Data is your best weapon : OFFGRID the game
You wake up, it's a day like any other. You, a gangly technophobe dad. Same suit different day. The fridge is beeping. Your daughter joins you at the breakfast table and you feel relief. She calls herself a hacktivist and you have no idea what it means, but without her, your devices don't seem to work. If she doesn't work her magic you can't get the photo into a presentation to attach to send to the office in time. Without her, the Smart TV laughs at you by recording only Faulty Towers dubbed in Albanian. Without her, the fridge seems to beep over and over. She taps at its touchscreen and the noise stops.
It is a day almost like any other; today is your birthday. Your daughter gives you a set of AR goggles (that's Augmented Reality, dad) (whatever that is). She baby steps you through the setup. And moments later, she's gone. Your door is smashed down, you are tased, and she is bundled away before your eyes.
It is a day unlike any other. She is gone for good. No details, no reason why, no hope but yours.
You are the main character in Off-Grid, a third-person hacker by indie games dev studio Semaeopus - (currently Kickstarting). To find your daughter and save her from the dark forces behind the scenes you have to shed your Luddite pupae and emerge a beautiful data butterfly of revenge. The scales fall from your eyes as you realise how the tech services you never questioned turn out to be a methodical surveillance operation. To rescue her you will have to turn the snoops tools against them.
Conceived of as a near future dystopia, the wave of recent events has risen to carry this game on its crest. Every new revelation of privacy invasion, collusion by household tech names in disrupting democracy and every pop-up detailing new cookie policies adds to its momentum, even before this game is released.
Off Grid was first publicly demoed the week the Edward Snowden leaks were revealed. That was the week that your conspiracy freak friends became the clued up ones. The week encryption, backdoors and the NSA moved from paranoia to pub chat fodder. That was a watershed moment for society and for Off-Grid. Rich Metson points out that "the populace had suddenly had the vocabulary to try and describe this stuff that they didn't have before. Everybody was able to converse about it because they had the reference point that was Snowden."
Four years ago, the Semaeopus team was met with rejections and claims that nobody was interested in privacy and data. But their desire to be an "indie" game studio gave them the latitude to pursue the project regardless. They have since found support and finance that has seen the game progress, and have direct relationships with the Microsoft gaming platforms. Husband and wife team Rich Metson and biz dev Sarah Asberry who also manages the game's community, are not your typical game devs.
They wake early to tend to the animals; feeding chickens and Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. Their gaming base alternates between a co-working space they run at the barn they self-converted, and a narrowboat in East London where I first met Rich teaching him to keep bees. When I suggest that they do not fit the stereotype, they nod but also point out that the hacker and dev community can be very accepting and more diverse than stereotypes would suggest. The sorts of people who are interested in looking behind the curtain, or fiddling about under the hood of our modern technological systems, are likely to be unconventional in some sense, and so nobody really expects each other to conform to the norms.
The game though is not just designed for those who are drawn to the hacker culture. It is first and foremost a game, complete with a driving narrative. There is a tension that needs to be navigated between being compelling and being addictive. Rich points out that narrative elements like a three act structure existed in storytelling and books and film before video games came on the scene. To keep doing something you have to care about it. However, there is a big distinction to be made between narrative elements that drive interest and play patterns that drive addiction.
While they are not prescriptive of content and see that dev creativity and player interests can take many shapes, the couple do warn against many free-to-play games whose mechanics are geared to exploit certain personality types. Rich draws an analogy between the profiling that Cambridge Analytica carried out to target people by personality type to the mechanics of games that prey on players' psychology.
Whereas Off Grid aims to pace the game, its story and game play in a way that maintains interest and rewards appropriately, many of these free-to-play games are designed to attract people who like rapid reward cycles and power ups early on, but which requires payment in order to maintain that pace. The games are almost made to be excruciating without paying. The deeper into the game you are, the more vested you are, the more you are willing to pay.
The more natural pace of Off Grid is also suitable for the learning journey it takes a player through. As Dad progresses, he learns more about the information we carelessly leave lying around - whether its notes on real desks, computer desktops or Facebook pages. Your character then finds ways of using the information people leave carelessly lying around in order to penetrate the security of the people who have kidnapped his daughter.
Semaeopus is keen to teach people about the extent of surveillance into our daily lives, and the importance of taking precautions against it. However, the game stops short of making actual software recommendations. The reasons are twofold. Firstly everybody has slightly different needs and wants: a private email might be of interest from someone who does not want to be served with ads based on their email or to someone who is uncomfortable with unethical or illegal behaviour they have come across in their organisation and they want to release. Secondly, any such recommendations run the risk of being incorrect - or dangerous - as the marketplace evolves.
Over the course of developing the game various examples of best privacy practice have already lost their validity."At the beginning of the development process, Truecrypt would have been the hard drive partitioning and encryption solution to recommend. However, over the course of the next couple of years it went from a commonly used standard to being deserted by the developers. That's a big red flag." As a result the game shies away from making product recommendations, choosing instead to try to teach the user the value of critical thinking as well as the foundational principles of basic networking; dangers of social profiling, data ming and metadata; asymmetric encryption, key pairs, trust and key signing; the inherent vulnerabilities of IoT or connected home devices.
While the couple is cautious about revealing the toolset they use, Rich does note that he regularly plays around with Linux distributions, and is currently enjoying Qubes. The principle of compartmentalising computing activity is something he says some of the big commercial players are looking at. He also notes that all their internal emails are encrypted with PGP which has the advantage of protecting the contents from unintended recipients, which is useful for persona, commercially sensitiv, or HR issues.
My own daughter will be engaging fully with all sorts of technology, she probably has a data profile already. I hope that games like this can help her keep safe and maybe rescue her dad one day.
Off-Grid can be found:
On Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/526720/Off_Grid/
On Discord: https://discordapp.com/invite/NDEVwBJ
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash