(or, Unfortunately, Algorithms Sound Boring.)
Finally, a video game where you get to act like a database!
This morning, the print version of the New York Times profiled the Kickstarter-funded game “Data Dealer.” The game is a browser-based single-player farming-style clicker with a premise that the player “turns data into cash” by playing the role of a behind-the-scenes data aggregator probably modeled on a real company like Axciom.
Currently there is only a demo, but the developers have big future ambitions, including a multi-player version. Here’s a screen shot:
One reason Data Dealer is receiving a lot of attention is that there really isn’t anything else like it. It reminds me of the ACLU’s acclaimed “Ordering Pizza” video (now quite old) which vividly envisioned a dystopian future of totally integrated personal data through the lens of placing orders for pizza. The ACLU video shows you the user interface for a hypothetical software platform built to allow the person who answers the phone at an all-knowing pizza parlor to enter your order.
(In the video, a caller tries to order a “double meat special” and is told that there will be an additional charge because of his high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. He complains about the high price and is told, “But you just bought those tickets to Hawaii!”)
The ACLU video is great because it uses a silly hook to get across some very important societal issues about privacy. It makes a topic that seems very boring — data protection and the risks involved in the interconnection of databases — vivid and accessible. As a teacher working with these issues, I still find the video useful today. Although it looks like the pizza ordering computer is running Windows 95.
Data Dealer has the same promise, but they’ve made some unusual choices. The ACLU’s goal was clearly public education about legal issues, and I think that the group behind Data Dealer has a similar goal. On their Kickstarter profile they describe themselves as “data rights advocates.”
Yet some of the choices made in the game design seem indefensible, as they might create awareness about data issues but they do so by promulgating misguided ideas about how data surveillance actually works. I found myself wondering: is it worth raising public awareness of these issues if they are presented in a way that is so distorted?
As a data aggregator, the chief antagonist in the demo is public opinion. While clearly that would be an antagonist for someone like Axciom, there are actually real risks to data aggregation that involve quantifiable losses. Data protection laws don’t exist solely because people are squeamish.
By focusing on public opinion, the message I am left with isn’t that privacy is really important, it is that “some people like it.” Those darn privacy advocates sure are fussy! (They periodically appear, angrily, in a pop-up window.) This seems like a much weaker argument than “data rights advocates” should be making. It even feels like the makers of Data Dealer are trying to demean themselves! But maybe this was meant to be self-effacing.
I commend Data Dealer for grappling with one of the hardest problems that currently exists in the study of the social implications of computing: how to visualize things like algorithms and databases comprehensibly. In the game, your database is cleverly visualized as a vaguely vacuum-cleaner-like object. Your network is a kind of octopus-like shape. Great stuff!
However, some of the meatiest parts of the corporate data surveillance infrastructure go unmentioned, or are at least greatly underemphasized. How about… credit cards? Browser cookies? Other things are bizarrely over-emphasized relative to the actual data surveillance ecology: celebrity endorsements, online personality tests, and poster ad campaigns.
Algorithms are not covered at all (unless you count the “import” button that automatically “integrates” different profiles into your database.) That’s a big loss, as the model of the game implies that things like political views are existing attributes that can be harvested by (for instance) monitoring what books you buy at a bookstore. The bookstores already hold your political views in this model, and you have to buy them from there. That’s not AT ALL how political views are inferred by data mining companies, and this gameplay model falsely creates the idea that my political views remain private if I avoid loyalty cards in bookstores.
A variety of the causal claims made in the game just don’t work in real life. A health insurance company’s best source for private health information about you is not mining online dating profiles for your stated weight. By emphasizing these unlikely paths for private data disclosure, the game obscures the real process and seems to be teaching those concerned about privacy to take useless and irrelevant precautions.
The crucial missing link is the absence of any depiction of the combination of disparate data to produce new insights or situations. That’s the topic the ACLU video tackles head-on. Although the game developers know that this is important (integration is what your vacuum-cleaner is supposed to be doing), that process doesn’t exist as part of the gameplay. Data aggregation in the game is simply shopping for profiles from a batch of blue sources and selling them to different orange clients (like the NSA or a supermarket chain). Yet combination of databases is the meat of the issue.
By presenting the algorithmic combination of data invisibly, the game implies that a corporate data aggregator is like a wholesaler that connects suppliers to retailers. But this is not the value data aggregation provides, that value is all about integration.
Finally, the game is strangely interested in the criminal underworld, promoting hackers as a route that a legitimate data mining corporation would routinely use. This is just bizarre. In my game, a real estate conglomerate wanted to buy personal data so I gathered it from a hacker who tapped into an Xbox Live-like platform. I also got some from a corrupt desk clerk at a tanning salon. This completely undermines the game as a corporate critique, or as educational.
In sum, it’s great to see these hard problems tackled at all, but we deserve a better treatment of them. To be fair, this is only the demo and it may be that the missing narratives of personal data will be added. A promised addition is that you can create your own social media platform (Tracebook) although I did not see this in my demo game. I hope the missing pieces are added. (It seems more unlikely that the game’s current flawed narratives will be corrected.)
My major reaction to the game is that this situation highlights the hard problems that educational game developers face. They want to make games for change, but effective gameplay and effective education are such different goals that they often conflict. For the sake of a salable experience the developers here clearly felt they had to stake their hopes on the former and abandon the latter, abandoning reality.
(This post was cross-posted at The Social Media Collective.)