The first video game I ever played was "Sonic Spinball" for the Sega Genesis. For those of you who don't know what the game entails, and I'm guessing that's most of you, "Sonic Spinball" is essentially a pinball game featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. It was an incredibly difficult game, but to be fair, I was also five when I played it.
It also featured one of the least pleasant pieces of music in gaming history. Make sure you aren't wearing headphones when you click that link.
Video games have come a long way over the years. The medium has moved beyond "move from left to right" and "beat your high score" to experiences with actual narratives and themes that wouldn't be out of place in a standard movie or novel. The people creating video games treat them as a legitimate art form, infusing titles with commentary on war, race, sexuality and other topics.
And since you are reading an article in this space, you can bet your bottom dollar that privacy is included too.
Now that's not to say Nintendo will be creating a "Privacy Notice Creation Simulator" any time soon. Video games are exploring the same spaces other mediums have tackled for decades, mainly surveillance and biometrics.
Side note: There's no way the Mushroom Kingdom would receive adequacy status, right? How could anyone in their right mind think about transferring data to a region where their royalty is kidnapped on a regular basis by a giant fire-breathing lizard? Mario is a plumber, and sometimes a doctor, but he is neither a lawyer nor an engineer, and probably doesn't have time to grapple with the nuances of "Schrems II" or worry about data retention schedules.
Anyway, surveillance and biometrics have been staples of movies, television and literature for a while now and video games are getting in on the act too. The "Watch Dogs" series of games features protagonists who go up against enemy hackers seeking to control a computer network functioning as a massive internet of things system that stores citizens' personal information and is used to monitor behavior and send targeted advertising. The "Orwell" video game series unsurprisingly focuses on using surveillance networks to monitor national security threats. In a completely different twist, the virtual reality game "Bring to Light" measures the player's actual biometric information to determine how scared they are as they progress.
But the example I will primarily focus on centers around the 2018 "Spider-Man" game for the PlayStation 4. It's notable not just for how it incorporated surveillance into the gameplay, but also for the reaction this particular part of the game generated following its release.
In the game, Spider-Man is asked by a member of the New York Police Department to fix surveillance towers scattered around the virtual New York City. These towers unveil the game's large map and helps the player monitor criminal activity as it happens in real-time.
This particular element of the game generated a lot of conversation around whether "Spider-Man" functions as "copoganda," or a distorted glorification of the police. A major part of the arguments centers around these towers and Spider-Man's role in reviving and maintaining a massive surveillance network.
These concerns are not imaginary and are very much based around real-life issues.
Advocates continue to sound the alarm on law enforcement's surveillance capabilities and it's not hard to see why. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempted to conceal its surveillance practices, and Kashmir Hill reported on police departments using social media profiles to conduct illegal investigations.
It's also been well-noted how these surveillance practices disproportionally target minority communities. When California temporarily banned police officers from using facial recognition technology in body cameras, proponents of the bill cited the amount of false identifications stemming from the software, particularly for minorities and women.
Columnists didn't decide to make up an issue out of thin air to write screeds on a video game. "Spider-Man" touched upon an issue that resonates with people even three years after the game was released. As games become more realistic and fleshed out, observers are going to treat them with increased gravitas. If these products tread into areas where there have been documented, real-life consequences, you can't write it off as "just a game" anymore.
Now, if you never gotten into video games, this may not affect you at all. Chances are, you probably won't start playing now, and that's okay. But here's something to consider.
A study conducted by Deloitte found video gaming was the most popular activity for respondents who fall into Generation Z. They were the only group that favored video games over listening to music, watching movies, engaging in social media and browsing the internet. The young folk who comprise Generation Z would rather pick up an Xbox controller than a TV remote. This is not a judgmental statement either. I play a fair amount of video games, and it would be hypocritical for me to tell anyone younger than I am to get off of my lawn.
Wait, that's a movie reference. Crap, I'm showing my age.
It's just a matter of fact. The younger generations are gravitating towards gaming, and guess what? This isn't a trend that's going to reverse itself any time soon. Increasingly, we are going to see people gather their media literacy from video games more so than any other medium.
Let me put it this way. Don't be surprised if, down the line, one generation's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" comes in the form of a PlayStation exclusive rather than a paperback novel.
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash
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