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Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You is a morally challenging game about surveillance

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Your privacy settings can’t save you

It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our new biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

Digging through Facebook or Twitter to figure out a friend’s birthday isn’t something you’d normally think twice about. Even if you aren’t especially close, it’s a fairly normal thing. But in Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You this everyday activity takes on a more sinister tone. The game asks you to find information not for yourself, but for a fictional foreign government. The context suddenly changes this innocuous act into a much more challenging and uncomfortable situation depending on your feelings about surveillance, privacy, and security.

Orwell is structured sort of like a visual novel, but the entire experience plays out through the interface of a fictional research / surveillance program called Orwell. The game consists of five episodes, which were released over the course of five weeks starting in late October 2016. The game tasks you with using Orwell to help solve the mysterious bombing of a public plaza in a fictional country called The Nation. At the same time, you attempt to prevent further attacks by trawling publicly available websites and documents for clues to who might be involved.

The Orwell program is something of a best-case scenario ethically for how a powerful surveillance program might work since there are a lot of rules dictating not only how it can be used, but also who can use it. You play as a brand-new researcher overseen by an adviser. The researcher’s job is to comb through the sources Orwell presents to find information that might be relevant to the case and add those bits of data to profiles on subjects of interest in the case.

You find these datachunks (as the game calls them) on different websites. You might come across someone’s birthday from the game’s fictional social network, their home address off their medical records, or their feelings about the government based on a post on their blog. While Orwell is able to access all kinds of data, it only presents you with new sources when it deems it relevant. For instance, you don’t automatically have access to someone’s medical records even if they’re a suspect. But if you happen to find their medical identification number, then you are able to access that information. What datachunks you can add to profiles are highlighted by Orwell, but it’s up to you as the researcher to decide if that data is relevant, or if it’s false and something to ignore.

The adviser’s job is to interpret the data you add to the profiles and make decisions for what to do based on that, as well as advise the researcher on certain leads to follow. Initially, this setup between researcher and adviser seems designed to make it feel like you, as the researcher, have no real agency over the choices made by the adviser. It seems like a mindless job where you’re merely moving data from one place to another. It’s a bit like you’re on a train shoveling coal into the engine, while the adviser is driving.

But as things progress, it becomes apparent that you actually have a lot more control than even the adviser since they’re only able to make decisions based on what data you provide them. So while certain pieces of information, like where the subject lives, are obviously pertinent, others are a judgment call. What happens when you find a 10-year-old blog post where the subject is cursing out the government? Is that reflective of their feelings today? Or maybe they were just blowing off steam on a site they never expected anyone to read? Including it is going to make them seem potentially more suspicious, even though much of their current behavior doesn’t reflect that outburst.

These decisions became so uncomfortable that I frequently considered stopping. This act of systematically digging through personal information to find bits of seemingly circumstantial evidence felt like a huge invasion of privacy for no real gain. I couldn’t help but think of the online vigilante witch hunt for the Boston bomber (in part because the bombing in the game happens in a city called Bonton) and how that only led to innocent people getting accused.

It feels a bit counter-intuitive to express how unpleasant something was as a selling point, but it’s rare for a game to put you in such a morally compromising position. On top of that, Orwell, similar to games like Papers, Please, puts you in a position where there isn’t a good or right answer to the choices you’re presented with. Each decision offers a trade-off, both in terms of repercussions in the game and how you’re able to rationalize your choice outside of. By the end of the game, the decisions I made didn’t reflect my feelings or the outcome I wanted. But I’m okay with how the story wrapped up, despite that the last choice still didn’t feel wrong — or that might just be the compromise I made with myself so I can sleep at night.

Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You was created by Osmotic Studios. You can get it on Steam for $9.99 (Windows, Mac OS, and Linux). It takes about four or five hours to finish.