Do What You Will: Society in Watch_Dogs

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Watch_Dogs and Watch_Dogs 2 and minor spoilers for Grand Theft Auto V.

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Throughout the 2010s, Ubisoft made a name for themselves as a dev house that loved to bring up political subject matter in their games and suggest that they were making political statements, but which couldn't be swerving much harder to avoid them. It happened with Far Cry 3 as a game that hinted it had something to say about western touristic consumption of foreign countries but then didn't, it happened with The Division which had a distinctly capitalist collapse of its America which it then took nowhere, and it happened with Watch_Dogs, a game that was probing the implications of modern data-scouring and the distribution of personal data among private interests except it wasn't. And there's a temptation to throw our hands up and say that "Ubisoft is an absurdly rich media company that has developed a business model where they can't alienate consumers with divisive soapboaxing; their games are never going to have hard-nosed social commentary", but Watch_Dogs 2 is living proof that that's not the case.

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I don't want to get carried away; the sequel to Ubisoft's open-world hacktion-adventure is still a corporate package that has to tiptoe around some concepts its audience may find politically offensive so that it doesn't cut into Ubisoft's profit margin. It's also not that it's stretching the boundaries of social discourse overall, but it might have advanced some sociopolitical conversations in games. Keep in mind the political cowardice of Ubisoft and even many AAA games overall and then read what the hero faction of Watch_Dogs 2 have to say near the end of this story, after their investigation of how collusion, surveillance, and data harvesting function in today's America:

"Do you believe your society is just? Do you believe you are free? Perhaps you trust in the power of Democracy--that your vote counts. Companies now buy politicians and manipulate elections. Do you believe in the power of the free market? The Stock Exchange is a puppet show for the rich. Your wealth is controlled by people you've never met. Do you believe the government protects you? National Defense now aims to protect the government from you. [...] The foundations of U.S. policy have failed us all".

This is Ubisoft, for once, not beating around the bush. Watch_Dogs 2 delivers a powerful statement, and the mindset behind it merits some exploration. Particularly, I'd like to compare how Watch_Dogs 2 manages to create a more constructive and in some ways realistic portrait of America than other titles set in the modern day U.S. To explain how much of an evolution Watch_Dogs 2 is in this field, we, of course, have to look at the original Watch_Dogs, but it's also worth stopping in on Grand Theft Auto as both the recent GTAs and Watch_Dogs 2 are violent city exploration games that satirise portions of U.S. politics and culture. In fact, Watch_Dogs 2 is out to explore both in a way that its predecessor never did.

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Grand Theft Auto, especially GTA V, which came out the year before Watch_Dogs 1, was inconsistent in its lampooning of American national character, to put it mildly. Where GTA fails to make incisive commentary, it's not usually a problem of Rockstar picking the wrong targets. Sometimes their aim is way off, as in the instances of GTA V delivering a slap in the face to torture victims and trans sex workers, but most of the time Rockstar are painting crosshairs, it's on ghouls who genuinely deserve it like two-faced politicians and Limbaugh-style radio racists, or it's on reasonably neutral targets like Hollywood wash-ups and beer companies. GTA V also has illuminating stories like that of Franklin Clinton, a poor black man who chases wealth only to have it sever him from the community he grew up in, or there's the mission in which the FBI have you shoot an alleged terrorist associate on fuzzy intel. I think Rockstar go above and beyond most developers in portraying real societal phenomena, but sometimes "satire" in their games means skewering the opaque and dubious undertakings of a U.S. deep state and sometimes "satire" means imagining a brand name that's a pun on a bodily function. The latter style of writing is not "wrong" per se, throwaway jokes have their place, but they're not the razor-sharp satire that is commonly attributed to the series.

