Going ‘Off Grid’ at MozFest

This post was written by Stevie Benton, co-founder of @opencoalition.

One of the more fascinating aspects of MozFest is the opportunity to take a look at new projects, ideas and products that have a better web in mind. Online privacy and security may not at first glance seem fun to many of us, but that is about to change. A small group of independent game developers came to MozFest to showcase their new video game, which explores these issues in a dynamic and challenging way.

Off Grid has been in development since Rich Metson, one of the game’s designers, saw a talk about how the internet has been mostly lost to big corporations. Rich had never really thought in this way before, so the experience was eye-opening for him. He said: “After hearing Eben Moglen speak at the INET conference, I decided to make a game which captured some of these issues, like net neutrality and security. The Arab Spring was happening at that time and I was learning about hacktivism. I wanted to create a game set in an Orwellian universe where everything was controlled by corporations.”

Image: http://offgridthegame.com/

The premise of the game is relatively simple. Your character is a technophobic father of a hacktivist daughter. At the beginning of the game the security services force their way into your home and arrest your daughter for unspecified actions. Because it is a national security matter, you aren’t allowed to contact her, or tell anyone what has happened. It is up to you, with the help of a friendly hacker, to rescue your daughter. Along the way, you explore key internet issues such as privacy, security and the Internet of Things.

“One of the key messages of the game is that the world is made of vulnerable devices, data is left everywhere regardless of whether you consent or not,” said Rich. “We also wanted to explore hacking in more general terms. The term ‘hacker’ has so many negative connotations. We wanted to break down the concept of hacker as “bad” and take this into a different space where the idea is viewed differently.”

These issues are introduced in subtle and thoughtful ways. For example, when you walk past a soft drinks vending machine, you receive a text message from a cola company. To access certain areas of the game, you need to hack various in-game networks to allow you to infiltrate physical spaces.

For Rich and the team behind the game, MozFest has been a big part of their journey. They started attending in 2014 and found that the audience they encountered at the festival was a huge help. Rich explained: “Other indies go to game conventions, but MozFest was nicer for us because people understood the issues more and could relate. It’s been a launchpad to talk about ideas, game mechanics and where it is going because it is a receptive and relatable audience.”

Photo: http://offgridthegame.tumblr.com/

MozFest also encouraged the team to think about ways that people could adapt and modify the game so it relates to their own experiences. The team then spent the early part of this year refactoring the game to make it ‘moddable’. Players can then share these modifications or ‘mods’ with others. Examples include changing the dynamics of the characters, and the stories, to reflect real world experiences and highlight real incidents, people and organisations. In a mod made for MozFest, Big Brother Watch get in touch and share real world documents with you. As the player, you can choose to review the documents away from the game at any time. Other organisations will be able to integrate their content in their own modified versions of the game to tell their own advocacy stories. To show how this works, the team made a modified version of the game for MozFest’s Privacy Lab, taking people from the panel and turning them into in-game characters.

The main benefits of MozFest for the team have been about building their network. They’ve connected with people from The Guardian Project, the Open Tech Foundation and people from around the world. This network has been very influential and supportive.

“MozFest opened us up to how wide the internet freedom community is and how many interesting things are happening around the world,” said Rich. “From the Localisation floor at MozFest we found open source localisation tools and lots of good advice. We are now working on language localisation and the modification tools allow anyone to be able to do this.”

Off Grid will be launching in the coming year, so keep an eye on the website for more information.

Did you see any innovations at MozFest that caught your eye? Were there any projects or ideas that really made you think? Let us know in the comments. You can follow the latest news from the team on Twitter here.

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