I feel as if my favorite pastime, video games, don’t get enough attention in my blogs due to my desire to cover politics in a timely manner. To remedy this, I want to establish a recurring series on this blog, where I cover the politics of video games. I’ll switch between covering more obvious political choices, such as the critique of objectivist thought in Bioshock, and more subtle ones, like with what I’m going to cover today. For those who don’t know, the company Ubisoft released a game franchise called Watch_Dogs, a Grand Theft Auto-style adventure game which currently has two entries. The first game, just called Watch Dogs, took place in Chicago, while the second game, Watch Dogs 2 took place in San Francisco. Players took control of hackers in both games, following the stories of interesting and morally grey rogues who operated outside the confines of the law. What makes these games interesting to look into is that they take place in a slightly altered version of the current world, with all the chaos and technology that goes into that. By playing characters who use all the technology available in modern, tech-heavy cities, and by having them oppose both large tech companies and corrupt government, the game inadvertently brings up a lot of good questions about modern society.
Learning to Love Big Brother
The biggest thing Watch Dogs does that stands out to me is in its invention of the ctOS (central operating system) that Chicago and San Francisco use. Essentially, ctOS is an all encompassing data aggregation and technological operation system used all over the city. Not only are people’s identities, bank accounts, and personal technology tied into this system, but also the city’s infrastructure including bridges, barricades, and alarm systems. The system became universal due to a large blackout in 2003 that was found out to be caused by a hacker. A large corporation offered ctOS as an alternative to previous systems, as it would be stronger to protect and would actively attempt to keep breaches out. Citizens obviously accepted this “big-brother” system, and as a result, every resident of the participating cities find all of their important information existing on a single system. The players in all the Watch_Dogs games have discovered how to hack into ctOS, and thus have god-like control over the city and it’s residents, messing with cars and bridges, and hacking bank accounts. Luckily the narrative does a good job convincing players that their characters are good people, and that it’s morally okay for these hackers to have this power.
Having this big brother style system in the game poses an excellent social critique. It expertly points out how willing people really are to put all their information into digital systems, and how vulnerable these systems really are. Money in the 21st century is no longer a physical item to most people, and instead a digital number that goes up and down depending on the day. People constantly face hacks, fraud, and frozen accounts, yet they all suck it up for the convenience of having their phone double as a wallet. The game also plays on the willingness people have to share their personal information for everyone to see. Citizens give away all their personal secrets to large corporations, trusting them for some reason to not use this info for political or corrupt reasons. Just like how Blade Runner manages to build up a futuristic, yet believable reality in its future Los Angeles, the Chicago and San Fran of Watch Dogs so real due to its ability to play on the more worrying parts of modern society.
Power of the Individual
Something that I really enjoy about both Watch Dogs is how the player truly feels empowered by the tools and skills in the game. What’s fascinating is that almost all of these are real or at least based in reality. Aiden in the first game and Marcus in the second both arm themselves at local gun stores and use their smartphones and fellow hacker friends to control the technology based world around them. Marcus also uses drones to spy on private security and 3D prints gadgets and weapons so they won’t be traced. If this sounds like an anarchist or libertarian wet dream, it’s because it is.
Both characters in the games fight against private security working for corrupt corporations and local government due to them being former victims at the hands of these forces. By putting the player in these shoes, they are essentially giving them the purest motivation to take action against these already scummy groups. Also, by putting them in the hacker community, it’s explores notions of unique individuals who normally wouldn’t be able to effect change (like heavily pierced punk girls and crippled middle aged men) who are able to become powerful in their own right due to their intelligence and prowess with tech. This reflects modern day individuals who hold massive amounts of political power. Think about all the biggest names and events in politics, and you’ll realize this is true. Figures like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have managed to bring powerful individuals to their knees with just the use of technology and information. An interesting thing to take note of is that the point of the Enlightenment and Classical Liberalism was that each man would become master of his own domain, by being intelligent, morally good, and able to defend himself if it came to it. Look at America’s Bill of Rights and notice how these reflect. Hackers and tech warriors have taken on this role in modern times, which I find a fascinating sub culture that will only continue to grow and get more diverse.
The most admirable thing these games do that I don’t think it gets enough credit for, is how it manages to universally push players towards the morally good path while also giving them the tools to do whatever they please. Every encounter can be handled in a stealthy and non-lethal manner, as well as a violent and gun or explosive fueled one. Nothing prevents players from slaughtering civilians, as well as just intentionally messing with traffic lights and public bridges to mess with these digital people’s lives. Other open world adventure games like GTA fail to push players to make correct moral decisions, nor do they have any obligation to. Watch Dogs meanwhile manages to this by merely putting the player in the shoes of characters that give the game a sense of morality. Despite missions forcing characters to break laws and take justice in their own hands, there’s always an invisible morality that guides the player to being a good person. I feel as if other games should study how Watch Dogs manages to give players so much freedom and power, both physically and conceptually, yet most choose not to abuse it. Play some other open world games and notice how quickly you start breaking your typical morals.
Watch Dogs often receives criticism for feeding the young generation’s distrust for authority and teaching young people that if they feel they know what’s best for the world, they can use the power available to them to change the system’s that be. I agree with these sentiments, but in the opposite way. I feel like Watch Dogs presents an interesting notion, an anarchist needs a society to fight against to fight at all. An anarchist needs laws to operate outside of. An anarchist needs other people to follow the rules so they have the ability to criticize them. People obviously aren’t well off under the totalitarian ctOS, but would they be any better with the hackers in charge? Would the hackers even take charge, or would they just leave these destroyed systems without fixing them? It’s important to analyze our media as it affects our thoughts and feelings more than people realize. I encourage everyone to look at their favorite games and figure out what messages they’re trying to express. I’ll continue to break down games in the future, and let me know below if there are any games you want me to look at. Also, be sure to check out the Watch Dog franchise if you haven’t yet. The first game is free on Xbox Live Gold as of this writing and both games are on sale as well. Try playing the game and see if you now notice these themes.*
*This is my 30th blog! It’s crazy how fast these add up when you do them daily. Thanks to everyone who’s consistently read this far. Look forward to more game, film, and political content daily.