Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story is the follow-up to Christine Love’s critically acclaimed indie game Digital: A Love Story. Much like its author’s previous work, Don’t Take It Personally is a game devoted to exploring the nature of online identity. However, while Digital expressed a delicately muted nostalgia for a fictionalised past in which cyberspace allowed Mind to detach itself from Body, Don’t Take it Personally expresses a similarly ambivalent attitude to a notional future in which privacy has become an archaic and outmoded concept.
Set in an American high school in 2027, Don’t Take it Personally follows the misadventures of the twice-divorced thirty something John Rook as he begins a job teaching literature to a colourful bunch of seventeen year olds. Initially concerned chiefly with the students’ intellectual development, Rook soon finds himself being sucked into his students’ private lives when he discovers that the school’s in-house Facebook analogue allows him to read all of their supposedly private correspondence.
Adopting the form of Dating Sims (a genre of game popular in Japan wherein a male protagonist seduces one or several female characters) such as Summer Session (2008) and Tomoyo After: It’s a Wonderful Life (2005), Don’t Take it Personally explores the good, the bad and the ugly of a reading your students’ Facebook updates.
1.1 The Bad
As the students lay bare the drama of their sexual and emotional lives, the game makes it pretty clear that there is something profoundly creepy about the way in which Rook eavesdrops on their discussions. The primary source of this unease is the decision by one of Rook’s students to seduce him. The student makes her feeling for Rook abundantly clear on her Facebook wall and the ensuing planning sessions with other students effectively prime Rook for the moment when he will have to choose whether or not to rebuff her advances.
Aside from the ethical issues surrounding a teacher dating a student, the game does an excellent job of making the player squirm as a result of the power imbalance between the two characters. Indeed, while the student has no idea of how Rook feels about her, Rook knows not only exactly what she thinks of him but also the precise moment at which she will ‘make her move’. When Rook eventually gives in to his urges, Love rewards the player with surprisingly explicit commentary and artwork that draws on the titillating nature of the Dating Sim genre: Rook may well be a perv for getting off with one of his pupils, but the fact that we are complicit in his actions makes us just as dubious. However, while Love is quite clear about the ethical problems in transgressing online privacy, she is just as clear about the upsides.
1.2 The Good
While Rook’s relationship with his pupil lasts the entire game, this relationship is only ever a secondary plotline. The bulk of the action is devoted to Rook’s attempts to help his students with their relationship issues and personal problems. Rook’s capacity to give meaningful advice to the kids flows not so much from any real insight or expertise on his part (in fact, he repeatedly points out that he has no experience of same-sex relationships) as from his (and the player’s) capacity to read the students’ private correspondence and give them a gentle shove in the direction they were already facing. For example, when one of his students comes out and privately declares an interest in the only other boy in the class, Rook draws upon his knowledge of both the second boy’s sense of isolation and the first’s easy-going nature to suggest that the second boy chance his arm at a same-sex relationship. After all, what does he have to lose?
Despite the basis for our advice being ‘tainted’ by its illicit nature, Love’s control of character and tone are such that it is impossible not to feel a real glow of achievement upon successfully shepherding the kids through their various problems. Cleverly, Love also reinforces the morally beneficial nature of our advice by interweaving it with a number of situations where the best advice comes not from reading the kids’ private thoughts but from looking at the way they interact face to face. For example, when Rook takes over the class, a couple has recently broken up. Going by the online commentary, the relationship is dead and buried but when the two girls do actually start to talk to each other, it rapidly becomes clear that they are still in love. This advice is not in the least bit ‘tainted’ as it flows from our direct knowledge of the characters. By having us give advice based on more ‘traditional’ sources of personal knowledge, Love is gently introducing an idea of equivalence. Indeed, does it really matter how we come by a piece of information if we use that information to do good in the world? Not wanting to let us off the hook, Love further complicates the moral picture by suggesting that new sources of personal information bring with them different forms of responsibility.
1.3 The Ugly
One of the game’s more problematic plotlines involves a student whose obvious social isolation rapidly spirals out of control, resulting in her posting some quite dark things on her Facebook page. Aware of her darkening mood but unable to act in a way that would betray his illicit access to the postings, Rook allows the girl’s mood to darken to the point where she becomes suicidal. While the truth eventually turns out to be a good deal more complex, Rook soon finds himself being haunted by the fact that he did not act to save his pupil. Privacy, Love is suggesting, is very much a double-edged sword, as Rook’s desire to pay lip service to his student’s privacy results in his failure to step in and prevent her from killing herself.
