You Will Ruin Lives in This Surveillance Game, the Only Question Is Why


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Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Orwell: Ignorance is Strength, a kind of Season 2 of 2016’s Orwell, doubles down on the themes of the original game. What is the balance between security and safety? Is surveillance ever justified? Unlike that first season, though, Ignorance is Strength feels like it has something specific and clear to say, and it’s better game for it.

Ignorance is Strength places you in the comfy office chair of an operator of the surveillance system called Orwell. Recruited from the average citizenry, you are you, but if you worked as part of a massive surveillance operation for a country called The Nation. There are some tricky rules for the surveillance program. The first is that surveilling cell phones, computers, or whatever else requires something similar to probable cause. For example, you listen in on a cell phone, you need to find that number within the call records of a current surveilled target. Another is that data collection and data interpretation are performed by two different people; you are the collector, and your handler Ampleford is the interpreter.

The gameplay of Orwell: Ignorance is Strength centers on those two general rules. You are sifting through the private lives of your targets in order to find connections to other people or other devices that they own, and then you comb through those devices in order to pass information through the wall to Ampleford who interprets it.

This is the real difference between Orwell and Ignorance is Strength: Ampleford’s cruelty, and the depravity of your mission, drive home that surveillance is not an abstract issue. Your handler seems to personally hate your targets, and the reasons are blurry. On one hand, it seems that Ampleford just doesn’t care for refugees from the nearby country of Parges. On the other hand, it might be the actions of your primary target that have her riled up. The ambiguity is productive because it is designed to make the player uncomfortable, on-edge, and critical of the job they are doing. If the problem of surveillance in the first game began centered around an apolitical “I am just doing my job,” then that statement is shifted in the sequel to “I am doing this job for someone.” That difference generates a positive friction that makes Ignorance is Strength a much more rewarding experience.

When I wrote about the first Orwell game, I said that the game put the player in a position of “regularized banality.” That game was all about introducing you to this surveillance software suite and slowly attempting to make you comfortable with doing all of the things you’re doing. That game’s handler, a man named Symes, was a duty-bound manipulator who drove home that surveillance was a service to your country. Nearly devoid of a personality, he continually directed you through a response to a terrorist attack. Ignorance is Strength is still doing all of that work, but with an edge to it. Where Symes was manipulative and cool, Ampleford is perhaps best described as cruel. The feeling of how you are guided through this world is decidedly different, but that difference makes a difference here.

The primary target of this surveillance operation is a man named Raban Vhart, and he runs a website called The People’s Voice. The website is dedicated to holding The Nation, the country you work for, and its ruling party accountable for the “humanitarian intervention” they performed in the neighboring country of Parges a few years ago. Parges had been undergoing something similar to a civil war, with nonviolent and violent splinter groups forming within that, and The Nation’s military stepped in to stop the violence and “restore order.” All of the information that the player receives about this conflict is diffracted through the source that writes about it. You never get the “real” story.

Much like the first game, Ignorance is Strength seems skeptical that there can ever be a “real story.” Instead, there are sources, and how you interpret those sources is the work of surveillant investigation. It’s important that the game never encourages you to or lets you forget what you’re doing in this game: you are trying to collate enough information on an enemy of the state so that they can be safely ignored by the public. The work of Ignorance is Strength is not traditional investigation. It is about ruining someone’s life, and how excitedly you tackle this quest determines the kind of experience you will have with this game.

In 2016, after playing through the entirety of Orwell and talking to the developers, I came to the conclusion that the game missed how surveillance works. It is not about abstract concepts of free speech or safety vs freedom. Instead, surveillance is about creating boxes for humans and then managing the people that get out into those boxes. Crucially, racism is a huge part of that, and I thought that Orwell really missed the mark when it came to understanding that.

I’m happy to say that Ignorance is Strength takes the broader view of surveillance much more seriously, and it’s stronger for that. Ampleford, your handler and data interpreter, clearly has some biases against Pargesian refugees. She obviously thinks that any challenge to the National mission into Parges is a personal slight against her, and she responds accordingly by asking you to find specific kinds of humiliating or discrediting information about your refugee targets and those who associate with them. Parges, being fictional, doesn’t even have a real-world analogue, but its citizens have darker skin and linguistically different names than the people of the Nation. This game is much more responsive to both the realistic dimensions of surveillance and how it is unevenly applied to the people who live under surveillant regimes.

Wonderfully, the game repeatedly puts the player in positions where what they doing is obviously cruel or destructive.

Ignorance is Strength has its narrative ups and downs, and it is contained in three “episodes” that take the player through a whole regime of justifications for surveillance. Wonderfully, the game repeatedly puts the player in positions where what they doing is obviously cruel or destructive.

You’re not just doing a job; you’re doing a job for The Nation, a country that is clearly oppressing its people. You can feel it in the interactions with your handler, in the press coverage that you read, and in the conversations that you’re listening in on. There is a friction and a simmering anger behind this game. Even better, I got a “bad” ending to the game. My assumption, based on how I played, is that there are a few ways of getting to an ending, and mine was the bleakest, most nihilistic one of all.

I mean, I just did my job. I did what my handler asked me to do. It all worked out for me, but it came at a cost, and revealing that cost was powerful.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzxnba/orwell-ignornace-is-strength-surveillance-game