As reports continue to surface about the National Security Administration's (NSA) surveillance programs, some of the predictions made by dystopian science fiction video games like Ubisoft's upcoming surveillance-themed game "Watch_dogs" have started to seem frighteningly prescient. And so while video games are rarely (if ever) seen as an outlet for ongoing news stories, game developers have begun applying their talents to the public conversation about privacy and security that Edward Snowden's leaks has sparked.
"If you had access to all the same data as Edward Snowden, what would you do with it?" the website for the upcoming browser-based game "Data Dealer" reads. "Ever wanted to run your own Smoogle & Tracebook, track your users & pass it over to some governmental agency? Now you can."
As the not-so-subtle references to Google and Facebook suggest, "Data Dealer" is a satirical game that puts players in the perspective of some of the most powerful and ubiquitous tech companies at the center of our current cultural and technological anxieties. But rather than try to answer the persistent question that journalists and pundits have been asking about Edward Snowden's personal ethics and political responsibilities, "Data Dealer" promises to let players puzzle through these murky questions themselves by giving them "the power of having access to global info just like the NSA."
"'Data Dealer' is a game that lets you play God with other people's data," the game's description continues. "Become Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, or even Edward Snowden, as you control the flow of data — and the price tag that comes with it. And decide for yourself whether they´re heroes or traitors!"
While "Data Dealer," like "Watch_dogs," might sound incredibly timely for the thorny subjects it broaches, Cuteacute game's developers note that it's actually been in development for two years. Indeed, the Vienna-based studio posted a Kickstarter project on June 14 — not long after The Guardian first broke its story about the NSA. One can't help but ponder whether or not Cuteacute was hoping to turn our collective paranoia about big data into some extra donations for its crowdfunding campaign, though seeing as it's less than a quarter of a way towards its $50,000 goal with just nine days left to go, it doesn't seemed to have worked all that well.
'Snowden's Leak: The Game'
A more immediate but less polished look at the NSA scandals comes in the form of a flash game called "Snowden's Leak: The Game." Here, players assume the role of the whistleblower as he sleuths around the hallways of NSA buildings, uploading top-secret data onto USB drives and chucking them out open windows while trying to dodge security cameras and agents.
Developed in just three days by the same team that once made a flash game about Kanye West bumping into a street sign, "Snowden's Leak" could be characterized as what video game scholars Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer identify as "tabloid" games in their 2010 book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play."
While these kinds of games aren't all that creative or challenging ("Snowden's Leak," for instance, is a very basic stealth puzzle game where players have to time Snowden's movements to avoid detection by the NSA's security system), their simplicity is what makes them easy enough for casual players to understand and possibly learn from.
I doubt that many people are going to Newgrounds to get breaking information about the NSA, PRISM and Snowden's fate. But the fast-paced production of a game like "Snowden's Leak" still shows how games are becoming increasingly attuned to the world around them.
And if nothing else, it might give Snowden some amusing time to kill while he remains on the lam.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.