“The fight for digital rights in videogames belongs to all of us, whether we play or not”.

Next November and December we will be hosting at Espai Societat Oberta a series of talks and an exhibition on videogames, digital rights and gamified lives. A series of activities organised by ArsGames and on the occasion of which we took the opportunity to interview Eurídice Cabañes, co-director of the organisation.

Why a cycle on video games and citizens’ rights?

Video games are the most influential medium of our times. And I say this not only because it is played by three billion people in the world or because it generates revenues of 175 billion dollars, but also because it is society’s first contact with technology. The first personal computers to enter homes were video game consoles. They drove and promoted the technological improvements we enjoy today. But it is not only technology that has changed as a result of video games, people have changed too. As Daniel Muriel says, whether we play video games or not, “we are part of a videoludified society”.

Elements of gaming are present in our interactions on social networks, in our search for a partner, in job selection and in practically every aspect of our lives. Moreover, the video game is a space for generating symbolic universes with the capacity to create and legitimise discourses; and it has a clear influence both on the empowerment of people and on processes of community, civic and cultural participation.

Despite all this, video games have traditionally been sidelined both in struggles for digital rights and in mechanisms for the promotion of culture and public policies.

What are the problems involved in the creation and use of video games?

Some of the problems we find, in this exclusively private medium, are the extractivism of data and the use of obscure design patterns that generate addictive behaviours. I would also highlight the lack of transparency in algorithmic products protected under intellectual property laws. Not to mention the systematic harassment in multiplayer worlds and of female professionals, as well as the lack of diversity, precariousness and the absence of labour rights and unions in the industry. Moreover, it has become the tool of choice of digital capitalism, generating processes of videoludification of the social in all spheres of life.

What can be done to counteract these negative aspects?

These are the reasons that lead us to propose the need to put on the table the debate on the defence of digital rights in video games. As well as highlighting the need for video games – their production, distribution and consumption – to be a protected and regulated activity, so that the right to play is linked to the discourses of digital citizenship, citizen participation, digital rights and public policies.

We will do all this both in the next Digital Gaming Defence conference and in the series of events that we are organising at the Espai Societat Oberta in November and December.

Where and how are citizens’ digital rights being violated?

There are different scenarios in which this happens:

  • Data extractivism

While playing video games we are generating considerably larger amounts of data than those we generate in social networks, and yet little is said about it, it is unknown what uses are given to these data or what are the interests that guide their extraction. We know little about the world of video games, even though they are the spearhead of the current techno political war and also operate as black boxes that we cannot regulate, as we cannot understand exactly how they work because they are closed proprietary systems.

  • Dark design patterns

This is understood as a problem when the business model changes from selling games to a market where most of the revenue is generated by the data itself, or in free-to-play video games that offer in-game purchases. You can read more about this in this article I wrote on addiction and technology.  Video games are increasingly integrating strategies and manipulation techniques to make players spend more time than they would like to in the game, or spend more than they intended to in the game. These strategies are obscure because video game algorithms are not auditable, so it is not possible to know for sure whether they are present in different video games or not (although some are very obvious, others are not so obvious). Some video game companies, such as King (famous for Candy Crush), have 90% behavioural psychologists on their staff. Their games do not depend on your skill, they are not games that you play, but games that play with you.

We can see a detailed analysis of these practices on the website https://derechoaljuego.digital  to identify and detect them easily, or on the website https://www.darkpattern.games (in English), where you can also search for specific video games to see if they contain these patterns.

  • Online harassment practices

According to a 2022 study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), five out of six adults (83%) aged 18-45 experienced harassment in online multiplayer games, representing more than 80 million adult gamers. We can see that there is considerable growth in online bullying, which was 81% in the previous year (ADL, 2021) and 74% two years ago.

You defend video games as tools for social transformation. Why?

Whether we play or not, video games have already transformed society. Without public distribution channels, leaving their existence as cultural products solely in the hands of commercial interest and abandoned by the struggles in defense of digital rights, it is capitalism that has taken most advantage of their transformative potential, but it is time to re-appropriate the tool. The video game is a tremendously powerful tool. On the one hand, it can serve to generate processes of socialization, understanding and empathy. This is the case of video games that put us in situations that some of us have never experienced. I would give the example of Bury me, my love, which allows us to experience a process of forced displacement, or Dys4ia as a process of hormone replacement therapy. Video games also allow us to imagine possible futures, different economic, political or social systems.

When we decide that knowledge equals big data, we declare ourselves obsolete and fall into the hands of algorithmic governance. But the video game, as the first algorithmic medium, helps to understand data and complex systems by interacting with them and generating new data, new knowledge and new narratives about our reality. This can be seen both in the human computation practices of games such as Eterna o Eyewire, in which a large number of people contribute through play to scientific problem solving through citizen science.

This is the case of explorable explanations that allow us to understand with large amounts of data and complex systems and finally, combining all the above issues, it can help us to reverse algorithmic governance processes towards a playful governance in which citizens can make decisions, carry out consensus practices and experience in simulated environments the consequences and implications of the proposed changes before actually taking them to the real world. This would save time and money for public administrations, as the changes would be largely accepted by citizens and put into practice in order to prevent possible errors or undesired consequences before their implementation. Furthermore, it would mean more decentralised and much more democratic decision-making processes. Some proposals along these lines can be seen in:

What can society do for positive change on video games and rights?

Raise awareness of the problem, learn and inform themselves about these issues, sign up to the manifesto and lobby for basic rights to be respected:

  1. Create a list of digital rights to be respected within gaming environments.
  2. To be able to audit video games to find out the data capture mechanisms used and the use derived from them.
  3. To promote an international movement capable of confronting dark design patterns, thinking of mechanisms that benefit those products that pursue non-addictive design practices.
  4. To raise awareness among institutions, consumers and players so that a broad and diverse space for reflection on the treatment of personal data in digital games can be opened up.

Eurídice Cabañes is co-director of ArsGames, an international organisation with 15 years of experience focused on video games as a tool for social transformation. She holds a PhD in Philosophy from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and teaches at several universities in Spain and Mexico, with more than 60 publications including articles, books and dissemination and more than 140 conferences in Asia, Europe, Australia, North America and Latin America.

ArsGames is an international non-profit organisation that promotes and manages cultural projects related to video games and new technologies based on transversal areas of action: art, education and training, scientific research, digital inclusion and citizen participation.

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