization. Barely a minute of inactivity transpires before Watch Dogs 2 dredges up something for you to do, be it unsanctioned sailboat racing, a turn as a ride-sharing driver, or hacking city center traffic lights. The old cliché that cities are alienating and contemptuous of their citizens’ individuality has been thoroughly inverted. In Watch Dogs 2, the city practically dances with you, in sync with whatever pace you set.
It’s a marvelous bit of world-building. Watch Dogs 2 conjures a place that manages to feel as if it could almost go on without you, despite the fact, of course, that it exists for you. It’s as if Watch Dogs 2, or at least the millions of lines of code that build its world, knows where you are, where you’re going, and what you’ll want to do when you get there. It’s almost as if the game knows you. In fact, it does.
Watch Dogs 2, like its 2014 predecessor, is ostensibly a game about surveillance. The sequel follows the exploits of the hacktivist group DedSec (a reference to the defunct black hat hacking group LulzSec) as they disrupt Blume, a Silicon Valley tech firm with an unhealthy appetite for personal information. “They’re stealing your fucking freedoms, man! Fuck!” exclaims protagonist Marcus Holloway by way of exposition at his initiation into DedSec. For DedSec, praxis entails misadventures like duping a greedy pharmaceutical CEO into splurging on a fake rap album (a spoof of the Martin Shkreli–Wu Tang Clan snafu), punctuated by the occasional dérive through bidding city streets.
These hacktivist trappings notwithstanding, Watch Dogs 2 is better understood not as a game about surveillance but as itself an instrument of surveillance. Or, more accurately, it’s both. Whatever else Watch Dogs 2 may be, it’s also a program designed to extract as much information as possible about its players. Not that the game tries to hide this. Its end user license agreement plainly states that “UBISOFT may collect and store data about You in relation to Your use of the Product,” and that “certain data is recorded, archived, analysed and used to create user statistics.”
What kind of data, and how much? The EULA is a tangle of corporate doublespeak, but it’s clear that Watch Dogs 2’s reach is as vast as it is precise. It includes, among other things, your computer’s hardware, internet service provider, operating system, and localization information; the days on which you play Watch Dogs 2 and for how long; metrics of in-game activity (what you do, where you do it, et cetera); advertising conversion rates; your purchase history, age, and gender; behavior in multiplayer spaces; any active third party apps; browsing history; and … well, it’s all there in the eight-point print.
Maybe I’m being unfair to Watch Dogs 2. Most video games now collect this kind of information. But Watch Dogs 2 stands out for its audacity and bitter irony. Not only does the game strip-mine its users’ personal information, but it also does so behind a breezy plot line about disrupting intrusive corporate surveillance.
Still, Watch Dogs 2’s creative team has tried to position the game as a critical look into our surveillance society. Claims to authenticity dominate the steady stream of developer video diaries, blog posts, interviews, and a “selfie reveal” website, all of which are meant to give the impression that Watch Dogs 2 is the result of its writers’ extensive research into surveillance.
It’s bullshit, of course; almost nothing in Watch Dogs 2 suggests that its writers’ research entailed anything more incisive than the first season of Mr. Robot. Game director Danny Bélanger’s bizarre claim that San Francisco is the “birthplace of technology” and content director Thomas Geffroyd’s glib suggestion that “technology is neutral” betray a serious lack of critical insight. Watch Dogs 2 knows no history, and so it ends up becoming the very thing it set out to critique. This is a game about surveillance that exists in part to surveil you.
Even so, the artistic failure of Watch Dogs 2 can teach us something about the ubiquity of surveillance in the digital era and the price we pay when we normalize video games as instruments of surveillance.
Though we tend to use the term “surveillance” interchangeably with “data collection,” the two aren’t quite synonymous. Surveillance is not simply data collection, but the collection of data for a specific purpose (usually power, though not necessarily).
In his recent book Windows into the Soul, surveillance studies guru Gary Marx suggests that while surveillance has been around at least as long as humans have, digital technology has expanded the meaning of the term well beyond its dictionary definition. Surveillance, in his view, isn’t just purposeful observation, but also the creation of more possible data points to be observed, a shift that’s been accelerating since the dawn of the industrial era. Online surveys, browsing histories, and in-game metrics, like censuses, scientific management, and bioinformatics before them, are all designed to transmogrify the human experience into data that can be archived, analyzed, and acted upon in ways both good and ill.
