The NSA is spying on gamers for the same reason it wants to spy on your Facebook account. It’s a clear map of your relationships.
The easy reaction to today’s revelation in the Guardian that the National Security Agency spied on major games and gaming networks is amusement. Yes, it’s innately ludicrous to imagine a league of techno-spooks infiltrating World of Warcraft guilds, Second Life meet-ups, and Xbox Live matches. And given the fact that there is no proof that any attack was either detected or prevented due to these efforts, it’s natural to paint them as yet another example of simultaneously bumbling and terrifying security-state overreach. But they also reveal something perhaps more interesting, and more significant going forward: Gamers represent a massive, increasingly organized body that, in the eyes of advertisers and spymasters alike, resemble a social network.
Start with the numbers. PSN, Sony’s proprietary online gaming network, has 110 million members. Xbox Live, Microsoft’s equivalent, has 48 million paying members (and tens of millions more who don’t pay). Steam, Valve’s online gaming portal, has 65 million users. League of Legends has 70 million registered users. At its most popular, World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s money-printing online role-playing game, boasted 12 million subscribers. All together, that’s more than 300 million humans engaged in some form of networked communication through their game consoles and computers. That’s the population of America, and it’s only five of the core gaming networks.
And while 300 million is not in the same league as Facebook, that’s still a staggering figure. By comparison, Twitter has around 230 million month active users. Like Facebook or Twitter users, each gamer has a social graph, a discernable map of people to whom they are connected. On Xbox Live, PSN, and Steam, those are “Friends”, people with whom a gamer can chat, share, and segue into and out of cooperative or competitive gaming with. In League of Legends or WoW, these networks are smaller, and sometimes more formal (guilds of cooperating players) or much less formal (acquaintances who sometimes meet up at an agreed time to play).
The idea is, as it is on any major social network, that in the connections between million of users, there exist rich seams of information that can be quantified, monetized, or, in the case of today’s news, surveilled. And the movement of these big core gaming networks is ineluctably towards more data and more organization. Both of the new consoles, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, rearranged their interfaces to more clearly resemble the social interfaces—like Facebook—on which their users presumably spend reams of their time. And the Xbox One, which, thanks to its compulsory Kinect sensor and television connectivity, can collect enormous amounts of physical and personal data, is clearly the console with the most potential to know about its users ever made. And Sony and Microsoft have the advantage of dealing with users whose social graph is unusually pure, meaning, the relationships between its members are essentially based on one simple factor: they play games together. Because of this, data culled from the game networks may be especially valid.
Looking at the game networks in this context certainly puts the fervent, occasionally ridiculous consumer petitions lodged by gamers last summer in a new perspective. The outraged response of some gamers to the required connectivity and unfriendly used-games policies of the Xbox One struck me at the time as conservative:
This community tends to watch closely for any sign of the erosion of their cherished way of life (game trading, physical game discs, offline single-player gaming), often cast as fond childhood memories from a time when “things were simpler”. That’s a distinctly American and religious narrative—declensionist, lapsarian, apocalyptic—and it’s a powerful one.
What I didn’t write at the time was that this kind of conservatism is natural bedfellows with stay-the-hell-out-of-my-business libertarianism, you know, the kind that really has a problem with massive government collection of cell phone and ISP data. Back in July, it was easy to see these petitioning gamers as self-interested relics, paying lip service to the potential for privacy violations because they were upset that their precious hobby was changing. Now they seem prescient.
The lesson, I suppose, is that any large group of connected humans, in 2013, has no reasonable expectation of privacy or protection from the large forces that govern networked life. The old, closed circuit of gaming—head to hand to controller to system to television back to head—is obsolete. Gamers, like all internet users, are being counted, collected, collated; watched.