Thursday, 12 July 2012

Speculation Augmented - Games & Exploring Social Impacts of Technology


While the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is generally lauded as the yearly platform for games publishers to announce their major products, among the journalists and fans that attend and observe every year, there's a general air of scepticism as to whether we actually get any game-changing news from year to year. Nerds are difficult to impress.

So to that end, when I watched the conference for Ubisoft, I wasn't expecting the world.

Then there was a trailer that caught my attention.

YouTube:Watch Dogs E3 Announcement Trailer

What's Watch Dogs? And Why is it Awesome?

What impresses me off the bat is the strength and the relevance of the concept. The idea of a central information database for a country feels far-fetched, but your life having a digital paper trail is a very real concept. That your habits and secrets are available to those who have the access (legally or otherwise), is a little scary.

Watch Dogs is exploring that idea from the point of view of what would arguably be the enemy. The nameless hacker you play as can work out who someone is and who they're connected to at the push of a button. Imagine someone who could jam you Wi-Fi access, tap your phone, and generally ruin your day at his whim. It may be something you've never considered before; it may be something you're well aware of, and take security precautions for.

But is that kind of criminality a more difficult pill to swallow than the standard gunplay of Saints Row or Grand Theft Auto? The demonstration gameplay at its core functions in a manner very similar to the Hitman games:

YouTube: Watch Dogs Gameplay Video

Where the potential for Watch Dogs lies is not necessarily in what gameplay features it offers, but how it uses gameplay in conjunction with its theme, and how that could affect the story. For example:

- What if you are contracted to kill or gather data from an innocent person? Killing faceless NPCs is one thing, but what about once you know their name, their profession, or their family?
- What happens when there are other hackers interfering with your mission? The gameplay trailer shown at E3 has an additional scene that suggests that multiple players can play in the same game world - and not necessarily co-operatively.
- What happens if the public start rejecting the ctOS? The game will become a lot harder if certain people are outside your database, and the backlash against having their privacy invaded could end up being dangerous!
- Will there be an Alternate Reality Game element? ARGs are getting increasingly popular, both to advertise and to make a game's setting more immersive and impactful on our own world.

The game producer, Dominic Guay, was interviewed by Rock Paper Shotgun, with additional information on the project.

The novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is an easy read discussing the nature of Internet security and surveillance; very similar to themes to Watch Dogs; the book is free to download.

Other Games that get Speculative

It's a little uncommon still, but Watch Dogs isn't the only game to explore speculative technology in game mechanics or in story. Differing from books or films, games can explore topics like this in a way where the player can interact with it. If implemented correctly, a player can explore a concept as they explore the game world - forming their own opinion on the topic. The following games each have a technological aspect that has a factual or realistic basis, and I'll cover briefly if/how the gameplay reflects these concepts.

This is going to be the main comparison point to Watch Dogs, at least in terms of genre and setting. Human Revolution is set further in the future and more is far-fetched (no one's going to wear clothes like these in 2027, c'mon), but human augmentation isn't too outlandish. We have already achieved prosthetic limbs and cybernetic eyes - though the actual social problems that may manifest with commercial transhumanism are a while off.

In a gameplay sense, Human Revolution doesn't deal with social implications of augmentation too heavily. The opening section, which has you as a yet unmodified person makes it quite clear how easily someone can die to gunfire - interesting considering most FPS games imply otherwise. Though after this segment, you as the player don't have to struggle too much with your mandatory mechanisation other than choosing what upgrades you want. It's mentioned that augmented people have to take regular (addictive and expensive) medicine to keep their bodies from rejecting the augmentations, but this is a dilemma the player never has to struggle with. There's a plot reason for this (which I will hold out on for spoiler's sake), but it dulls the impact of such a problem for the player.

Errant Signal discusses possible flaws in Deus Ex Human Revolution's Transhumanism themes.

Extra Credits does similar, with a different interpretation (From 2:00)

Technically, all of the Metal Gear Solid games discuss nanotechnology to some degree, but MGS4 has it as a much greater focus. The game has many fake advertisements that it plays during cutscenes - one features commercial consumable nanotech as part of a fitness and weight loss scheme.

Beyond that, in the war-torn settings of the actual gameplay, all participants are monitored and regulated through their technology - everyone (and everything) is ID tagged, and nanotechnology has made sure all soldiers are administered an optimum dose of performance-enhancing drugs. Funnily enough both of those ideas are entirely achievable - anyone who owns a touch-and-go style rail card, dealt with security tags on goods or have tagged a pet in case they get lost should all be familiar with RFID tags.

That's not all though; there's also another central theme of Privatised Military Companies (or PMCs) - businesses that wage war outside of what a country's government orchestrates. Different to just mercenaries, it means that companies that dealt in weapons research now also deal in security - and every item of equipment used in warmongering is accounted for, and arguably controlled by a CEO somewhere. PMCs eventually had cheaper operating costs, and in short time, war stopped being tied to governments and became a full-blown enterprise - the most lucrative economy on the planet.

From a gameplay perspective, you're motivated to combat the PMCs primarily because the 5 largest are owned by the series' main villain, Liquid Snake. However, depending on the type of player you are, you may be motivated differently; the knowledge that the 'War Economy' is responsible for an environment where child soldiers are increasingly common, and weapons and security research are put above the likes of heath care and education is a disturbing thought. A fantasy where you can combat that kind of eventuality first hand is very powerful.

Reflecting an environment where all the PMC equipment is under heavy security, the weapons dropped by PMC soldiers require registered ID to work. These can be cracked fairly early on, but it's a nice touch. Furthermore, Snake has a head-mounted scope that can do all the traditional shooting game features, like zoom and low-light vision, but it can also identify guns and detailed health readouts of other soldiers in the field. This feels like a gameplay abstraction to begin with, but the scope is actually reading the nanomachines in subjects for their readouts; which I find intensely clever.

Sebastian Alvarado on Gamasutra has a discussion of Metal Gear Solid's nanotechnology, split over two articles - Part One & Part Two

To make it clear, there are two games that go by this name - an old DOS title, and a current-generation First Person Shooter by the same name. To cover the FPS first (since it's likely the more widely available of the two), the plot details a world economy not too dissimilar from Metal Gear Solid 4 - instead of nanotechnology; 57% of the population are 'chipped' allowing them to interface with technology wirelessly. The companies that produce the technology for this are so massively globalised, geographical nations now mean little. While neural implants feel like a long way off; globalization is a big deal; and in more than just technology.

The gameplay of Syndicate (2012) is surprisingly uninspired. Your role as a corporate minion gives a backdrop to a world where none of the big industry names play above the board; but being tasked with just shooting up everyone in an office block doesn't feel so impactful beyond how violent you can be. Your Chip activates the ability to scan your surrounding and view things in slow-motion; but it definitely feels like a firm video game abstraction, rather than any real concept we can relate to. The ability to hack into the chips of others allows for possession - the first hacking ability you gain is to force your target to commit suicide, taking the idea of digital privacy to a horrifying extreme. I'm quite glad that nothing like that will be possible for a long, long time.

The 1993 MS-DOS title on the other hand (also released in parsed-down versions for the SNES, Genesis and , um, 3DO) puts the player in the position of a corporation executive. The nature of the game world is still the same, and you still focus on completing company assassination and espionage missions; but the change in perspective lets the player experience the moral quandaries of a corporation like this in a way that doesn't directly deal in killing people. You are responsible for outfitting your agents, orchestrating their method of operation (this includes telling them to hijack the chips of bystanders), and as you play, it becomes increasingly clear that the company you represent essentially deals death in the name of profit. That can be a tricky realisation; especially juxtaposed with Metal Gear Solid above; where companies like that are the enemy!

As it turns out, neural implants are already used to treat epilepsy - so although remote interfacing with computers is definitely a long shot, brain chips are very believable! iO9 breaks down an article on recent research in the field.

Missing the Mark

Where there are games that focus successfully on exploring the social impacts of their setting, there are many who don't quite use their concept to a full potential.

The technology here isn't so much gameplay-defining, but with the unique/annoying control system the game has; utilising it made it more memorable.

Agent Norman Jayden's investigation technology - the Additional Reality Interface (ARI) - was a few years ago something fairly fantastical from the point of view of people not on the pulse of tech research. But with the announcement of Google Glass this year, the idea of Augmented Reality, and being able to have all your data quite literally at your fingertips is a lot easier to imagine.

That said; the Crime Scene Investigations done in the game are entirely far-fetched. Being able to make detailed Cause of Death analysis from just a glance from your super-glasses is definitely a suspension of disbelief. What's more it features in the story surprisingly infrequently. To compare it to Watch Dogs, both games show that their respective technologies can gather information on the fly - notice in the gameplay trailer for Watch Dogs the data stream even shows how hostile a given person might be - but the instances of ARI are very self-contained, and largely used in the safe space of Agent Jayden's desk.

I have a soft spot for the Battle Network series (Could you tell? My username gives it away a little), but it's worth noting that a world where most commercial technology has ever-improving A.I. is reasonable. On the other hand, a world where you can convert DNA into A.I., or make anti-virus use a national sport is decidedly less feasible, but that's the nature of the shounen genre for you. Despite this, the social applications for improved A.I. is entirely fascinating, and something I've mused upon in the past.

The series of course discusses the social impacts of its technology (though not in a way that believably parallels real life), but it's not reflected in its gameplay. While the game mechanics for the Battle Network games are very impressive; they work almost entirely without context from the game world (with the exception of the 'Navi Customiser', which feels very much like a modular programming tool).

On the other hand, the follow-up series, Mega Man Star Force has an unusual mechanics quirk that I enjoy. In-setting, there is a concept of 'Brother Bands' - people who link their PDAs to each other as friends. Characters throughout the series  talk about Brother Bands more or less interchangeably with the idea of friendship... except Brother Bands have the mechanical ability to give you additional bonuses in battle. As such, it's like if you became stronger in proportion to the number of Facebook friends you have.

Call me crazy, but that makes for a rather good metaphor. Why yes, of course you don't become physically stronger if you make a lot of meaningful internet relationships, but how about socially? In life, who you know can be just as important as what you know, and social networking (both casual sites like Facebook and professional sites like LinkedIn) give you access to more information and more opportunities, provided you make the right friends. As someone who's on the road to becoming a journalist, this is salient; and I'm sure this is just as much of a reality for those working freelance in game development.

What about future games?
While I refrain from talking about it; I find that art (or hell, media in general) has to mean something to be particularly impactful. This doesn't necessarily require something as overt as a life-lesson, or so cliché as to be directly educational, but to provoke some thought and discussion. One of the best ways to create some consideration is to allow links to be drawn to everyday life; and it's something video games are entirely capable of doing.

As discussed, it's not really quite enough to simply bring up a possible technological concept; or just mention in passing how it can affect us socially - integration into the gameplay itself will force a player to consider a topic. By the end of MGS4, you'll definitely have an opinion formed about nanomachines or PMCs; but Heavy Rain won't leave you with many thoughts about the practicality of Augmented Reality.

This concept need not only be limited to speculative fiction - integrating your theme into your gameplay makes the experience more cohesive as a whole, and will help a game's setting and design feel less like window dressing.

This article can also be found at Digital Haven Entertainment (Formerly PixelxCore), here. Please visit this version for better image contrasts and formatting.

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