games / Columns

The Terrifying Truth of Watch Dogs 2

December 15, 2016 | Posted by Paul Meekin

“In the ’20s and ’30s it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?” – Sam Seaborn

For a time my job was to get in your shit. If you posted something offensive on Facebook, or used the company I worked for as a way to get laid, make money, or scam a consumer, it was on me to find everything I could. Where you were, what you said, and what else you may have done – whether or not it was related to the incident in question.

With a google search of your full name and city I can find a Facebook, Linkedin, or defunct Myspace profile. With your e-mail I could find where you posted on the internet, what you posted about, your mugshot, and much more. I had no special tools. Only an A+ and Net+ Certification. I was a private ‘I’ if you will. Using your desire to make your voice heard on the internet, against you.

This is *not* science fiction, and it should terrify you. Hell, how do you think Ken Bone went from internet hero to creepy pervert in record time?  To quote “The Social Network” the internet is written in ink, not pencil, and it’s nearly impossible to erase your footprint.

Hell, depending on who you ask, I’m a famous European Hairdresser, a pedophile that once taught Daniel Ratcliffe and went into hiding somewhere in India, or a salesperson of historical books. In reality I’m a guy with a tech support background positively terrified of the digital apparatus I’ve championed my entire life that’s mutated into a homunculus of data used for nebulous and potentially nefarious reasons.

Which brings us to Watch_Dogs 2 – a game about how this data is weaponized. The concept of Watch_Dogs 2 is that cities have implemented software and AI to track and monitor potential threats to society – and stop them before they happen. This is not the work of science fiction – While the technology is fuzzy and the methods fanciful, the message, the concept, the logic behind behind this software is reality and coming to Boston.

The idea makes sense – if you can identify the radical and unhinged via their posts on social media or internet searches, you may be able to intercede before they do something horrible. I was close to Boston during the Marathon Bombing. If this software existed then, would we have identified Dzhokhar Tsarnaev before he took action, and prevented him from injuring nearly 300 people and killing 3 more – one of whom was an eight year old boy?

Regardless of your answer, the facts are you could be monitored at any given moment you’re online. In the course of writing this I had to look up “Public Enemy”, “Boston Bombing”, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and write out the N-word on a company computer. Do these searches raise red flags? Should they?

I mean, I’m off the clock, at my desk, and writing about a serious subject that requires serious inquiry. What if this article was about “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes” and I searched on Bomb Making. Or searching on various BDSM fantasies involving the names of politicians? Would I be monitored then? Is every single one of these keystrokes being monitored, as Watch_Dogs 2 suggests? Should they be? Truth be told, I don’t know.

I do know what exactly what makes for a crime – most of them are in The Bible or your Holy Book of choice. Yet we have only a nebulous understanding of what causes the authorities to monitor your communications and searches on the internet. And before you say that the undefined nature of these processes is a deterrent, keep in mind everyone knows that murder is a crime, and that happens every day.

Amongst the fiends
Controlled by the screens
What does it all mean
All this shit I’m seein
Human beings scream vocal javelins
Signs of a local nigga unravelin

– Public Enemy

You would think a game that gets a person to think this deeply about its subject is a tour-de-force of emotion, and Watch_Dogs 2 does…okay with its premise. It’s a romp, not a treatise, and doesn’t dive too deep into these issues other than to say big data is bad, privacy is good, and we’re all responsible for handing our private lives and deepest desires and secrets to data mining corporations that mutate them into advertisements, marketing, and fear.

The plot kicks into gear via the not-quite-fictional software mentioned above, Watch_Dogs 2’s protagonist, Marcus Holloway, is profiled as a ‘potential’ threat with an 82 percent likelihood of criminal activity based on the software’s algorithm, and is being monitored based on the fact he’s from Oakland, owns a gun, has a couple of parking tickets he paid, and I’m sure the color of his skin has more than nothing to do with it.

All this means that Marcus will never be afforded the benefit of the doubt. The system says he’s destined to be a criminal, so why would Police treat him fairly or banks grant him credit? Marcus joins with a group of hackers, Dedsec, to unravel this system, becoming the criminal the AI said he would be in order to take the whole thing down. I’ll leave the ‘Minority Report’ jokes to someone else.

At the very least, it’s more affective than blocking traffic or boycotting Miller Lite. 

Despite what appears to be a bleak premise, the game is  optimistic about the human condition. In about 7 hours of gameplay I’ve met a man with autism who isn’t treated like a retard, a transgendered woman who wants revenge on the church for leaking all the photos of the surgeries she had, a transgendered man that’s a real douchebag, an African American programmer who indirectly speaks to ‘code switching’ as to best fit in with the stereotypically white Silicon Valley culture, and Charlie Sheen. Oh, it’s also worth noting a plot point involves hacking of voting machines to influence an election.

Watch_Dogs 2 is essentially a cartoon containing occasional bits of profundity, a heavy dose of satire, and above average characterization. It takes a deft touch to introduce this material into a game and not feel like you’re in an after school special. These characters are well rounded and have flaws and quirks. You may hate a character that’s transgendered, but that’s because they’re an asshole, not because they’re trans – and if you ask me, that’s something approaching true equality. I’m reminded of movies like “Philadelphia” or “Flight” or “Milk” that contain strong messages as a backbone to their entertaining narratives. They are entertainments first, ‘message’ pictures second.

