Orwell S2: On Data Curation

I played through the second season of Orwell recently – it’s called the second season, but I think for most practical purposes we can treat it as a sequel. It’s titled Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, and by and large I think it was a little less well received than the original Orwell. But there’s one fascinating little change that I wanted to focus on today: the second season of Orwell adds a clock.

In the original Orwell, time wasn’t really much of a factor. There were one or two little moments where you had to find the correct information in a given timeframe – I think there was a bomb that went off if you didn’t find it in a certain number of uploads. But for the most part, time wasn’t really a constraint. You could just kinda bumble around and upload everything and build up these really ornate and detailed character profiles. In the second season (I’m calling it Orwell 2), they add in a clock. You’re an employee, and you clock in at 8 or 9, and you’re out at 5 or 6. Every upload takes ten minutes – and so suddenly you have to be really specific about what you want to upload.

It’s a pretty slight change, adding just a little tension into your decision making. You have to judge what’s important and what’s not important, what will get you deeper into your target’s files. In a sense, you actually have to start curating what you upload. In the original Orwell, you can upload indiscriminately. But if you’re having to pick and choose, then you’re really curating the data. That’s really interesting as a comment on the surveillance state, which – you know, is something Orwell is all about. It – oh, hang on, I’ve not written anything about Orwell here. I thought I – never mind. Okay: brief summary, Orwell is a game about the surveillance state. You get to read people’s emails and look through their texts and monitor their calls and you’ve got to find a bomber. It’s a little like SIMULACRA in terms of this slightly disquieting technology that you’re interfacing with. You’re looking through Orwell‘s version of Facebook, and it’s just a little too accurate. You recognise different types of posts, different types of commenters. There’s the racist uncle, the edgy friend, the gushy insta-girl – it’s uncomfortable because it’s so familiar. And you upload details from their posts and email and whatever into a massive computer database and – yeah, surveillance state, find a bomber.


Anyway, one of the big things about the original Orwell is that it’s kinda interested in how surveillance can be lopsided. Moments before the bomb goes off, CCTV cameras record a girl with a criminal record passing through the plaza. You investigate her, and ultimately you find out she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So as a government operative, you’ve collected all this data on her – from her emails, her texts, her phone conversations – and that’s information that you’ve got stored away in your little computer – even though she hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s one of the criticisms that the game levels against the surveillance state – it can be wrong-footed. You can incorrectly monitor innocent people. I mean she’s not totally innocent, she threw a rock at a policeman during a riot or whatever, but she’s definitely not a bomber, and you invaded the fuck out of her privacy.

The potential for misinterpretations and out-of-context quote mining increases as the game goes on. And in Orwell 2, that general effect is compounded by the timer. Because you only have so much time, you have to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not. You stop being a (relatively) impartial collector and take on this role of active interpreter, pushing the investigation towards the people and information that you think will help achieve your goals. And you’re not always going to be right. Sometimes you might mismanage your time. You might follow a path that leads nowhere. It’s not always the end of the world – usually you can get back on track and find what you’re actually looking for. But even in that instance, you’ve collected a whole bunch of unnecessary data. It’s not related to your target, it’s not helping you solve the investigation – it’s just sitting on your computer gathering dust. To me, that’s the really scary part – you might be totally innocent, totally unrelated to a crime – but the government has investigated you and is just holding on to your details, just in case. And in that instance, as a player, you’re not just going where the game tells you to go. You made the choice to investigate that person, to upload those details. You’re responsible for that.


So the time constraint makes you selective about what you upload, and being selective about what you upload is accidentally one of the potential problems with broad surveillance powers. It’s not just a neutral surveillance, right – there are human people on the other end making human decisions about what’s important and what’s not. And they might have their biases or incorrect assumptions or virtually any other problem with their decision-making process. And you don’t know how the process works, and they’re not telling. That’s a compelling game mechanic.

I say ‘accidentally’ one of the potential problems because I’m not totally convinced that the developers fully understood the implication of their design. My instinct is that they were trying to make the game a bit harder – because you can mostly just goof around in the original Orwell. Their big new mechanic is the ‘Influencer’ tool, which lets you upload social media narratives to make journalists look bad. It’s not very well thought out. Topical, sure, but a bit clumsy. This tiny little clock detail seemed much more interesting to me, if also much more minor in the overall structure of the game. There’s one section where you have to investigate one of two people in order to blackmail a journalist into not releasing an article, and you kinda have to pick the correct one or you might run out of time – but again, eh. You don’t know which one to investigate, so you’re just guessing, and the guess doesn’t say anything interesting about racial profiling or any of the other issues relating to surveillance culture. It’s not ‘which one of these people is a terrorist’, it’s ‘which one has a convenient skeleton in the closet that we can use to blackmail some journalist?’ I’m trying to talk about these relatively weighty issues surrounding the ethics of surveillance, and Orwell is doing its best Malcolm Tucker impersonation.

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