Think the NSA is bad? Games are masters of surveillance.

Illustration by Jef Brown.

I hate security cameras.

Few devices permeate an air of coldness quite like them, and they always make me feel guilty though I never did anything to warrant it. Most have boxlike or cylindrical exteriors that house the unseen mechanisms that record the images in front of them. The ones that move do so with robotic regularity, pivoting right and left with a motion that looks eerily similar to the human head’s range of motion. They process what they see into images and send them to a screen out of the public’s view and invest a largely uncomfortable amount of power in the man or woman who monitors everyone from an undisclosed location free from our collective sight. The simple thought of being watched is enough to keep most people from breaking the law, so we follow the rules in uncomfortable unison as the camera follows us with accusatory, mechanical eyes.

I’m often reminded of security cameras when I play videogames. I find myself searching for observation points, scanning the screen with focused efficiency to maximize my field of vision before I make a move. It’s a means of textual interaction that hinges on the correlation between surveillance and power, a phenomenon that features prominently in social theory. In Discipline and Punish, French theorist Michel Foucault outlines a historicized philosophy of the Western penal system that understands the power of observation as a political technology developed to foster collective obedience. According to Foucault, schools, factories, hospitals, and many other social structures are designed as parts of a “carceral system” in which the sovereigns retain power by using the threat of delinquent behavior as a foundation for retaining control.

His central visual metaphor is the panopticon, a prison model proposed by Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon is a circular prison consisting of a central tower in an open space that is surrounded by an outer wall that houses the prisoners. The tower serves as an observation point from which the wardens could keep watch over their charges, and the outer wall would house the inmates, all of them facing inward to the watchtower. The idea was to keep the inmates separate from each other and the wardens while still keeping the inmates in sight of the guards. Its goal was efficiency. The few could watch the many, and, because the incarcerated could not always see their captors, the hyper-awareness of the guards’ surveillance breeds a docile social body.

Though Bentham’s panopticon never gained widespread use as a prison facility (at least not a direct reflection of his blueprint), the concept of panoptic observance as means to exercise power appears broadly in popular entertainment—in pulp spy novels, dystopian fiction, and Alfred Hitchcock’s entire body of work, to name a few. As frequently as Foucault adopts the panopticon as a metaphor for political power with a resulting social structure, it provides an effective critical approach to discussing media, and videogames are no exception. Indeed, an entire history of player interaction could be read in terms of rebellion from or making use of dictatorial designs.

Take, for instance, the fundamental philosophy behind the boss at the end of the game. The concept has its roots in panoptic control. The villains maintain a position of power through constant surveillance of the protagonist while remaining outside the player’s vision. Bowser retreats to a castle after kidnapping the princess and makes Mario come to him. Dracula awaits a questing Belmont in the highest tower in any given Castlevania. In Ocarina of Time, Ganondorf uses Hyrule Castle’s keep, the map’s tallest manmade structure, as the seat of his reign from which he can monitor Link’s quest. Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn appear at the literal top tiers of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II respectively, all other subjects placed beneath them to illustrate the masters’ power.

We follow the rules in uncomfortable unison as the camera follows us with accusatory, mechanical eyes.

These and other examples of panopticism permeate early videogames because they are immediately comprehensive, instantly recognizable. The land under the villain’s gaze is in obvious need of liberation because surveillance equates to subjugation. Panoptic power removes a personal face of the villain, if only for a time, to turn a figure of subjugating rule into a system of oppression—an apt metaphor for a gameplay designed to confront the player with obstacles to overcome. Players encounter the enemy’s subjects while the boss often watches from a distance and waits, not as an actual character but as a disembodied presence granted power through omniscient, unblinking eyes. This concept is put to more mechanical use in stealth games such as Metal Gear Solid and Thief, wherein security systems become puzzles players must solve. Avoiding characters’ and cameras’ cones of vision are the cornerstones of the stealth gameplay, transforming the field of play into a maze through which the player must navigate. Enemies control the map through sight, a clear mechanical representation of simulated panopticism that limits the player’s situational power.

Though stealth games were likely the first to directly engage with panopticism on more than a symbolic level, recent games have even more explicitly championed open rebellion against systemic control both narratively and mechanically. In BioShock Infinite, Booker and Elizabeth actively take apart a society based on the deification of its leader, Father Comstock. Songbird, Elizabeth’s and the city’s guardian, functions as a security measure that has become so commonplace that children sing nursery rhymes about it. As Booker, the player shatters this socially accepted docility (bred through a type of programmed religious devotion and Columbia’s literal removal from any alternative government on earth) by helping revolutionaries overthrow Comstock’s regime.

This type of rebellious impulse crystallizes even more clearly in Infamous Second Son. In Second Son, government overreach has turned Seattle into a surveillance state and the young pseudo-anarchist Delsin breaks their hold by destroying cameras, mobile outposts, and security checkpoints. Second Son wears its anarchic playfulness on its sleeve, while other games, like Transistor, take a more nuanced approach to resistance against systemic control. In Transistor, celebrity Red survives an assassination attempt by the Process, an automated army of robotic enemies that kickstarted a citywide apocalypse. The legions of the Process all take on the appearance of surveillance devices outfitted with lens-like eyes and (some of which even take pictures to damage her) and weaponized appendages, all designed to kill her before she can find the source of the Process and effectively bring the watchman out of his tower.

