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This 2011 visual novel predicted how privacy would change in 2018

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Revisiting old favorites can often provide new insights

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 biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.

I played Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story for the first time shortlyafter it was released about seven years ago. It’s a game that’s stuck with me ever since. That’s partly because of the metafictional way the story of the game is told, which sort of circumvents the visual novel presentation of the game. But it’s also because of what it says about privacy on the internet and in social networks. In 2011, it felt like an interesting extrapolation of what the next generation’s attitudes could be having grown up with social networks. And after playing it again recently, it feels especially prescient.

Set in Canada in 2027, Don’t Take It Personally, Babe is told from the perspective of John Rook, a 38-year-old twice-divorced man who, during his current mid-life crisis, has stumbled into teaching an 11th grade literature class. The school provides all the students with their own computers and access to a school-based social network called AmieConnect. Teachers are also given computers which allow them to track not only their students’ public posts on Amie, but their private messages as well.

It feels a bit voyeuristic to read through the posts the students make as they come in. But while the game is presented as a Japanese visual novel, like Doki Doki Literature Club or Butterfly Soup, you end up spending most of your time reading through AmieConnect messages. The visual novel sections of the game are limited to offline interactions. This focus is because Rook’s story isn’t really the game’s story. Instead, it’s a framing device to tell the stories of the students, which play out through their communications online.

While you and Rook aren’t able to interact with his students on AmieConnect, you do offline. You’re occasionally prompted with choices to make about what Rook does while teaching, conversing with a group of students, or while offering them advice. They’re choices that are greatly informed by the fact that you know as much as you do about the students from their online activities, especially when it comes to students who are more open online than they are in the classroom.

On occasion the game will prompt you to catch up on the messages you haven’t read before you can progress. Part of me wishes that you could move forward in the game without having to read these messages, in order to see how that would affect the different choices you could potentially make. But I also know that would change the story to being about Rook and not the kids. This would fundamentally change a lot about how the last chapter of the game plays out, and in turn what the game is actually about: privacy.

The fundamental point of the game is the divide between how Rook’s generation views privacy online versus his students’ perception. For Rook, reading through all these messages his students make publicly, and especially privately, is an invasion of privacy. This is reinforced by a letter from the school when he’s first hired explaining that he shouldn’t let anyone know they’re able to snoop on students. But when he’s seemingly confronted on the issue, his concerns are ignored because, for his students, they have no expectation of privacy online. For them, being online isn’t about assuming they have privacy, but actively managing the information about themselves to reflect how they want to be perceived through their posts.

When I first played Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, I remember being surprised by the way students viewed privacy to the point that it basically acted as a plot twist, but it also served as a revelation for me at the time. I hadn’t grown up with social media, but here were people growing up in a world where Facebook and Twitter had always been around. It’s something that would fundamentally change how they used those services and thought about their online identity.

Now, nine years earlier than the game predicted, you can see people in their twenties and younger having similar attitudes as the game’s students, and behaving similarly. They’re more open, but in very particular and curated ways that let them manage their online identities. It may be an eight-year-old game, but it helped me understand the modern internet in a new way

Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story was created by Love Conquers All Games. You can get it for free on Windows, Mac OS, or Linux. It takes about three or four hours to finish.