Video games are making us too comfortable with the modern surveillance state

Games like Grand Theft Auto V pacify our worst anxieties about the evils of our culture, by turning those evils on their head and finding ways to repaint reality so that our impulses to pry can be seen as good.

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It's hard to remember the first time I noticed a camera filming me in public. There was no genesis point, no camera zero that commenced the age of being conscious of having an unseen audience. They just appeared and quietly multiplied, tolerable when used in ATMs and intersections, slightly unnerving when placed overhead in offices and casinos. Today, we have implicitly accepted the fact that everything has some capacity to monitor us, from hackable baby monitors and laptop webcams to the stores of personal data tracked by Google, Facebook, and the National Security Agency.

While it's easy to identify the growth of state and corporate surveillance, it’s clear that trying to reverse it is uniquely difficult. The NSA, despite clearly overstepping its authority in recent years, still has the right court on its side, and then there's the massive data-harvesting operations run by banks, search engines, social networks, shopping sites and local governments. We can fight particular aspects, but surveillance has become so pervasive it’s hard to see how any progress could be made against the whole. Most Americans are resigned to living under surveillance of one kind or another.

But today's mainstream video games offer a different narrative, one that's both more comforting and exciting. (Resignation, after all, doesn't make for a very exciting game.) From The Sims 3 to Grand Theft Auto V, which was released last week, mainstream games have turned voyeuristic surveillance into an active part of play, a mechanism through which players infer plot details, distinguish good guys from bad guys, and make assumptions about the emotional lives of the characters they're controlling. These games create a fictional pretext that allows the player, who would otherwise be subject to these incursions in the real world, to act them out against others in a virtual world — a sort of salve for, or at least temporary respite from, the everyday hum of modern surveillance.

Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, is peppered with subtle intrusions into the private lives of its three controllable characters, offering a kind of Platonic ideal for surveillance as a form of play — neither inherently good or bad. Switching between the three characters is mostly tactical during story missions — say, switching to a character in a rooftop sniper position while another character is pinned down in a shootout on the streets below. But when the player is not in a mission, the mechanics reward voyeuristic curiosity with a variety of short vignettes to remind the player that the three characters are autonomous individuals leading peculiar lives within the game world. You may switch to Franklin, an idealistic young man stuck living with his aunt in the game's fictional Compton, and see him trying to keep his hotheaded best friend out of a street fight; to Michael, an ageing bank robber forced into witness protection, as he gazes longingly at the sunset from the Hollywood Hills; or to Trevor, the game's amphetamine-addicted psychopath, just as he’s waking up from a blackout wearing only underwear and surrounded by dead bodies.

These stolen moments last only a few seconds before players gain control, but they reinforce the sense that the player is not living through each character, but instead watching them from above, omnisciently. Here, prying into another person's private being doesn’t come with any implicit agenda other than a curiosity to know them better, to not just know the details of life but to get as close to feeling another person’s subjectivity. One watches not to judge, condemn, or steal, but to feel more intimately connected to these characters, and they in turn are surrounded by implicit and explicit signs of surveillance, from extended sequences of surveying banks, jewelry stores, and government buildings in anticipation of heists to the regular discovery of a particular radio station playing in a car that you’ve just commanded them to steal.

The game uses voyeurism and surveillance to heighten the entertainment, of course: to advance a storyline about a FBI-CIA rivalry, to make fun of a fictional Facebook called Lifehacker, and for plenty of slapstick prurience, as when sneaking backstage to unmask a popular but lecherous game show host who's attempting to sleep with Michael's daughter, a contestant on the show. This scene prompts a long interactive car chase to catch and beat up the host — punishment not for being a creep, but for creeping on the wrong woman. More broadly, and problematically, Grand Theft Auto V portrays all of the benefits of peeping and spying but none of the dangers: A player's curiosity about others' private lives is rewarded with humor and drama and intimate detail, engendering sympathy even for those as overtly dislikable as the game's three main characters.

