The world of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) just got a little weirder. This morning Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott of the New York Times reported that American and British intelligence operatives are infiltrating fantasy worlds to detect terrorists, according to Snowden-pilfered documents recently disclosed by the Guardian. The media has since been having a field day.
The Times story lays out the government's strategy thusly:
The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. Because militants often rely on features common to video games — fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions — American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.
Online games might seem innocuous, a top-secret 2008 N.S.A. document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity!” another 2008 N.S.A. document declared.
But for all their enthusiasm — so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.
As for systematically distinguishing terrorist Worgens from non-terrorist Worgens---we can expect progress to be slow:
In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities. “We were told it was highly likely that persons of interest were using virtual spaces to communicate or coordinate,” said Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California who received grant money as part of the program.
After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.
It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.
This is a Worgen. "Worgen prefer to hide in shadows before leaping great distances upon their foes" (WoWWiki).
Predictably, Microsoft and Blizzard Entertainment are disclaiming any knowledge of the government's surveillance activities.