By exploring some of the moral complexities surrounding the reading of a student’s correspondence, Don’t Take it Personally confronts us with a future in which our attachment to online privacy has been abandoned as quaint and archaic. Love suggests that, by 2027, our black and white notions of privacy will have been replaced by a far more nuanced and technologically up-to-date approach to personal identity. For the kids of tomorrow, to be will be to be perceived and the key to happiness will lie not in protecting our inner selves from unwanted attention but in realising that we are social beings that define themselves not in isolation but as a form of public performance.
Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, it Just Ain’t Your Story’s engagement with evolving forms of online identity can be considered from three different but interwoven perspectives: The political, the personal and the practical.
2.1 The Political
Inspired by governments’ increasing fondness for spying on their citizens through close circuit television cameras and the citizenry’s growing frustration with governmental secrecy, science fiction author David Brin wrote a book that sought to challenge our traditional attitudes towards privacy. In The Transparent Society (1998), Brin suggests that, instead of seeking some impossible balance between an individual’s right to privacy and the moral obligation of governments and media outlets to protect the people and reveal the truth, perhaps we should approach the problem from a different perspective and simply make everything public. Given that CCTV is never going to go away, Brin asks:
Will average citizens share, along with the mighty, the right to access these universal monitors? Will common folk have, and exercise, a sovereign power to watch the watchers? – Pp. 9
According to Brin, the only thing that stands between a perfectly transparent society and us is a hypocritical attitude towards privacy. Brin explains this hypocrisy using what he calls an Accountability Matrix:
|1. TOOLS THAT HELP ME SEE WHAT OTHERS ARE UP TO||2. TOOLS THAT PREVENT OTHERS FROM SEEING WHAT I AM UP TO|
|3. TOOLS THAT HELP OTHERS SEE WHAT I AM UP TO||4. TOOLS THAT PREVENT ME FROM SEEING WHAT OTHERS ARE UP TO|
Brin argues that we will always see (1) and (2) as inherently good things and (3) and (4) as inherently bad things because privacy is something that we want for ourselves but which we would deny everyone else. Brin’s solution to the problem of privacy is to suggest that we drop our affection for (2) and adopt instead a desire for (1) and (3) as they enhance our ability to hold others to account while enabling them to do the same to us.
The future depicted in Christine Love’s Don’t Take it Personally is one where this transition has successfully taken place. Far from seeing their teacher’s ability to read their private correspondence as an intolerable invasion of privacy, Rook’s students see it as a perfectly natural state of affairs. Not only do they accept that others will have access to their most intimate thoughts and feelings, they base their identities upon this very fact.
1.2 The Personal
Traditional accounts of online identity stress the difference between who we are in the real world and who we are online. For example, in a paper entitled “Mask and Identity: The Hermeneutics of Self-Construction in the Information Age” (2002), Dorian Wiszniewski and Richard Coyne present us with the concept of the Mask. The Mask represents our identity in so far as it embodies the version of ourselves that we present to the world. As we grow up and interact with different communities we change both internally and externally, thereby modifying our Masks.
For many theorists, the fact that the online world allows us to withhold our meatspace identities means that online interaction offers a unique opportunity for adults to try on different Masks. Whether it be through characters in MMORPGs, assumed chatroom personas or blogging under noms-de-guerre, people can appear as they wish online without any fear that their experiments in altered identity might impact upon their real-world lives. Online, nobody knows that you’re a dog… nor do they know that you are not a sexually curious fifteen year-old. However, the disconnect between one’s online identity and one’s real world self seems increasingly inaccurate in the age of social media when most people accept that who they are online is as much a part of their basic identity as who they are at work, who they are with their partner and who they are when they spend time with their real-world friends. In a recent paper entitled “Mick or Keith: blended identity of online rock fans” (2009), Andrea J. Baker introduces us to the concept of blended identity.
Blended identity acknowledges not only the connection between who we are and how we present ourselves online but also recognises that there can be a good deal of overlap between online and offline Masks when relationships possess both an online and offline element. According to Baker:
To understand the process of the creation of blended identity is to know how people (a) derive identities online related to their offline experiences and the online community they have joined, and then (b) migrate from online to offline bringing with them the online identities that they then introduce to others whom they have met first online.
