There are always those places that you can't walk through without quickening your pace, without gripping some makeshift weapon in your pocket. You know -- the "bad part of town" that your local news loves to spew crime statistics about. All it takes is some shadowy figure trailing behind you late at night for all pretenses of good faith to melt away.
You'll get suspicious, maybe even scared. With nothing to go off other than appearances, there's a danger of making poor calls based on limited information -- calls which are unfair to someone. What if you could tell more about a person at a glance? Their name, their income, their occupation and some random factoid -- like maybe that they frequent fetish sites?
Maybe it'd be useful, maybe it'd make you safer. My guess is always having that extra information would predispose anyone to make bad calls based on information which may not fully speak for someone's character. I know this, and yet information is disgustingly seductive. I'd probably want to see it anyway, if I could.
And in the open world game Watch Dogs, the protagonist and super hacker Aiden Pierce can indulge me: he sees all this stuff at a glance while roaming Chicago. More than that, I can see a percentage that denotes the likelihood that someone will commit a crime. If that information gives you a Minority Report vibe, you're on the money: Watch Dogs gives you a person's stats in the hopes that it will help you prevent crimes (Watch Dogs: get it?).
This power troubles me a bit, if it wasn't obvious. What does a criminal "look" like? Is that even a thing? My gut says no, and yet I could see myself judging potential perps based on completely bullshit superficial information. But that 'bullshit information' can frame the way I look at crime...if I even notice it. In real life, people can watch a crime unfold in front of them and depending on the gender or race involved, they won't think twice of it:
Like I said, poor calls based on limited information. Still, a vigilante with an information fetish is a powerful thing indeed -- Aiden is capable of taking control of entire areas of town by uploading viruses, which can then grant him access to any of the digital devices hosted on the network in that area. Does that sound outlandish, being able to just...take control of an area using technology? The concept of controlling a territory is not new, but in this case Dominic Guay, senior producer on the title, reminded me the mechanic in Watch Dogs mirrors real-life tech used by the police.
I saw Aiden try to upload a virus to take control of a crime-heavy slum during a hands-off free-roaming demo at E3 a couple of weeks ago. Watching it happen was something else: Aiden can go in guns blazing, sure -- and he has a special "focus bar" that he can use to slow action down, allowing him to react in the heat of the moment -- but he can launch a furtive assault. This is where hacking comes in handy. Aiden can hack into phones to get access codes, he can hack into a number of things in his environment to catch a guard's attention (but not too many, else they'll get suspicious!), and can hack things like lifts to help him get around. It's stuff we've seen before, but if you needed reminding, here it is: it's all very elegant: it's all very elegant -- and not just in the way the game lets you choose how to move forward. The environment itself looks believable, it wasn't just a collection of chest high barriers conveniently placed just where you need them.
What is acceptable in the name of saving lives? How far can one go before crossing a line?
Controlling an area makes it easier to wander with confidence, waiting for your chance to dole out your brand of vigilante justice. Justice doesn't only mean keeping an eye on potential criminals. The flip side of seeing how likely it is that someone will commit a crime is seeing how likely it is that a character will become a victim. A woman walking on the sidewalk has a different victim percentage than a woman walking alone down a shady alleyway. Here, it becomes obvious just how uncomfortable and weird it is to watch out for crimes -- sure, maybe there's a creep waiting for her at the end of that alleyway. But, uh, you kind of have to stalk her to know that in the first place.
There's no shortage of potential sketchiness, really. There was another instance where I saw Aiden hack into the home of a single mother -- you can hear the baby wailing. But if you're in her house, there seem to be only two options: be a voyeur, or steal from her bank account.
What is acceptable in the name of saving lives? How far can one go before crossing a line? It's a potent question in a post-9/11 world, a fact that's not helped by the recent revelation that the NSA and the FBI engaged in a massive, secret data-mining operation called PRISM.
It's the type of moral ambiguity worth lauding, as it asks the player to seriously consider whether or not Aiden is a "good guy." No easy answers here, although I can see the obsessive tendencies we get as we play a game working against us -- what can we say about Aiden as he becomes more powerful and gets sucked further and further into the vigilante thing? Is it really about justice or is it simply a self-serving power fantasy masquerading as something else?
Either way, the information you have at your disposal is great -- and it's not just some ridiculous video game power, either. The in-game technology that tells you information about people is based on technology that actually exists.
"I can tell you how it works in real life, and that's what we're trying to reproduce: basically, the system does the facial recognition on people around using the cameras, it tracks their personal information, their criminal records, if someone has a restraining order on someone else, their patterns of behaviour -- for example, if there's a place that's known where there's a lot of crime happening and there's a guy standing there for four hours then it'll flag it as a potential criminal," Guay explained. "This is what a lot of cops do in real life."
Is it really about justice or is it simply a self-serving power fantasy masquerading as something else?
As someone that lives in a high-crime ghetto -- someone who would be flagged by this system by virtue of existing in a particular area of town -- this makes me pause. The thing we're missing -- as players who only have to deal with the numbers -- is context and context is important in real life. What we see is a man who is X% likely to commit a crime. Not the factors pressuring people in the poor parts of town to take up a life of crime in the first place. Gentrification and how it makes it difficult to survive, lack of education -- that sort of thing.
I don't mention this because I want people to have pity for criminals, but rather to put Aiden's "power" into perspective. Sure, Aiden can look at the statistics, and he can intervene -- but in a limited way that ignores the bigger picture. They say that information is power; I won't deny that (although romanticizing breaches of privacy at this particular moment feels kind of gross). But maybe statistics aren't everything.
I saw about 30 minutes of Watch Dog's free roam during E3. It was all hands-off.