A Republic of Blackboxes: Hijacking Users Devices for the Greater Good

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

After Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the National Security Agency's spying program, people worldwide suddenly realised the degree to which their computing devices were gathering personal information that could be accessed by anyone with both the means and the inclination. The games Blackbox and République play with our relationships with our mobile devices, the former by cheekily revealing the functions of the titular blackboxes we hold in our hands, and the latter by crafting a dystopian society in which the player's phone becomes a tool primarily due to its centrality to surveillance culture.

In this paper I consider the ways in which both Blackbox and République make use of the affordances of modern mobile devices to entertain and delight players while at the same time drawing attention to the ease with which malicious actors can exploit these same affordances to discover a worrying amount of information about the user. The tactics each game uses are notably different: Blackbox makes the user discover that it is secretly streaming an empty audio track without explicitly drawing a comparison to Facebook’s use of a similar tactic to spy on the user; République, by contrast, has the player make use of in-game cellphones, webcams, and Xbox consoles to spy on the game’s protagonist, drawing a direct comparison to the CIA’s use of the same devices.

Despite these differences, however, each game makes use of the affordances of the platform to insert a crowbar into the gap between the user’s expectations and the technological reality of our devices. As I will demonstrate, the use of a player’s device to exploit hidden functionality within a ludic framework is a powerful illustration of the vulnerability of users to bad-faith actors, a vulnerability that works of electronic literature are uniquely positioned to communicate.

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Li Yi