Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
"Watch Dogs" puts the controls of a networked city in players' hands.
The so-called "smart city" of the very near future can have centralized controls to send power where its needed, adjust street light timing for optimal traffic flow, and provide city operators with all the information they'll need to keep the city moving along smoothly and safely. In an ideal world.
In a less-than ideal world, that centralized network can collect information about city residents for the benefit of private companies, and the entire system will be vulnerable to hackers with intentions both sinister and deadly.
It is this less-than ideal world that's the setting of a soon-to-release video game set in Chicago that imagines a dystopic near future where the controls of the smart city are hacked and can be used for both good and bad.
Announced by maker Ubisoft this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo video game conference, the premise of "Watch Dogs" springboards off the Northeast blackout of 2003 – a real-life multi-state power outage that left millions in the dark. A promotional video invents a backstory, claiming it was caused by a disgruntled power utility employee's nefarious computer virus. This, the video suggests, is just the beginning of what can go wrong in an increasingly networked urban environment.
Computer controls have led to what the game calls "central operating systems" – the "smart city" systems major high tech corporations are now marketing to cities all over the world. In the game, these systems provide centralized control over the infrastructure of the city, including traffic lights, subway lines, surveillance cameras, water and nuclear power supplies, the electricity grid and even building-level security systems.
"A computer now controls a major city," says the narrator of one of the game's promotional videos. "But who controls the computer?"
As in real life, this video game-ified version of the smart city sits under the dark shadow of the potential for such a computer-controlled city to be used for diabolical means by the companies that provide these services.
The protagonist of this game is one of the hackers who's been able to take control of the smart city. The plot revolves around the protagonist trying to bring a wrongly acquitted criminal to justice, and as the video below shows, he uses his mobile phone to mess with the urban control system to help him do it. A particularly interesting section begins at 6:30, when the protagonist displays his (and really, the player's) ability to control the city's smart infrastructure with destructive prowess. (Warning: this video contains some profanities and violence.)
Given the nature of most big budget video games today, it's not too surprising that much of the game's focus is on beating people with clubs and shooting others in the head. But if we can look beyond that, the premise of tapping into the controls of a networked city for tactical or even malicious purposes is both an intriguing role-playing concept and a worrying vision of what may lie not too far ahead as cities become "smart."
Image credit: Ubisoft