Von Labs | Transparency in the Video Games Industry
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Transparency in the Video Games Industry

Transparency in the Video Games Industry

Transparency in the video games industry is a concept about which many are speaking. The tech industry on the whole is calling for reform, as evidenced by the global Google Walkout which occurred in early November. But why is transparency so important? Essentially it can prevent abuse for employees, consumers, even the developers themselves. It holds people accountable.

Privacy is a concept we have lost touch with. Webcams are now automatically taped over, many assume the extremely targeted ads on our browser are due to conversations eavesdropped on by our phones. We invite devices like Amazon’s Alexa and the Xbox Kinect into our homes, knowing all the while we are sacrificing security for convenience. This form of generalised control through technology and data mining is then normalised, made to be a part of ‘how things are’. The list does not end there, soon even washing machines and electric toothbrushes will gather data on their users. Jeremy Benthem’s concept of the panopticon is more applicable than ever to modern society. As a work of architecture, the panopticon allows a watchman to observe occupants (in a prison, school, hospital etc.) without the occupants knowing whether they are being watched or not.

The abandoned Presidio Modelo panopticon in Cuba

The French philosopher Michel Foucault revitalised interest in the panopticon as a metaphor in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Foucault used the panopticon as a way to illustrate the proclivity of how disciplinary societies subjugate and surveil its citizens. He describes the prisoner of a panopticon as being at the receiving end of asymmetrical surveillance: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” This leads to a form of self governance for fear of punishment. It’s not a stretch to say the watchtower in the centre of the panopticon is a precursor to modern CCTV, smart phones, self service checkouts  – purposely visible machines with human eyes hidden from view.

While there may not be a central tower, we now have communicating sensors in our most intimate objects. This accepted constant surveillance is not a healthy mindset or indeed altogether ethical. Privacy is slowly being eroded by corporations and individuals alike. Sara Mills says “Foucault’s notion of power moves beyond the basic categorisation of the powerful within society oppressing the powerless, and instead examines the everyday relations that repress but also produce power.” This notion of constant monitoring has begun to pervade society, creeping into widespread pop culture so much so that we’re now generating memes based off the idea that a friendly FBI agent is always watching you.

This normalisation of surveillance in society and the rewarding of the bad behaviour of corporations does more than just curb the rights of the consumer, it has a knock on effect throughout industries. To the extent where the tables become turned and you now have situations where the ‘mass’ are surveilling those employed in high profile companies. Recently in the games industry there have been a plethora of worrying examples of this.

Employees of big name developers are now starting to realise they are no longer free to express themselves in their free time on their personal social media accounts. When they do their comments will invariably offend someone and are thus reported to the company they work for, all under the watchful eyes of the public. ArenaNet, the developer of the popular Guild Wars game, was at the centre of one such controversy in July of 2018. There were claims that gamers had control after successfully getting two employees fired from ArenaNet for their personal Twitters, one of whom was simply defending his colleague against the backlash her comments received. Both were fired immediately rather than simply given a warning. The company has stuck by their decision to this day though it is widely regarded by gamers and developers alike as a bad call. They embarrassingly conceded to a few vocal trolls and an army of bots. This knee-jerk reaction without due process leads to a tail wagging the dog environment, where a company’s tone policing their employees is being set by the baying mob rather than any central code of ethics or morals. This attitude has taken a nastier turn beyond just loss of earnings, with ArenaNet even refusing to condemn the harassment of their ex-employees by doxers which increased dramatically after their firings.

Doxing, for the uninitiated, is a term for when someone publishes private information such as address or family members etc. about a particular individual on the Internet, typically with malicious intent. Doxing has even led to individuals and their families being ‘swatted’. Swatting involves someone making a false report to the police that is serious enough for them to send a SWAT team to the location specified by the caller. Streamers are a popular target for such harassment as the caller can watch their ‘prank’ unfold in real time. This is an extremely dangerous practice and has led to the death of a bystander, for whom the swatter was sentenced to 20 years in prison just this month. One Reddit user commented after the ArenaNet scandal;  “We can probably fire anyone on the GW2 dev team as long we make a big enough stink. Nobody at Arenanet is safe from the hand of reddit. We’re literally running the company now, they’re in fear of the very users they seek to consort with… The moment a dev steps out of line or try to talk back to a player, guess what, they’ll know we got their hands on their throat and we can squeeze any time we like.”

These kind of unwarranted firings are what bolsters anti-diversity movements like Gamergate and Comicsgate. Movements which are known to attack women in already male-dominated industries. All the while STEM is simultaneously trying to interest women in sectors that fail to protect them. This is where transparency is important. Not the transparency in the sense that everything, such as a persons identity and home address should be available for all – but the transparency of organisations and developers on their employment practices, their promotion strategies, their codes of ethics and how they deal with crunch and harassment (both inside and outside the company).

By creating a transparent ecosystem from the top down, the hope is that the more nefarious aspects of companies interactions with consumers will diminish. The gaming industry is just as vulnerable to the kind of data harvesting we see everywhere else by the likes of Facebook and Google. Which makes it so important to ensure developers are being transparent and accountable within their organisations because if they are’t doing it for their employees you can be sure they are not serious about building a more inclusive, secure world for their gamers.

“It’s no news to anyone that smart home devices are already spying on us, collecting data, and then reporting that data to third-party services. So why would anyone be shocked to hear that the same thing happens on consoles? It’s a market that nearly 100 million Americans spend time in each day.”

Consoles are usually unprotected by comparison to phones and laptops, but even beyond data logging your profile contains valuable credit card, email, password, IP address, friend list and address information. Read this account by Waypoint Media of one PlayStation user who had his account hacked multiple times by someone who intended to resell it (a common practice on all consoles) and found Sony’s response to be wanting. In addition to this multiple government agencies openly admit to spying on users with Kinect, PS4 cameras and recording conversations online.

Even deleting your profile does not guarantee your information will be redacted from any systems. Some privacy policies issued by gaming companies have no provisions regarding data retention, deleting personal information or deactivating accounts. This means that gamers who no longer wish to continue playing a game online may ‘close’ their account, but still have significant amounts of personal information remain both online and with gaming corporations.

Your data is under surveillance, not only by the government but also by corporations that make enormous amounts of money capitalising on it. So the question is what can transparency actually do for a company and for its consumers? It can ensure the customers data is protected and not misused. It can demand inclusive, ethical practices in the workspace monitored by the eyes of the public. The idea is that this transparency holds power to account, because the most dangerous people in society can be rulers. 

So the next time you see your favourite game developer mired in controversy for some unsavoury industry practice and consider ignoring it, just stop for an extra few seconds and think. Because if they are doing this inside their industry, what kind of things are they willing to do to your privacy and security for profit the next time you play their game.

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