Other games use surveillance as a tool for enforcing morality. The forthcoming Watch Dogs is set in Chicago's near-future and organized around a massive, state-run network called the Central Operating System. The hero of the game is a hacker who has gained access to the network, and can use it to pry into the lives of everyone around him, but with the noble goal of protecting the innocent from the city's lurking evildoers. In one scenario, he aims his smartphone at a woman on the street and instantly pulls up the network's data about her, learning that she's recently broken up with a violent boyfriend who has a criminal record. You can then follow her and protect her from an eventual attack by her ex-boyfriend. Last year's Sleeping Dogs, an open world detective game set in Hong Kong, had a similar mechanic, in which players hack into CCTVs around the city to pick out drug dealers for the local police to arrest.

In these cases, the moral breach of surveillance is acceptable because the game worlds necessitate it, introducing villains that can only be stopped through surveillance — a mirror of the argument made in defense of current surveillance programs: that while the NSA and FBI have access to huge stores of private information, they promise only to pursue likely or suspect terrorists and traitors. When President Barack Obama claims that Americans “can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he’s calling for tolerance of the general idea of surveillance as a necessary compromise for safety from terrorism. Yet, in the fantasy of the game world, we can accept these logical extremes because the game builds a space where there are imminent threats behind every closed door — sex traffickers, drug dealers, gunrunners, terrorists. But the threats in real life are less imminent, and certainly more opaque, which is what makes these games so seductive: There are no unknowns — known or otherwise.

Video games don't reflect our world so much as simplify it. They euphemize subjects, sometimes troubling ones, and allow us total control in situations that, in real life, are often beyond our control. In so doing, they can pacify our discomfort with the messy state of affairs. We see this with today's surveillance-driven games, and we saw it last decade with the rise in popularity of the military shooter, concomitant with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, the enemy of 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is a nuclear-armed despot in an unnamed Arabian country, against whom a group of American and English special forces fight to prevent a terrorist attack on America. The New York Times’ Seth Schiesel described the game's “Death From Above” level, in which players direct a camera-controlled gun on a Lockheed AC-130 gunship and kill small human figures on a black and white videofeed, as “at once the most realistic scene and the mission that feels most like a video game, but only because for some modern soldiers, war really has come to resemble a video game.” And while this mission looked and sounded real, an eerie precursor to WikiLeak’s infamous “Collateral Murder” video, it came with built-in safeguards that immediately failed players who shot at civilians.

These military and surveillance games are escapist fantasies, allowing us to imagine a world in which our government's actions here and abroad are assumed to be logical, morally and ethically defensible, and ultimately able to stop all of the bad guys without hurting any innocents. The games' design takes all the difficult real-world elements away — deciding who is bad, finding them, choosing how to treat them, and ensuring that treatment maintains legal and moral integrity. It reduces war to a problem of shooting people in as efficient a way as possible, and terrorism to a problem of snooping on as many people as possible. Moreover, these games reliably portray America as the victim of faceless aggression — among us or across the world — thus necessitating war or widespread snooping. If only our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the NSA's misadventures everywhere, had such a clarity of purpose and target.

But this is what it means to have fun today. We have made games into simulations that pacify our worst anxieties about the evils of our culture, by turning those evils on their head and finding ways to repaint reality so that our impulses to pry — or, in the case of military shooters, to wage war — can be seen as good. As America moves from a state of war to a state of soft (and sometimes not-so-soft) surveillance, our newest ways of playing hinge on the taking of information from another person's life through privileged access instead of personal engagement. We find amusement by invading the private lives of characters in their fishbowl worlds even though — or perhaps because — we are moving around our own fishbowl lives, watched by some unseen player trying to construct a narrative about us that's very different from our own.

