As I walk through the streets of Chicago with smartphone in hand, the secrets of the city’s citizens are revealed. Tomas Mendez is a 26-year-old mechanic who is estranged from his parents. Ellen Marsden is unemployed and recently divorced. Ben Sanders is a hair stylist with a methamphetamine addiction. The video game Watch Dogsreminds players of two realities we are often hesitant to admit: the world is broken and privacy is a myth.
Christians understand that our innermost secrets are exposed before God. As Hebrews 4:13 reminds us, “And no one is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Watch Dogs places players in a world whose inhabitants are exposed and must give an account to the player. I’d like to say that I sought to use this power justly, but the truth is that I didn’t handle it well. I am not sure it’s possible to do so.
Watch Dogs places players in control of Aiden Pearce, a hacker seeking to use his skills to bring to justice those responsible for the death of his niece. As Aiden, players are free to roam Chicago equipped with a smartphone that can hack into the computer surveillance system that tracks the lives of every citizen in the city. The profiles that Aiden is able to pull up tend to paint people in a rather negative light; eventually, you profile enough people that they all begin to blur together. With a seemingly endless supply of information at your fingertips, no single piece of information is special. The result is that Watch Dogs' world functions much the same way as countless action games before it: it exists to be exploited.
I’d like to say that I sought to use this power justly, but the truth is that I didn’t handle it well.
The game’s missions typically involve breaking into various gang hideouts guarded by mercenaries. These missions can be approached in a variety of ways, some more noble than others. However, I found myself unable to resist the temptation to judge Chicago’s citizens with my own brand of justice based on the vast knowledge at my fingertips, mercilessly executing drug dealers and pedophiles, while avoiding conflict with a mercenary who served in Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD. Truthfully, however, no one can be trusted to judge justly. It is impossible to navigate this game world with grace.
Initially I sought to complete the game’s missions as peacefully as possible, but making even the smallest mistake in Watch Dogs means getting pinned down in a gunfight, running from cops or barreling down a residential street at 95 mph in a sports car, as you would in Grand Theft Auto. In the course of doing such things, I hit civilians, gunned down countless enemies and destroyed the property of thousands of people. I found myself crossing so many boundaries that I eventually stopped thinking about peace altogether.
Thankfully, Watch Dogs attempts to illustrate the dangers of using our power to exploit others. The more Aiden uses his special knowledge to bring justice to Chicago, the more broken Aiden and the world around him becomes. His actions hurt those he cares most about and only serve to alienate him.
Watch Dogs reminded me that although I would like to know the secrets of others, such knowledge is too wonderful for me. I am not fit to expose them. Only God is truly capable of wielding knowledge with grace.