Upping the Game
Wolfie Christl co-created online social game Data Dealer, which promises to change the way we think about privacy, Big Data, and the business of information
Web developer, artist, social entrepreneur and co-founder of Data Dealer, Wolfie Christl (35) has had an interest in ICT for as long as he can remember. In the 1990s, then in his teens, the Austrian was an early explorer of FidoNet, a precursor to the Internet, and CB Radio, a community media platform which allowed chatting between strangers within the grand scope of about 10km. In 2000, after a brief stint at the Linz University of Arts and Industrial Design, he joined the Viennese net culture organisation Public Netbase, where he occupied many roles and saw the cultural media initiative through to its extinguishment in 2006 (when it buckled under a lack of funding and increasing political antagonism from Austrian right-wing movements).
Wolfie Christl (c) Ivan Averintsev CC-BY-SA 3.0
Looking back, Wolfie reflects on the formative nature of the Public Netbase experience, which was, in his words, “a great time with lots of possibilities to learn and try things out”, and not only in the field of technology and the Internet, but also – perhaps more importantly – critical thinking and international collaboration, at a time when Austria was very polarised politically due to its conservative right-wing government. He candidly states that, without those six years, he would probably not be where he is today: at the forefront of the digital media literacy dialogue, and running Metaflimmer, a Viennese Internet and communication services outfit focusing on open source technology and an interdisciplinary approach.
A speaker at this year’s TEDxVienna “Instanity” conference (see inventures.eu’s article on it here), Wolfie is a keen proponent of the DIY and open-source movements. At school, he learned how computers and networks are built, gaining an understanding of hardware that would serve him well throughout his multifarious career. Wolfie’s interest in media literacy and the privacy debate has its origins in the hacktivism era of the 1990s, when securing individual privacy and freedom of information were two sides of the same coin, which now increasingly falls within the purview of more or less radical activist groups like Anonymous or the Pirate Party.
Data Dealer: Genesis
Like most good ideas, Data Dealer came about as an accident. And like most good ideas, the one behind Data Dealer is deceptively simple: a game where you can amass and sell…personal data. According to Wolfie, co-creator of the critically acclaimed online social game, Data Dealer is one of a kind. No US or EU competitors are known of as yet, and the game has been lauded as unique in its playful approach to a serious topic: privacy. The goal? Rendering this otherwise dry and complex area “experiencable”, for old and young alike.
“After many years of working with commercial clients, we wanted to use our knowhow to start a self-initiated project that we believed in. And that’s what we did with Data Dealer,” Wolfie says about the trigger for creating the game. During the game design process, Wolfie and his team continuously tried to imagine what kind of new personal data business models could be created in the future; “Sometimes we really thought we were creating a kind of dystopia here,” he states on the process.
But on more than one occasion a little research would reveal that most of the scenarios they were coming up with were already out there – ‘data broker’ companies such as Acxiom or Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions collect an increasingly unquantifiable mass of personal data which they sell on to various corporations and government entities.
Data Dealer: “Every dirty detail counts” (c) www.datadealer.net CC-BY-SA 3.0Facebook? Not impressed.
During the global rise of Facebook in 2009/2010, the four-member team based at metaflimmer noted the general public apathy towards the social network’s increasingly non-transparent aggregation of personal data, and set out to focus their energies on creating a non-profit project that would broach this problem in a fun way. Wolfie and his team (Ivan Averintsev, Pascale Osterwalder and Ralf Traunsteiner) had the right expertise from years of providing web services to the private and public sectors: web design, storyboarding, illustration and development. It helped that Ivan, who is also a mathematician, knew a bit about how data mining and data retrieval work.
When asked for his thoughts on the privacy policies and practices of Facebook and other web giants, Wolfie recounts how he recently downloaded a Zip File of his personal Facebook data. Scanning through the ads topics (a series of hash tags associated to his account), he came across some surprising misnomers, including “illegal drug trade”. Wolfie is unaware of how this connection came about and is unsure whether the info in this file is even complete, but he says that he thought Facebook would do better – and expects that it soon will.
He is intrigued by the current status quo, but does not necessarily identify with the budding young (and old) privacy crusaders out there, such as the 24-year old Austrian law student Max Schrems of Europe versus Facebook fame. Instead, Wolfie is far more concerned (but still languid) about consumer data marketing companies such as the abovementioned Acxiom Corp. These unseen data heavyweights control databases holding as much as 1500 different data points per person.
So, has information society gone awry? “Yes and no,” Wolfie says. “No, because today´s generation of so-called ‘digital natives’ mostly has a completely different – somehow more intuitive – way of using and understanding information technology. Yes, because all of the everyday services relying on aggregated data are becoming more and more complex – even if they look simple on the surface. When we use information technology today it’s more difficult than ever to estimate what the long-term consequences might be. So regardless whether you call it digital literacy or tech literacy – having a better grasp of the way things work is crucial if we want to advance to a more egalitarian future information society.”
TThe Data Dealer Team: Ivan Averintesv, Ralf Traunsteiner, Pascale Osterwalder and Wolfie Christl (from left to right) (c) www.datadealer.net CC-BY-SA 3.0Birth of CuteaCute Media OG – A Team on the Limits
After securing public funding for Data Dealer including that from departure, the City of Vienna’s business promotion agency for the creative industries, the team set up the firm CuteaCute Media OG to carry the project through to full fruition. Wolfie recalls that the period between the end of 2011 and the demo release in spring 2012 was rather tough: working full-time on Data Dealer, the team clocked up an impressive 3600 hours on top of their commitments to commercial clients. It goes without saying that obtaining funding was in itself a full-time job. However, since beginning the internationalisation of the game in September 2012, the team has grown from 4 to 11. Now it’s all about delivering a finished product, and doing it efficiently.
Recognition & Reward
But the rewards have made all efforts seem worthwhile: Data Dealer is backed by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture (BMUKK), netidee.at, the Internet Foundation Austria (IPA), and Saferinternet.at (part of the Safer Internet Programme of the EuropeanCommission). Within the first week of the demo version launch, the site registered 24.000 unique visitors, and the team received over 300 emails from users brimming with positive feedback. Wolfie recounts that there were virtually no negative comments, apart from those of some 13-year-old hardcore gamers, and a lone-star data privacy lawyer who somewhat bizarrely lamented that the video trailer of the game was “too violent”. To Wolfie and the team, the positive recognition from the online community was crucial in keeping up morale as the project progressively took over more of the team’s time.
Data Dealer has also been distinguished with a number of international awards and nominations in various categories, including the 2012 ZIT Content Award, and the “Pädi” prize (for best interactive game with a pedagogic purpose), and was featured at the Außer Kontrolle exhibition at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz earlier this year.
Does Wolfie have any words of advice to other startups in gaming sector? “Data Dealer is based on a story which is completely new in gaming. We’re also developing our own open source game engine and our game is based on HTML5 instead of the old-school Flash technology. So reflecting on our journey over the last two years, I could tell others: Don´t pack too many challenges into one single project. But I won´t. Because we really love our story, and wanted to avoid any lock-ins with existing proprietary game engines, and we believe in the future of HTML5.”
To Wolfie, the long-term social impact of technology matters. When it comes to the data privacy issue in particular, he is of the view that no one can really tell where it will all go, and what kind of new personal data business models will be created as we delve deeper into the digital age. Suffice to say that you can’t go wrong in knowing more about what happens every time you log onto a computer, or any internet-enabled device. Data Dealer does this in a way that avoids the usual finger-pointing and scape-goating. It’s about a casual switch in perspective: one goes from being an unknowing consumer to a player who learns the data game – and consequently, how not to get played.