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Watch Dogs: Finding Morality in Useless Information

Watch Dogs' Profiler means there's a fewer crimes in Aiden's digital city of Chicago.

Article by Mike Williams, .

I don't know how you play open-world games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause, or Sleeping Dogs, but I'm not the nicest protagonist. I'm don't usually get to the point of destroying everything in my path, but if I run over a few civilians or blow up an innocent bystander here and there, no foul. Things happen. Civilians and other NPCs in games are treated by most players as an afterthought. In the last generation of consoles, we began to approach the point where they were even a minor curiosity.

I play Watch Dogs a bit differently.

I feel pretty confident about taking this car...

Part of the hacking aspect of the game is the Profiler, Aiden's smartphone-based app that gives you look at each NPCs life. Profiler information is rather useless as it's randomly-generated just like each NPC's overall look. You find out a target's name, how old they are, their occupation, overall income, and a single random fact about them. Together, they paint a barebones picture about the person you're about to hack, carjack, knock out, or shoot.

With the Profiler on, I approach things differently. That NPC is an investment advisor making over $100,000 who just got back from vacation; I'm fine skimming a bit off the top of their bank account. Is that thug an animal lover making under $25,000? I'll just knock him out instead of putting a bullet in his head. Hey, that's a nice car and you don't believe in evolution; I'll take that $500 off your hands. There's whole sections virtual Chicago where I try commit no crimes: the high-poverty Wards and the blue collar Brandon Docks. I figure they have enough issues, without me taking their money, vehicles, and lives..

It's gotten to the point that I avoid taking cars with drivers in them at all. The first ability I unlocked, Car Unlock allows you to take parked vehicles without setting off the alarms. It's probably my most-used ability. Much of my playtime involves running into alleys and parking lots looking for a getaway vehicle; I wouldn't want to take a car from someone who really needed it.

I even feel bad about running NPCs over as I'm sprinting away from the cops or finishing a race. Ubisoft Montreal turns off the Profiler while you're driving - probably because you're moving too fast for the information to be useful - but running over and killing a pedestrian acts as a hit against your reputation. Every time I careen around a corner and see "Civilian Killed" with a red and white down arrow icon, I cringe a little. I always prevent another crime to make up for it. Which is odd because the reputation system doesn't particularly feed into anything in Watch Dogs. It doesn't give you any specific benefits like it does in the Infamous series, just the occasional quote or news item while you're out and about.

...but I wouldn't touch this one.

I know the Profiler information is what changes my playstyle, because I'll the ram the hell out of NPC vehicles while driving around the city. The Profiler's off, so there's no information. Without that context, I don't feel bad for totaling an NPC's car, or getting them caught in a traffic light hack while I'm evading the police.

Certain protagonists tend to lend themselves to certain playstyles, but I find that's not the case here. In Grand Theft Auto V, I found that playing as the psychopathic Trevor felt right for causing general mayhem. In Just Cause 2, Rico is there to cause trouble; everything I destroyed fed into that narrative. In Sleeping Dogs, the fact that I played undercover Detective Wei Shen meant I tended to be harder on criminals and less worried about taking civilian vehicles to stop crimes.

I'll just knock this guy out. Seems like decent folk.

Watch Dogs' Aiden Pierce is a horrible person. Most of the problems in the game stem from his actions and the death of his niece can be directly attributed to his time as a criminal in the prologue. He survives on what I call "Punisher Heroism": he's the hero because the people he's fighting against are much worse. There's no real innate goodness there. At his best, Aiden wants to protect his sister's family. At his worst, many of his actions do the opposite. He is an out-and-out criminal, aligned with criminals, fighting other criminals that have wronged him. I don't feel bad for the NPCs because I'm in Aiden's shoes.

No, these morals are coming from my interaction with those throwaway words. Titles like "banker" or "nurse", and pithy statements like "prescribed new anti-anxiety pills" or "descended from slave traders" strike emotional chords. The Profiler information doesn't factor into anything long-term; if I carjack a single mother or recovering drug addict, I won't later find them homeless, destitute, or dead. Once I drive away, they probably cease to exist. But when they're in front of me, I'm honestly asking myself if I would commit a crime against them. That says something about my morals. There are people I'm willing to commit crimes against, even in the abstract, and others I'd never try to hurt. There's a different line for each and every one of us, and some introspection is probably a good thing.

I couldn't figure out what this guy was doing in the Wards.

For all Watch Dogs gets wrong - empathizing with Aiden, its treatment of women in the story campaign, a complete lack of positive hacking interactions - one thing it did get right is making me give a damn about civilians that populate this open-world city. I mean, not enough that I drive the straight and narrow and never cause any mayhem, but it's more than completely ignoring their existence. And all it took was a few random words attached to every NPC. Wonder how much farther Ubisoft and the rest of the industry can take that idea in this generation?

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for metalangel #1 metalangel 3 years ago
    The GTA series has always done a similar thing, with the comments you overhear from pedestrians or indeed how they react when you bump into them.

    An obnoxious tool walking along staring at his phone who makes a snide remark when he bumps into me might find himself getting pushed down the subway stairs, while someone who makes a threatening remark might have a gun waved in their face to make them reconsider.

    Playing the LCPDFR mod, I was bumped (on foot) by an overzealous NPC's car. It was when they called me a 'stupid bloody colonial' in an irritating posh accent that I decided they needed a trip downtown. Pushing 'arrest' over them prompted them to run, so out came the tazer...

    You're absolutely right how humanizing the NPCs - in one way or another - can greatly influence our opinions of them. What is very interesting, though, is how sympathy can be quickly turned around by the game itself.

