A Two5six conversation about surveillance, in games and out of it

Header image by Phil Jones. 


At Two5Six every year, we gather together someone from the world of videogames with someone from outside it to find the commonalities in their practices. The lively conversations have found where Etsy meets Lumino City and what Gone Home has in common with the 9/11 memorial.

We decided: why just do this once per year? In this ongoing feature, Kill Screen founder Jamin Warren will sit down with two people to more rigorously explore the places where games meet culture. In this edition, he talks to Rich Metson, designer of the in-progress game about the surveillance state Off-Grid, and anthropologist and author Gabriella Coleman, who has been called “the world’s foremost scholar on Anonymous.”

Kill Screen: Rich, can you tell us a little about your background and Off-Grid?

Rich Metson: I started moving into games from a more traditional animation background, so I used to make ads on film and television, post-production, and a friend and I, at one point, were trying to—well, we started a small company making animation for campaign groups. So people like Greenpeace and the Green party,  interesting folks, and I got to the point where I just kinda felt like making short, comedic animation and skits. It only went so far and (I thought) games would be a more interesting medium for exploring those kinds of questions with an audience and giving those kinds of themes around social issues to an audience to play with. So I started coding in my spare time, while I was busy making toothpaste adverts.

KS: How did you get started on Off-Grid?

RM: I went to games for change back in 2011. At the same time, a friend I was going with, he was going to INET (The Institute for New Economic Thinking), and he said, “You should come along, it’s going to be really interesting.” At the time, I was more involved in environmental campaigning and activism. I was really unaware at the time of the efforts to  keep the internet a siloed realm, that were going on. I heard mumbling speak at the INET conference, and it just blew my mind really. I mean, it was early 2011, so it was just as the Arab Spring was really coming to head, so it was just as all that interesting stuff was going on in those talks about the state department saying it was shipping the internet in a suitcase and how it was sort of an expensive and ill-advised effort when people on the ground were doing much more interesting things, and Gabriella, you were talking about Anonymous. A lot of that stuff was completely new to me. From there I thought, “If there wasn’t free internet, there won’t be any  activism or campaigning.” And from that point, my mindset switched from any specific social issue to the fact that really the major battleground for anyone involved in making a better world is making sure we have a good strong internet that is open to engage on. And I thought that would make a good game, you know. Games have changed, and I was seeing how a lot of the games in the  “serious games” world didn’t seem to engage with their issues mechanically well enough, and they were made often as ways of exploring an idea, and then games secondly. I basically took the approach at that point and I was going to try to make something that felt like an absolutely commercial videogame, but had different layers of debt and explored net neutrality, and/or mesh-networking, or encryption.

KS: How do you describe Off Grid to people, if you’re at a dinner party or something?

RM: Thats a good question. It keeps changing, because it’s not really one I’ve nailed an elevator pitch on. It’s a quite hard one to describe, really. A lot of the text stuff is, really. I mean, we’ve called it “Metal Gear Solid meets 1984” at times. And if I’m not making other cultural references with it, it’s usually offered as a game about manipulating data.

KS: Gabriella, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you got interested in some of these larger questions about privacy, hacker culture and anonymity.

Gabriella Coleman: I went to graduate school, back in the late 90’s, and was doing a very traditional anthropology project on religious healing in Guyana in South America. As part of my interests in medical anthropology, I was following the progress of patents and medicine in the global South, and I had a lot of programmer friends, and one of them  pulled me aside and said, “Look, if you’re interested in alternatives and intellectual property, you have to learn about this thing called the copyleft.” I couldn’t believe that a bunch of engineer-type hackers basically reinvented the law in the way that it allowed them to continue doing what they believed was right, which was sharing source code, and that it was an operation and that it was the license that was being used by the major pieces of software powering the internet. I was blown away, so I just started to follow this stuff online, and I started to write a little bit about, but I never intended to fully change projects. And then lo and behold, I got stuck at home for a year when I was sick, and the internet was there, and after doing nothing but being online and reading nothing but stuff on hackers and free software, I basically had a new project and I delved into that world, and that’s how I got into the world of computer hacking. As an aside, I have a huge interest in politics and activism, and that’s something I’ve been personally involved in for a very long time, more on environmental politics, but I was really attracted to this group of people who weren’t trying to be overtly political, they were being very narrowly political. Then they were having these huge political consequences and effects, and in part it was because they were always engaging in direct action. Whether it was reinventing the law, creating tools like TOR or groups like Anonymous, and combined with the  trickery and slyness of hacking, where there’s a sort of mischievousness, like, “I’m not gonna follow the rules, I’m going to bend the rules or change the rules.” In some ways, my heart is still in environmental politics, what I like about hacker politics related to the internet, whether it’s questions around net neutrality ro surveillance, I can really consider them to be meta-political issues—they matter for all activists. They’re  an infrastructural politics, and I think that’s really important for all brands of activism so its one of the reasons I’m really quite attracted to hacking politics.

a bunch of engineer-type hackers basically reinvented the law

RM: I can completely agree there, that was the  feeling I had there when I first started learning about this stuff. There’s very little hope of us moving forward on many of these things unless we get more progress in terms of trying to make governments more accountable, potentially more transparent, stuff along the lines of the taping of UN conversations for leverage. Without a certain amount of transparency that only leaking can provide, we never really know how those negotiations are often manipulated in the political sphere.

