US National Security Agency

New video game mirrors NSA-style surveillance state

Anti-hero accesses conversations and personal information to win, amid US spying storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 3:42pm

A video game with a protagonist who controls the world around him by hacking into systems is generating growing buzz for its eerie parallels with the current storm about US surveillance.

Games typically use weapons ranging from guns and swords to magical powers to defeat enemies, and hundreds like that are on display at the E3 gaming industry conference in Los Angeles.

We're seeing a time when the technology has caught up with [Orwell's] views
Game developer Dominic Guay

But in Watch Dogs, the player-controlled anti-hero can access everything from cellphone conversations and medical records of passers-by to computer-controlled traffic lights to advance through the game.

"We knew we had a relevant topic," said Canadian Ubisoft developer Dominic Guay, recalling how he arrived ahead of the gaming mega-gathering this week, and checked into his hotel.

"I turned on CNN, and the first sentence I heard was 'invasion of privacy,' switched channel and on Fox they were like, 'surveillance,' and I said to my creative director, 'Those are all our key words'."

Ubisoft, the French company behind top gaming titles including Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, showed off Watch Dogs on Monday, at a pre-E3 press conference in a downtown LA hotel.

Set in Chicago, the game centres on a hacker who uses his smartphone to access the city's Central Operating System, which controls everything from power grids and traffic management technology to bank accounts and phone networks.

That kind of hacking evokes the stunning recent revelations about electronic surveillance by US authorities, revealed by ex-government contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who is currently in hiding in Hong Kong. Under the classified Prism programme, the US National Security Agency has gathered call log records for millions of American phone subscribers and targeted internet data.

Guay said technology is now making it possible to foresee a world not unlike that in British writer George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four in which Big Brother watches and controls everything.

Orwell "had an extreme view of that dystopian world at that time", he said. "I think we're seeing a time where the technology has caught up to his views, where the technology would enable his dystopian world to exist.

"Most of us live in democracies that are not going there ... but it's scary to think a government that would be as ruthless and evil as the one in N ineteen Eighty-Four would have the means to reproduce that system."

In Watch Dogs, the hacker starts off seeking revenge for a loved one, but as he finds out more about the city, through hacking into its systems, he becomes a "vigilante," said Guay. "Most of the hacks that we have in the game are based on stuff that's happened in the real world. We just happened to give them all to a single player."