A text message conversation. From the other person reads "I could be in Europe tomorrow" and a response that reads "You could also be dead tomorrow"

Digital Voyeurism – A Familiar, if Strange Game

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It’s an innocent enough question: “Can I borrow your phone?” Yet, ask most people and you might as well have asked for their social security number. With how frequently much of the world lives at an arm’s length away from our devices, it’s no surprise that we’d come to regard them as such intimate extensions of ourselves. That’s why taking the helm of another’s device is at once instantly familiar and strange. Having free roam of a character’s desktop or phone is like a hardwired connection into their psyche, a kind of social voyeurism a la reality television that compels players to investigate the life(s) bared before them simply because it’s there.

Two mobile games released this year, Accidental Queen’s Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story and Bury Me, My Love by The Pixel Hunt and Figs, both gamify this concept, but to thematic ends that couldn’t be more different.

“You’re about to enter the private life of a fictional character,” the opening screen of Another Lost Phone reads, cautioning players not to search through devices without the owner’s permission. Of course, in-game, snooping through the wayward phone you found is the only way to uncover its hidden narrative. Developers added the warning after its predecessor, A Normal Lost Phone, earned complaints concerning what some saw as an invasion of privacy, particularly citing how you could send messages under the name of another person. This further demonstrates how inseparable we are from our devices. That a game about snooping on someone’s phone would require a warning while games with access to hundreds of audio logs, diaries, or online chats do not raise such concern.

Searching through the personal documents of Laura – the phone’s owner – reveals clues to her device’s passwords which uncover even more personal documents which, in turn, piece together a story of a shaken woman scrambling to keep her life from falling apart. You could argue that the use of the word ‘lost’ in the game’s title implies that you’re completing these puzzles so you can eventually return the phone to Laura, but this excuse stretches thin quickly.

A screen that looks like a message inbox, with a picture of Laura and the word "inbox" below

Instead, you’re compelled to continue digging into her personal life because of the scattered details you find. Messages about a betrayal, a leaked video, and signs of abuse sit unassumingly next to texts asking where to meet for tea or complaints about the day’s work assignments. When nothing is framed as important, everything becomes of interest.

And even as the weight of all this spying started to set in and I began to feel guilt rise like bile, having the agency to press further made me want to do exactly that – even as Laura’s messages became painfully candid. However, as I read more and more, what I found lost the harsh boundaries built by privacy, the texts and emails watered down into vessels through which narrative was delivered. This simultaneously made Laura’s story more and less real. Without a gatekeeper to the information I was seeing, scrolling through her intimate conversations felt more like reading a book.

Several games in this genre suffer from this pitfall. Shorter titles (and almost all the games that heavy rely on these mechanics are short) use digital archives like saved files and chat logs to perform double duty – both to build empathy with the player and indicate character growth. But while playing the role of voyeur in digital spaces can be entertaining, it doesn’t necessarily make those being watched seem any more realistic.

Bury Me, My Love avoids this trap by giving players a front row seat to conversations in progress, and in doing so delivers a poignant message about the helplessness always-on communication can bring.

You take on the role (and phone) of Majd as your wife Nour flees Syria in the midst of civil war and makes the perilous journey to Europe. You remain in the country and stay in constant contact via cell phone along the way – that is, when she can find the time and resources to text you. Her phone is fitted with GPS, so you’re able to check her location, and the chat logs between you two are always available. But none of that gave me an ounce of peace when I’d see a message like “The smugglers have guns” followed by a silence that spoke more than any text ever could.

The game gives you a modicum of influence over her fate, with 19 endings that all echo real stories of Syrian refugees. I use the word “influence” instead of “control” because oftentimes there’s no way to predict the effects your advice may have. In one horrifying instance, as Nour is traveling with protestors through Bulgaria, she asks what I thought about their plan to sneak over the border into Greece. She sends me the map they were following, one that laid out the least-guarded areas. Everything seemed to check out, so I say go for it. Hours later, as she’s texting me about how close to the border they are, Majd pauses suddenly. “Um…is this the map they gave you?” He shares an identical image, but this one is from a site detailing minefield locations left in the area from a previous war. She says she already knew, that she hadn’t wanted to worry me, and that she wouldn’t be turning back. Phone service is sparse, she texts, “ttyl.” And with that, all I could do was wait.

a smiling woman in a hijab, the bottom half of her face hidden by a crop, arabic text behind her on a wall sign.

At many times like this, I became painfully aware that no amount of data from her phone would tell me what I wanted to know. It was in those moments my empathy for Majd was at its peak. Who hasn’t been on the other side of the phone, watching those three little dots on repeat or the stifling ‘seen’ on a message as you run through every possible response? Nour’s lack of updates could only carry that weight because her phone was so readily available.

It’s this same “always on” mentality provided by our devices that has allowed terms like “following” and “stalking” to degrade in meaning. We’ve grown accustomed to scrolling through the lives of others via social media, accessing the history of their every published thought with a few swipes. However, one place that remains out of reach in this age of connection is the device itself. And with how often some people stay plugged in, you could argue your friend’s phone knows them better than you do. Games like Bury Me: My Love and Another Lost Phone allow you to break through the social mores that prevent you from accessing this last bastion of privacy. When I think about it that way, Another Lost Phone’s content warning makes a lot more sense.

Favorite 2018, Games