In 1994, just as the world wide web was beginning to be adopted across the globe, the computer scientist Roger Clarke coined the phrase “digital persona” to describe “a model of [an] individual established through the collection, storage and analysis of data about that person.” This persona, Clarke reasoned, would be a crucial tool for governments and corporations to understand human behavior in a networked world.
The last 20 years, of course, have borne out Clarke’s conclusions and then some. One effect of digitization is that damn near everything — phones, cars, even kitchen appliances — can generate and collect data. As Ian Bogost writes of the so-called “Internet of Things,” the IoT “exists to build a market around new data about your toasting and grilling and refrigeration habits, while duping you into thinking smart devices are making your lives better than you could have made them otherwise, with materials other than computers.” Clarke’s digital persona now seems more like a data doppelgänger. Increasingly, it’s impossible to act online or offline without generating data about your actions. The always already quantified environments of video games are just extreme versions of what now exists everywhere.
Watch Dogs 2, for its part, acknowledges this and endeavors to show just how ubiquitous surveillance has become, exploring user tracking and data collection in exaggerated versions of everything from cell phone apps to in-home security and 3D printing. Watch Dogs 2 also engages the wider social implications of digital technologies of surveillance. In one memorable exchange, Marcus steals a “smart” car off the set of an action movie, but the car has trouble recognizing Marcus because of his dark skin, a reference to facial tracking software’s ongoing struggles with identifying nonwhite faces and the overwhelming whiteness of Silicon Valley (when the car says that it “has no reference” for “black,” Marcus replies, “Of course you don’t”). Watch Dogs 2’s politics are not always progressive — at one point, Marcus hears about the outing of a transgender politician, an episode that’s played for laughs — and there’s plenty in the game that’s action-movie stupid. But the game deserves some credit for exposing, with varying degrees of success, how technologies of surveillance can unwittingly (or not) reinforce existing racial, class, and gender inequalities.
Much of the criticism written about Watch Dogs 2, like Cameron Kunzelman and Austin Walker’s thoughtful discussion of the game’s handling of race, has discussed what parts of the Watch Dogs 2’s satire work, and what parts don’t. But this kind of analysis depends entirely on representational content, which, conventionally, is where game criticism both starts and ends. A critic writing about Watch Dogs 2 at the level of its world, characters, and stories might justifiably conclude that the game is at least somewhat progressive and self-aware (and, in fact, The Telegraph’s Kirk McKeand concluded exactly that). But games are more than stories and more than worlds. They are programs, and what we see on the screen — our “end user” experience — is only a fraction of what a game does. When we limit ourselves to whatever exists for us to see, we miss the larger context.
Without considering the systems that operate unseen but alongside our “end user experience,” it wouldn’t be possible to see how Watch Dogs 2 willfully obscures its complicity with the systems it purports to critique. The game is eager to point its finger in every direction but its own, and given the prolific amount of finger-pointing the game does, one can only assume this oversight is intentional. From this respect, Watch Dogs 2’s satirical tone is a major structural problem. Satire that attempts to claim neutrality for itself is not satire at all. At best, it’s ignorance, but more likely, it’s cowardice. Play Watch Dogs 2 if you want, but consider what this transaction entails.
Surveillance is not inherently evil, though of course it often is. Gary Marx rightfully observes that surveillance is Janus-faced: “[B]y itself [surveillance] is neither good nor bad, but context and comportment make it so.” One can imagine, for example, worse uses for surveillance than monitoring player behavior in online games to ban the worst of the sexist, racist, and homophobic trolls who spoil these spaces for others, which most multiplayer games, Watch Dogs 2 included, now do.
What other purposes does Watch Dogs 2’s data collection serve? The simplest answer (besides selling your information to advertisers) is that Ubisoft uses this data to design “better” games. In the months since Watch Dogs 2 was announced, Ubisoft has made quite a show of how it has responded to criticisms from reviewers and users alike about Watch Dogs 1’s stilted gameplay and morose tone. But in addition to these criticisms, Ubisoft had records of 10 million players’ in-game habits, including what they ignored, what they didn’t, what parts were too hard or too easy, what parts induced frustration, and, above all, what in-game events kept players playing. Ubisoft’s changes to Watch Dogs 2 probably owe as much to big data analytics as the popular diagnoses of Watch Dogs 1’s banalities.
