In Watch Dogs, every smartphone can be hacked, giving players access to the personal information of other characters – but it's all based on real-life scenarios Most of the time, game protagonists occupy worlds that are utterly fantastical, bearing little resemblance to our own reality. From the space marines of Halo to the artifact-grabbing archeologists of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, our exploits in games are as relatable as blockbuster popcorn cinema. It is all about escapism.
But when a game’s world and the activities of its protagonist start to look like something out of everyday life, it can be unnerving. Owing to the agency conferred on us in this interactive medium, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality can make us feel complicit in the acts we carry out on screen. After all, in video games we often operate by a moral code that we would never replicate in real life. We do questionable things in games.
And this is part of their power, of course. Video games are the only mainstream medium where audience members are active participants; in titles such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto it's up to you who dies and who doesn't – and we all respond to that power in different ways.
Everything's connected all the timeWhat makes all of this possible? According to Paterson it has a lot to do with the fact that Western society has become wholly dependent on internet-connected devices – there are now more of them than there are people on the planet. By 2020 there could be around 50bn connected devices in use, which equate to nearly every technological convenience one interacts with on a day-to-day basis in the developed world. We've all heard about the internet of things – the idea that everything from your washing machine to your central heating system could be online and accessible from wherever you are. But with the convenience, comes the potential of abuse.
“Your phone, your house, all of your appliances, all the transport methods that you use to get to work – all of those become a potential security risk,” says Paterson. “And absolutely – without disconnecting them fundamentally from the internet – they can be hacked.”
There’s also the small matter of the interconnectivity; the way each individual’s digital footprint is aligned with others, and how frighteningly unaware many of us are of this. Almost every online interaction one has is recorded digitally in some way and as we use new technologies such as social media and cloud storage and mobile devices – even though we get a lot of benefit from it – unconsciously we’re leaving a trail of data behind us on the Internet. And that data can be sold, swapped between corporations or, as we have seen from the Edward Snowden revelations, requisitioned by government agencies. Or it can just be stolen. The annual cost of cyber-crime is said to be around $100bn and it's on the rise.