Imagine a society where information about ourselves and the world around us can be shared in an instant through the use of technology. It is a society where information has also been steadily commodified by powerful corporations and interest groups that sell your likes, interests, and who you associate with to the highest bidder. It is also a society where informational data is utilized amongst the highest echelons of government without us knowing the true extent towards what that gathered information is being used for. It is a surveillance society, a place only dreamt of in the darkest societal explorations of a George Orwell novel – a society, which like Orwell prophetically proclaimed so many years ago, is one in which “Big Brother is watching you.”
If all this sounds eerily reflective of our own contemporary society, it unfortunately is. With the ever-growing presence of public surveillance coming to fruition in the most unique of ways – the Internet, drones, cellular phones, street cameras, etc. – we are slowly entering an age where a heavy reliance on surveilling a populace through technology is becoming the norm. But as Ubisoft’s upcoming title Watch Dogs so boldly aims to explore, the very same technology that the authorities use to surveil the populace can also be used against them, offering an opportunity for technological and cyber warfare to commence within an environment that isn’t as asymmetrical as one would believe.
In many ways, Watch Dogs has the potential to be one of the first mainstream titles that honestly takes a look at a not too distant future in which surveillance technology merges with that of society, in turn creating a larger manifestation of the panopticon. The game takes place in an alternate Chicago, Illinois, one of the many cities to be ran entirely by a supercomputer known as “CtOS” (Central Operating System). This unique system controls every aspect of technology in the city, including knowing all the residents living in the city, their whereabouts, and their daily activities. Players control a man by the name of Aiden Pearce, a hacker who exploits the CtOS for his own personal gain and to correct what he deems as the ills of society. His primary weapon is his cellular phone, a powerful asset that allows him to essentially hack into anything in the city, which makes him a very dangerous man.
But one of the dynamics to consider when looking at Watch Dogs is that Aiden’s actions can be perceived as unethical or ethical depending on who you ask, in turn portraying him as an antihero rather than a simple, good willed protagonist. He himself hacks into the very system that controls practically everything within the city, from looking at the bank accounts of individuals and spying on their everyday actions, to causing dangerous electronic malfunctions in order to gain an advantage over his enemies. His intentions may be ambiguous, but Aiden’s actions offer a genuine representation of the increasing ease of individuals like himself in obtaining such vital, seemingly private information from those around him. It is a frightening but all too plausible reality, looking at both the follies of technology when abused by individuals as well as governmental authorities.
Although we won’t truly know until after its release, Watch Dogs is a title that appears to offer an intriguing exploration on the dangers of surveillance technology within our daily lives, further looking at the continuing infiltration of it in relation to personal privacy. Who is actually operating this technology and for what purpose? What is our information really being used for? Based on the title’s premise alone, Watch Dogs raises the important issue of public surveillance and how it affects us all today. Let’s hope that future titles such as this one will continue to provide an outlet in which thoughtful social discourse can arise within the realm of video games, blurring the line between art and reality.