The Guardian reported this morning that the NSA and their UK sister agency, the GCHQ, are spying on gamers.
The agencies, the documents show, have built mass-collection capabilities against the Xbox Live console network, which has more than 48 million players. Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life. There were attempts, too, to recruit potential informants from the games' tech-friendly users.
The Guardian also published the internal NSA document their reporting is based on. If you’re in the mood for devil’s advocacy, I suppose the best argument for spying on gamers is that online video games are a kind of social network. You could easily create a private server in a game and use that as a place to chat or coordinate. Also, in general, I suppose games just offer one more venue for spying, whether it's pulling metadata, or social connections, or whatever else the NSA is interested in.
But while that NSA document does make that argument, it spends more time on a much sillier one. Namely, that, because the 9/11 hijackers used Flight Simulators, games in general could be useful for terrorism training. From the document:
These games offer realistic weapons training (what weapon to use against what target, what ranges can be achieved, even aiming and firing), military operations and tactics, photorealistic land navigation and terrain familiarization, and leadership skills. While complete military training is best achieved in person, perfection is not always required to accomplish the mission.
If you’ve ever played any first person shooter, you know that this logic is truly fantastical. In games, guns have perfect accuracy, you can carry fifteen of them without slowing down at all, and you reload by jamming the “R” button. The “military tactics” and “leadership” you learn are how to yell ineffectually at a 17-year-old through your headset mic, because LethalKevin233 is attacking his teammates instead of the bad guys. Violent video games teach you how to play violent video games, and not a whole lot else.
Further, the kinds of games that the NSA document describes hacking aren’t even nominally military simulation games. The two games that get the bulk of attention are World of Warcraft and Second Life. One of those is a fantasy-based MMORPG, the other is basically just The Sims. It's hard to imagine someone simulating anything useful, from a terror perspective, in either world.
UPDATE (12:28PM): Oops! I neglected to credit ProPublica and The New York Times in this post. The NSA story was a co-production amongst the three news organizations.