Chat is integral to multiplayer gaming. It’s about coordinating player actions in parties, but also about just connecting with other gamers. So it’s not surprising that gamers’ reactions ranged from fury to disbelief and all points in between when the PlayStation network sent out warnings that in-game voice chats may be recorded.
The warning, if you looked closely, was actually that other users could record chats they were in and send them along as part of complaints under the Community Code of Conduct. But it’s a warning that precedes planned changes in the PS5 to make it easier for users to record their own chats and send them in with complaints to moderators. And, it’s also true that the company, buried in their terms of service, simultaneously says they’re not responsible for monitoring or recording any activity on the network, but that they might do so anyway. The company moved quickly to clarify they weren’t monitoring chats, just warning people others might do so. But the damage is done and users are being vocal (and visual—some of the memes are pretty on point) on social media about how they feel about the idea that the conversations they have while they play could be used against them. As a woman who games, I know chats can get nasty—there are valid reasons for having a code of conduct, and a need for a complaints mechanism—but in gaming as in everywhere else, rights need to be balanced, privacy can’t just be blasted into oblivion along with the mobs.
The fuss and fury highlights two things. First, gamers care about their privacy, which is frankly fantastic. Second, there are some serious issues with any company default position that states, if you’re using chat, you’re assumed to consent to it being recorded. And it’s an issue that goes well beyond game consoles and expands to all of the devices that listen in to conversations so that they can respond to voice commands.
We need to consider whether an always on, always listening, environment, whether it’s on a gaming platform or an internet-of-things connected device, is leading to a world we want to live and play in. There are issues that go beyond losing access to a game and go all the way to information sharing with law enforcement. But at a minimum, we need some basic privacy principles to be considered for all devices or platforms that want to record us in our homes. Here’s the top 3 list:
- Meaningful consent. It’s not meaningful consent to tell a gamer, hey, to use the functionality we build into the game to make it more fun you’re automatically consenting to being recorded. There’s a wrinkle when it comes to the reality that it might be other players, not the company, doing the recording, but as a baseline principle, assumed consent for recording personal conversations isn’t good enough—especially at the point the company facilitates or mandates that recording.
- Transparency. The functionality for in-game recording needs to be transparent. That means, if a party member hits record, everyone gets notified. No surreptitious recordings. If one of the group doesn’t like it, they have a chance to argue against it, or leave the party. If a recording is used against someone and they’re sanctioned, they should have a right to hear the recording and defend themselves. The same for always-on devices—there should be a visual cue it’s on.
- Purpose specification. If the company is facilitating recording, the policies on when it happens, and what the recordings may be used for need to be up front and reasonable in the circumstances.
There’s more to think about. It’s not enough, in our connected world, to say “just don’t use the technology,” especially when design choices that facilitate privacy intrusions are commonplace. Privacy legislation needs to be amended with the serious erosions of privacy that connected devices are capable of in mind. But even our current laws mean that the baseline is, devices and platforms that want to listen to us, whether it’s in the name of protecting us, serving us, or any functionality in between, need to take our right to privacy into account, and we should be demanding it, as PlayStation gamers did so vehemently today. Game on.
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