It was one the first weeks of my - recently then - move to Manchester in 2014. The, I cannot recall the number, new edition of Big Brother was on TV. The show barely amuses me anymore, but my attention was grasped by a particular set of events I was witnessing. I'm not sure if this is something that has been happening in recent editions of the show, but surely it was new for me. Every time someone entered the house, it was preceded by a description of the future guest using three short facts that were also superimposed on the screen. Things like 'he is afraid of failure' or 'she loves dogs'. Can we be defined by a number of short statements? Is that how identity formation works today? Far from letting the thought cast away, I lingered on it.
What really caught my eye in the game was, again, those defining short facts. Whenever I used my profiler (a hacking tool that allows you to access the guts of ctOS), a myriad of information about the people who was around me was popping up on my screen. Yet again, sentences such as 'Joined aerophobia group', 'Dyslexic', 'Cited for animal cruelty' or 'Explosives expert' were frantically appearing and disappearing in front of my eyes. Everything was also accompanied by information on their age, occupation and income. Matching all this data would be very interesting, but in this case I'm going to focus on those short facts.
Old(-ish) modalities of identity
This category encompasses those cases I consider they are part of the old pool of identity: nationality, ethnicity, family, work, gender, class, and so forth. However, we will find that something has changed; even the old modalities of identity show flaws, they are not as closed, strong and indisputable as they were. It reflects the profound changes and contradictions in the process of identity construction nowadays. There are no more taken for granted positions. It includes things like class ('Descended from aristocracy', 'Owns a castle in Wales'), ethnicity ('One-eight Kickapoo'), nationality ('Romanian immigrant', 'Dual citizen'), work ('Freelancer', 'Part-time paparazzi') or family ('Divorced', 'Single parent').
Beliefs, and political and religious stances
This could have been one of the categories within the traditional modes of identity, but the game seems to pay especial attention to political and religious content. We have here, then, a sample of the complex and disarranged system of beliefs that belongs to Watch Dogs' universe. This includes religion ('Religious conservative', 'Listed as agnostic on census', 'Jainist'), political stances ('Islamophobe', 'Member of eugenics group', 'Anti-capitalist blogger', 'Advocate for euthanasia'), and philosophical and existential views ('Objectivist', 'Nihilist', 'Superstitious').
The skills and abilities stressed by ctOS perfectly fit in the context of our contemporary societies. If we live in a digital age (Kirby, 2009; Gere, 2008), it seems to be reasonable to be defined by facts like 'Proficient with computers' or 'Amateur App Programmer'. Of course, there is still place for old modes of expertise ('European history expert') along with useful multi-purpose skills for the world of globalisation like 'Explosives expert' and 'Speaks multiple languages'.
Hobbies and passions
In a world where play and work are intertwined in different ways, and the time and space for leisure and other activities are less differentiated than ever, hobbies and passions are likely to be relevant when it comes to defining our identities. Depending on the level of engagement and experience acquired through these hobbies, individuals might develop a particular expertise in the field. In a way, this is strongly linked to skills and abilities but I will focus on the idea of what we love and are passionate about, which includes spectacles ('Amateur magician', 'Amateur choir soubrette'), the occult ('Cthulhu enthusiast', 'Amateur ghost hunter'), the unique ('Foreign film enthusiast', 'Renaissance fair enthusiast'), the banal ('Car enthusiast', 'Yoga enthusiast', 'Knitting enthusiast'), fandom ('Soccer fan', 'Basketball season pass holder'), and collectionism ('Comic book collector', 'Collects arcade cabinets').
Illegalisms and other faults
When Foucault, in his Discipline and Punish (1995), approached how western societies have historically dealt with illegalisms, he came to a (maybe not that) shocking conclusion: despite the dominant discourse that shrouds imprisonment institutions (as any other confinement institution), the final aim of prisons is not to rehabilitate the convicted but to mark them as criminals as part of an economy of bodies that maintains them under control. It serves more as a tool to govern society as a whole than to help to those who enter the prison system. Therefore, do illegalisms have an impact on our identities? More than that; they brand the individual by leaving a mark on the deep skin of their identity.
In a world obsessed with surveillance and crime prevention, slowly slipping towards a dystopic future not even imagined by Orwell or Huxley, this looks like a very appropriate way to categorise people. This includes bans ('Banned for local gym', 'Banned from local church'), driving issues ('Multiple unpaid tickets', 'Drives without license'), documents ('Expired work visa', 'False identity on library card', 'Holds a fake degree'), suspicions ('Suspect in hit-and-run', 'Suspected arsonist'), justified crimes ('Assaulted high school bully', 'Assaulted client for refusing to pay'), and financial debts and fines ('Multiple outstanding loans', 'Fined for indecent exposure').
Defined by your past
As someone who has studied the links between cultural heritage and identity, I am in the position to state that we are what we are thanks to, up to a great extent, what we were (or what we think we were). The fact that we can identify what we used to be is actually demarcating what we are now or what we are starting to become (even if it's not clear at the moment). ctOS seems to characterise some people according to what they were in the past, as though it were so overwhelming that it would not let space for new identity formations. Among these past definitions we find things such us 'Made porn film in college', 'Former child prodigy', 'Ex-military' and 'Former chess champion'.
Traumatic events are a subset of particular incidents from the past that define yourself today. Identities are, more or less, the set of marks imprinted on our bodies, minds and souls. We are born with some of them; others are acquired and disposed during our lifetime. There are those that are deep and indelible, while others are superficial and fleeting. Traumatic events are scarring and leave ugly and irreversible marks on the surface of our identities. Examples of this are 'Victim of childhood abuse', 'Got his niece killed', 'Grandparents fled East Germany', 'Attempted suicide', and 'Disaster survivor'.
