Like most who attended high school in the States, I read George Orwell’s proverbial classic Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager, and (as every good eighteen-year-old in America should be) was frightened by the book’s implications and depictions of the cultism that can arise in a totalitarian society run by an omnipresent authority figure. Upon discovering the appropriately titled Orwell video game, released this past October 2016, I immediately bought it off of Steam and played each episode as soon as it was made available to the public.
Orwell caught my attention because the player himself gets the opportunity to undertake the role of “Big Brother” in a secret society known only as “The Party” in order to help dismantle a group of bored pseudo-intellectual college anarchists that refer to themselves collectively as “Thought,” believed to be responsible for a bombing in a plaza area of the fictional town of “Bonton,” in a country known as “The Nation” where they live. By scouring “Timelines,” “uTell” and other bland-name social media profiles of the group’s members, players are to find “data chunks” that help to paint a portrait of each of Thought’s participants, revealing their personalities, day jobs (or lack thereof), and their connection to the group and to each other. Even the kids' beloved mentor, a professor at the prestigious Stelligan University, is not safe. The game gets really creepy when you are allowed to tap into private phone calls, text conversations, and even hack into suspects’ personal computers and email accounts. In a game where choices matter, however, it is at the “Big Brother” player’s discretion to decide which bits of information they find in their searches are important and which are not, especially given very little (and very biased) context in which to base their decisions. Practical decisions, as well as ethical ones, depending on who’s side the player wishes to take, must be made in order for the game to progress, and every choice that is made affects the ultimate outcome in some way.
Orwell at first comes off as an updated, more sophisticated “Choose Your Own Adventure Game” for adults, but in analyzing the characters, gameplay, and overall setup more closely, one realizes that the game is simultaneously a warning against how not to present yourself online, as well as a (simplified) demonstration of how information is collected and pieced together by authorities in order to prevent tragedies from happening, such as the bombing. Again– the ethical dilemmas the player must face as “Big Brother” are endless. Yet, they also remind those who play Orwell that, in piecing together information to fight crime, investigators also gain a (usually) eerily accurate idea of who somebody is as a person. No information online is private, and no private information is private. Everything in cyberspace is accessible if the person stalking you is savvy enough, and how people should present themselves/behave online is a lesson in etiquette that should be taught to everyone in the 21st Century.
Released two weeks before the 2016 Presidential Election, Orwell’s debut is timely, to say the least, especially with its prevalent, overarching theme of strict surveillance. While certainly intended as a serious educational game from the beginning, Orwell offers an even more frightening look at the way the world is headed for those who are not careful with what they post on the internet. Though it’s cold comfort, perhaps the best way to win the war on internet privacy is for people to watch their P’s and Q’s– everywhere. The game reminds us that potentially everything can be taken out of context, and used to further the agenda of the “Thought Police.” The concept of “privacy” does not exist in 21st Century America– we’re all being watched.
Photo courtesy of: www.polygon.com