The phenomenon of rebellion against a panoptic villain figures so explicitly in recent games could come from numerous sources. Recent discoveries about the NSA’s intrusive surveillance system have elicited countless anti-government responses. The ubiquity of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter has led to anxiety about the erasure of privacy. Videogames that allow players to exercise autonomy by breaking those intrusive, oppressive panoptic systems afford players some sort of autonomous control for multiple reasons, whether it’s Infinite’s didactic on metanarrative, Second Son’s anarchic playground, or Transistor’s exploration of celebrity. Few modes of play are more rewarding in videogames than raging against a machine, and panopticism provides a perfect architecture wherein players can exercise that violent impulse. Outwitting these digital systemic prisons rebels not only against the controlling entity but also against the concept of panoptic oppression.

Videogames that allow players to exercise autonomy by breaking those intrusive, oppressive systems.

Yet the allure of panoptic power draws as many players as often as it incurs digital rebellion—often at the same time. A simple change in framing transforms panoptic governance from a terrifying means of control to a tool of player liberation. For instance, the MacGuffin at the heart of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s narrative is the Observatory, an ancient chamber that gives the user the ability to spy on anyone in the world. Templars seek the device to control the world; Assassins are compelled to seal it. While the Assassins and Templars debate the moral quandaries of such authority, the player, as pirate and protagonist Edward Kenway, uses the same tools of surveillance to grant her a modicum of power over the numerous forces of the enemy. As Kenway, the player climbs to the highest point of the map to take note of guard patrols, scout out prime assassinations spots, and plan escape routes. The player can even activate “eagle vision,” an enhanced sense that highlights enemies with a red aura, allowing them to be seen more clearly. The player watches through borrowed eyes the inferior people below her, and then she strikes with precision and accuracy before disappearing once more out of sight.

Republique takes this concept of using vision as a source of power a step further, by turning the player’s mobile device into a simulated hacking tool. In Republique, a young woman named Hope asks the player directly to aid her escape from a totalitarian regime that oversees a dystopian facility called the “Metamorphosis.” The player watches Hope through security cameras, directing when and where she moves to avoid guards or security systems. Again, the player gains a position of power by using systems meant to oppress for opposite ends. Republique has the added perk of making its hacking controls even more tactile through its touch mechanics, and turning the entire screen of the player’s tablet or phone into a security feed reinforces the importance of sight as a source of power for the player to yield against the oppressors.

While these games juxtapose surveillance as a tool to control or to liberate, Watch Dogs conflates this tension into a singular mechanic. As hacker Aiden Pearce, the player uncovers a web of conspiracies behind ctOS system that controls near-future Chicago. The player uses the tools of surveillance against those subjugating the people of Chicago by hacking via cellphone into security cameras, listening in on conversations in search of criminal activity, or sifting through email, effectively becoming a different intrusive monster than the people behind the system itself. The open-world design of the game affords the player the opportunity to exercise some voyeuristic impulses by allowing the player to break into people’s houses via the connected system, essentially turning every camera in the city (including personal laptop webcams) into a prosthetic eye for the player, peering into the private corners of digital lives with voyeuristic abandon.

Peering into the private corners of digital lives with voyeuristic abandon.

This cursory Foucault reading of game interaction necessarily paints with a broad brush. To call surveillance and panopticism difficult topics would be to understate the complex nuances of Foucault, his critics, and the countless Foucault-inspired readings of works of literature, film, paintings, and other media. But the ways in which videogames allow players to attack systems of surveillance to fight against digital incarnations of control or to use those systems to live out some sort of power fantasy belies the complicated relationship the medium has with surveillance. A game almost always adopts a panoptic viewpoint from the player in that she watches an entire digital world function without its denizens’ knowing it. The arch-villains and security cameras we destroy or make use of in games simulate a shift in a world’s balance of power all at the whim of the person holding a controller, but even that person’s agency in a digital world is bound by the machinery processing algorithms and reconstituting lines of code on a screen. Such is the best trick a panoptic power structure ever pulls: offering a readily accepted illusion of freedom to distract the people from the much more real boundaries of a controlling system.

Still, as much as I hate security cameras and the paranoid power grab they often represent, I do delight in using them in Watch Dogs. In any given Chicago street, I can look up and break into a camera and extend my sight across entire city blocks, watching more and more people unaware of my intrusive eyes. I find myself impulsively looking for higher and higher vantage points, but, like any other game, Watch Dogs has its limits. Then again, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I inevitably find a satisfying point to look out across the city and at the small people below, having conversations about goings-on at work, checking their bank accounts, cursing unfaithful spouses. From there, I can see anything I want.