But as far as I can tell, the main insight Ubisoft gleaned from this trove of data is that “better” games simply give players whatever they want, or at least throw in everything players might possibly want and direct their attention toward the cornucopia of things to do. It’s no coincidence that the press pack Ubisoft sent to reviewers included close to two dozen examples of “fun stuff to try” that had no obvious relation to the game’s plot.
But Watch Dog 2’s biggest sleight of hand isn’t actually that you have to find these for yourself; it’s that the game seeks them out for you — or, more accurately, continually produces them for you. This isn’t an accident, and the submissiveness of Watch Dogs 2’s uncanny version of San Francisco is the giveaway. If everything in this simulacrum of the Bay Area feels as if it’s there for you, it’s because it is. If it feels like the game can predict what you want with uncanny accuracy, that’s because it can. And the way Watch Dogs 2 does this, of course, is by surveilling you. At every moment, Watch Dogs 2 is tracking what you’re doing and using that surveillance to generate possible activities. If the game determines that you lack an obvious objective, it conjures one from the streets of San Francisco. Over the 15 or so hours I played Watch Dogs 2, I never once felt at a loss for something to do next.
The boons of algorithmic surveillance certainly help make Watch Dogs 2 fun, but perhaps “fun” is not exactly the same as “good.” The feeling induced by playing Watch Dogs 2 is weirdly reminiscent of what David Foster Wallace said about cruise ships in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. What cruises really sell, Wallace surmises, is not a week at sea, but a particular affect: “[A] blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’” Was there ever a better way to describe video games?
So perhaps surveillance can make a game better, if by better we simply mean the efficiency with which a game transmutes time into dopamine, the lowest common denominator of reviewing games. But is that all we want from video games? A ludic lullaby into which we can tumble, where the inventory of our desire is tended with uterine precision? Or do we want something that helps us overcome our individualism in all its cosmic loneliness, a space where we might confront otherness to divest ourselves of solipsism?
It’s precisely this kind of reflection that Watch Dogs 2 precludes. I think Hegel got things right when he claimed that human freedom was not the right to self-legislation, but self-determination. Paradoxically, we are freest when we know what makes us unfree. Hegel’s sense of freedom is irreducibly historical. There is no one definition of freedom; it must be rediscovered through renewed engagement with the world. And this is what makes Watch Dogs 2 so pernicious, built upon the primacy of surveillance on every scale, from monitoring your data for “better” ads to storing your play habits for future games, to subtly directing your in-game activities to keep you playing (and generating data). Perhaps the game does know something about what you want, but that truth is hidden in code you’ll never see, much less understand. All you experience is a fake world warped for your pleasure.
For Hegel, this is the opposite of art, which is nothing less than the realization of human freedom. It was the otherness of art that appealed to Hegel, the externalization of the soul such that humans might see themselves more clearly. For these reasons, Hegel called art “a thousand-eyed Argus, whereby the inner soul and spirit is seen at every point [… and] in which the free soul is revealed […]” It’s no coincidence that in Greek mythology, Argus Panoptes is a watchman, sent by Hera to keep an eye (or a thousand) on Io. His name gives us the word “panopticon,” the model of surveillance famously elaborated by Michel Foucault. It is also the name of the camera package, ARGUS-IS, installed on the underside of American drones, whose fractal eyes surveil the world in the name of — what else — enduring freedom.
Over the last two decades, video games have become remarkably sensitive to player desire, thanks in part to digital surveillance. Data collection and “fun” might seem like uneasy companions, but they’re not, insofar as “good” game design is often taken to be synonymous with “immersiveness.” But we should be wary of this equivalency; video games like Watch Dogs 2 infantilize the player. The problem isn’t the choices you make, but the choices you can’t; Watch Dogs 2 has already made them for you.
What if, instead, we believed that video games are meaningful precisely because of their inhumanity, their obdurate otherness that confronts us like an interrogation mirror? As Michael Clune puts in it in his memoir Gamelife, “The human depends on the inhuman for its grip on the world.” Thanks to surveillance, games have become very good at finding us. Perhaps it’s time we went back to finding them. Let’s abandon immersion and embrace estrangement; let’s exchange seduction for wonder. Rather than worshipping games that help us lose ourselves more completely, let’s praise those that cast who we are into starker relief. And if that’s what a game can be at its very best, then Watch Dogs 2 is a game at its absolute, craven worst. Don’t look away.
Will Partin is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently at work on a book about the history of competitive gaming. You can follow him on Twitter @william_partin.