When UK-based indie game developer James Long looked out into the internet ether, he saw a bunch of journalists and activists using unencrypted email when they really needed to be using PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption. To combat this technical weakness and laziness, Long thought it would be a good idea to create a video game that would actually force players to use PGP.
So, he hit on the idea of Top Secret, an email-based game where players take on the role of an NSA agent tasked with tracking down the source of top secret leaks: Edward Snowden. Currently in development, Long launched a Kickstarter campaign to help complete the project, and is eyeing a May 2016 release date.
Designed and coded by Long, with artwork by Ben Furneaux, Top Secret lasts roughly two weeks, with all of its players under surveillance. Players receives emails from the game's characters and reply to them just as they would any other email. Players email "selectors" (names, email addresses, phone numbers) to their NSA team and receive back surveillance reports on chosen targets. From there, players must analyze the intel and choose their next target.
"The game is voyeuristic, you're deliberately invading people's privacy to look for evidence," Long told me. "I want the player to feel uncomfortable, what will they do for 'national security'?" Ideally, players should begin to respond naturally, forgetting that they are playing a game.
"I loved the idea of a game about surveillance in which your play is itself surveilled," Long said. "Every email you send whilst playing the game can be intercepted and stored by the NSA or GCHQ; and given that the emails are about encryption and government surveillance programs, they probably will be."
Again, to prevent this, Top Secret supports PGP, the method of email encryption used by Snowden. Long is using the extreme rarity of email games to his advantage in tackling the concept of email encryption. He says that while people still play by email for turn-based, multiplayer games (chess, poker, and so on), single-player experiences are virtually non-existent.
"It seems like such a missed opportunity," he said. "The medium is so accessible, and with smartphones, people are used to receiving and replying to emails on the go.
Another interesting thing about Top Secret is that some of its content is pulled from real life emails between Ed Snowden, Laura Poitras, and security expert Micah Lee. This will lend some nice authenticity to the game's proceedings, and should help players understand what the stakes were when these figures were communicating in the internet's shadowy corridors.
"One of the [other] areas about the leaks I'm really interested in is the reaction of NSA staff," Long said. "I've spoken to people with security clearance and they are unanimous that Snowden was wrong to leak the documents. It's such a different opinion from my own that I had to explore it in the game."
"This is why you play as an NSA analyst—it gives the narrative an opportunity to provide the other side of the debate," he added.