Where GTA becomes downright unhelpful in its commentary, however, is when its commentary devolves into aloof cynicism which encourages the audience to look down on the rest of society even while playing the role of someone poisonous to that society. Grand Theft Auto pulls out all the stops to smack talk money-grubbing opportunists, vapid celebrities, and similarly self-interested folks, but it never manages to show you the other side of the coin. Where are the outraged standing up to the corrupt politicians and where are the artists who aren't just looking to make a cheap buck? Such groups cannot find a home in Liberty City or Los Santos as they do not provide something to make the player feel powerful, let the player view someone else as morally bankrupt, or give the player something to point and laugh at. The game struggles to understand why you'd depict an organisation or trend if it doesn't give you one of the three. GTA condemns America wholesale, even when it won't depict much of who the country is and even while extracting elements from its culture that it wants you to celebrate earnestly, taking stylistic cues from Hollywood films like Scarface and The Godfather. This often happens because the games are highly conflicted about whether violence and decadence are valid sources of glee.

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On the one hand, it wants to bear its teeth at the shallow and power-hungry. On the other hand, it wants you to be able to live out the hyperviolent fantasy of raking in millions from casually brutalising people and then spending that cash. It creates an odd double standard where yoga instructors are considered scummy enough to be seen entirely through the lens of ridicule, but you, an armed robber who routinely drives vehicles into pedestrians, are a cool operator who should feel good about enjoying your vault full of dollars. That position is taken further to heart in GTA Online which had to provide players with ever-more shiny baubles to buy and collect to establish a progression system.

This isn't to say that the protagonists of these games don't suffer delusions or indignities or consequences or criticisms. Again, this series is better in this regard than most other video games. Niko Belic's trust in the American dream is treated as naive, Michael de Santa tells his therapist that he's a sociopathic killer, and Trevor Philips may be clinically insane. But that's about the limit of it. GTA never chides these protagonists the same way it does the other "bad guys", probably to keep the player's ego intact. Additionally, during the combat, the vicious and violent actions of these characters are not treated as something for the player to smirk at or dismiss but as exciting and rewarding activities. The cardinal sin in GTA is not being awful to people, it's not being self-aware, or at least, not being the player character. Rockstar's world doesn't have good guys as much as it just has horrible people who are varying degrees of down-to-earth or obnoxious. The protagonists being, on average, the most grounded and amiable and that's your excuse for being a violent psychopath: society is full of the airheaded and cannibalising so go to town on them; at least you'll know you're the bad guy.

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I should say, the series doesn't specifically attack the positive elements of U.S. society like activists vying for democratic or minority rights. However, every time it shows us a citizen with any political convictions, they're deluded, predatory, or impotent, and almost every time we see people engaging with hobbies that aren't a mashup of the macho cultural drivers behind a game like GTA, their interests are treated as silly. If you're the kind of audience member who feels that everyone in society is an idiot but you, that people with strongly-held political convictions are deluded sociopaths, and that the most rational way to act is selfishly, GTA is a series that often affirms those stances. In Rockstar's crime blockbuster, you're the only person with a straight perspective on the world, and the majority of the population is either a shooting target, a setpiece, or there to be mined for comedy.

Watch_Dogs had a similar problem acknowledging the personhood and validity of people beyond the protagonist and their immediate associates. In its near-future Chicago, information on and security footage of citizens are recorded and stored by a centralised surveillance grid called CTOS (CenTral Operating System). This panoptic city is rife with oppression and corruption, but nobody seems to have thought to fight back or form any kind of counter-movement except the protagonist, Aiden Pearce, and a small gaggle of hackers huddled around him. Everyone else is a bystander who doesn't matter all that much and who is given next to no agency. The closest thing to a unified counterculture distant from the player character is the hacker group DeadSec, but they spend most of their time in the shadows, and eventually turn face, declaring war on the people of Chicago. While Watch_Dogs shows some citizens acting for a righteous cause where GTA doesn't, its view is more or less that everyone but you is useless in stamping out systemic oppression and that even if you/Aiden are a selfish serial murderer, you've got the excuse that you're doing something about the antagonists when no one else is. It's a free pass to commit individualistic vigilante violence that flies only because the game can't imagine a politically active person any more moral than Pearce.