Michael Thomsen has written about games, technology, sex, and books for Slate, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Edge, Kill Screen, The Believer, Guernica, and The New Inquiry. He's also author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

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The police helicopter from Grand Theft Auto V.
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Paul Nash: the modernity of ancient landscapes

Famous for his eerie First World War paintings, a new exhibition reminds us why Paul Nash was the greatest British artist of the first half of the 20th century.

In 1932 The Studio magazine printed a series of articles under the title: “What is Wrong with Modern Painting?” Internationalism, it claimed, was one ailment, with invidious Continental styles such as cubism and surrealism causing British art to lose its “native flavour”. “The Pernicious Influence of Words” was another, with “art jargon” and talk of “abstraction” helping to alienate and distance the public. What was to be done? Simple, the magazine pronounced: “A truce must be called to the post-war phase of ‘experiment’.”

For Paul Nash (1889-1946), the pre-eminent painter of the First World War, the Studio articles were a provocation. “In so many words we are being asked to ­abandon all research, all experiment; to close our eyes to the vital art of other lands – in short to be British,” he wrote. He also put it another way, in slightly less tetchy terms: “Whether it is possible to ‘Go Modern’ and to still ‘Be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today.”

Nash’s paintings – and his photographs, woodcuts, writings and book illustrations for the likes of Robert Graves, T E Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon – were proof that there was no intrinsic incompatibility between Britishness and European modernism. Indeed, what his work showed was that the avant-garde was a means of reinvigorating the British landscape tradition. There was everything personal about his art but nothing insular; Nash may have been, in the eyes of many, heir to the mystic pastoralism of William Blake and Samuel Palmer – and may have returned repeatedly to such heart-of-England subjects as Iron Age Dorset and Oxfordshire, the Sussex Downs, Romney Marsh, and the fields and orchards of Buckinghamshire – but he treated them with a sensibility that had a strongly European component.

How Nash managed to “Go Modern” and still “Be British” is the underlying theme of Tate Britain’s magnificent and comprehensive retrospective, which contains about 160
works. Nash the artist of two world wars is necessarily here, but the focus of the exhibition lies in his non-martial work. Nevertheless, it was the wars that defined him.

Nash had trained in London at the Slade School of Art as a member of an extraordinary generation that the professor of drawing Henry Tonks dubbed a “Crisis of Brilliance”. (On meeting Tonks, Nash recalled, “It was evident he considered that neither the Slade, nor I, was likely to derive much benefit.”) Among his peers were the greatest of the future war artists – Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, William Roberts, C R W Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Yet it was Nash – who lasted only a year at the Slade – who outpaced them.

His visceral, stylised and unflinching images of trench landscapes on the Western Front, culminating in the shattered trees and churned mud of the painting We Are Making a New World (1918), brought him to prominence (the brooding, red-brown sky that bathes above the scene with such a sinister light reappeared 26 years later in his near-abstract aerial painting Battle of Germany). Nash was no good at painting the human figure, so instead, as he later said, “I have tried to paint trees as though they were human ­beings.” His war pictures are full of splintered stumps.

In 1917, at Ypres, Nash fell into a trench, broke a rib and was invalided home. Days later his regiment was all but wiped out. He returned to France later in the year a changed man, a sense of guilt in his heart and all ­naivety gone. It was from the front that he sent a letter – a philippic, really – home to his wife, Margaret, that is more than a raging description of his feelings: it also serves as a commentary on his paintings.


No pen or drawing can convey this country . . . Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease . . . I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.


He returned from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder and his asthmatic lungs irreparably damaged by gas: the effects were to kill him, aged 57, less than a year after the end of the Second World War.

In the interwar years, Nash’s art was marked by an interest in interpenetrations and borders: of land and sea, dream and reality, night and day, man-made and natural, interior and exterior, organic and architectural. As an official war artist during the Second World War, attached to the air ministry (which didn’t really want a modernist), he remained in England and added German warplanes to his list. He repeatedly painted the incongruity of quintessential British landscapes pocked by the wrecks of downed enemy planes: a Messerschmitt ­being winched out of its crash site in Windsor Great Park, half a bomber resting in a wood, a fractured fighter in a cornfield lit by a blazing setting sun.

