​Orwell: The surveillance game that puts you in Big Brother's shoes

If you see something, say something. Or in the case of Orwell, upload it permanently to a state surveillance machine and marvel at your terrifying power.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
3 min read

"Big Brother has arrived -- and it's you."

As CNET's resident privacy nark, I didn't need much convincing to play a game all about social engineering and online surveillance.

But when I stepped into my role as a new recruit for the fictional Orwell internet surveillance program, I didn't expect to find the rush of power so beguiling, or unsettling.

Developed by German outfit Osmotic Studios, Orwell sees you working as a new recruit in a surveillance agency of the same name, following a series of terrorist attacks in Bonton, the fictional capital of The Nation. As an agent, you are responsible for scraping social media feeds, blogs, news sites and the private communications of the Nation's citizens to find those with connections to the bombings.

You start with your first suspect before working through a web of friends and associates. You're after data chunks -- highlighted pieces of information and text found in news stories, websites and blogs that can be dragged and uploaded into the Orwell system and permanently stored as evidence.

The whole game has a kind of polygon graphic aesthetic, making the news clippings, websites and social media feeds you're trawling feel close to the real thing. But as with everything in Orwell, it's viewed through a glass, darkly.

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In Orwell, you're tasked with tracking the online lives of The Nation's citizens, monitoring their communications and building a surveillance profile.

Osmotic Studios

"We wanted Orwell to be in a world of its own [while] giving the player a real online-world experience," said Mel Taylor, one of the developers behind the game at Osmotic Studios. "It feels a bit like the characters are behind a wall of frosted glass, somehow distorted."

It all seems above board at first, reading publicly-available information online. But spying is a slippery slope.

Before long you're reading private chat logs, intercepting phone calls and wandering into some ethical grey areas. When it comes to timeline posts and private chats, just how accurate is each data chunk you save? And how much can the private messages of others be construed as evidence of criminal intent?

It's a question that Orwell's developers want to toy with, as you adjust to your new role as online thought police.

"While going through the data of these characters, the player gets to know their fears, wishes and problems," said Taylor.

"Online data is often very ambiguous and the player has the power to feed this inconclusive or even clearly wrong information into the Orwell system. It is up to the player to decide whether she or he regards this as morally wrong or right."

It's a procedural, word-heavy game, and at times you do just feel like a cog in the machine, gradually glossing over detail in the hunt for those brightly-coloured data chunks.

But just as you find yourself slipping into the role of bored government lackey, you're quickly pulled out as the events in the Nation unfold. Whether it's a vital data chunk you missed the first time around, or wrongfully-incriminating information that is now permanently uploaded into the Orwell system, you need to live by the choices you make.

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Just like social engineering game Papers Please, another game Taylor lists as inspiration, working for the government machine can have some heavy consequences, and not just for the game's characters. Orwell has you questioning your own privacy principles in that constant battle between civil liberties and security.

According to Taylor, it comes down to the question of "whether people who protect their data only do this because they have something dubious to hide."

While Orwell's polygon aesthetic is more abstract than many games, the game still closely mimics an online world that players know intimately. "Facebook stalking" is part of the modern lexicon, and we've all had to work out how much we're willing to share about our lives online. Now, Orwell puts us on the other side of the looking glass.

But if you have nothing to hide, surely you have nothing to fear?