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    dkirschner's Orwell (PC)

    [May 6, 2018 11:40:20 PM]
    This semester I taught a learning community with the theme of serious games and gamification. I reworked my Introduction to Sociology class using games as examples to cover sociological content. The last topic we covered was governance and surveillance. I used two games to do this, Beholder (which I'll finish next) and Orwell. These worked well together, with Beholder demonstrating a more traditional type of citizen surveillance reminiscent of pre-Internet Communist states and Orwell demonstrating modern technological government surveillance. From there, I moved into surveillance capitalism and the Chinese citizen score example. It was a cool unit, but anyway, I just finished up Orwell tonight, and here are thoughts on the game.

    The best thing I can say for Orwell is that it is thought-provoking. It explores questions about government surveillance, power, privacy, and so on to make you connect the fictitious narrative to events in the real world. Unfortunately, it's hindered by remaining at a rather surface level treatment of these issues, such that to delve deeper requires the player to have additional knowledge or guidance or interest to learn more. This is obviously in large part due to the fact that this is an indie game probably with a small team and budget. For example, the social media site that characters all use is never implicated for its role in sharing your data. There is no connection between government and business in the game, and we know business drives surveillance capitalism.

    In the game, Orwell is the name of the surveillance system. It's neat how it works, though it would never work like this in the real world because surveillance is automated. But we've got to have player interactivity, so here we go! You play as an "investigator," someone who scours the internet for information to compile dossiers on citizens of The Nation. This investigatory work is outsourced, so you are a foreigner. In the beginning of the game, there is a bombing, and so your task is to get to the bottom of this bombing. As you gather information on suspicious people, you will wind up gaining access to their social media profiles, blogs, cell phone records, and eventually gain the ability to poke around on their hard drives.

    One neat thing is that, as your boss tells you in the beginning, you are to remain objective and report facts. Occasionally there will be conflicting information or information that is clearly out of context (e.g., one character tells another jokingly that they are being tortured, and you can report this piece of data as evidence that the character engages in torture, which is clearly untrue). You have to make decisions about submitting or withholding these data chunks. Now, once you submit data chunks to the Orwell system, it's completely de-contextualized. Your handler only receives what you send them. Later on, there are intentionally conflicting data chunks and I just sort of rolled my eyes and reported on whichever character I most disliked. Because they're almost all annoying as shit, I felt difficult to remain objective. I chalk this up to sub-par writing, but if this was just a clever way to point out that objectivity in surveillance is impossible, then kudos to the devs!

    Characters in the game suffer from making horror movie decisions: "No, no, stupid! Why would you do that!?" For example, later in the game, a few of the people you're spying on get onto Orwell's existence. Yet they continue to talk online, and even plan a conference call. Another character lists his bank account information in his email signature (?!), which of course allows you to look at his bank statements. One person you're spying on starts talking to someone on a dating website and immediately states their first and last name. Who does that?! This of course allows you to find more about them because you have their last name.

    The game is very linear, and I don't know how much your choices about what to submit to Orwell matter. I know that many times, I would leave data chunks unreported because I'd think they weren't that important or that they were inaccurate, but the game wouldn't move forward until I submitted that data chunk. Since the writing isn't great, one could easily play this game by submitting data chunks as fast as possible without reading anything. You'll end up submitting like 99% of data chunks anyway. Whenever there is data you can submit, it is automatically highlighted. This is nice so that you don't get lost trying to find information, but also, as surveillance systems do, automates your work. Are you really watching people, or are you just being told what to submit? Also, are you being watched? How wide is the scope of Orwell? What secrets does the government hide? So many questions.

    All in all, Orwell is an interesting experience. The feeling of spying on people is empowering and you feel a bit like god peering into their private business. If you like gossip, you'll like this game. But it's not too exciting, definitely rough around the edges. I enjoyed the story overall. If you're interested in this kind of thing though, just go read some Wired articles. Faster, deeper, and more engaging.
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    dkirschner's Orwell (PC)

    Current Status: Finished playing

    GameLog started on: Tuesday 17 April, 2018

    GameLog closed on: Sunday 6 May, 2018

    dkirschner's opinion and rating for this game

    Hopefully serves its purpose for class..........It did. Decent game. Interesting, if a bit dull.

    Rating (out of 5):starstarstarstar

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