GC: They combine the best of transparency journalism politics with more direct action form of politics

KS: Gabriella, I’m curious how the role of “the hacker” in the public’s imagination has changed since “War Games” and “Hackers?” And how does that change how we think about the Edward Snowden leaks?

GC: Usually, when I tell someone like my accountant or my doctor that I study hackers, you could tell they’re confused, and they do think,  initially, “credit card stealer.” I would say 5 or 6 years ago, it took quite a bit to say, “No, there’s this other category of a technologist who’s a tinkerer or an activist,” and it’s take a while for them to pivot there, but now, because of Anonymous, because of Snowden, because of Julian Assange, it’s incredibly easy to get them to pivot in that direction. There’s still a lot of negative connotations and people tend to fall into that first frame, between the  dramatic proliferation of hacktivist interventions and also, combined with that, things like Watch Dogs the videogame or the inclusion of a hacker in House of Cards or Mr. Robot, (hackers) are now proliferating as cultural artifacts in games and TV shows. (People are) still ambivalent (about hackers) but they have taken on more positive configurations.

KS: Rich, how about for you?

RM:I completely agree with Gabriella. I think that there’s sort more of a positive dimensions to hacker characters that have been portrayed in the last 5 years, and I do think that a direct knock on Anonymous showing that hackers are—well, not just Anonymous, there’s loads of examples over the last few years of hacktivists involved in helping that hackers are not just someone stealing credit card numbers. I suppose that for Off Grid, our player character isn’t a hacker. They  fall into that world and start to learn through the help of hackers and hacktivists who teach them the part of PIN encryption and conspiracies in the game world that they need to find out about, so it’s  these benevolent, wise-old-men hackers that we’re trying to explore with Off Grid. These people who are  the sages of the modern world to some degree. There’s a lot more dimension to the hacker stereotype or archetype nowadays, because they’re into doing all these interesting things that are very hard to ignore.

GC: That’s right. It’s so great. recently I did a  interview with someone who has been in the crypto scene, he’s a cypher punk, he participates in encryption projects, he really has been around for 20 years, or something like that. He told me this great story recently, and he said, “You know, in the past, I  thought of hackers as internet farmers,” where hackers would have dramatic consequences, and would shape history by virtue of what they did where no individual person or project has mattered much, but that had brought about change in the last couple of years, with groups like Anonymous and individuals like Snowden and Assange, where they are no geo-political actors, and you could not ignore them, and that was a bit of a surprise to me. You know, I always thought hacker politic would be profoundly important, but marginal in the public sphere, but now they’re really major in the public sphere.

KS: Rich, I was gonna ask why you decided to make a game, given your background is in animation. Why did you decide a game is the medium in which you wanted to explore these movements?

RM: I’ve been into games for a few years, and tinkering just because I had a lot of games before I got into exploring data privacy as a theme. I guess it was just sort of a natural movement for me. My background originally was in fine arts, so I started out as a sculptor. I was a metal worker, so I used to cast and fabricate steel sculpture for artists in London and I sort of had gone through several stages over the years where I’d be making interesting things for other people, and feel like it didn’t really reach the audiences I wanted it to reach, or it didn’t have enough of what I wanted to explore in it, so I moved out of sculpture and into animation, thinking back in the mid-2000s that digital distribution was on the rise and making something like animation was an interesting way of getting ideas out there. I just ended up making messages for advertisers, mainly. And so I went through that same system with games. Coding has always, ever since the original bedroom coders in these late 70’s early 80s had this flat hierarchy, with the sharing of knowledge, so I guess games development is  similar to internet culture in many ways because it is  collaborative and it is all about  sharing what you’re making and how you made it. A lot of the props in the games development community are about how much of your knowledge you’ve managed to share rather than the achievements you’ve technically made with any game you’ve developed, certainly in the indie game community, anyway. So I just saw games as the next step artistically, and that’s why I moved into games; it was an opportunity to make thing that I cared about and do it in the way I wanted to.

KS: I was curious: how do you make the public care, or think differently, about privacy? How do you get them to change it from, “Oh, maybe the stuff on my computer isn’t as safe as I thought it would be,” to actually caring about it as much as they do about, say, gun rights for example?