The most celebrated of Nash’s military-bucolic paintings is Totes Meer (“Dead Sea”) (1941), showing Cowley Dump near Oxford, where the remains of crashed planes were
piled on one another. He depicts the tangled wings and fuselages as a grey-green metal tide, washing up ineffectually against an ­adamantine Britain. He wanted the picture to be reproduced on postcards to be dropped over Germany, though it never was. In this aeronautical graveyard he painted, he saw the fate of the “hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores”. He felt that the battle being waged was one from the Norse sagas and that the aeroplanes were not machines but incarnations of evil: a watercolour from 1940, Wrecked German Plane in Flames, was subtitled Death of the Dragon.

Back in 1925 Nash had started the bleakest of the paintings he produced at Dymchurch, on the coast of the Romney Marshes. He had moved there in 1921 to aid recuperation after a series of collapses brought on by depression and shell shock. His seaside was a haunting, stark place: the waves held back by the angular sea wall (on which he would walk at midnight with Margaret) suggested the trenches and no-man’s land, and in Winter Sea he painted the water as a mass of metallic shards in a green the colour of putrefaction. It is an image of utter desolation.

With Totes Meer he reprised the composition, substituting the broken aircraft for the water. Here, though, there is just a hint of life; a white bird (an owl? a seagull?) flies over and away from the wreckage like a ­departing spirit. According to Kenneth Clark this Götterdämmerung was “the best war picture so far I think”. His statement no longer needs the “so far”.

Nash’s anthropomorphised warplanes are also extensions of his particular brand of surrealism. He was less interested in the radical politics or the focus on the unconscious that fascinated the French practitioners, and more in the evocative potential of objets trouvés shown in imagined environments. “How often then do we encounter strange objects in unlikely association and hear tantalising phrases which seem full of meaning,” he wondered. His paintings, he said, were “gropings” towards uncovering that meaning. However metaphysical his intimations, he grounded his explorations in the landscape: “I find I still need partially organic features to make my fixed conceptual image. I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration.”

In 1936 Nash was on the organising committee for the “International Surrealist Exhibition” in London: “I did not find surrealism, surrealism found me,” he wrote. The show introduced the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and others to a startled British public. Some 23,000 visitors came to the exhibition: the luckiest ones saw Salvador Dalí delivering a lecture while dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit and holding two wolfhounds on leads. The poet David Gascoyne had to rescue him, with a pair of pliers, when he began to suffocate.

Three years before the surrealism exhibition, Nash had co-founded the short-lived Unit One group with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Edward Wadsworth, Edward Burra and the critic Herbert Read. Their aim was to promote modern art in general: “to stand for the expression of a truly contemporary spirit, for that thing which is recognised as peculiarly of to-day in painting, sculpture and architecture”. It was a brief that encompassed both abstraction
and surrealism. Nash believed unequivocally that modern art was in a precarious position and needed championing.

His Unit One works are among his least appealing, partly because of their rather dry formal aspect and their pallid palette. The Tate displays half a dozen of these pictures among a cluster of works by fellow group members: together, they appear as they were intended to, an uncompromising gathering that amounts to a manifesto of radical art. They make no effort to appeal to the viewer: little wonder the group held just one exhibition. Despite belonging in this forward-looking milieu, however, Nash refused to become a theoretical painter, confessing himself “far too interested in the character of landscape ever to abandon painting after Nature”. Whatever form future art might take, he believed, “it will be a subjective art” – and landscape, which underpinned all his art, offered him the subjectivity nothing else could. The countryside was animated by the presence of the genius loci, and his pictures are attempts to identify and capture that spirit of place – if not necessarily to understand it.

