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Data Dealer: Q&A with Co-Creator Wolfie Christl

by Meghan Ventura on 06/14/13 09:06:00 am   Featured Blogs

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Data Dealer's popularity has spread like… well, a growing social networking site or rapidly expanding data-mining company! And its effectiveness in raising awareness about privacy issues is why it was nominated for Most Significant Impact in the Games for Change Awards.

In this online game, players take the role of a shady data dealer who collects, collates, and sells personal data. They get all the details on their friends, neighbors, and the rest of world while learning how to trick their users and make cash out of others’ personal info.

Data Dealer aims to raise awareness about online privacy by teaching digital literacy and safer internet usage. It is made for players 11 years and older, and is free to play online here.

As schools have increasingly begun to use Data Dealer in the classroom (an audience the game reached unintentionally), the developers are now working on an educational toolkit for teaching lessons about digital literacy. They’ll hear in July on whether they’ll receive funding for this through an EU Grant Proposal.

The Data Dealer team also plans on launching a Kickstarter to finish Data Dealer’s multiplayer mode.

Games for Change contacted creator Wolfie Christl about the development process of Data Dealer.

How long has Data Dealer been in development, and what tools were used to make it? What’s your team’s background in making games?

We’re a small group of web developers, game designers, artists, researchers, and digital rights activists mainly based in Vienna, Austria. We’ve been working on the game since 2011. We started out as a team of four. Since last October we’ve become a bigger team. We’re more than 12 people now. Some of us already have some experience in the games sector, but we also learned many things using a more DIY approach.

As we’ve been doing open source web app development for more than 10 years, it was clear for us to base our game on open-source technologies. As a result, we’re using HTML5 instead of Flash. And as there was no fitting open-source game engine, we’ve built our own. Those two parts have been especially tricky. But the upcoming multiplayer social game version is about 80 percent finished, so we’ve already got a lot more than you can see in the current online version. And we have developed a technology stack which allows scalability, 100,000+ players should be no problem at all, ha!


Which government agencies funded the game? How did you establish these partnerships with them and how did they react to the idea of the game?

The release in German-speaking countries in 2012 was a huge success. It received outstanding media coverage and awesome feedback from young people, teachers, media educators, and the general internet community. In addition, Data Dealer has won several prizes and has even been part of some exhibitions. We convinced some partners to support further development of the game – mainly the Creative Agency of the City of Vienna and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture. We’re also supported by the Internet Foundation Austria – the owner of the Austrian domain registry

They really loved our ideas, they believe in the innovative character of our approach, and they enabled us to continue development. Sadly, that money is running out at the end of June. As a consequence, we decided to start a Kickstarter campaign really soon, so we can finish the multiplayer version and finally bring it online. Keep your eyes peeled!

How did you develop and balance the information brokering system?

It was not easy to translate our rather complex topic into a simple game design, and we’ve been hard at work on that. We didn’t want to develop a hardcore information retrieval simulation, but a casual game that is fun to play and enables users to understand the central questions: What kinds of personal data exist? Who is collecting this data and what are their intentions? What could this data be used for and what are the possible impacts on individuals?

To be honest, the current version of the game isn’t perfectly balanced yet. And even though the current version already transmits our topic quite well, balancing will only become really exciting in the full-featured multiplayer version.

In our internal development version, there are over 20 data-gathering ventures including mobile and self tracking apps (i.e., Tracebook and Smoogle). And we’ve got many additional data sources and clients — as well as close to 100 attributes attainable for each profile in the database. That will be real fun!

What’s been the most interesting reaction to Data Dealer so far?

What really surprised us was that in German-speaking countries we received very positive responses both from high-profile media, as well as the yellow press. And from young people and adults as well as teachers. And both from consumer rights and privacy advocates as well as big data, web app, and marketing people. I think our topic is quite explosive.

The most interesting thing, however, is that we keep on hearing that Data Dealer is already being used at schools even though we didn’t plan for that at all.

Is there a game for social impact you wish you had designed or want to design? What is it and why?

I wish we had designed Phone Story. Joking. We really like many of Molleindustria‘s games.

The game we want to design? We have many ideas! For example, we’d love to see a game about the food industry. The concept of taking on the role of a bad guy could be used similarly to Data Dealer. Working title: Food Industry Manager! Various scandals show that something is rotten in the current state of industrial food production. Another alternative would be the Drug Industry Manager. The pharmaceutical industry also has massive influence on us and our lives. Generally, we like to combine a critical perspective on certain areas of social life with the communication of knowledge and the question for possible individual consequences.

What motivates you to make games for social impact?

We’ve been involved with digital literacy and the sociocultural impact of information and communications technology for a long time. Today virtually everything we do is recorded, monitored, or tracked in some way. Most users reveal a lot more about themselves online than they think.

Now there are quite a few initiatives operating in the fields of teaching digital literacy and safer internet usage. But most people are quite bored of all that preaching on what to be careful about. So we came up with the idea to create a fun game where players take on the role of a bad guy and collect and sell data themselves. Data Dealer is based on lots of research and we’ve compiled a background report.

What do you think of the current state of games for social impact?

I think that there already are a lot of awesome games in that field. But one of the fundamental problems is that game development is very demanding and the budgets of games for social impact are usually light years from the usual budgets in the gaming sector. Then again, simple but clever games can easily beat million-dollar productions. It’s all about having good ideas! Austria has several creative studios in that field, like Ovos (Ludwig) or Three Coins (The Cure, a game about financial literacy). And we’re really looking forward to meeting everyone at the Games for Change Conference!

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