Video Game Sensors: Privacy and their Side-effects on Society

The subject of this post was inspired by an intriguing speech that I watched, which I highly recommend for anyone, on the g4tv.com website. In it, Jesse Schell, a professor teaching video game development, talked about the current and future of successful games. One thing Schell mentioned at the end of the speech was the increasing use of sensors in an effort to better the gaming experience. And how he expects we’ll be constantly monitored by these sensors and have our history recorded, much like Jim Carrey in the movie “the Truman Show.” I’d like to talk briefly about the current sensors, their privacy concerns and then how they might affect our behavior as individuals.

Video game controllers used to follow a simple design. The controller consisted of a directional pad (D-pad) and some action buttons. Controllers then brought back the analog stick that used to be found in very old Atari consoles, but the next notable innovation was the introduction of motion-sensitive controllers by the Nintendo Wii console in 2006. Since then, both regular consoles and handhelds have been pushing all kinds of sensors; from accelerometers to gyroscopes and touch screens. This innovation was so fast that made people like Adam Sessler, a famous video game critic, become worried that the gaming industry might be moving towards more technology rather than game content. For knowledge’s sake, the prominent game controllers as of now are Microsoft Kinect, Sony’s Move and Nintendo’s Wii U controller.

Let’s talk about the good with these innovations. They obviously push gaming technology further and blur the line of interaction between the real world and the virtual game world. They also transform the traditional gamer from a person who sits for hours holding a controller (unhealthy) to one who moves around and engages in a physical activity (healthier). Also, people have found many other innovative uses for these controllers outside of gaming, especially the MS Kinect which has been used in medical research and robot interfacing.

But unfortunately, most advances in technology come with risks, particularly with privacy and security. in my opinion, the risks with these controllers are more dangerous than many technologies we fear today because they have cameras that record our pictures and movements. In addition, they mostly use proprietary software on locked down consoles which makes it harder to figure out what information they record or share. For instance, the iPhone was found to be recording and storing the history of one’s movement using Global Positioning Systems without notifying the user. This made Apple push an update for its iOS operating system to fix this very issue. Similarly, Microsoft received some heat when its Corporate VP, Dennis Durkin saw business opportunities for targeted game marketing and advertising. The Wall Street Journal reports:

“We can cater which content we present to you based on who you are,” Durkin said. “How many people are in the room when an ad is shown? How many people are in the room when a game is being played? When you add this sort of device to a living room, there’s a bunch of business opportunities that come with that.”

Targeted marketing is not always bad, it is actually desirable by some individuals. But it makes you wonder how uncomfortable one might feel when Microsoft shares all this information with organizations the user is not happy with.

Another negative effect of sharing visual data that is worth noting is the privacy of conservative and Islamic families. In Islam, women are not supposed to be seen by other men without the traditional head covering (AKA hijab). Conservative families would not want their video recordings shared by unknown agencies when, for instance, they are in revealing clothing. Not knowing who watches us on the other side is discomforting to say the least. Some third-parties have introduced Kinect covers to cover up the camera whenever one is not using the Kinect. Similar concerns apply to the Sony Move, although no privacy-invading incidents have been reported yet. The Wii U controller will not be released until next year, but the same concerns apply since it has a front-facing camera.

All of these concerns intensify when the network to which the gaming “controller” is connected is hacked. Fears have risen since the Playstation Network was compromised recently (which I talked about in my previous post). Who knows what attackers of the network have in mind for all this data!

To finish off this topic, let’s look briefly at the effects of sensors monitoring us on our behavior. Jesse Schell in his speech argues that being monitored all the time and having a legacy of our actions passed on to our kids might encourage us to be better people. While this is somewhat plausible, I would argue that constant monitoring makes people afraid and worried. It makes us act against it and find ways around it. Furthermore, it pushes society to all become this one ideal individual who is “normal” and is afraid of making mistakes and trying new things because a random mess up can have a negative effect on his or her career and social life.

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