What he felt at Iron Age sites such as Wittenham Clumps, Maiden Castle or the White Horse of Uffington were the emanations of “old gods long forgotten”. A painting such as Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) invokes those old gods: a still life of chalk cliffs, a red sun, a mirror, floating spheres
and a hawk (Margaret Nash placed a statue of Horus, the Egyptian hawk god and guardian of the soul on its journey to the afterlife, on her husband’s grave). The objects are endlessly interpretable symbols of spirits, and the borders between real and unreal realms; together they offered, he said, the “suggestion of a super-reality”.

In the 1930s Nash produced a great many paintings showing random objects such as stones, chair legs and megaliths in half-imagined landscape settings. Such items, he believed, were elements of an equation that would be solved only when he put them together and revealed their true selves:


Sometimes one may find a pair [of stones] almost side by side. Inseparable complements, in true relation. Yet, lying there in the grass never finding each other until I found them that afternoon on the Sussex Downs . . . That problem was not then solved, but so soon as my stones came into my hands their equation was solved and they were united forever.


While his assemblages had much to do with the influence of his artist lover, Eileen Agar, Nash found that by putting objects together, “Nature became endowed for me with new life . . . The landscape, too, seemed now possessed of a different animation.” These pictures, showing a keen awareness of de Chirico’s work, also allowed him to combine the formal painterly elements of abstraction, surrealism and landscape.

Certain motifs – a twisted tree trunk pulled from the River Rother (“like a very fine Henry Moore”) which he exhibited on a plinth at the 1936 surrealism exhibition, or a felled tree, an architectural fragment that he likened to a “monster” – were for him living “personages” that stimulated the imagination and set in motion “a process of what I can only describe as inward dilation of the eyes” through which “I could increase my actual vision”.

Nowhere is the effect of this inward ­dilation more obvious than in the series he painted in 1943 and 1944, showing what Nash called “a landscape of the imagination” but which was, in fact, the view of the Wittenham Clumps from the house of his friend Hilda Harrisson on Boars Hill, near Oxford. The tree-topped hills are shown under an equinox moon that perfectly recalls Samuel Palmer.

Here, in the middle of the war, during the “Little Blitz”, with Nash’s chest infection becoming increasingly debilitating, the countryside is at a tipping point, too – day and night are of equal length. The trees are coming into leaf so these are March landscapes, and winter therefore is receding; these pictures symbolise hope. The war might still go either way, into the dark or the light, but these ancient hills have seen invaders come and go and battles fought, yet the rhythms of nature reassert themselves regardless of man. No invader, however malign, can subvert the seasons.

The pictures segue from chilly moonlit blues to rich ochres, russets and greens under a red sun – a transition from cold to warmth. The careful experiments of his Unit One pictures and the precise compositions of found objects are gone. These landscapes are composed of loose and unblended patches of paint, the clustered trees look like mushrooms, and the result is something both profound and euphoric. Nash did not explain the pictures, other than to note that: “There are places, just as there are people and objects . . . whose relationship of parts creates a mystery.” The Queen Mother bought Landscape of the Vernal Equinox when the paint can barely have dried. She recalled returning to it again and again, unsure of quite why it drew her. Her daughters were rather less perceptive critics. “Poor Mummy’s gone mad,” they said. “Just look what she’s brought back.”

Nash lived out his last months in a state of “reclusive melancholy”; increasingly enfeebled, he would joke, “Knees up Mother Brown, feet up Mr Nash.” His heart eventually gave up. Nash’s subsequent reputation has been built on his emotive pastorals, with the feeling that his formal experiments were somehow half-hearted or an aberration. What the Tate’s superb survey proves is that they represent the true Nash every bit as much as his pure landscapes do, and that an artist did not need to be a neo-Romantic to believe in his creed that “to find, you must be able to perceive”. The exhibition proves, too, that the Queen Mother wasn’t mad.

“Paul Nash” is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 5 March 2017.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage