Watch_Dogs 2, recently promo’d here in the week before E3, wants you to know that it is a game about hacking. The promotional video released during the press event does everything that it can to both distance itself from the original Watch_Dogs and bring itself closer to some kind of generalized ideal of “real” hacking. The setting is no longer Chicago, but the hacker-happy city of San Francisco, hotbed of the technology wunderkind who define our current age of investment capital excess. Instead of the dour generic videogame protagonist Aiden Pierce, we have a new, “worthy” hero named Marcus Holloway. He’s a “young hacker” who is “very brilliant” but who was “accused of a crime he didn’t commit” which made him “go against the system.” “He’s the perfect blend between somebody that’s tech savvy, that represents a little bit the internet culture, but also has that athletic and rebellious feeling to him.” (I am quoting directly from the video for all of this, by the way).
Watch_Dogs 2 is trying to ground us in realism by giving us a young black protagonist from Oakland who has been on the wrong end of the technology apparatus during the tech boom. He’s a smart kid, so he pushes back: he’s a hacker!
The original Watch_Dogs was critiqued for having a shallow version of hacking. It was mostly about whipping out a magical telephone, pointing it at cameras/moveable barriers/forklifts/other people, and then watching something happen. Then, when that failed to pan out, you went for the assault rifle. The hacking mechanic lacked sufficient depth for many players.
It seems like Watch_Dogs 2 is making an attempt at backing that hacker fantasy up with more specific mechanics like being able to hack the drive system for any car, or using a robot to hack things, or making a bunch of cell phones ring to the annoyance and abject fear of grandmothers everywhere (or at least my grandmother).
Watch_Dogs, as a franchise, is invested in you living the fantasy of being a hacker, and so the question of “what is a hacker?” might be the most operative one for understanding the game that is going to be appearing on your consoles in the relatively-soon time of the future.
From the perspective of the video, being a hacker is a lifestyle. It is a total aesthetic package. You get stylish clothing, you immediately become fit, and you become a fanatic about self defense and all of the things you might need to do to hurt someone who wants to hurt you. You get to live the party life, taking over the sides of buildings while you make papercraft horse heads that keep you anonymous from one another while you hammer down booze. You want something? You 3D print it. You want the world to forget you? You delete the accounts. You keep the world free, you hack the phones, you live the life that Hackers told you that you could.
And, even better, you join Dedsec, the Watch_Dogs version of Anonymous with its weird vocoder voice and scratchy screen and surrealist takeovers of television stations.
I don’t mean in-game, although I am dead certain that the plot of the game takes you from cool dude to cool hacker in the most badass group around town. I mean in real life. See, you can join Dedsec in real life. It’s the Watch_Dogs social club, a way of garnering player support and attention and (brutally, graspingly) trying to keep it until that launch window rolls up and your preorder bonuses are locked in. You sign up, do tasks related to the game, and you get rewards. Dedsec disciplines you into being a better player, a better consumer of the Watch_Dogs brand, and you deserve to get a little something for your good behavior.
I’m not an extoller of hacker culture, and I don’t think it’s somehow special for being technically obscure and underground, but I do think there’s some real dissonance going on when the director of a company can say “In the end, there’s nothing more hacker than this—looking at something [and] trying to understand it solely for fucking up with the system” while making a massively-budgeted game in the largest entertainment medium that our planet has ever seen. There is maybe nothing more systemic than videogames at this point. They are becoming fully integrated with our lives, all of our entertainment, and even the way that we learn.
Selling authenticity is nothing new. You make intellectual property out of things that are new, edgy and cool, repackaging them into easily purchased commercial totems. Capitalism works best by eating difference and integrating it well into the normal operations of things. Within the fantastical imagination of Watch_Dogs, being a “hacker” is functionally the same as being a summoner in Final Fantasy or a cyborg ninja in Metal Gear Rising. It is abstracted out into a set of loose aesthetic signifiers, mechanics and narrative beats that have nothing in common with the grimy, ill-fitting, untrusting organizations that leak the names of prominent Ku Klux Klan members.
It’s hard to watch the current promotional campaign for Watch_Dogs 2 and not feel a little embarrassed, even if you aren’t a part of or even interested in the “hacker” subculture. The contradictions at the core of the promotional material—that one can be fundamentally opposed to “the system” while being the sum total of it—have no hint of being addressed. The ads exploit real world tensions to make the game seem edgy and authentic, but comes off looking about as inauthentic as it possibly could. This campaign has exerted a whole lot of effort to look no less shallow than the original Watch_Dogs.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.