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Although, even that justification doesn't let Aiden off the hook for adopting the same unethical behaviours as the antagonists. Digital giant Blume Corporation runs the CTOS, and through their surveillance network, the game can pontificate on real-world mass surveillance. As it shows us, one of the sick realities of data dragnets is that they dehumanise the surveilled and potentially give complete strangers an invasive livestream of our existences; that's a huge contributing factor to Blume being the villains. Yet, the game invites us to savour in the same dehumanising voyeurism that we're meant to hate Blume for.

We can profile the phones of people on the street to gobble up confidential and sometimes embarrassing factoids about them, and we can hack into in-home cameras to spy on strangers in compromising situations like having sex or yelling at their children. The game calls the latter activity "Privacy Invasion" and rarely are the offcuts of everyday existence within it humanising; as was often the case in GTA, these peoples' lives are on display just for us to judge or laugh at them, suggesting everyone who isn't you is probably either perverted or pathetic. Both implicitly treat humans as cheap consumables to be discarded once we've had our five minutes of fun with them. Even the aesthetics of Watch_Dogs's Chicago tell you that real people with their own free-will do not inhabit it. Ubisoft understands that homes, businesses, and service buildings get built, but the people and cultural demographics living in the city have not been able to leave their personal touch on them. It's all too utilitarian.

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For a game that effectively runs on CTOS, Watch_Dogs also doesn't provide many definitive explanations of what the consequences of such a sprawling control network might be. This is because most of the story isn't about its internet of things; it's about criminals harassing Aiden Pearce's family and his brooding revenge quest. Aiden's hacking got him into the mob's bad books, and it aids him in his antihero retribution, but the fact that he uses hacking as opposed to any other means of attack doesn't influence the plot until right near the end. He might as well be a psychic or an elite ninja for all the difference it makes. The link between CTOS and the antagonists doesn't become apparent until we find that local crimelord Dermot "Lucky" Quinn bankrolled the creation of the surveillance system in exchange for covert access to it. Through his feelers in the network, Quinn comes into possession of a tape of the mayor killing a woman which he uses to blackmail him, effectively giving Quinn power over the city. Watch_Dogs is highlighting a kind of problem with dark surveillance nets that we wouldn't usually think about: The issue here is not just government spying or a backdoor which could let hackers destabilise our infrastructure, but an unaccountable and almost invisible surveillance system greasing the wheels of corruption.

However, the villain that Watch_Dogs chooses and his ascent to power don't speak to the genuine concerns over how mass monitoring systems and shady businesses might settle into symbiosis. The fear is not that criminals might make some backdoor deal with tech corporations who need their passion projects funded; the real tech scene is awash with startup capital, and rather than us being anxious about unscrupulous players reaching into the system from the outside, the true fear is over the states and companies who run these networks violating human rights. Beyond its concerns of criminal conspiracy, Watch_Dogs doesn't make any predictions about what would happen in a digitally interconnected metropolis besides saying that it would be hacked. When we look through the eyes of a cybercriminal like Aiden, more devices connected to the internet appear as more vulnerabilities to exploit, especially within the context of the gameplay. So are those weak access points a good or a bad thing? Watch_Dogs doesn't know, and it doesn't care. It's that same odd mix of condemnation and apathy that GTA showed.

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The network is the tool of the powerful and corrupt but it's also the tool for sabotaging them, and as few people in this world have any will to fight back or competence at it apart from Aiden, whether or not his hacking is a good thing basically comes down to whether we think one-man vigilantism is a good thing. And the game may appear to be pro-individualism: By the end of Watch_Dogs, Aiden's personal crusade has saved Chicago from the grime of its political corruption, but the story gives us more reason to question the morality of Pearce than it seems to realise. He's not just violent; he uses the network to play peeping tom and beat citizens unconscious whenever a prediction algorithm tells him that it's pretty sure someone is about to commit a robbery. What's more, playing the lone hero, Aiden may stop democracy from being sabotaged by a corrupt mayor and his blackmailer, but he undermines democracy himself by taking the politics of Chicago into his own hands and treating any innocents who get caught up in it as collateral. As in GTA V, anyone who's not you just doesn't matter in the grand scheme.