In other words, to understand the construction of a blended identity, one has to be aware of the context in which remarks are made and the extent to which individuals themselves are aware of the contextualised nature of their behaviour. For example, when Rook enters into a romantic relationship with one of his female students, he believes that his ability to read her interactions with her fellow students means that he is getting a look behind her Mask. In reality, the student knew full well that Rook could read her posts and so a more appropriate way of perceiving the student would have been to blend her chaste offline school persona with her more sexually adventurous and emotionally open online persona. As Baker explains when discussing a Rolling Stones fan community:
Conceiving identity solely in terms of honesty or deception is misplaced where people can choose a variety of names in an online community, especially when the group’s goal is to explore the particular interests of the members.
Rook’s decision to make use of his knowledge of the student’s emotional state should not be seen as dishonest because the student was clearly using her online utterances not to give voice to her secret inner desires but as an indirect form of communication that allowed for the possibility of conveying information to Rook without seeming to intentionally do so. To put it bluntly, the student’s decision to make her sexual desire public on the school’s Facebook analogue helped her to seduce her teachers by preparing the ground without making it appear as though she was in any way ‘easy’.
To explain this further, I’m going to use an extended analogy: that of diplomatic signalling.
1.31 The Practical – Case Study
Governments have at their disposal many different forms of communication: they can issue press releases, sign accords, make speeches and make shows of adopting certain policies. For example, when the Clinton administration launched their ‘Counterproliferation Initiative’ in 1993, the announcement served not only to communicate a bureaucratic re-organisation but also a desire by the Clinton administration to treat the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a military rather than diplomatic problem that might be dealt with through military means. As well as direct verbal communication, governments can also engage in more subtle forms of signalling such as when Egyptian dictator Anwar Sadat wore a tie with a swastika design during a peaceful visit to Israel.
The most famous example of indirect diplomatic signalling took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis when political realities at home made it difficult for the Kennedy administration to respond to Russian deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba by showing any form of weakness. Similarly, the American naval blockade of Cuba forced Soviet premier Nikolai Khrushchev to make a speech denouncing America’s ‘pirate action’ in no uncertain terms. Unable to show any signs of public weakness and yet desperate to find some accord that might allow both sides to save face whilst averting nuclear war, the Americans and Russians began a secret dialogue whereby American missiles in Turkey were exchanged for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
The Kennedy administration’s use of over- and under-the-table diplomacy showed a keen awareness of the subtleties of communication one’s internal states. Publicly, the Kennedy administration was willing to go to war over Cuba and yet, in reality, they were desperate for a compromise – a compromise they achieved through the use of indirect diplomatic signalling that created the opportunity for conciliatory dialogue.
By making her desires public using the school’s Facebook analogue, Rook’s student was effectively communicating the various facets of her identity. The fact that these communications took place in a forum that Rook should not have been paying any attention to enabled the student to maintain the appearance of disinterest in her teacher whilst also signalling to Rook that she would welcome any sexual advances that he might choose to make. This process continues throughout the game with the student repeatedly expressing her ‘private’ frustration at Rook’s failure to take the relationship to the next level physically.
Much like his negotiation of one student’s transition to an identity that might allow him to have same-sex relationships, the relationship between Rook and his student reflects the fact that, in Love’s version of 2027, presenting one’s identity to the world and ‘being yourself’ is not so much a question of being true to one’s ideals as it is of possessing a mastery of different forms of interpersonal contact through which different aspects of one’s personality might be emphasised and played down for effect. The complex nature of this broadcasting process is explored by the game’s two examples of communications failure.
1.32 The Practical – FAIL
Early in the game, one of the two boys in Rook’s class announces to the world that he is gay. However, rather than prompting homophobic comments or public congratulation, the student’s announcement is met with waves of mockery: of course he’s gay… has he only just worked this out? This failure of communication flows from the fact that while the student may not have been comfortable enough to publically announce his sexuality, his interpersonal forms of ‘diplomatic signalling’ has already announced his sexual preference. For the teenagers of the 2020s, indirect forms of communication and the presentation of different personae in different context is so natural that it is possible for an individual to broadcast his inner thoughts without even realising it and without needing to resort to traditional forms of direct communication.