To paraphrase my old boss, a movie isn’t what it is about, but how it is about it. In this case, though,  what Watch_Dogs 2 is about is more important than how it is about it. Early on you steal a car off a movie set and drive it around the city of San Francisco via a tablet. You have the option to wantonly murder anyone you meet with little in the way of consequence. There is no morality system here.

The premise makes you think. The execution makes you giggle and squee in delight.

“Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers is another. A play is fiction – and fiction is fact distilled into truth. Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” – Mark Twain

Victimhood is a currency, and Watch_Dogs 2 refuses to cash the check. This could have been a game that chose to wallow in the ghettos and racism and the horrible things minorities must deal with. Instead it says the bootstraps you need to pull up are a laptop and wifi connection away. Technology begets knowledge and knowledge is power. The knowledge of your oppressors’ methods. The knowledge of where you stand. The knowledge of just how stacked the deck is, and that the only way to fix it is to force the world’s largest game of digital 52 pickup.

Watch_Dogs 2 is a call to arms. Not for the left. Not for the right. For the individual. For the libertarian. The man or woman who doesn’t want to be told what to think, wear, fuck, drink, smoke, shoot, or eat – and is sick of being told whose side they’re on and that they’re a racist or bigot or cry baby or pinko or asshole for having an opinion or thought that doesn’t adere to the bullet points of an ideology.

The truth of Watch_Dogs 2, the terrifying truth, is we have this capacity. We can change the world. But we don’t. We don’t admit our own biases or the fact it’s possible to have uncouth thoughts and still be a well intentioned person. Instead we communicate in sarcasm, hyperbole, and contempt. Everything is simultaneously an outrage and joke. Trump is a terrible, Hitler / Satan-esque monster, but also has awwwdhorable whittle baby hands. Obama is the best, or the worst. Hypocrisy is okay as long as it’s on the side you agree with.

We’re a binary society in a digital age. All aboard or get run over, pal. Being in the middle might as well be invisible. Look at Uber, look at IMDB, look at – votes are 10s or 1s. 5s or 1s. A game rated anything under an ‘8.5’ is a disappointment. A politician who questions the affects of man-made climate change is an idiot.

Gary Oldman had to apologize for saying it might be okay to let Mel Gibson out of movie jail.

We seem to know it all, but refuse to impart knowledge. Which is how Trump became President Elect, by the way – speaking to people who have been called stupid by the media since, well, The Daily Show debuted. You may think it’s kosher to generalize about white people – they’re the dominate and oppressive class, after all, but they’re still people, and shock of shocks, rallying against any culture, class, or creed, will have consequences.

We forget that xenophobia implies fear – and our default reaction to things we’re scared of is repulsion and hatred. Scared of a spider? You kill it. Scared of heights? Don’t go rock climbing. Scared of the very definition of what is a man and what is a woman and what is in between? You can see where this is going.

We should be able to admit why we’re scared. Why we’re repulsed. Why everyone is seemingly scared of what they don’t understand, while simultaneously keeping blinders on as to avoid accidentally stumbling upon the humanity of our opponents and enemies.

So we rely on the liberal entitlement of Maddow and Olbermann and Noah and Oliver and Colbert and Huff Po and Kos and Medium and .Mic and the conservative rage of O’Reilly and Hannity and Tomi Lahren and Fox News and Breitbart and The Drudge Report to affirm us. We need to be told what’s right and what’s wrong, not what ‘is’, so we can pick a side – red vs. blue, black vs. white, to feel like we belong and are fighting for something external instead of realizing we’re all churned up inside – a pretzel of ideologies and hopes and fears and uncertainty.

We are pattern seeking creatures with a terrible mean streak as far back as history records, now using social media as our Aztecan sacrificial alter to rip the hearts out of anyone we disagree with in 143 characters or less, as a tribute to our modern day god of sanctimonious validation. We can’t “Get Ready For Some Football” because Hank Williams Jr. compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler. But it’s okay when the The Washington Post does it regarding Donald Trump.

As we discuss fake news by sharing incendiary stories and point fingers and argue about each other instead of talking to one another, Watch_Dogs is a work of fiction with a phenomenal capacity to educate and help us embrace our differences.

Diversity in all forms should be tolerated if not accepted. You *should* be able to tolerate someone who voted for Donald Trump if they’re willing to have a conversation with you about why. You *should* be able to discuss being skeptical about Climate Change without being called a moron. You should be allowed to vote for a 3rd party candidate without being implicated as complicit in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his supporters.

Watch_Dogs 2’s most profound truth is that we’ve become our own Watch_Dogs. We’ve created an apparatus of little brothers that function as big brother. Telling us how and what and why and when to think. No progress or thought beyond what we want to hear and who we want to hate. it is fundamentally impossible for the people you disagree with to do anything right – when the President Elect contacts an oppressed regime and is criticized for it by people who allegedly hate oppression, you know there’s quite possibly no hope. 


article topics :

Watch Dogs 2, Paul Meekin