It’s my first day on the job at CosmoCast, an internet company whose “mission is superior transmission.” It sucks. I sit in front of a screen all day and decide who gets to have a good day online. I’ve got three buttons: boost, throttle, and disconnect and only a few seconds to decide what to do with each user. The US President is talking to his base? Better give him a boost. A loyal customer is using a streaming service CosmoCast doesn’t like? That’s a throttling. Dissidents organizing in South America? Just disconnect them.
This is Packets, Please: A Post-Net-Neutrality Simulator, a video game that depicts a dystopian alternate reality where net neutrality is dead and internet service providers abuse their power. Sound familiar? Players control a little cartoon mouse working for the large ISP CosmoCast whose job is to decide the speed of various users.
There’s a list of rules—boost new users, throttle users who have gone over their bandwidth limit—and a constant stream of information that changes or tweaks those rules. At first the rules are easy, but as the game progresses the rules get more complicated and strange. It’s a riff on Papers, Please, a game where players work as a border guard in a 20th century authoritarian regime.
Like Papers, Please, Packets, Please tosses information so quickly at the player they barely have time to process it. The longer the game goes on, the more stress kept me from paying too much attention to what the ISP was doing it. Very quickly I went from denying people access to streaming sites, to cutting off anyone trying to connect from South America because of political problems on the continent. I was just trying to get along, keep my head down, and earn a living. I wasn’t thinking about what the internet meant to political activists in countries a world away. That’s the point.
Packets, Please was made by a six-person team that created the game in 48 hours for Global Game Jam 2018. Every year, Global Game Jam gathers developers from across the world and gives them a theme, 2018’s was “transmission,” and sets them loose to design a game based on that theme. Packets, Please is one of those games.
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