Words: Jon Bailes
The big social media story right now is the ejection of Donald Trump from Facebook and Twitter (and Twitch) for inciting an anti-democratic uprising. Exactly 10 years ago, it was coverage of grassroots movements in the Arab Spring using these platforms to help organise pro-democracy protests. Quite the turnaround.
We've rarely stopped thinking in this period about how social media affects our lives for better or worse. Do they give everyone a voice, enable us to share ideas, support each other and even pressure those in power to work for us? Or do they lead to division, harassment and filter bubbles, exploiting our data to shape the way we view the world?
In truth, it's all of the above, and video games are very much part of this landscape. Facebook is a gaming platform, subscription services and online stores gather our data to advertise more efficiently, and everything from World of Warcraft to Twitch streaming has offered us ways to make social ties through games.
But games are also perfectly placed to comment on the real-life potentials and pitfalls of social media with simulations, parodies or sci-fi re-imaginings. Some are warnings, others celebrations, and together they form a full picture of our current condition. Above all, they remind us of what we've learned through painful experience in the last decade - social media is a power we possess but also a power over us, and one that cares less about overcoming the destructive tendencies of online communication than how best to monetise them.
The not-so-subtle satire of Grand Theft Auto V is one early example, with its Facebook parody Lifeinvader that pokes at the sinister side of social media empires. As the name suggests, Lifeinvader dominates everyday life in GTA's world, encouraging users to surrender their private data and display their personal details in public, to be 'stalked' (rather than followed) by others.
It's not just the app itself that's the problem though, but the company behind it. GTA V highlights how the Lifeinvader's laidback work culture and friendly geek image obscures more ruthless business practices. It doesn't go into much depth, and in typical cynical GTA style you can also make money by investing in this unethical organisation, but it indicates some of the dangers of corporate-run social networks.
Similar warnings come in a futuristic dystopian wrapping in Dontnod Entertainment's Remember Me. In this cyberpunk adventure, people don't just share photos and thoughts - they copy or erase their actual memories and upload them to a central server for others to take as their own.
Remember Me explores how this sharing technology leads to addiction and irresponsibility, as those who absorb too many memories become socially detached and deranged, and those who delete memories are unable to face reality. There are obvious parallels here to how we may try to live through other people's lives on sites such as Instagram, coveting experiences that aren't our own.
The other big issue in Remember Me is who owns this precious personal data and how they use it. Megacorp Memorize has the power to wipe people's memories and use their control of those uploaded recollections to influence its users. The game asks us if we even comprehend what it means to give organisations access to so much information.
Dontnod didn't let up with its next game either, as Life Is Strange touched on the personal impact of social media. One of its key events involves a viral video that leads Kate, a classmate of protagonist Max, to become suicidal. This is part of a culture of peer pressure and bullying amplified by online circulation that the game presents us with.
In this atmosphere, Max only needs to look at the Facebook-like webpage on her laptop to be filled with anxiety and self-doubt. "I look so pathetic," she thinks on seeing her own profile, and seems jealous of the talent the other students display on theirs.
Later on, her timeline fills with messages reacting to her efforts to prevent Kate from taking her life, either congratulating or condemning her depending on whether she succeeded or failed. Social media here certainly connects people, but in a way that's organised to emphasise competitiveness, envy and constant evaluation of people's worth.
These highly critical depictions of social media set the tone for the first half of the decade, while surprisingly more recent games have often found more positive angles. Death Stranding might not immediately spring to mind here, given its dystopian setting that leaves people living in permanent lockdown, unable to experience face-to-face social contact. But as we've come to realise this last year, digital communication can become a lifeline during isolation.
Not only that, the game's 'like' system is far less competitive and judgemental than in real-world social media. In Death Stranding you're alone but also part of an invisible network of players, collaborating to build transport routes across hostile territory. A quick thumbs up for those who have constructed bridges or simply left signs of encouragement adds to the sense of working together. The number of likes you give or get is irrelevant - it's just nice to show appreciation and feel appreciated in turn, without social point scoring.
Marvel's Spider-Man is another game that sticks to the uplifting side of social media, with an in-game app that resembles Twitter with its followers, brief posts and replies. But exchanges on this channel are far less toxic than the real-world equivalent, even when aimed at a controversial public figure like Spider-Man. Spider-Twitter - on which Peter Parker posts as NYCWallCrawler - is a place where strangers make connections over fun observations and shared interests, and disagreements don't descend into abuse and harassment.
Without doubt, the main reason it's so pleasant is that it isn't real, and the tone of the game wouldn't gel with the hostile atmosphere that often plagues actual Twitter. And because it's not part of a real business, it's only designed as a minor distraction. It doesn't need to stimulate engagement in order to gather data and expose you to more ads by pushing polarising news stories and extreme opinions in your face.
Of course, there's also another more serious positive aspect of social media - its democratising effect and potential for political organisation. Watch Dogs 2 has us covered here, both acting as a warning of the dangers of big data used for surveillance and security, and highlighting the power of online activism to fight back. Cleverly, your abilities in the game improve not from XP and levels, but from the followers you attract to your app. The bigger your reputation, the greater your hacking power, and the more your movement can achieve.
As many real-life uprisings in 2011 showed, social media can be a potent political tool in a similar way, and Watch Dogs 2 was a timely reminder. The problem in reality, however, is that this romantic vision of resistance is not only available to those who battle oppression, but those who want to maintain it. Figures like Donald Trump use social media to inflame hatred and channel it towards their interests, with platform owners until now very reluctant to intervene.
Games like Watch Dogs 2, Spider-Man and Death Stranding imagine what social media could be like, while GTA V, Remember Me and Life Is Strange remind us why that's not the reality. The erosion of privacy, peer pressure, abuse and political hatred aren't exclusive to social media, but they are the keys to its business model. Data is money, and polarising argument is a sure way to generate views.
The biggest change in social media in the last 10 years isn't a shift away from democracy. It's that major platforms have got better at harvesting our data and using it to direct our attention. The different perspectives provided by games can prompt us to ask more questions about the kind of social media we want and how it should be controlled.
Jon Bailes is the author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism. Follow the author on Twitter at @JonBailes3, and GAMINGbible at @GAMINGbible.