Unlike Watch_Dogs 1 and the recent Grand Theft Autos, Watch_Dogs 2 acknowledges groups who wish to make a positive contribution to society, and respects and recognises the legitimacy of people far beyond the player character. Unlike the fledgeling entry to the series, the game also better incorporates hacking into its plot and personality. While the explicit story of Watch_Dogs 1 set up Aiden Pearce as a tight-lipped underground conspirator, you'll notice that the protagonist of Watch_Dogs 2, Marcus Holloway, is allowed to revel in the chaos and theatre of this work, as is his hacker gang, DeadSec. While our intuition may tell us that it would be stupid for hackers to put themselves in the public spotlight, in this sequel, DeadSec is as much an activist group as a hacker group, and activists need to spread their word far and wide. Now, it doesn't make much sense that an image-conscious syndicate like this would allow Marcus carte blanche to run over average joes and gun down private security. That's a part of the GTA template that doesn't translate to this kind of narrative, but by giving us leading characters trying to make a connection with the public, our actions in the game are no longer couched in self-important individualism, and when the game makes more of an effort to connect with society, it can wade deeper into the pool of societal issues.

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While Watch_Dogs's debut title was reticent about the consequences of big data, its successor has a more full-bodied understanding of where it's likely to lead. It says that such data mining would mean that employers could discriminate in who they hire based on candidates' search histories or that insurance companies could raise customers' rates just because they bought some alcohol or fast food that day. During the third act, Watch_Dogs 2's story goes a little InfoWars, informing us that CTOS was the cause of the 2007 financial crash and that it will soon be arming military police with a spider tank to place on America streets. Here, the portrayal of a mass surveillance network loses its credibility as the game tries to make a shocking reveal in a world where oppressive corporate monitoring is already the norm. The financial bubble plot point is also unconvincing because we have a pretty solid grip on what actually caused that recession and because it would be self-defeating for any company to crash the markets they've founded themselves on.

But overall, because the CTOS is a network plugged into everyone's lives, and the narrative is about the CTOS, Watch_Dogs 2 gives a better idea of how people would live in a country without privacy. Its story also has asides about plenty of other tech and business-adjacent issues. For example, it mentions the racial homogeneity of California tech and the ineptitude of visual recognition software in scanning black people. The game's empathy means that each run of missions typically focuses on an outcome of mass surveillance that could affect the average citizen and that the main characters react to these revelations in a healthy fashion.

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There are some actions that most audiences will accept from on-screen vigilantes. When we see a repugnant crime boss like Lucky Quinn who murders kids and twists the arms of politicians, most of us aren't going to get that bent out of shape if a rogue gunman removes him from society's equation. But any proposed solution to the harmful practices of tech conglomerates or a system like CTOS is going to be more controversial. What do we do when we find out that a smart home company has secretly been selling data on our domestic habits to the highest bidder? Or how should we act after discovering the FBI uses hacking tools to snoop on individuals without warrants or oversight? These are just some of the questions that DeadSec is confronted with in Watch_Dogs 2, and they choose not to answer them. Any response Marcus and co. could come up with would be going against the wishes of a sizeable portion of the population, and so they put these issues to the public, letting the people act as they see fit instead of having the questions answered by whoever decided to play cop today.

There is reason to be sceptical about how DeadSec brings the main antagonist to justice. At the end of the story, they have Blume CTO, Dušan Nemec arrested. We should question the effectiveness of this action as DeadSec's investigations have left them with the impression that America's institutions are deeply compromised by their proximity to authoritarian mindsets and corporate interests. They even discovered this to be true of a local police department. Handing Nemec over to the SFPD is morally superior to Aiden's vigilante mass murder, but the story never brings up that our console cowboy heroes are placing justice in the hands of the same politics that they've concluded are failing the people.

