Right to digital play: extractivism, rights and strategic alliances

By Luca Carrubba – ArsGames

To close the cycle organised by ArsGames, on 14 December we had the conference Digital rights in videogames, given by Luca Carrubba. Read on to find out about the problems and alternatives raised in terms of digital rights and the video game industry.

Digital rights

The video games industry is increasingly central to understanding the transformations of today’s technological marketplace and identifying the struggles that await us as activists and stakeholders in digital human rights. When we talk about digital rights, we recognize some specific rights that have emerged in the realm of the internet and digital technologies. These include:

  • Right to free speech  
  • The right to privacy online      
  • Right to access cyberspace (internet access) regardless of income levels, geographic location or disabilities of users.       
  • Right to associate in online communities (also known as virtual communities)          
  • Connect globally.       
  • It is open and accessible to all.         
  • Users have the right to communicate.           
  • Users have the right to privacy.         
  • We, the people, are the stewards of the network, not its owners.     
  • Network management should be open and inclusive.
  • Protection against abuses of neurotechnologies and AI.
  • The network must reflect human diversity, not homogenize it.

It is important to highlight how these rights have been shaped by the activity and impetus of social movements and civil society organizations that have actively participated in the struggle for these rights.

The hacklabs, a computer laboratory that made the issue of access to digital media the focus of their political struggle, and the media activists of indymedia, a global independent communication project, have been among the first advocates of a renewed progressive and transformative vision of digital direct action practices.

Influence and extractivism

The video game market is currently demonstrating the capacity to profoundly intervene in the dynamics of technological development. The trial between Epic Games (the company behind the famous game Fortnite) and Apple, and its possible repercussions, show how what happens in this sector today has the potential to overdetermine global mechanisms at all levels of the digital sector. In the event that Epic wins, the currently restricted market for access to mobile apps will open up to a more diverse ecosystem of players, helping to establish a broader framework of consumer rights.

On the other hand, when analyzing the politics of data extractivism that operate at the core of today’s capitalism, we often forget about digital games. Instead, digital games demonstrate not only participation in these practices, but are at the forefront of new techniques for capturing data and interest. Through the use of sensors of different types that accompanying gaming devices, it is already possible today to capture and infer with a certain precision a significant amount of data and behavior, going far beyond what we know today in the field of data mining.

Gaming devices are already equipped with motion sensors, voice and image recording, and a new range of sensors such as eye tracking or galvanometer are beginning to be introduced on the market to enrich the amount of information in the hands of companies.

What kind of information can gaming devices capture and infer?

  • Gender and age        
  • Recognition of emotions        
  • Competence and soft skills assessment        
  • Inference of interests and preferences          
  • Inferences on the financial situation and consumption behavior       
  • Personality trait inference

It is possible to develop this analysis from just the basic sensors that come with our gaming machines such as camera, microphone, accelerometer, keyboard and mouse. It is important to highlight how, at present, it is very difficult to carry out these types of analysis as gaming technologies are very opaque due to the fact that they are protected by intellectual property patents that prevent us from really understanding how they work inside.

To this must be added the little weight that video games have had until now in the general panorama of the fight for rights. There is a situation of total obscurity that researchers and activists in the sector are experiencing. The reflections we are making are based on the technical analysis of some intellectual property patents that are currently among the few accessible elements.

But what is the use of all this data?

Undoubtedly the primary use of this data is related to advertising. Improving the game and promoting new versions is one of the aspects where all the information about the user is currently used the most. At the same time, it is possible to observe a transformation in the videogame market where more and more videogames are transformed into advertising space for other brands, turning the player into the minimum unit of their own attention economy.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that all this information can or may be used for other purposes, be they economic, political or social. This is already happening in some sectors such as banking or insurance, where companies are increasingly using video games as a psychological-behavioral-financial profiling tool. It is clear that the video game, as psychologists have been declaring for some years now, is an experimentation laboratory with a security level of more than 90%.

In the face of this capitalist hydra that monopolizes all spaces of life (including play) it is necessary to reclaim some ideas to start the debate and collective action. We need:

  • a high level of transparency around any collection, processing and sharing of personal data, as well as effective safeguards against access to data by unauthorized persons or organizations
  • the auditability of gaming algorithms
  • To build a new narrative among different activists, groups, human rights organizations that begins to incorporate video games as part of the current digital landscape.

Existing initiatives

It is important to highlight some initiatives that are beginning to address these issues. In Spain, two stand out. The proposal for a draft bill on the Regulation of Gambling proposed from 2021 by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which by the beginning of 2023 should become the first law in Europe to regulate the presence and access of Loot Boxes in video games. Loot Boxes are random reward systems which, according to many critics, represent a random mechanism typical of gambling and not proper to a traditional gaming system. After a long process of listening to the social partners, the ministry has presented a proposal for a law that should become a final text at the beginning of 2023. Despite having met with resistance from a part of the industry, this law seems to have gained sufficient support among the stakeholders that have been contacted throughout the process.

In the sphere of civil society, we find the Arsgames Digital Rights to Play Defense Days, which for the last three years have been building a community of knowledge and practices around the issues raised in the series of recent articles published in this blog. From a critical point of view and with the spirit of generating an active community, each year the meeting seeks to reflect on some specific aspect of digital rights in the videoludic field, such as dark patterns or the exploitation of female labour in the industry. It also seeks to respond in a proactive way with the collaborative construction of policy documents that can be used to lobby local, national and international administrations.

In this context, it is urgent to generate strategic alliances that focus on video games within the framework of digital rights. Talking about AI also implies talking about video games. Thinking about data extractivism also involves video games. And digital activist networks must also include video games and video gamers.

The video game industry urgently needs to be recognised and addressed as a central issue in the discourse on consumer privacy, informational self-determination and corporate surveillance, which is currently not the case. The solution to this problem cannot be left to the user. Only collaboration between civil society, movements, NGOs, research institutes and technology-savvy government agencies can find sustainable solutions.

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