When speaking of his Nova Trilogy, William S. Burroughs once said, “The purpose of my writing is to expose and arrest Nova Criminals. In Naked Lunch, Soft Machine and Nova Express I show who they are and what they are doing and what they will do if they are not arrested. [...] With your help we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly.”
The Reality Studio is a good metaphor and plot device analogue for what Ubisoft is apparently up to with the new game “Watch Dogs.” It’s been over six years since I was a semi-serious gamer, and while there have certainly been interesting and innovative titles in gaming in the years since, it seems that none have been as daring as Burroughs and the paranoid cyberpunk tradition he created that includes Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, amongst others.
Judging the “Watch Dogs” trailer, it seems rather clear that the game creators were inspired by Burroughs’ Reality Studio idea, or at least influenced by later novelists who count Burroughs as an influence.
In the trailer, a female narrator brings viewers up to speed. In 2003, a disgruntled employee uploaded a virus into an electrical grid and shut down much of the Northeast, blacking out 55 million Americans. In response, the government and corporations created “ctOS,” an American operating system containing all critical infrastructure (anything that keeps the American market rolling). By 2011, ctOS is introduced to control “subway lines, traffic lights, surveillance cameras and electrical grids.”
“Personal data collection is the key commodity,” says the narrator. “You are no longer an individual, you are a data cluster bound to a vast global network… Massive data silos track and sort every moment of your digital life, revealing how you think and what you believe. That information could be turned against you, not just to sell products but to influence your world views.”
While this is already more or less reality in 2012, there is no information superstructure of ctOS’s capability. However, there do exist some parallels between current U.S. legislation regarding the Internet (and information systems) and ctOS. Bills such as CISPA and The Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (CSA), as well as the creation of U.S. national defense viruses such as Stuxnet (and, though it hasn’t been proven yet—Flame) already indicate the growing importance of protecting or subverting a nation and economy’s information systems.
CISPA and CSA, developed in the House and Senate, respectively, both create an information-sharing architecture between private entitles (such as Facebook) and the NSA (National Security Agency). In order to more effectively fight malicious hacking, or “cyber-warfare” and “cyber terrorism” as it has come to be known, the NSA and corporations can share information, including user data, with one another to fight not just national security threats but anyone, domestic or foreign, who disagrees with the established order. In a system that has become nearly impossible to change from within (unless one is wealthy and can bribe legislators), one viable option is to attack the reality studio, so to speak. This, quite naturally, is criminalized with such actors being branded terrorists.
“Watch Dog” game players take the guise of Aiden Pearce, a man equipped with a cell phone, a gun, and the ability to hack into systems to expose individuals who leave a bad “digital shadow.” Not unlike Inspector Lee fighting the Nova Criminals, huh?
The trailer and game footage below certainly makes it seem like a really exciting game with an experimental narrative.