On Creative Nonfiction Video Games and Privacy in Cibele

Why read about someone’s first romantic experience when you can experience it yourself? This is one question raised from playing Cibele, a nonfiction video game about falling in love in a virtual world.1 2

This is a continuation of discussion about creative nonfiction (CNF) video games. My last article examined That Dragon, Cancer and questioned how loose copyright laws involving Let’s Plays affected its developer. For a quick recap on the definition of CNF: it is every bit “truth”-ful like normal nonfiction, with the only difference being that it uses fictional techniques to bring the reader or player closer to subject. CNF prose in literature traditionally relies on techniques like realistic dialogue and setting a scene to make the real more vivid to the reader. A CNF video game, on the other hand, relies on placing the player within the shoes (or keyboard) of an avatar.

WHAT IS CIBELE

Cibele is a story published by Nina Freeman in 2015. Through the game she lets the player experience her life as a 19-year-old student in college. The narrative follows her first experience of falling in love through a long-distance relationship crafted between herself a man named “Blake” (a pseudonym). In the game, Cibele forms this relationship with “Blake” through playing Valtemeri, a playable game within Cibele that is used as a narrative device as “Blake” and Freeman quest together.

The player interacts with Cibele’s desktop. Through clicking around, the player can stumble across old chat logs, notes, photographs and even videos that Freeman had documented at her young age (though, the videos appear to be mostly recreations). The player is given agency to flip between these and through clicking on and playing through the video game inside the video game.

HOW COPYRIGHT AFFECTS CIBELE

Though a discussion of how privacy affects the game is the main focus of this article, it is worth noting that this game brings forth a major question of how copyright affects artistic development. In the real, non-game story of Freeman’s relationship, her relationship with “Blake” was formed over the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI. However, since the Final Fantasy series is the intellectual property of Square Enix, she was not able to include a likeness of the game within her game.

While other nonfiction media could have shown a photograph or brief video of the game under fair use, commenting about the used media, the playable nature of Freeman’s game would have placed her in risky copyright territory if she had called the game within her game Final Fantasy XI, or included characters or other clear references to Square Enix’s property.

Desktop screen in CIbele

QUESTIONS OF PRIVACY IN CIBELE

Ultimately, nonfiction serves to make the private public. But the question is whether the eradication of privacy crosses an ethical barrier. Or even further: a legal line.

Cibele is a game about making a private, intimate experience public. Through it, Freeman reveals intimate details about meeting, falling in love with and eventually having sex with “Blake.” “Blake” is a pseudonym for a real person, but she still kept these intimate, private details in a medium wherein a player can experience them through an avatar’s embodied perspective. 

Assumably, the hiding of the name and using an actor to reenact some scenes would have hidden the man’s identity, so there should not be a breach of privacy. However, the real life “Blake” found out about the game through media coverage that described the encounter with Freeman3; thus, he was still identifiable from the content in the game. He reached out to Freeman after discovering this video game which described not just Freeman’s intimate experience, but his. In he end he was amicable and pursued no legal action.

Though Cibele did not encounter a legal problem from diving into someone’s life, the potential for video games to do so is boundless: not only is private information released, but the player experiences and enacts the breach of privacy. For example, writing about the Hulk Hogan sex tape is not a breach of privacy. However, posting the video of the sex tape, though heavily edited, is a breach of privacy, which is what led to the $140 million lawsuit verdict against Gawker. Imagine the legal situation if a well-known media outlet released a video game where a player reenacted the same tape.

PRIVACY BEYOND THE GAME

The reason that discussing privacy in the medium of video games is important is because ways of storytelling and technology are developing faster than legislation can keep up. Canada is no exception; the country is slow to adapt its privacy legislature to evolve with a rapidly changing technological world. For example, during an April 2016 TVOntario interview,4 Canadian privacy commissioner Brian Beamish said the Privacy Act has been largely stagnant since 1983.

Since then, how people interact with information and each other has changed drastically. Back in the 80s, the internet was primarily only used by researchers. Email and websites became popular in the 90s. In the mid 2000s, social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube launched, allowing anyone to publish just about anything in cyberspace. The wide adoption of cellphones has led to a world where most people in the Anglosphere are constantly connected to and inhabiting cyberspace through social media, while simultaneously being active in the physical world.

As Beamish says, “the reality on the ground is completely different from what it was in 1983 and the legislation therefore is completely out of touch with current reality.” In addition to this, lawyer Michael G. Crawford points out in the Journalists Legal Guide, “in Canada, there is no general overarching right to be protected against the invasion of privacy.”5 If there is not even a set right to be protected against privacy, how can the government update legislation to protect privacy in a contemporary cyber/physical world? Can you make a video game about anything in Canada and dig into people’s lives, so long as it is not libel or defamation? Beyond that, there is the fact that the ability to protect yourself from legal breaches of privacy, or libel/defamation, can largely depend on how rich you are.

Of course, there is always an ethical boundary controlling what gets created. That being said, given that people create games like the 2012 Newgrounds game Beat up Anita Sarkeesian, which is literally a game entirely about violently defacing the Canadian/American feminist critic, ethical boundaries exist only to those that choose to observe them. 

FOOTNOTES

1. This article was written from research I conducted on a previous, unpublished essay of mine, “Playable Journalism: ethical and legal issues in nonfiction video games.” It was also part of a presentation at Carleton University’s Graduate Law and Legal Studies Games of Law Conference I conducted with Terrine Friday on 23 Mar. 2017 called “The Whole Truth?” Media Law and the Nonfiction Narrative in Videogames.” 

2. Cibele can be found here: ninasays.so/cibele 

3. Hudson, Laura. “Cibele Is a Crazy-Real Game About Falling in Love Online.” Wired, 4 Nov. 2015. Accessed 30 Apr. 2017. https://www.wired.com/2015/11/cibele-game-nina-freeman/ 

4. “Updating Canada’s Privacy Act.” TVOntario, 19. Apr. 2016. Accessed 30 Apr. 2017. tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/updating-canadas-privacy-act 

5. Crawford, Michael G. The Journalist’s Legal Guide 6th. Thomson Reuters Canada Limited: Toronto, 2015. 151.

 

Author: Jay Rankin

Jay Rankin is currently a masters of journalism candidate at Carleton University and recently completed an MA in creative writing from the University of Windsor. He completed a thesis combining prose and comic narrative to journalistically explore the issue of urban blight in Windsor, Ontario—where a historic neighbourhood has more than 110 abandoned buildings. His next thesis will explore the video game and porn industries in Montreal. Jay likes, poetry, pizza and comics—as well as fighting with his cat, Zeus. Oh, and games. He likes games.

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