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Watch Dogs 2 Calls Attention to the Illusion of Digital Privacy

At a glance, a smart house looks a lot like any other luxury residence, with leather couches, granite countertops, and all of the other analog extravagances that you’d expect to find in a designer mansion. Unless you’re actively searching for touch screens, there’s nothing to suggest that everything in the house is wired.

That’s why it’s so jarring when you do become aware of the technology. The more time you spend in a smart house, the more you notice that something feels off, and it’s the little things – like the mood music and thermostat display that kicks in when you’re about to use the toilet – that hint at the dystopia. Smart houses are cool because technology is cool, but it’s unsettling when you realize that every single room of your house is connected to the same computer.

That brings me to Watch Dogs 2, the upcoming Ubisoft game in which you play as Marcus Holloway, an expert hacker battling against a massive surveillance corporation in San Francisco. I visited a smart house outside of Toronto for a recent Watch Dogs 2 press event, where we were invited to preview the game and to watch USER PROFILED, a two-part Ubisoft/Vice Canada tie-in documentary directed by Dylan Reibling that looks at privacy and security in an online world.

Over the course of the evening, I learned that smart houses and Watch Dogs 2 have a similar positive (and negative) appeal. USER PROFILED provides an apt framing device. As the documentary points out, corporations and governments already know everything about you. If they’re so inclined, private individuals could also gain access to that information. Our secrets are less safe than they’ve ever been, and many people don’t seem to realize what’s at stake.

Watch Dogs 2 grapples with a lot of the same issues, but it’s the based-on-a-true-story version of a real life debate. Just as Ubisoft staged a press event in a smart house because technology is cool, Watch Dogs is fun because it allows you to mess around with high-tech toys. The game presents a world in which hacking is righteous, easy, and entertaining, and it’s exhilarating to rearrange traffic lights, shut down security systems, and hack into people’s phones to cause all manner of anarchic mayhem. Whether you’re hacking robots, flying drones, or taking control of a car without ever stepping behind the wheel, the sheer variety makes for some unexpectedly cerebral gameplay. You could go in a shoot everything, but it’s a lot more fun to take the stealth approach to move through your targets like a ghost.

The problem, of course, is that the sandbox playground is at odds with USER PROFILED’s Minority Report depiction of cyberterrorism and digital security. As with the smart home, the effect is a little jarring. Creating a false warrant and sending the police to arrest a security guard is a useful ability during a mission, but the implications of doing so are terrifying when extended beyond the realm of the video game. The tools in Watch Dogs 2 are clearly dangerous in the wrong hands, and I’m not convinced that the game places them in the right ones.

The fact that Ubisoft partnered with Vice Canada on USER PROFILED indicates that the studio is at least aware of the discrepancy. Cybersecurity is a complex issue, and the current regulatory structure is years behind the technology. Watch Dogs 2 might be a work of fiction, but it’s still one of the few mainstream video games that meaningfully engages with material that is relevant in the outside world.

Unfortunately, it’s also an issue about which many people are not well informed, which is what makes Watch Dogs 2 a little troubling. Does the game have an obligation to depict cyberterrorism responsibly, or to inform players about policies that could have a real impact on their lives? I haven’t played enough Watch Dogs 2 to know the game’s particular stance, but – as with the smart house – the result will probably be ambivalent. The cut scenes featured discussions about freedom of information and corporate oversight, but that message often got lost during the natural flow of gameplay, especially when I was breaking into a smart home similar to the one that hosted the event.

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Having said that, Watch Dogs 2 does seem to be a drastic improvement on the original. I liked Watch Dogs more than most because I thought it explored interesting social territory with its mechanics, but any nuance was undercut thanks to Aidan Pierce. The ostensible hero was one of the most miserable and unlikeable protagonists ever to show up as the lead in a mainstream video game (and yes, that’s saying something). Seeing Chicago through his eyes made the whole city bleaker.

Marcus’s San Francisco is far more palatable. The hero of Watch Dogs 2 is a charming, sociable activist with a core group of friends that keep him connected with the rest of the world. He’s not above home invasion, but you get the sense that he cares about people other than himself, which makes for a stark contrast with Aidan, a lone wolf who made unilateral decisions that had devastating effects on the lives of people around him. It also helps that Marcus is able to interact with the world in non-violent ways. Players are able to flirt, dance, and talk with any random NPC, and the extra options do a lot to humanize the character.

At the same time, it’s impossible to overlook the dissonance inherent in the game’s premise. The day after our press preview, some Watch Dogs 2 fans were invited to tour the same smart house, with an implicit understanding that things might not go as planned thanks to the meddlesome influence of online ‘hackers.’ The event was a clever bit of opt-in entertainment, but it was staged at someone’s actual home rather than a public venue. We may not live in smart houses (yet), but that’s supposed to be the future, which implicitly suggests that we should expect to give up a degree of privacy that we used to take for granted.

I found it unsettling when I discovered that the washroom was connected to the rest of the house. Are we really so enamored with technology that we’re comfortable with the idea that malicious individuals will always be able to gain access to our homes?

While I’m not sure how I feel about cyberterrorism being passed of as entertainment, I ultimately do think that Watch Dogs 2 will be worth playing for that very reason. The game is fun, and it hints at a future in which everything is available to the public. We need to start considering what that means for our everyday lives, whether we’re ready to or not.

 


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