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Students, Privacy, and Social Networks: The Game!

Anna’s recent post on Queereka about Christine Love‘s new Visual Novel had salutary (if unintended) effect of reminding me that I have had another of Love’s games, don’t take it personally, babe, but it just ain’t your story, sitting in my “to-play” queue for several months. I just finished playing through the game and I thought that, since since its central conceit revolves around a high school teacher’s access to his students’ private messages, it might be worthwhile to explore the game’s themes a little bit in this space. Some plot spoilers are inevitable, so if you want to play the game before reading this article, you can download it at the link above.

[Trigger Warning(s): the game contains some homophobic/misogynistic language, used seriously and in jest, discussion of teen suicide, and an optional storyline that involves an implied sexual relationship with an underage student. The last of these can be avoided (and the choice is clear in the game), but the first two cannot].

SPOILERS FOLLOW BEYOND THIS POINT: Lasciate ogni speranza and all that.

The premise of don’t take it personally is that the main character, John Rook, has taken a job teaching English at an elite private high school in Ontario following a divorce and mid-life crisis. Don’t ask me how this is possible, given his complete lack of professional experience, qualifications (he was in “computers” beforehand, but found it soulless), or actual teaching skills, but we can assume either that there was some kind of nepotism involved in the hire or that Ontario private schools in 2027 are just that desperate for warm bodies at the front of the classroom that they’ll take on just about anyone.

Yes, it is 2027. A 2027 that looks (and often sounds) suspiciously like 2013, with the possible exception that Canada has clearly become a Japanese Overseas Prefecture of some sort and schools now provide students with tablets and encourage them to spend all day chatting away on their proprietary internal social network, Amie (presumably from the French). The reason they encourage this behaviour, of course, is that the administrators secretly have access to students’ private messages and information, and can therefore keep tabs on them to monitor “bullying” situations. The caveat, as the principal informs you, is  that this monitoring is a BIG SECRET and you can never let the students find out you are reading their stuff or else. I guess simply informing the students of the possibility of monitoring on the school network defeated the purpose of catching them in the act of cyber-bullying?

Anyway, the game actually forces you to read your students’ messages, both public and private, although even without this limitation imposed by the game mechanics (Love would have had to develop several additional storylines depending on what you did or did not read), it is actually surprising how routine and normal it quickly felt to pry into students’ private conversations simply as a matter of course. Each little *ding* of the messenger became like a Pavlovian bell, leading me to interrupt whatever conversation or scene was going on at the moment to read students’ comments and communications in real time, just as they do while in your class. The mechanic is exceedingly clever in that it gets you invested in the characters and their personal drama while at the same time reinforcing the knowledge that your relationship with them is, in fact, entirely voyeuristic and one-sided. This is true both from Mr Rook’s standpoint and the standpoint of the player (since it is a game), and Love plays with meta-fiction in this way quite frequently over the course of the story.

The game confronts you with Mr Rook’s voyeurism several times, as students come to him for advice in their ongoing personal troubles, and he has to be careful not to let slip that he knows more about the situation than he is letting on. And while it is possible for Mr Rook to use his powers for good–say, reuniting a couple who broke up but write that they still love each other–it can also take a turn toward the profoundly creepy: at one point the same students have a very private conversation over the network, with pictures.*

Before going on with this review, a quick story:

My first time at the front of a class was in the hoary days of yore, when social networks were still relatively new and many of the rules of privacy and etiquette we now find so obvious had not yet been worked out. In 2006, after all, Facebook had only been around for two years, and my students (who were nearly all first-years) had only had access to it for a year. As of the first day of classes, it hadn’t even been released to the general public yet! So when several of my students sent me friend requests that year, I didn’t think much of accepting them. After all, I was only four years older than they were.

