I recently completed Watch_Dogs. While there’s no doubt it didn’t live up to the hype Ubisoft surrounded it with, I still enjoyed it. Stealth elements were well implemented, the freedom provided by its version of Chicago offered many side activities to get lost in, and the hacking mechanics, while simple, were enjoyable and allowed for a number of creative scenarios to trip up enemies. But the game had its share of flaws – repetitive mission structures, a phlegmatic, self-righteous protagonist, and the central story was a fairly routine tale of a wronged man seeking revenge with as many predictable twists as there were intriguing highs. The far more interesting narrative was the secondary focus on the hacker group DedSec and their campaign against Blume Enterprises. Considering the many leaks exposing unconstitutional government surveillance in the past two years, the game could have been restructured to highlight the clashing ideologies of these organizations as a parallel to the conflict between the NSA and Wikileaks. Instead of a protagonist who was an average person with his own agenda drawn into a battle he had no idea was occurring, what if the player characters had a closer stake in things? Suppose you could play as either an employee of Blume or a DedSec affiliate, carrying out various tasks for your respective side as you learn more about how severe this conflict is, how much damage is actually being done. The finale would then have players choose whether to stay on the side they started with or change affiliations based on who they considered was the lesser of two evils. But is that such an easy distinction to make?

Let’s look at Blume, which is clearly presented as a villainous organization in the game. There’s no doubt they’re using the ctOS for unscrupulous, even malicious acts. Just about everyone in Chicago is under constant surveillance, their moves tracked through security cameras, phones, and personal computers. They have information on millions which they aren’t hesitant about exploiting or selling to eager buyers. Corporate and political affiliates of Blume executives pay to have the ctOS manipulate the city to suit their agendas, from suppressing information which could make them look bad to subliminal persuasion which subtly influences buying and voting patterns. Blume is a Big Brother that’s always looking to make a profit. They are the stereotypical evil corporation that’s prevalent in contemporary fiction.

 

For all the ills Blume is perpetrating, however, one can’t say their system isn’t completely without merit. Playing through Watch_Dogs you’ll see ads promoting the ctOS pop up on television screens. These brief ads extol the virtues of the system: quicker emergency response times, maintaining medical information, more convenient public and private transportation, etc. And at several points throughout the game, we’re given evidence that it’s succeeding in these areas. Some of this support comes from overheard NPC conversations, but the strongest argument in favor of ctOS surveillance actually comes from the player. Consider the side-missions where Aiden can intervene in criminal activities – random muggings, mob hits, criminal convoys. All of this information is gained by hacking into peoples’ phones, exactly what the ctOS was designed to do. This could have been the basis for a discussion on the issue of privacy vs. security, but it simply demonstrates that the much demonized surveillance system actually works. Though it could be argued that Aiden puts this information to more productive use than conventional law enforcement. During my time in the game, police response was only triggered when an issue arose concerning a corporation or a prominent individual belonging to Chicago’s elite, while Aiden’s vigilante activities saved the lives of the poor and working class.

 

On the other side of this war is DedSec, a hacker group inspired by Anonymous and Wikileaks. On the surface their agenda is blunt and seemingly noble. They oppose Blume and any other corporation that has unfettered access to private information. If the personal data of the public is in the hands of a faceless business, it will be used to exploit the public. Hacking into Blume’s servers we can see that this is indeed the case. But this doesn’t necessarily justify DedSec’s purpose, or at the very least how they make themselves known. In an effort to demonstrate how easily the ctOS can be manipulated, several hackers have used it to cause serious disruption throughout Chicago. They’ve triggered blackouts, tampered with the traffic grid leading to numerous accidents, even authorized hits on those they consider a threat to the cause. DedSec firmly adheres to the belief that the ends justify the means, even if those means are fatal. In their eyes, anyone who dies, whether they’re considered innocent or guilty, is a necessary sacrifice towards their ultimate goal.

 

DedSec is so obsessed with bringing an end to corporate exploitation that, like every ideological zealot, they’ve become blind to how they are no better than what they’re fighting against. This extends beyond the disregard for human life, but also what they plan to do if they succeed. The members of DedSec don’t want to keep information private; they want to be in control of that information. Like Aiden, they view themselves as guardians of the city, and therefore they need to know everything that’s going on to keep the people safe. But if the group is so willing to murder anyone they believe is a threat, how safe is the public? How many would be unintentional casualties in the pursuit of a corrupt CEO or human trafficking ringleader? And despite their promises to not misuse the information they gather, it’s clear they aren’t sincere about protecting privacy. During one of Aiden’s first jobs with DedSec, Clara casually mentions that the woman they’re targeting recently had an abortion, presumably to demonstrate the power they have. Here again, we see how the hackers mimic Blume, using personal data to pursue their agenda. What would stop others in DedSec from casually exposing the dirty secrets of others for personal gain, or if they lost their inhibitions due to anger or drug use, or if they simply wanted to cause trouble just for the hell of it? These concerns are never addressed, because the hackers view themselves as being above such tactics, even though their past actions show otherwise. Blume lies to the public; DedSec lies to itself.

 

I started off this post by asking which was the lesser evil, Blume or DedSec. Truthfully, I can’t answer that. I’m not the kind of person who can say “both groups are doing horrible things, but this side is doing less of them, so they should be supported.” It’s not the number of acts that harm people that matters; it’s that people are being harmed in the first place. I cannot compromise my beliefs and pick a side whose only positive point is that they’re “not as bad” as the other. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, “The lesser of two evils is still evil, and the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.” Again though, this is only my personal opinion based on my own core beliefs. This is where a player character closer to the conflict would have held much stronger weight, because it would force the player to determine where they stand on this issue. Is it okay for businesses and government agencies to look at your data if they promise convenience and safety in return? Should an entity with no checks and balances be trusted with this information simply because they say they stand up for the people? Or, as Aiden decides, is neither side worthy of this power? It’s a powerful question, and one I hope will be more thoroughly explored in a future game.

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