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Should We Care About Video Game Companies Collecting Our Data?

Maddy Myers May 17, 2019. 11 comments

Video games often ask us to share our data with the developers. Sometimes, games and other apps bury this question in a long privacy policy that you have to agree to in order to even load it up. And sometimes, that data gets sold or repurposed for mysterious ends. Kirk and I admitted how anxious we feel about that on this week’s episode of Kotaku Splitscreen.

Jason is recovering from oral surgery, so Kirk and I were left by ourselves to discuss the intricacies of Phoenix Wright and how its soundtrack compares to Danganronpa. Kirk is also playing Rage 2, Destiny 2, and a tabletop game about bluffing called Sheriff of Nottingham. In the news section (33:32), we discuss that beautiful Final Fantasy 7 teaser and our own memories of the game, and then we get into the privacy of our gameplay data (or lack thereof), inspired by this Vox article. We conclude with some off-topic discussion (58:47) about everything from Detective Pikachu to Patrick Rothfuss. Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt below.


Kirk: [Vox reporter Kaitlyn] Tiffany uses Angry Birds as a starting point to talk about the idea of these third-party apps on your phone—they don’t all have to be games, but they can be games—the way that they have all these advertising intermediaries built into the software. You use the game, and then all of this other software is sharing your gameplay data with — it could be a whole bunch of different people. Sometimes it’s Facebook, or Twitter, or Google. Sometimes it’s just these other companies that sell advertising data to various other people. We don’t even really know who. It gets into the whole idea of device identifiers, and tracking your device identifier across multiple apps. The idea that children are using these things, and it’s actually illegal for children to be tracked because of COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), [but] that actually isn’t protecting anyone...

It left me thinking about specifically our gameplay data and the way that in any game that we play, pretty much, we almost always agree to share our data. It’s always like, “We want to make the game better. Will you share your data?” And, generally speaking, I’m guessing a lot of people just click “Yes.” Because you think, “Whatever. What am I doing right now? I’m playing this video game.” But as we spend more time playing a game—and this is something that this Vox article lays out really well—actually you can determine a lot about somebody. Especially if it’s a game like Pokémon Go, a game that someone plays every single day. Especially that. Or even an MMO like Destiny. Bungie can tell a lot of stuff about me. They can tell who I play with, who my friends are.

Maddy: What times you play.

Kirk: How many hours, and even stuff about my play style, and what that might say about me.

Maddy: Do you just wander around aimlessly when you’re playing at certain hours of the day? How are you doing psychologically? That can all be determined from your play style, I guess. Spooky.

Kirk: There’s at least a theory for that. And that is increasingly making me feel like all of this data is something that we’re giving up so willingly and starting to wonder if we’re going to look back at this period of time as the period of time when we all just assumed that our data wasn’t our own.

Maddy: I feel like that’s already happening. I’ve experienced this with Pokémon Go. When I reinstalled this game to play it with my girlfriend, there’s all these new options in the game that actually weren’t there when I first played it. It was a weird game even when I first played it; the entire game revolves around going to real-life locations, and even at the time I was like, “This is really weird.” But the second time around, there’s this “Adventure Sync” thing you can do where it tracks your steps even when you’re not playing the game, and the way that you get Pokémon to do anything in the game is that you have to walk around. All of it is tied to a pedometer; that’s how everything in the game is unlocked. So if you don’t connect this pedometer to be on all the time, you’d have to open up the app every time you went for a walk. Also, it’s pointless to do that, because then you’re just opening the game all the time anyway, so it always already knows where you’re going and what your steps are. So, in order to play this game and have it function the way it’s supposed to function, you have to turn on these location services and give the game permission to track your steps everywhere you go.

I don’t go to that many locations. I work from home. I go to a track that’s near my house, and I run around the track. That’s how most of my Pokémon are leveling up. But, at the same time, I was super freaked out at the idea that I’d have to turn this on and that I’d have to get back into this game by allowing it to have access to that data, even though — this is the excuse that everybody says, that I just said — my data isn’t even very interesting. I don’t do anything. I don’t care if they know that I go to CVS multiple times a week and swipe on the Pokéstop that’s right outside of it. That’s fine if Pokémon Go knows that I do that. But ...

Kirk: But... is it?

Maddy: It’s also super fucking weird! I don’t know if I want people to know how often I go to CVS. And who is finding out? What is that data being used for? I don’t know the answer to that, and that makes me feel nervous, but in an unspecified and slightly irrational way that I can’t justify. I can’t even explain this neuroses. It’s just like, you read Cambridge Analytica stories, you hear about the idea of your data not being your own anymore, and you’re like, that fucking sucks, but I also want to participate in playing this game and hanging out with my friends. I want to log into Facebook and find out what’s going on with people and see pictures of their babies. But I am also having to deal with this low-level buzz of anxiety about the fact that anything that I do in these spaces is just up for grabs to the highest bidder. It blows.

Kirk: It’s so related to the fact that it’s so complicated and deliberately impossible to understand. I totally know that feeling you’re describing. I feel the same way. The feeling of a sort of helpless, “Whatever.” I would talk with Emily about having the Amazon Alexa installed, which we used to have. We would joke about it on the podcast; I would say “Alexander,” because I couldn’t say it. However, you’ll notice I’m saying it now, and that’s because we took them all out of our house quite a while ago. As a test, we were like, “What if we unplug them all for a week and saw, in a week, is our life any worse?” I’d read enough stories about all the things it’s recording, and the data that it’s collecting, and got rid of it.

With Apple, still, I have Siri turned on. Apple has been marketing the fact that your data is your own, despite—as this Vox article actually points out—profiting quite a bit off of the in-app purchase percentage that they take from these apps that use your data in this way. It is interesting to me to see Apple going at people directly and saying, “Hey, everybody else steals your data, but we don’t. Your data is yours, and we keep it pretty safe.” That, I feel like, is another sign that this is changing. At least they’re willing to tell us that they understand that it matters enough to tell us that they’re doing the right thing. Whether they are or not is another question.


For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at splitscreen@kotaku.com with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.

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