What quickly became astounding was just how much I ended up seeing of these students’ private lives and thoughts, including things I really ought not to have seen or known about. This was, after all, also a time before anyone really thought about privacy filters. And it was not just the students who friended me: I learned things about their friends too, which basically meant the entire class. In fact, in those days you could pretty much see anything posted by anyone on the whole school network. And the allure of this knowledge, of the voyeuristic aspect, is powerful. It really is. So from that standpoint it was very easy to understand–and be unnerved by my own complicity in–Mr Rook’s behaviour when it came to spying on his students. It was very easy to understand how, if the technology to monitor these communications existed and were available, it would be nearly impossible to prevent its abuse by authority figures, even those who ostensibly start out with good intentions.

What’s that you say? The NSA? *nervous laughter*

The big reveal (so much as there is one considering the foreshadowing is a bit obvious) is that the students know all about the monitoring on Amie and simply no longer understand the concept of privacy in online spaces, so nobody actually finds Mr Rook’s fantastically creepy behaviour to be creepy at all, but rather expected. This is, of course, the point of setting the game in 2027 rather than the present day: to give those of us who grew up without pervasive social networking a look into a possible future for people who grew up with it from birth.

screenshot1

Look at these kids. They clearly wouldn’t know privacy if it covered them in the face.

Yet at the same time, the students clearly do understand the concept of privacy, at least based on their behaviour. Many of the more dramatically important conversations in the game (including one incidence of bullying) occur off-camera in the meatspace, presumably because students are aware that their electronic communications are monitored. Further, students still use 4chan-style anonymous message boards to communicate about certain topics (even though it is usually obvious who they are based on their writing, they are still effectively taking steps to mask their communications from, well, you), and upon replaying the game it becomes clear that certain students even go to some lengths to phrase things in specific ways to leave out information in their private messages. Then again, I can’t imagine anyone wanted their teacher seeing those nude pics, so…it is clear at least that sometimes they forget the monitoring is in place.

While this aspect of Love’s theoretical future is somewhat inconsistent, other aspects of the world she creates are more successful, including students’ navigation of queer identities. Basically extrapolating from current trends, Love depicts a rather believable picture of what it would be like for same-sex attraction and relationships to be effectively normalised to the point where they mostly pass without comment. It even allows for one student who normally identifies as straight to explore his attraction to a male classmate without too much fuss.** It also eventually clear from context that the student who bullies them (and uses homophobic language), is mainly lashing out in order to be as hurtful as possible rather than actually thinking there is anything particularly wrong with homosexuality. A possible exception to the general sense of acceptance comes in the form of (the already unlikeable) Mr Rook, who comments in his internal monologue about how gross it is to imagine his male students having sex (in a way that makes it clear it’s not simply because they are his students) and repeatedly worries about intruding on one boy’s masculinity by protecting him (but not his more feminine boyfriend) from bullying by a girl.

Generally speaking, the second half of the game doesn’t really live up to the first few chapters, and the ending (complete with moral lecture from a sudent’s mother) feels particularly weak. As the game was originally produced in a single month for a competition, it’s easy to see how time constraints could have been a major factor. I

In all, though, the game is worth a playthrough if only to see what a terrible, irresponsible teacher Mr Rook actually is (and to ship the cute couples, of course). If you decide to do so, I highly advise avoiding the squicky stoyline with the student-teacher relationship by shutting it down at the first opportunity (or the second one, if you prefer not to be a jerk about it). There’s no sex, but it’s still pretty disturbing (and the author claims to have intended it as such…though this is anything but clear from the actual text).

If anyone has the time to burn and wants to discuss the game in the comments, I’ll be here!

*The way Love handles this situation has drawn a lot of comment, and it is interesting. The images are password-protected, and there is actually no way to learn the password within the game. However she has published the password on her own blog and the pictures are really in there for those who wish to see them. This, cleverly, means that the player has to take full responsibility for that particular invasion, rather than pass it off to Mr Rook, whom we already know to be a creep.

**Although to be honest the depiction of their relationship does suffer from some genre-specific tropes that Love has borrowed from BL manga, anime, and visual novels, including a pretty clear seme-uke dynamic and, much more annoyingly, the classic if it’s you, it’s okay, which is practically required for publication. The relationship between the two girls (provided you encourage them to get back together) is a lot less tropey.

All screenshots from the download page.

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Dan

Dan

Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.

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