Losses, absences and non-existences
In the same way that you can be defined by what you were as much as what you are, you can be defined for what you lack as much as for what you have. Absences can be trivial or traumatic, but all of them have substantial defining properties. It's the significant absence. Sometimes, the emptiness left by a loss is more powerful than any presence. Events ranging from 'Lost front teeth in a fight', or 'Phone reported stolen' to 'Presumed dead' (your existence defined by a non-existence) belong to this group.
Illnesses and other health conditions
Illnesses, like illegalisms, are part of those taxonomic operations that segregate the abnormal from the normal (Gordon, 1991: 37) in the collective imagination of the modern citizenship. We living in societies that have a vast knowledge of thousands of different illnesses and other health conditions, it is almost impossible not to suffer from one or several conditions during our lifetime. We are so traversed by these diseases nowadays that illnesses do not play that segregating role typical of modern societies anymore. The healthy and the sick are not easily told apart; there are different shades of healthiness or sickness.
It seems that ctOS has an interest in highlighting particular illnesses and conditions: sex related ('Dignosed with STD', 'Medicated for low libido'), phobias ('Self-diganosed with aquaphobia, 'Gymnophobic'), addictions ('Alcoholic'), potentially deadly illnesses ('Terminally ill', 'HIV positive', 'Diagnosed with hepatitis C', 'Undergoing chemotherapy', 'Early stages of sclerosis multiple'), allergies ('Allergic to bee stings', 'Lactose intolerant', 'Alergic to chocolate'), mental illness ('Diagnosed manic depresive', 'On medication for schizophrenia', 'Dignosed bipolar', 'Sociopathic tendencies'), other health conditions ('Myopic', 'Narcoleptic', 'Haemophilia carrier', 'Suffers from motion sickness', 'Dyslexic', 'Medicated for blood pressure').
Sex and relationship issues
Sexual practices and the way we engage in relationships are fundamental parts of what we are and how we think of ourselves. It implies one of the most carnal and affective activities of human beings. They shake our bodies and minds; they are feral and cerebral at the same time. This includes the modes of building sexual or affective relationships ('Engages in prostitution', 'Speed dater'), affairs ('Having affair with married woman', 'Having affair with co-worker'), or sexual practices ('Self-proclaimed necrophiliac', 'Practices S&M').
The specific and the regular
Even if it sounds contradictory, individuals can be identified both for very particular episodes (the specific) and for what they normally do (the regular). The regular encompasses things like 'Meditates regularly', 'Collects coupons', 'Runs DDoS attacks', or 'Habitual steroid user'. The specific, however, is more volatile and makes reference to things such as 'Attacked by drunk patron', 'Negotiating rent with landlord', 'Recently ordered human tissue samples', and 'Has multiple computer viruses'.
Consumption and searches
Consumerism and consumer culture are one of the most noticeable features of postmodernity. According to Bauman, the 'way present-day society shapes up its members is dictated first and foremost by the need to play the role of the consumer' (2005: 24). Therefore, our identities are increasingly demarcated by what we consume. That also explains why identities have become fragmented, multiple and ephemeral. Watch Dogs is not oblivious to this global tendency and thus shows us consumption patterns ('Purchases penis enlargement pills', 'Downloads pirated media', 'Frequent purchases: mask', 'Frequently purchases condoms'), what is frequently watched ('Frequently watches torture porn', 'Frequently watches documentaries', 'Frequently watches westerns', 'Frequently watches reality shows'). Furthermore, and bringing this practice to digital age, ctOS also displays frequently visited websites ('Frequents paranormal sites', 'Frequents hacker sites', 'Posts voyeur videos online') and online searches ('Frequent online searches: "Rape"', ''Frequent online searches: "Blume"', "'Frequent online searches: "how to cook meth"', 'Frequent online searches: "Bicurious"').
Although all of the following short facts could be easily placed within other categories, I've decided to introduce them in this particular section because of its reflexivity (it's a video game after all!). Here we can find things such as 'NVZN beta tester', 'Attends games conference', 'MMORPG enthusiast', 'Addicted to social gaming', and 'Avid video game player'.
Extreme and absurd
As if the very idea of defining someone by a short fact was not (sort of) absurd enough, I've created this group to highlight those descriptions that seemed to be especially extreme ('Buried victims beneath his house', 'Experiment with cannibalism', 'Fishes with dynamite'), absurd ('Maintains blog about "bucket lists"', 'Runs with the bulls in Spain', 'Sober') or irrelevant ('Uses computer library for internet', 'Uses birthday as password').
Before I continue with my argument, let's have a look at the following classification:
In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (1) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies (Borges, 1999: 231).I have to admit that every time I read this classification of animals (a fictional account extracted from the vivid imagination of Borges, who attribute it to a a certain Chinese encyclopaedia) it makes me laugh. The list is disconcerting, if not hilarious. Why does this classification have that effect on us? Foucault, at the beginning of his The Order of Things and after bringing up this delirious classification, concludes that, when confronted with other systems of thought, we start to understand the limits of our own: 'the stark impossibility of thinking that' (1989: xvi). That extravagant classification belongs to a different fundamental form of knowledge, what Foucault called episteme, which makes think within its limits impossible for us:
In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice (Foucault, 1989: 183).
- Bauman, Zygmunt (2005). Work, Consumerism and the New Poor. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Borges, Jorge Luis (1999). Selected Non-Fictions. London: Penguin.
- Foucault, Michel (1989). The Order of Things. London: Routledge.
- Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline and Punish. London: Vintage Books.
- Gere, Charlie (2008). Digital Culture. London: Reaktion Books
- Kirby, Alan (2009). Digimodernism. New York: Continuum