Orwell’s central conceit is nothing if not timely. The game casts players as a fictional Big Brother, sifting through people’s private communications and picking info that might connect them to a terrorist plot. Months after its release, however, the game’s developers are worried about another timely issue: apathy.
The team’s goal with Orwell wasn’t to impart a particular message, but simply to make people question potentially insidious frameworks underlying their everyday lives.
“At the beginning of Orwell, you might just be curious or even think you’re doing the right thing,” lead artist and business manager Melanie Taylor told me at last week’s Game Developers Conference. “We didn’t want to say it’s wrong or right. It can feel bad if you think you’re pushed toward one opinion by a game or movie. We were trying to avoid that. So there’s a bombing, and you’ve gotta figure out who did it. But the more you find out about the people you’re investigating, the more you start to wonder, ‘Do I have a right to know about their children, or their romantic lives, or who they’re in contact with?’”
Some players told the developers that Orwell got them thinking more seriously about government surveillance from bodies like the NSA. “Many people have said it really creeped them out,” game designer and writer Daniel Marx chuckled. “Some people have said they’re definitely more aware of what they put online [after playing the game].”
If nothing else, Orwell was an eye-opener for the development team. “I started reading books like Little Brother from Cory Doctorow after we started making the game,” said Taylor. “It’s actually different with the NSA than it is in our game. They don’t have people who select the data and then put it into a system. They just try to collect data. It’s not about context. It’s even less in context than it is in our game.”
But knowledge is one thing. What Taylor and Marx are worried about is whether or not people care enough to push back against increasing levels of surveillance in multiple facets of society, or even just to change their daily habits.
“With Snowden, there were many people who said, ‘I don’t have anything to hide, so why should I care if the NSA spies on my data?’” said Taylor, pointing to things like a recent John Oliver video where a bunch of people confessed to having no idea who Edward Snowden is or what he did. “And that’s the really scary part: that Snowden revealed all this, and maybe nobody really cared. It’s a really awful thought!”
Despite Snowden’s 2013 leak of classified documents that revealed the unsettling scope of the NSA’s domestic data collection initiative, the United States still possesses the most formidable government surveillance apparatus on Earth. While Congress reined in the NSA’s bulk data collection programs, its power and reach grew in other ways after the public found out about it. Meanwhile, recent documents brought to light by Wikileaks suggest that the CIA has means by which to exploit all sorts of modern communication devices, though there’s no evidence they’ve been weaponized against US citizens.
Outside the government, companies like Facebook collect unprecedented amounts of data about users’ activities, preferences, habits, political affiliations, general locations, and more, which they feed to corporations who are, to put it kindly, not very concerned with people’s well-being. Oh, and Congress is pushing to allow internet service providers to sell users’ data without permission. Despite all this, people are acclimating, passively normalizing the idea of a surveillance state simply by letting it exist in the background of their lives.
“Then there’s the next generation to think about,” Taylor added. “When we were kids, we didn’t have Facebook. Today’s kids grow up with social media, and it’s normal. It’s normal to post everything you do. They care less about privacy.”
For some in marginalized groups, activism, and other high-risk positions, surveillance is an everyday concern. Others, however, are privileged in that they don’t have to be so vigilant. Getting people to care when they don’t feel directly affected by something is just one piece of the puzzle. Protecting yourself from surveillance and data collection takes effort. Modern existence is about communication and convenience, and the people who want to keep an eye on us 24/7—whether affiliated with the government or major corporations—benefit from that. Even Taylor and Marx don’t always practice what they preach.
“I should do more,” Marx said, “but it’s difficult. I should switch messenger programs, but all the people I know use WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. I have Signal, but barely anyone uses it.”
“We’re not super secure with our data sometimes,” added Taylor. “Not everybody will be able to use PGP [encryption] or say, ‘OK, I’m not using this messenger app because I know it’s insecure.’ Most people won’t do that. Companies need to think about that. When people are voting, they need to think about that.”
Nevertheless, Taylor and Marx still believe in the power of games to help people see the world around them in a new light. Every bit counts, and all these setbacks mean is that their work is far from done.
“Some time ago I read an article about how the UN uses video games to get people interested in certain topics,” said Marx. “I agree. I think you can evoke a lot through video games. It’s kind of abstract still. It’s not super realistic. But they’re good at helping you understand how certain things happen. Papers, Please is a good example. How do good people get caught up in the machinery of corruption? That’s a real power of video games.”