It's hard to remember the first time I noticed a camera filming me in public. There was no genesis point, no camera zero that commenced the age of being conscious of having an unseen audience. They just appeared and quietly multiplied, tolerable when used in ATMs and intersections, slightly unnerving when placed overhead in offices and casinos. Today, we have implicitly accepted the fact that everything has some capacity to monitor us, from hackable baby monitors and laptop webcams to the stores of personal data tracked by Google, Facebook, and the National Security Agency.
While it's easy to identify the growth of state and corporate surveillance, it’s clear that trying to reverse it is uniquely difficult. The NSA, despite clearly overstepping its authority in recent years, still has the right court on its side, and then there's the massive data-harvesting operations run by banks, search engines, social networks, shopping sites and local governments. We can fight particular aspects, but surveillance has become so pervasive it’s hard to see how any progress could be made against the whole. Most Americans are resigned to living under surveillance of one kind or another.
But today's mainstream video games offer a different narrative, one that's both more comforting and exciting. (Resignation, after all, doesn't make for a very exciting game.) From The Sims 3 to Grand Theft Auto V, which was released last week, mainstream games have turned voyeuristic surveillance into an active part of play, a mechanism through which players infer plot details, distinguish good guys from bad guys, and make assumptions about the emotional lives of the characters they're controlling. These games create a fictional pretext that allows the player, who would otherwise be subject to these incursions in the real world, to act them out against others in a virtual world—a sort of salve for, or at least temporary respite from, the everyday hum of modern surveillance.
Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, is peppered with subtle intrusions into the private lives of its three controllable characters, offering a kind of Platonic ideal for surveillance as a form of play—neither inherently good or bad. Switching between the three characters is mostly tactical during story missions—say, switching to a character in a rooftop sniper position while another character is pinned down in a shootout on the streets below. But when the player is not in a mission, the mechanics reward voyeuristic curiosity with a variety of short vignettes to remind the player that the three characters are autonomous individuals leading peculiar lives within the game world. You may switch to Franklin, an idealistic young man stuck living with his aunt in the game's fictional Compton, and see him trying to keep his hotheaded best friend out of a street fight; to Michael, an ageing bank robber forced into witness protection, as he gazes longingly at the sunset from the Hollywood Hills; or to Trevor, the game's amphetamine-addicted psychopath, just as he’s waking up from a blackout wearing only underwear and surrounded by dead bodies.
These stolen moments last only a few seconds before players gain control, but they reinforce the sense that the player is not living through each character, but instead watching them from above, omnisciently. Here, prying into another person's private being doesn’t come with any implicit agenda other than a curiosity to know them better, to not just know the details of life but to get as close to feeling another person’s subjectivity. One watches not to judge, condemn, or steal, but to feel more intimately connected to these characters, and they in turn are surrounded by implicit and explicit signs of surveillance, from extended sequences of surveying banks, jewelry stores, and government buildings in anticipation of heists to the regular discovery of a particular radio station playing in a car that you’ve just commanded them to steal.
The game uses voyeurism and surveillance to heighten the entertainment, of course: to advance a storyline about a FBI-CIA rivalry, to make fun of a fictional Facebook called Lifehacker, and for plenty of slapstick prurience, as when sneaking backstage to unmask a popular but lecherous game show host who's attempting to sleep with Michael's daughter, a contestant on the show. This scene prompts a long interactive car chase to catch and beat up the host—punishment not for being a creep, but for creeping on the wrong woman. More broadly, and problematically, Grand Theft Auto V portrays all of the benefits of peeping and spying but none of the dangers: A player's curiosity about others' private lives is rewarded with humor and drama and intimate detail, engendering sympathy even for those as overtly dislikable as the game's three main characters.
Other games use surveillance as a tool for enforcing morality. The forthcoming Watch Dogs is set in Chicago's near-future and organized around a massive, state-run network called the Central Operating System. The hero of the game is a hacker who has gained access to the network, and can use it to pry into the lives of everyone around him, but with the noble goal of protecting the innocent from the city's lurking evildoers. In one scenario, he aims his smartphone at a woman on the street and instantly pulls up the network's data about her, learning that she's recently broken up with a violent boyfriend who has a criminal record. You can then follow her and protect her from an eventual attack by her ex-boyfriend. Last year's Sleeping Dogs, an open world detective game set in Hong Kong, had a similar mechanic, in which players hack into CCTVs around the city to pick out drug dealers for the local police to arrest.
In these cases, the moral breach of surveillance is acceptable because the game worlds necessitate it, introducing villains that can only be stopped through surveillance—a mirror of the argument made in defense of current surveillance programs: that while the NSA and FBI have access to huge stores of private information, they promise only to pursue likely or suspect terrorists and traitors. When President Barack Obama claims that Americans “can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he’s calling for tolerance of the general idea of surveillance as a necessary compromise for safety from terrorism. Yet, in the fantasy of the game world, we can accept these logical extremes because the game builds a space where there are imminent threats behind every closed door—sex traffickers, drug dealers, gunrunners, terrorists. But the threats in real life are less imminent, and certainly more opaque, which is what makes these games so seductive: There are no unknowns—known or otherwise.
Video games don't reflect our world so much as simplify it. They euphemize subjects, sometimes troubling ones, and allow us total control in situations that, in real life, are often beyond our control. In so doing, they can pacify our discomfort with the messy state of affairs. We see this with today's surveillance-driven games, and we saw it last decade with the rise in popularity of the military shooter, concomitant with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, the enemy of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a nuclear-armed despot in an unnamed Arabian country, against whom a group of American and English special forces fight to prevent a terrorist attack on America. The New York Times’ Seth Schiesel described the game's “Death From Above” level, in which players direct a camera-controlled gun on a Lockheed AC-130 gunship and kill small human figures on a black and white videofeed, as “at once the most realistic scene and the mission that feels most like a video game, but only because for some modern soldiers, war really has come to resemble a video game.” And while this mission looked and sounded real, an eerie precursor to WikiLeak’s infamous “Collateral Murder” video, it came with built-in safeguards that immediately failed players who shot at civilians.
These military and surveillance games are escapist fantasies, allowing us to imagine a world in which our government's actions here and abroad are assumed to be logical, morally and ethically defensible, and ultimately able to stop all of the bad guys without hurting any innocents. The games' design takes all the difficult real-world elements away—deciding who is bad, finding them, choosing how to treat them, and ensuring that treatment maintains legal and moral integrity. It reduces war to a problem of shooting people in as efficient a way as possible, and terrorism to a problem of snooping on as many people as possible. Moreover, these games reliably portray America as the victim of faceless aggression—among us or across the world—thus necessitating war or widespread snooping. If only our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the NSA's misadventures everywhere, had such a clarity of purpose and target.
But this is what it means to have fun today. We have made games into simulations that pacify our worst anxieties about the evils of our culture, by turning those evils on their head and finding ways to repaint reality so that our impulses to pry—or, in the case of military shooters, to wage war—can be seen as good. As America moves from a state of war to a state of soft (and sometimes not-so-soft) surveillance, our newest ways of playing hinge on the taking of information from another person's life through privileged access instead of personal engagement. We find amusement by invading the private lives of characters in their fishbowl worlds even though—or perhaps because—we are moving around our own fishbowl lives, watched by some unseen player trying to construct a narrative about us that's very different from our own.
Michael Thomsen has written about games, technology, sex, and books for Slate, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Edge, Kill Screen, The Believer, Guernica, and The New Inquiry. He's also author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.