[Disclaimer: There will be spoilers in this post for the game Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story. Consider yourself warned.]
What happens when people who were born after the social media boom grow up? How do people deal with the presence of social media, one that seemingly pervades every aspect of their lives? What new challenges present themselves when dealing with people who were raised with, and sometimes by, social media? And how do we, as a people, deal with the constant erosion of privacy in our own lives, whether it’s by government organizations, employers, teachers, peers, corporations, or any combination of the above? There is no way to know the answer to these questions, I think. However, insight into them came from the most unlikely of sources.
On a whim, I downloaded and played a game with the unnecessarily cumbersome title of Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story. Now, it wasn’t a complete shot in the dark, as the game is made by Christine Love, someone whose games I have greatly enjoyed in the past and which are always more than they initially appear to be. This game takes the form of a visual novel, set in a high school, with the main character being a new teacher and the other characters being his students. It’s a fairly cliche setup, as far as visual novels go, and indeed, by the end of the very first chapter you have the option to enter a very inappropriate relationship with one of your students.
And really, the entire rest of the game is populated with at least some tropes, though they are used in very different ways than I’ve seen in the past. Specifically, the inclusion of a couple of very complex homosexual romances is, in my opinion, quite groundbreaking when you consider that video games, as a medium, have been criticized for mostly only including content that caters to a straight male audience.
This has all been said before, though, and is not the reason I’m writing about the game. What I do want to write about is how underneath the high school drama and inappropriate teacher-student relationships, the game is really about government surveillance.
Bear with me here.
See, one of the key plot devices in the game is a social network that is directly modeled off of Facebook, only implemented on a smaller scale and made available in a closed form to only the students and faculty at a particular school. In addition, the teachers and administrators are all given the ability to see every post and message that the students send, whether public or private. You, the player, are never told to check these messages, and yet, it’s generally assumed that most players will choose to do so.
Why? Because they can.
There is certainly nothing stopping you from doing it. No one who watches over your shoulder and says, no, you really shouldn’t be looking at the private communications between these students because it’s morally repugnant. And because these teenagers are so used to their mobile devices being there constantly, and are highly encouraged to use them even during lectures, you learn much more about each one through this method than through actually talking with them out loud. Enough so that even when you visit a website where people can post anonymously in the style of a /chan board, you can still easily pick out who is posting based on their linguistic patterns. One could imagine the role of ‘teacher’ being replaced by that of ‘analyst’.
The analogy is even more apt once you reach the part of the game where you learn about things that happen using the social networks before you learn about them through actually witnessing student behavior. Using that knowledge, you can start to foresee and intercept conversations and adverse behavior before it happens, or use what you have seen online to confirm suspicions that you see in the real world. There is a chapter which deals with cyber-bullying, as well, in which case the teacher does not actually witness the behavior in person but instead reads about it online through others’ accounts. In the cases where you confront students about their questions, concerns, or crimes, you are given the option to either tell them where you got the information or to keep it hidden from them.
The biggest shock, though, comes at the end of the game. Without going into specifics (I’m not enough of a jerk to spoil the big twist, after all), it is revealed that the teacher has been the victim of an elaborate semester-long trolling, and that the students knew they were being monitored the whole time. In fact, when the teacher, someone from the generation who had grown up in the early days of Facebook, confronts one of the students with how wrong it is and how morally bankrupt he feels like he has been for monitoring them, the student replies that he should instead accept his role as monitor and not be so uptight about it. In fact, the student claims that the entire idea of privacy is an outdated one, and that his entire generation has grown accustomed to everything that has been posted online being able to be read by anyone in authority.
That is the main point, I believe. Given that, in the intervening couple of years since the game has been released, it has been revealed that we are all being monitored on some level by certain three-lettered organizations, we all have to accept that privacy, as it existed before, is outdated and simply does not exist anymore. Is this morally right? No, of course not. Is privacy a basic human right? Also, no. Nobody has ever had the right to privacy. It isn’t in the constitution of any country that I know of, and even if it were, technology has been growing at a faster rate than most legal systems have been able to adapt.
The key idea here is that the student’s generation has, as previously stated, become accustomed to everything that has been posted online being read by authority figures. That has been posted online. He then goes on to state that it is a person’s own choice whether to post something online or not. If something is truly private, why post it anywhere? Why not communicate truly personal things in an offline, face-to-face conversation? This turns the question back onto the teacher, who has grown up in the era of Facebook: ‘Why should a person assume that they should, or in fact have to, post every single personal detail about their lives in a place where it can be read by every single person?’
Why is being so public the default behavior for our generation? We are encouraged to be ‘more social’ in our networking, but why do we assume that this is the correct way to be?
And, I think, the correct answer here is, “Maybe we shouldn’t.” If we’re so concerned about being spied upon, or stalked, or anything like that, perhaps we should all re-learn how to be private citizens. Private individuals. Because, really, it’s not personal. It’s everyone’s story now.