    Playing Far Cry 3 recently, I saw two civilians, just as a tiger appeared and pounced on one. I fired wildly with my sniper rifle, killing the tiger but also the civilian. The game admonished me, but the other civilian ran into a nearby shed and started crying and begging for her life. By the time I'd finished skinning the tiger and collecting the nearby loot, I'd heard all her pleas several times over and decided that that family she kept mentioning? About to be orphans. If she'd said it once, I'd have been back and my jeep and over the next hill by now.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #2 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @metalangel I once followed a guy in GTAV for around 45 minutes. Just walking behind him as he continued looking back and walking at a brisk pace.
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  • Avatar for Architecture #3 Architecture 3 years ago
    I actually find some of the Profiler's factoids to be #problematic. For instance, I was watching a Twitch stream shortly after release and one of the descriptors that popped up was "Homosexual." It made me recoil and dropped any remaining interest I had in the game down to zero.

    Sure, you might find yourself picking and choosing which NPCs are acceptable as collateral damage, but someone with different moral standards might approach the game similarly with vastly different results. A homophobic player may now act out a virtual hate crime--where before there was a faceless AI routine, there is now a gay person. A muslim. A creationist. A person to be demeaned, subjugated, murdered.

    This sort of information has unintended consequences, many of which may never have crossed the minds of Ubisoft Montreal et al. I find it interesting that for all of the fervor of Ubisoft's cultural insensitivity, it seems like it's solely focused on Far Cry 4's box art.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #4 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @Architecture There's also a "transgender" tag I recall seeing. That's the interesting other side to my article: Can people use it to satiate their darker urges?
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  • Avatar for danger.to.others #5 danger.to.others 3 years ago
    Good article.

    Now maybe we have different perspectives coming at the game from different lives, but, for me, I don't think Aiden is a terrible person.
    Actually, I can relate to the guy. I used to be a "bad guy", but not any more.
    In Aiden's case, he may have robbed people, but he didn't hurt them. He avoided casualties, which shows he had empathy buried under his bad choices.
    His niece dying was his wake up call to what he was doing with his life, that it mattered. Now he is taking the bad and trying to do good.
    He is a guy bent on justice and redemption. What you root for with the guy is that he can take that bad stuff he did and get on track to using it for good. Make a positive out of past negatives.
    At least, that was my take on his personality.

    It's true that playing this game and knowing details reveal much of the player's self.
    I was walking down the street and a couple were arguing. I stood at a slight distance to see where it went and it escalated and the guy hit her.
    On instinct, faster than I even realized I was going to do it, I whipped out my pistol and blew his brains out as soon as he hit her. A reminder to me just how strong a hatred I have for women beaters.
    Which I'm sure most hate women beaters, but it was interesting to me my instinct to blow his brains out before I even thought about it.
    Which isn't something I think about while gaming. Not ever.

    And as mentioned in the article, I too didn't steal from people who were poor, despite the fact these aren't real people and its a randomly generated line.
    The graphics are hurting, but I love the rest of the game. A large part of it is for the same reasons as this article.
    For an open world game to keep me self aware of my own morals....color me impressed.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #6 Lord-Bob-Bree 3 years ago
    @Architecture I don't know about that. Saying it's a bad thing because of homophobics seems too much like saying homosexuals (and other minority groups) should be hidden away in games. Should African-Americans not be included in the game because racists can go after them?

    Anyway, the Profiler itself seems like it makes too easy to come to a judgement about a person from a single factoid. To use examples from the article, "descended from slave traders" does strike an emotional chord, and yet says nothing about the character tagged with it. Said character might even be a strong proponent of racial equality. "Doesn't believe in evolution" doesn't tell us what said person does believe, or even what they do with that belief. Perhaps they keep their belief to themselves, allowing others to decide for themselves.

    Then again, I could be completely wrong about them.

    For the most part, calling it useless information hits the nail on the head. It doesn't seem like it humanizes the characters so much as encourages quick, ill-informed judgement. I think that does have some lesson in it, whether intentional or not: that having access to information like this doesn't make you infallible, creates biases that you should be aware of, that vigilantism can be reckless.Edited May 2014 by Lord-Bob-Bree
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  • Avatar for docexe #7 docexe 3 years ago
    @Lord Bob Bree Ben Kuchera on Polygon also analyzed this topic and pointed out the troubling implications of this type of vigilantism, while linking it to the way the US government uses metadata.

    It’s a really thought provoking idea to be honest, even if from what I have read in multiple sources, the game doesn’t seem to do much (or anything) with it.

    I get the feeling they should explore those topics further in the sequel (because let’s be real, this is obviously going to get a sequel).
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #8 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @danger.to.others That's an interesting look into Aiden's motivation. Thank you for telling your personal take on it.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #9 Ohoni 3 years ago
    It struck me from the screenshots that income levels and car choice don't seem to be connected. Maybe for W_D2.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #10 MHWilliams 3 years ago
    @Ohoni Car type seems to be determined by location. The Wards tends towards older vehicles, the Docks towards trucks and bikes, etc.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #11 Ohoni 3 years ago
    @MHWilliams Makes sense, other games do that, but then other games don't list income levels. I'm not shocked or dismayed, but this is something they could consider in the next game, tie vehicles to income level, and then spawn income levels based on location, so in richer areas you'd tend to have richer people in richer cars, but if an occasional poor person was there, he'd have a real junker.
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  • Avatar for phenom_x8 #12 phenom_x8 3 years ago
    Exactly, you nailed it mike.
    When I 1st using profiler in Watch_Dogs it seems like I'm in confusion due to the abundance of informarion I Capture from around me before I'm able to settle it down.
    At that time of confusion, Some thoughts suddenly somes into my mind, "what I'm gonna do with all of this information in real life?".
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