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'Watch Dogs' director on PRISM surveillance: 'It's like reality is catching up to the game'

'Watch Dogs' director on PRISM surveillance: 'It's like reality is catching up to the game'


Make-believe dystopia, or tomorrow's reality?

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In the upcoming video game Watch Dogs, you play Aiden Pierce, a rogue hacker in a seemingly dystopian future Chicago — a city where every piece of technology is controlled by a supercomputer, where every citizen is monitored by a citywide operating system. It's a surveillance state which wormed its way into place by providing Wi-Fi as a basic human right, and where the government claims it can use surveillance to stop crime before it happens.

Ubisoft announced the game nearly a year ago, when its ideas seemed plausible but perhaps slightly far-fetched. But in light of PRISM, the US government's alleged internet surveillance program, Ubisoft developers are starting to look practically prescient. "It's like reality is catching up to the game," Watch Dogs lead game designer Danny Belanger tells The Verge.

"Data collection is immensely powerful, and most of the big internet giants track it and use it," he suggests. "They can predict who you're going to vote for and predict the kind of person you are... and maybe try to influence that."

Watch Dogs, he says, is about asking ourselves the moral questions that arise when faced with that reality. "Data collection, social media, having all these cameras 24/7... in my most intimate moments, reading in bed, there's a camera in my face." Belanger relates.

"In my most intimate moments... there's a camera in my face."

In the game, Aiden has access to all of those cameras, and can use or abuse that power as players see fit. Hack into the city police's crime prediction server, and you can attempt to save citizens. But Ubisoft also showed us how you can hack into a mother's laptop webcam — you can hear baby cries coming from an adjacent room — and steal her bank account number to further your own ends. While both of these scenarios are totally optional, that's not true of "profiling" people you meet. In Watch Dogs, you'll know the name, occupation, salary, and secrets of every pedestrian, because Aiden has access to the government's secret database. It's a core element of gameplay.

As eerie (and entertaining to play) as the idea might be, Belanger admits that at least Aiden's powers over physical objects in the environment — car alarms, traffic bollards, individual devices connected to the power grid — aren't realistic as of today. "The smart city isn't there yet," he says. "But it's coming."