The Race for Data: Consumer Privacy in a Red Shell

Mario Kart hasn’t outsold the standard Mario formula, but it has been the most successful adaptation of the characters. The lack of multiplayer wasn’t a big deal for games on the original 80’s Nintendo Entertainment System; just running to the right and jumping on boxes was good enough. As demand for multiplayer games grew, Mario Kart proved to be one of Nintendo’s best ideas. Racing games don’t need a lot of explanation, and getting to steer your favorite characters to the finish line made for hours of fun for family game night, birthday parties, and college dorms. Nintendo also made their fun additions to their racing game easy to understand: banana peels make your opponents lose control and crash, mushrooms provide a speed boost to help you catch up (especially useful after a crash), and getting hit by a turtle shell the size of your cart is never good. The weaponized shells come in a few colors, but the red shell was particularly powerful because it follows its targets movements, making it nearly impossible to dodge.

So, when the minds of marketing, data science, and software development came together to create a way to track gameplay data and correlate it to advertising for each unique player, a popular video game weapon that followed a target seemed like a good fit for the name of the product. Maybe a representative from customer relations or ethics would have raised a concern about naming a product after something aggressive and destructive. That kind of name raises a red flag for some people—and  it raises two red flags if it also shares the name with a known malicious virus. Unfortunately, it fell to the players to explain that secretly targeting customers to collect data is an unpopular choice.


Red Shell Discovered

Earlier this year, a few Steam users discovered a tracking program hidden inside some game software. The tracking program was called Red Shell. I have not found any indication that users were informed (at least explicitly) of the presence of this tracking software within the games that consumers purchased, downloaded, and installed. The stated purpose of Red Shell is to track user data that can be matched with marketing data to optimize marketing strategies. Despite the fact that the data collected from a user is called a “fingerprint,” developer Innervate is on record as believing that the clandestine program that does not allow opt-in (or even opt-out) decisions is GDPR compliant because it does not collect personally identifying information- just a broad mass of data associated with a user.

Software companies got a different kind of marketing feedback as outraged customers spoke out on forums and social media, attacked games with negative reviews, and called for boycotts against the offending games. I did not find any evidence that Red Shell is harmful or pernicious in any way, and most users seem to agree with that assessment. But actual, or even potential, harm does not seem to be the problem. Rather, the issue seems to be that the customers feel betrayed, deceived, and… well… played.


Lessons from the Wreckage

In Mario Kart, red shells cause your opponents to crash. In June of this year, the program Red Shell caused player trust to crash. Red Shell may be GDPR compliant, but the scandal now serves as an example of why mere technical compliance is not always enough.

I think Red Shell would have enjoyed reasonable success if players were given the choice to opt-in. Other companies use clear, voluntary methods to collect data from users—from surveys to system scans. I understand the appeal of “having all of the data,” and the appeal of letting computers do the bulk of the gathering and processing automatically. The efficiency and scale would be hard to match – computers often outperform humans in efficiency, speed, and scale. But computers don’t understand the values of trust, preferences, and autonomy.

Innervate lost sight of the real, ultimate reason for gathering player data in the first place: improve a developer’s bottom line through a better understanding of the player. By failing to connect empathy with the notion of “understanding,” they overlooked what they were losing in exchange for the increased efficiency and scale of their product. The effort to understand brand loyalty undermined the trust and loyalty to the brand. Data that is properly collected and carefully understood in the right context can be a powerful tool for better products and better service. But taking a shortcut around your goals to try to achieve them is just driving faster with no sense of direction.


Red Shell Takeaways:

ALWAYS remember that data is not an end in itself- think about WHY you want data.

Other things matter besides the data you think you need- consider the competing values.

Consider ways to get data that don’t interfere with other goals. Consider ways to get to your goals that don’t rely on the data you are chasing.

Don’t lose sight of your larger goals/objectives during your search for data; don’t let your race for data undermine your quest for success.






Grinding for Moral Consistency in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

“Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!” is set between Borderlands 1 and 2, and allows players to play as some of the bad guys of Borderlands 2. One trailer (6:40) for BLPS cracked wise about the moral implications of advancing the cause of future enemies, but this question is central to the theme and story of the game.

I. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” –Kierkegaard

The game of BLPS is played as a flashback. After the events of BL2, the mercenary Athena is captured and interrogated by the victorious heroes of the two previous games. She explains her role in the events between BL1 and BL2, and you, the player, play out those events as she describes them. As a freelance mercenary, Athena is hired by the central antagonist of BL2 (Handsome Jack) to save the moon of Elpis from a renegade military commander. (Yes, the plot is heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

A recurring theme is the decision to advance the cause of Handsome Jack, as the post-BL2 interrogation reflects on the horrors he inflicted. The story poses to players the challenge of reconciling Jack’s heroic actions of saving a moon (and its colonial population) with his villainous acts of destruction carried out in BL2. The game asks us whether Jack was a good guy or a bad guy, and by implication also asks: How can we understand his apparent transformation? How can we make sense of a character that displays contradictory traits? How can we evaluate good and evil?

These are deeply important questions for our lives. Discerning between good and evil is at the core of ethics, and permeates decisions we make in our personal, familial, political, theological, and professional lives. Adopting the wrong approach to the ethical questions posed in BLPS can have catastrophic implications if applied elsewhere in life: apathetic indifference, sympathy, empathy, or pity for evil, absolute subjectivism, blind and unquestioning tolerance, or strict act utilitarianism all lend themselves to a variety of atrocities and horrors we intend to avoid through ethical examinations.

II. Virtue Theory Gives a More Complete Evaluation than Some Teleological Formulations

The game challenges the maxim that “the ends justify the means” by presenting several applications of that ideal, including one betrayal by a prominent protagonist NPC to kill Jack and the player. The story also makes a specific note of Jack’s decision to kill three probably innocent scientists on the suspicion that one of them might be a traitor—a decision which he openly relishes, afterward. An NPC asks the player-character for their opinion of Jack’s choice, questioning both Jack’s motive and his nature.

One way to evaluate Jack and his transformation between BLPS and BL2 is in an appeal to virtue theory. On this interpretation, Jack’s actions may have saved Elpis, but his nature and character were malicious and malevolent throughout the escapade. This view affords us the outcome of seeing Jack as a bad man who did a good thing. This view is also consistent with the entire knowledge of Jack’s wanton evil in BL2, in which he is malicious and does only bad things.

III. Grinding, Grinders, and Moral Ground

In any game with a leveling and/or gear system, players often find they want to gain an advantage by gaining extra levels for added bonuses, thereby making it easier to meet future challenges. This is often done through repeating simple and mindless tasks, which slowly and steadily advance the player towards the next level or have a chance of yielding desired items. This slow, steady process is called “grinding.”

BLPS introduced a new feature to the game called a “Grinder.” This machine accepts three items and returns (with some probabilities involved), a better item. This does some amount of “grinding” for the player, helping advance the attainment of better gear more rapidly.

Moral identity advances by an analogous method: a slow, steady, repeated process of small decisions, actions, and attitudes.

IV. The Need for a Good Evaluation of Goodness

Throughout BL2, Jack addresses the player characters as bandits, asserting that they are no different from or better than the marauding psychopaths they slaughter. Jack explicitly sees himself as the righteous hero—even with his dying breath. Because evil will always think itself good and present itself in a positive light, we must have a better approach for evaluating morality than general, easy-to-apply standards handed to us by the most convenient authority.