One of the game’s more moving plotlines involves the above character (Akira) and his relationship with another student (Nolan) in the process of discovering his own sexuality. When the game begins, Nolan is considered straight because he was once in a relationship with a female student (Taylor). When Nolan gets involved with Akira, the other students are surprised but completely accepting… all except Taylor. Taylor begins sniping at Akira in quite a passive-aggressive manner whilst attempting reconciliation with Nolan (who displays little interest in renewing their ties). This on-going motif builds throughout the game till Taylor eventually cracks and begins harassing Akira for having ‘stolen’ her boyfriend. The other students respond with a torrent of abuse and hatred forcing Rook to step in and talk to Taylor about her behaviour.
Having dragged an almost hysterical Taylor into his office, Rook learns that Taylor sees the world in very traditional terms. For Taylor, we exist as lone subjectivities travelling through a world populated by other inaccessible subjectivities. Taylor’s sense of isolation from other people has prompted her into a form of extreme egocentrism reminiscent of the account of the self-articulated by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Existential philosophers who followed him.
For Nietzsche and the Existentialists, personal autonomy is the key to self-fulfilment. As lone subjectivities in the world, our job is to resist undue external influence on our internal thought processes, thereby remaining authentic to our true selves. This isolated and alienated vision of our place in the world echoes in Taylor’s announcement that the world, to all extent and purposes, revolves around her. For Taylor, our inability to experience other subjectivities means that there is no reason why we should take the content of those subjectivities into account. So what if she hurt Akira’s feelings? So what if other people hate her? The important thing is that she tried her best to get Nolan back. When Rook points out that Nolan spent the entire night comforting Akira as a result of Taylor’s actions, Taylor is genuinely shocked: she knew Nolan was straight because she used to date him and she took all of Nolan’s public interactions with Akira to be signals of friendship rather than genuine and heart-felt love.
Much like such science fiction titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) and Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular (2007) or films such as Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Catfish (2010) and Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public (2009), Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story depicts a world in which new technologies have fostered a culture in one broadcasts one’s identity through means other than the traditional media of speech and action. The future depicted by Christine Love is one where people momentarily assume Masks as a means of emphasising certain aspects of one’s personality through a variety of media. As David Brin predicted, the willingness to ‘broadcast’ oneself using technological means has solved the problem of privacy by effectively doing away with it as a value. However, as the game’s ambivalent attitude suggests, doing away with the need for privacy has only opened up another problem in the form of massively complicating day-to-day communication. Taylor is brutally bullied by her classmates not because of any real bigotry on her part but because of her inability to navigate the minefield of identity and distinguish between close friendship that ironically apes homosexual love and actual love that is downplayed for public consumption.
The future described by Christine Love is one in which pitchfork-wielding twittermobs stand permanently ready to punish any inability to ‘read between the lines’ with a concerted campaign of bullying and public harassment. The existence of these campaigns is made all the worse by the suggestion of inauthenticity. Indeed, as Love hints at by having students belatedly jump on the bandwagon of harassing Taylor, much of the bullying flows not from genuine outrage at Taylor’s actions (disgraceful and misjudged as they might have been) but rather from the need for individuals to signal their position and sympathies relative to the group for fear of being caught up in the shit storm alongside Taylor.
Love’s ambivalent depiction of a future whose inhabitants have embraced the values of openness stands as an interesting counterpoint to Brin’s Transparent Society. Written at a much earlier point in the history of the Internet, Brin’s book completely fails to predict many of the potential downsides of altering one’s conception of self so as to allow for complete openness. Far from dispelling the problem of privacy and allowing us to evade a future in which individuals fearfully protect their privacy from oppressive governments, embracing complete openness may well create a culture in which individuals are forced to protect themselves from each other as the rules governing social interaction become increasingly complex and increasingly difficult to learn. Taken as a response to The Transparent Society, Love’s vision of the future is stark: Either our government oppress us, or we oppress each other. I am genuinely not sure which is worse.
Jonathan McCalmont is a freelance critic living in the UK. His work has appeared in such places as Strange Horizons, The Escapist, Salon Futura, Gestalt Mash, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Vector. He also maintains a blog named Ruthless Culture where he writes about films, literature and the fundamental hostility of the universe.