'Orwell' Is a Video Game About Surviellance That Misses the Details

Orwell wants to ask hard questions about the surveillance state, but it refuses to deal with the complex realities of our society.

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Sep 16 2016, 12:00pm

Images courtesy of Osmotic Studios

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"Together," my handler Symes informs me at the opening of Orwell, a new game developed by Osmotic Studios, "we will form both the first and last line of defense against terrorism." I'm strapped into the interface of the Orwell system, an "impartial program" that allows me to sift through the public and private data of everyone and everything in The Nation so that I can suss out who might or might not be a terrorist.

The cold open of the demo of Orwell presents us with a little park named Freedom Plaza. We later learn that it has been the site of intense political protests in previous weeks, but for now it is a docile space where people eat lunch and mill around in the shadow of a monument to their being free. The scene rocks with an explosion, people flee, and now I'm sitting and learning that I have been "randomly selected" from millions of applicants from around the world to operate the Orwell system.

I'm supposed to be reeling, but I'm also supposed to be an impartial person using an impartial system to hunt down the domestic terrorists that have violated the freedom of the citizens of The Nation.

Simulating the contemporary security state is a project with many pitfalls, and much of that is centred on how the designers of any given game frames the ethics of what the player is doing. When I play Lucas Pope's The Republia Times or Papers, Please, I am being being placed in systems that are in tension with themselves. On one hand, in each of these games Pope is clearly demonstrating the violence of systems of oppression; on the other hand, they have a unbelievably fun core loop that had players semi-ironically deploying the authoritarian chant "glory to Arstotzka" in that classic gamer meme way.

While Papers, Please simulated a generic border crossing point in a fictional, vaguely Eastern European country, Orwell is much more specific about how it deploys the real world into its political fictions. The game is set off by a public bombing in a city called Bonton, merely a letter away from Boston; the political system that rules the nation looks very similar to the governance style and platforms of Britain; and the riots in the neighboring country of Pargesia feel like they've been created out of a combination of the domestic struggles in the past couple years of countries like Turkey, Egypt, and Venezuela.

Orwell is doing a mashup with global politics, and it wants to use that mashup to tell you a story about the eternal struggle between safety and privacy. The press release embraces that tensions, warning of "consequences" for passing certain information along to your handlers while also listing "invade the private lives of suspects" and "secure the freedom of the Nation" as some of the game's key features. Orwell wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a popcorn political thriller and to be a serious reflection on the nature of life in civil society.

Despite the detailed interface, playing Orwell is relatively simple. On the left, you have Orwell itself, a kind of data management system that communicates to your handler. In the portion of the game that I played, it was mostly a network of people and the individual files that I could assemble on those people. On the right, there are three tabs: a Reader, a Listener, and an Insider (which was not accessible in the build that I played).

The Reader tab gives you access to all of the public text data that that game deems is worthy of your attention in the question to find the Freedom Plaza bomber. You have newspaper articles, websites, police files, faux-Facebook social timelines, and various other bits of information. The Listener gives you access to your target's most intimate conversations by monitoring their text message history in real time. By sifting through all of these, the player comes into contact with "Datachunks", little tidbits of information that you feed into Orwell (and to your handler) in order to move the plot along.

The chapter of the game that I played had me searching for all the possible information I could about a woman named Cassandra Watergate. She'd been acquitted of assaulting a police officer with a brick in a protest at Freedom Plaza sometime before the bombing, and she had been spotted at the bomb site shortly before it went off.

As I sifted through her public and private information, I found out that she had recently quit her family-owned pharmaceutical company to pursue a career in art. I learned that she was a blogger for a political dissension site. I saw that she was quite angry at the government and supportive of the bombing on social media. Some of this information had to be passed over to Orwell to move the game along. Some of it, like whether I tell my handler that Cassandra has her boyfriend/lawyer's credit card without his knowledge, isn't crucial to the plot and causes a little more dialogue to trigger if I do.

Orwell gives me the tools to dig into Cassandra's desires, actions, and goals. It allows me to render her transparent before the eyes of the law in the pursuit of safety for the country. And it seems that the game does that in order for me, the player, to ask myself serious questions about the nature of the security state in the contemporary world. The problem, though, is that Orwell doesn't give me the information necessary to arrive at nuanced answers. For a game so righteously focused on surveillance, Orwell seems to miss a lot of the content and context that surrounds how the security apparatuses of countries actually work when set into action.

Take, for example, the actual bombings that occurred during the 2013 Boston Marathon. After the initial confusion that follows any act of mass violence, the surveillance apparatus kicked in across several sectors. One part was in the public world of Reddit where many different people used as much public information that they could in order to come to some kind of internet manhunt conclusion about the identity of the bomber or bombers (with disastrous results in the end). Another part was in the private back rooms of the FBI, who already had an extensive profile of one of the Tsarnaev brothers, his travels to Russia, and his alleged connections to terrorist groups. The surveillance and data collation operation that followed the bombing relied on civilian cell phone video, eyewitness accounts, the work of the FBI's Computer Analysis Response Team (CART), and the massive, 36-camera surveillance setup of a private business named Whiskey's Smokehouse.

Layered on top of this are the now-familiar elements in any post-terrorist attack moment. Reddit was quick to (wrongly) point the finger at two brown men standing and enjoying the race. The New Statesmen went so far as to call the orgy of accusations a "racist Where's Wally?" due to the biases on display from the internet sleuths. The media was also quick to create a narrative around the Tsarnaev brothers' race, quickly creating a story about Chechens, their habits, and their ties to terrorist activity. Alex Jones threw everything he had at the wall just to see what would stick as a media narrative, suggesting that they were "Israelis", "North Africans" or 'Spanish Muslims". It went on and on.

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Orwell doesn't have any room for this complex system of interrelated biases, agencies, and networks. It gives us a surveillance mechanism without a subject, as if the people targeted by surveillance and immediately focused on after traumatic events are not preselected by ideological bias. Even if it is trying to be critical of surveillance, Orwell is still giving us a world robbed of the actual, practical problems of the surveillance state in which we are watching one another in preparation for pointing the finger. The game has no room for media narratives or personal biases. Its newspapers don't make erroneous posts about "dark skinned" bombers. Its data management is perfect, and there's no complication with getting the data off a camera from the Smokehouse before the feed wraps around and records over yesterday's footage.

Privacy weighed against safety is clearly an important question for our time, but that weighing doesn't happen in a vacuum. Friction happens. People happen. Saying something serious about that weighing process means taking all of that complication seriously, and creating a game that is "asking questions" feels hollow if the questions are purely theoretical. I hope that the full game of Orwell formulates better, more specific questions.

Follow Cameron Kunzelman on Twitter.

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