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It's also not that there's no measure of vigilantism in DeadSec's smash and grabs, but their approach to politics is far more communal. They allow anyone to aid their organisation through lending them processing power, and they function as an independent watchdog who expose the reality behind companies and leave the public to make the decisions about what to do with them. Their catchphrase is "DeadSec has shown you the truth, do what you will". The structure of the main missions of Watch_Dogs 2 involves DeadSec releasing a series of informative videos on what's happening in the back rooms of San Francisco's various campaign offices and tech headquarters, and the missions mostly involve obtaining the evidence to produce those clips. Both through you being one unit in a larger collective and through the democratic approach that this posse has to politics, Watch_Dogs 2 acknowledges the agency and need for respect for people beyond the player that GTA and Watch_Dogs 1 never did. These are the "good guys" which are noticeably absent from GTA's and Watch_Dogs 1's America. You even see it in the game's use of "followers' as its XP equivalent; growing in this game doesn't mean simply increasing your potential to unleash carnage, it means gaining the support of the people and lending them a helping hand.

Without GTA's desperation for rapid-fire jokes at the expense of other people or Watch_Dogs 1's creepy techno-spying, the game feels less like it presents society as dancing monkeys there for your pleasure. The CTOS's profiler is still present, and one side mission has the crew being uncharacteristically mean to random ATM users, but where you do hack into peoples' in-home cameras, you're breaching the privacy of people who deserve it. Rather than seeing instances of abuse and neglect through the surveillance network and heartlessly walking away, as Aiden does, you're taking an active step to stop monsters whenever they're on the other end of the line. You send police to a swatter's apartment, and you scam a pharmaceutical exec who is essentially Martin Shkreli. Where Watch_Dogs 1 had a hack in which Aiden Pearce witnesses a suicide attempt and does nothing to help, Watch_Dogs 2 has a hack wherein Marcus witnesses a person doing the same and uses his skills to save their life. It's the kind of change you get when you switch your series from being about resolving the protagonist's grievances to serving the people.

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We also see the agency of the citizenry in the environment. Watch_Dogs 2's San Francisco is fleshed out with street art, street performers, and LGBT iconography, all of which you're encouraged to pay attention to through the ScoutX secondary objectives which award you followers for taking pictures of these sights. Unlike in Watch_Dogs 1, counterculture is not an idea that you, the player, and a small group of cyberpunks have dreamed up in front of your laptops one day, but exists as the background hum of the city. You're not arrogantly above the populace but becoming part of their history of opposing oppression, and because other inhabitants of the world are allowed their own expression of oppressed identities, the environment can have some personality. It's a bright indicator of what GTA is missing out on by trying to sardonically tear down every social group it comes into contact with. If your media struggles to connect with any demographic in society without making fun of them, and there's a demographic you know it would be unethical to mock, e.g. LGBT people, then you can either try and develop a more respectful posture towards them, or you largely leave vulnerable cultures out of your work. And I'm not saying that Watch_Dogs 2 goes to extreme lengths in this department, there are no visibly LGBTQA+ characters in the main hacker club, for example, but because it's not always itching to humiliate its characters, there's some room for it to depict groups worthy of respect.

All of this is also not to say that Watch_Dogs 2 is necessarily more enjoyable than Grand Theft Auto or that a purely parodic perspective on society like GTA's makes for a less entertaining experience than a more sympathetic one like Watch_Dogs 2's. However, by simulating the culture of a city and not just the vague concept of one, Watch_Dogs 2 and GTA both let you know the city is more than your personal play area which Watch_Dogs 1 doesn't. And by validating people beyond the player in its environment and politics, Watch_Dogs 2 is capable of feats that Watch_Dogs 1 and GTA never could be: It leaves us with a healthier worldview, a more realistic picture of society's conflicts, and makes us feel like we're closer to sharing moments of empowerment with a populace and social group rather than judging them from our ivory player agency tower. Thanks for reading.

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