Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Hacker's Privilege

I haven't played Watch Dogs, but it has permeated my Twitter feed from both the computer geeks and the gaming geeks. As far as I can tell, it fell afoul of the same problems that plagued my own hacker game prototypes. Well, plus an unhealthy dollop of typical first-person-shooter problems.

Putting aside the FPS issues, the hacker side of the game is plagued by the same issue that always plagues mine:

Hackers are overprivileged little shits.

Fundamentally, hacking is the act of breaking into private places, guarded areas... then using whatever is in there for personal gain. At best, the personal gain might not hurt the target - the hacker might just be doing it for kicks or reputation. But, in general, hackers are going to harm their targets.

This is fine if their targets are simply corporations or other large, faceless entities. A few games have been like this. But those are largely logic puzzles with very little interpersonal interactions. Something like Watch Dogs, where you play a human walking around a human world, is very different. The most interesting targets in that world will be human, because it is a human-centric world.

So you hack people.

In the end, you cannot help the people you hack. You can only either ignore them or abuse them, just like pedestrians in GTA.

Fundamentally, GTA characters are also overprivileged little shits. Even if they are cast as being broke and oppressed by "the man", in terms of actual gameplay they are by far the most powerful people on the planet. They face no real repercussions for their actions, even if their actions are mass murder.

When you add hacking to that, you instantly magnify that problem. Now you don't simply have power over the bodies of unnamed passerbyes. You have power over their minds and lives. It is no longer faceless violence, but directed abuse. You're tormenting someone that has a backstory and personality, however sparse and random it might be. You're tormenting someone with PTSD, or someone that is proud of his olympic athlete sister, or is on parole. You've hacked into their history to learn more about them, and now you're stealing their cash or having them arrested or bringing life to their nightmares.

This is why my hacking game prototypes all lie discarded in my archive directories. As interesting as the mechanics were, the only path forward was to torment individuals. There's not even any real way to help people with video game hacking: at best, your hacks are merely intrusive.

I was thinking about it, and I can't really think of any good way to make a hacking game that isn't about you, the player, being awful. Even if you make the point of the game to hack people's stuff to help them, you're still invading their privacy in a really abusive and dismissive manner.

That's my problem with hacking games.

Watch Dogs, of course, has a lot of other problems. Horrible writing, deeply embedded misogyny, glorifying torture, boring gameplay, and so on. But even in the absence of those, a hacking game revolving around people will always be problematic on its own.


Antsan said...

I know there's more important stuff to talk about, but because I do not know that game at all and stuff just let me put this here:
This is a game about crackers, not hackers. I always die a little inside when people think that taking programming seriously has necessarily involves being intimate with computer security and misuse of terminology like this probably is a big part of that. Okay, probably it's not.
A hacker game probably is something along the lines of Robot Battle.

Craig Perko said...

The term can't be reclaimed. NOBODY uses the term cracker in that way.

Nobody ever did, either. It's just a fantasy that it was ever commonly used.

Isaac said...

"Cracker" appears to have been coined in a deliberate attempt to differentiate the concepts; its described in the Jargon File as such. Didn't really work in the long term, obviously, outside of Usenet denizens.

I've wanted to make a cyberpunk hacking game for a while, but part of my concept was to have the player play the part of a cybersecurity response team, in charge of designing defenses and responding to intrusions.

Craig Perko said...

That might work.

Random_Phobosis said...

Can you help people by breaking in their homes? Nope. You can steal stuff and dig out dirty secrets or not, but it's intrusive anyway. Still there's a game about breaking in and stealing, and Garret in Thief series has to save the world anyway.

Is infiltrating private territory, killing several people and then impersonating them, all to dispose of one target intrusive? I guess so, and Codename 47 doesn't even pursue some kind of vaguely "save the world" goal most of the time.

Various kinds of infiltration are just an interesting problem-solving tool, which happens to be destructive by definition. I don't see why this should make the game worse in any way.

Craig Perko said...

Because you're not infiltrating a home. You're infiltrating a life.

Soyweiser said...

Perhaps it would be more interesting as a multiplayer game. Where you can use hacking to influence other players around you to reach a goal.

*sigh* guess space station 13 already does stuff like that. And it does requires players not to metagame to much.