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Aisha Tyler on privacy, technology and Watch Dogs

Aisha Tyler has a simple plan, one which she knows has absolutely zero chance of success.

She's going to attempt a "digital detox" for the month of August, during which she'll withdraw from Twitter and email and Google and all the other little techno-connections she makes with the world.

"I feel like I'm too OCD with my phone," she said, speaking to Polygon at Comic-Con. "I'm like someone who touches their nose to doorknobs. I can't stop doing it, all day.

"It's not affecting my life negatively but it's problematic that there's something that I can't stop doing impulsively. So in August, I'll go without Twitter and email. That's my plan. But then I'm like, 'wait, I'll just Instagram.' It's like, I won't do any heroin, I'll just have a little bit of Methadone. I'm not an addict but I'll just have a nice beer with my breakfast."

I'll just have a nice beer with my breakfast

The comedian, writer, actor, TV and podcast host is in San Diego this week to promote a bunch of her various activities, but Polygon talked to her about Watch Dogs. She's a semi-official celeb-spokesperson for Ubisoft, and she appears in a cameo, as an NPC, in the game. But Tyler is also interested in the game's thoroughly contemporary themes of digital privacy, the deals we all make with useful gadgets and giant corporations, to help us in our lives, and the things we give up in return.

"There's a powerlessness that a lot of people feel, because of their relationship with technology," she said. "They don't feel like they have control over it, they don't feel like their information is protected. Everything that has happened in the past year, with Prism and the NSA. It's funny because people were so outraged by that — and I believe in the importance of privacy — but I have been sticking to the idea that not one piece of digital communication that I've ever made has been private. If I send a text I wonder how I'm going to feel if someone reads it out loud."


Watch Dogs was commissioned five years ago on the premise of a lead character who has the power to hack into information-technology systems. The game's 2013 release chimes nicely with revelations about how governments capture reams of information about all of us, how they collude with technology corporations to gather data on citizens.

"This is the world we live in," she said. "The incredible benefits of what we have, technologically within our culture, and the incredible dangers. The only way to opt out is to just not use technology. That seems like a non-option. You'd have literally no information. The sublimated times every day when you use technology, blindly, that you can't even remember. It's like touching your face, you do it thousands of times a day, without knowing."

In Watch Dogs, central character Aiden Pearce hacks into personal and civic systems to manipulate the world around him. He is able to understand the people who pass him in the street, by spying on their personal information. Tyler said the story isn't designed to pass judgment on the modern, connected world, so much as to make people think about the way we live and its consequences.

"Google is trying to anticipate your needs, but in doing so, every digital thought that you have —maybe going to a restaurant tonight, or going to see a movie — all that stuff is alive and it's being propagated across multiple platforms with your digital fingerprint attached to it.

"It takes very little to figure out what you eat, your medications, who you are interacting with, sleeping with. It's an incredibly complex picture, probably even more than how your family could describe you. My husband doesn't know the hundred things I Google every day. He knows me pretty well. He wouldn't be surprised if someone read it to him, but he couldn't tell you what I was Googling this morning. It was porn, by the way."

Jokes aside, Watch Dogs seeks to ask questions about who we are becoming in the digital, ultra-connected world, what these useful services are doing to us, how they are exposing us to new threats. A stupid boy makes a crass threat on Facebook, and spends months in a jail cell. A celebrity sends unguarded texts to a lover, and is exposed, utterly. A kitchen worker masturbates, and is caught on a camera, not by his co-workers, but by outsiders, watching through cameras above.

"Everything leaves a digital footprint, everything," she said. "You may think it's a private conversation but it's living on a server somewhere."

All this ties-in nicely with Watch Dogs, which Tyler is promoting, and in which she appears. Players can come across an Aisha Tyler NPC when they cruise the streets of the game's Chicago. She is one of thousands of characters who populate the city, most of whom are of no consequence to the player.

"If you encounter my character, the way I develop the lines is not 'oh hey, you just ran into Aisha Tyler.' I'm just a person on the street and I'm living my life. It's not this big 'there's a celebrity in the game'. Without sounding too self-referential, I don't live a particularly fancy life. I work in television but in my normal life I walk around in jeans and I go to the movies. I'm not riding in the back of a limo. I'm just doing the same shit everyone else is doing.

"So I hope that's the way people will encounter my character in the game. There's an Easter egg quality to it and I hope that it will be fun for people to interact with my character in a way that is seamless and fully integrated with the rest of their gameplay experience."


Tyler's resume includes Friends, Archer, host of Whose Line is it Anyway?, author, columnist and host of podcast Guy on Girl. Prior to Watch Dogs, she voice-acted in Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3.

"I have a pretty rigid, narrow swathe of games that I like to play," she said. "My favorite kind of games are those that combine role-playing with shooting, especially the open world games. That immersive experience gets you emotionally as well as intellectually. It's not just the shooting and being a badass, it's like I can build a world and an experience that makes me feel connected to my gameplay, makes me feel like I live this life."

And the reason she's interested in Watch Dogs? "I feel like we're stepping away from that funneling of gameplay where you are on a path with very few options, towards this completely dynamic open experience. I love the fact that it's not about who I shoot at, it's about my choices and my personality.

"When I play in RPGs I am always the good guy. It's impossible for me to be bad. But in this game you start out as a guy who, for better or for worse, everybody perceives as bad. You have the opportunity to completely change the way the world perceives you, not just by controlling information but by your actions and how your actions are delivered to the world."

Pearce uses technology to get what he wants, the player uses Pearce to define themselves through the game, to project their persona, just as we all do, via social media and email. The circle of technology is completed, literally, around us all.

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