GC: First of all, with privacy, you don’t have to have the general or the majority of public behind the issue. What you need foremost, initially, are dedicated groups of people, and I would include in that basket: lawyers, activists, journalists, librarians and hackers. You need a really robust civil sphere of dedicated groups of people who are really pushing this issue in such a way that we do engage with the general public, but they’re the more important actors and if you look at the history of free speech as a  model by which to understand how people come to care about a civil liberty, you see it does take decades of work with really punctuated moments where particular groups are fighting, for instance, for free speech under times of war. During World War I, you had  the first public grassroots battles over free speech, and then you had them again during World War 2, and then you had them in a very profound way in the 1960s, but it was mostly student groups, journalists and activists. With privacy, what I think is interesting is that in some ways I think we’re in the ‘60s moment in which a wide group of people came to care about free speech then, the same they have come to care about privacy today. We have a large scope, quite dramatically, but not quite enough. What we needed was not just reporting on the issues; we needed like dramatic leaps to really bring in the issue in a far more spectacular way. That said, with any  issue, you have to have a campaign to make it palpable to wider publics, so it’s the same with privacy. On the one hand, it’s a little bit tough with, say, students I work with, because they’re so used to sharing everything and they also  expect that all their stuff is out there and they can be watched, and then many of them who aren’t activists will say they have nothing to hide, that  default position. But if you engage with them on a slightly different level, like, “In what ways are you censored because your employer could follow you on Facebook,” all of a sudden, they can bring a bunch of examples to the table, and can see that this issue is a very big part of their lives. That’s the hook for grabbing the attention of the public, and why we need the robust  smaller groups of people like the lawyers and the journalists behind the issue. For the first time with privacy, we’re really seeing a grassroots manifestation and the important part will be making sure they continue to exist in the future.

There is a homology between gaming and hacking

RM: I completely agree you. Something you wrote about, when you said you were “enhancing enchantments” is something I related to while making a videogame like “Off Grid.” We both want to create a world where people can explore the real-world consequences of surveillance and engage with a mass-surveillance simulator to some degree and see what leaving certain text messages around might cause in terms of problems with you being socially engineered or what network accountabilities you can be subject. You might end up giving away data that can do you harm in the long run. But at the same time, we’re both trying to document some of those icons, whether it’s Snowden or Assange, or groups like Anonymous, in that creating a fiction that helps to pass that down to people who aren’t engaged and reading the news stories about it every week.

GC: Absolutely, it’s a vital medium to compliment the news stories, because that is very ephemeral. You read one story and then go back to your day, where something like a game, that’s a one-hour, two-hour experience every day, and you actually get to experience what it’s like in the world of social engineering, or having all your data taken. I think it’s so imperative to have those types of mediums precisely because it allows people to palpably viscerally experience and tap into what they might already be experiencing, and for those who don’t have that experience it helps them visualize it. I think that’s such an essential accompaniment to the news.

KS: I’m curious what you think are some of the shared characteristics between hackers and game designers.

RM: People who design games and sort of the hackers that study them.

GC: There is a homology between gaming and hacking, insofar as hacking relates to building a piece of software or building better security, and there is a huge instrumental element to it. The experience of finding the solution or creating a piece of software is experienced by many programmers as an adventure—as a game. And many of them talk about their love of games in terms of a similarity between programming and gaming. They are on a continuum, in part because of the adventurous  quality of each. You can’t understand the history of gaming without hacking and you can’t understand hacking without gaming, right? Of course many hackers are avid gamers, whether it’s in  non-digital games like Dungeons and Dragons, to old-school computer games and much newer ones, to the fact that they are also programming them to the fact again that there is this formal similarity in terms of the experience of each as a kind of adventure.

RM: Yeah, I mean the other  similarity is the fact that to some degree, hacking is about understanding a system and then working out how you can best exploit it in your pursuit to gain the goal you’re attempting to achieve. And essentially that’s exactly what game design is: you put a problem in front of a player, and that is at first obtuse or abstract, difficult to understand and you give them little goals in order to try and get them to engage with that system and create their own mental monologue of the game model that you’ve made. It’s up to them to find different ways of exploiting that game model once they’ve started to understand the system in order to achieve it. I mean we try to take that a bit further in Off Grid to some degree, because Off Grid has its game mode simulation, as any other game mode has characters and AI and a world, and we’ve also created a completely separate data system. Essentially, it’s like PRISM. It looks for all the data in that world created by any character and it maps its networks and you then, as a player, your job is essentially to find ways of finding vulnerabilities in networks to access and see that data network. So your job as a player is trying to make sense of a PRISM-style system.

GC: The ability to play and express creativity within the world’s constraint, right. It’s what programming or intrusion and game-playing all share. And all forms of creativity do that, but i think there is a way in which the medium of a computer, which requires a very certain type of hard logic and has hardware constraints, as well as constraints produced by programing languages, creates this room for play innovation, spontaneity in that medium.