Most nights, before bed, I'll turn on my Xbox 360, load up Netflix and let an episode of “Arrested Development” or some other old favorite lull me to sleep. But sometimes I get the weird feeling someone is watching me and through a recent message I figured out who: Microsoft.
My suspicions were first confirmed by an email Xbox Live sent me: “MRnihilist, your personalized Xbox update for August 2011.” Like any good stalker, Xbox included a picture of me (Or at least my Xbox Avatar) and listed all my recent activities.
So, let's see, I spent two hours listening to music, sounds about right; about 10 hours playing the tactical RPG “Vandal Hearts: Flames of Judgment,” OK; and Oh man, 199 hours and 6 minutes watching Netflix. That's an average of 50 hours a week of TV, blowing away the Nielsen average of 28 hours for the American adult. I sure hope they are counting my idle time or does this number mean I really spent eight days watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation” reruns?
“But don't worry, Clint,” The Xbox Live email tells me. “Tons of people are wasting their time on this thing, not just you.”
The email contains a link to a service called MyStats, letting you compare your use of the Xbox 360 with the rest of its little brothers for the last six months. It seems the 14 hours I spent playing “Battlefield: Bad Company 2” is just peanuts compared to the 65 hours racked up by the average Xbox 360 user.
Thanks, Xbox Live, now I feel ashamed at how much time I’ve spent online and insecure about how little I play.
Maybe I'm blaming the victim here, but perhaps I brought all this extra scrutiny on myself. I did just sign up for Xbox Live Rewards service: A program where I receive a little money back for purchases on the Xbox Live Marketplace and points for filling out surveys.
And as corporate stalkers go, Xbox Live seems to be the one of the most innocuous. Microsoft is only keeping track of my gaming stats. When you post pictures or videos to Facebook, you are granting the social media site “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License),” according to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
Facebook basically controls the right to all those photos you post to its site, and most of those could probably get you fired. But Facebook's stance on the issue seems to be “Hey you can trust us.”
Also, unlike other stalkers, Xbox at least sends me stuff I like. Facebook and Google use my personal information to try to hook me up with local girls and sell me penis enhancers, but Xbox sends me little items for my avatar to wear or play with. Usually when a stalker sends you a skin suit, you don't contemplate wearing it, but the lizard and super unicorn costumes from games like “Peggel” are at least worth trying on.
Most items you can only receive by purchasing them, though I don't really think decking out my avatar with The Situation’s abs from MTV's “Jersey Shore” is worth my time or money. But sometimes games reward you with free items for in-game achievements. I once got a sombrero for shooting off a bandito's hat in Rockstar's “Red Dead Redemption,” an old west version of Grand Theft Auto. Right now my avatar is sporting a tribal facemask I received for purchasing one of their Summer of Xbox Arcade games “From Dust.” “From Dust” is a fun little puzzle game, in which you need to literally move mountains to save your tribe from a collapsing world. And now my little avatar has that same creepy, yet cool, mask.
Though Microsoft bills these Big Brother services as “We love giving stuff back,” as it says at the top of its MyStats page, it kind of doubles as a creepy threat: “Look what I know about you. Don't you wonder what else I know?”
And I do wonder where all this is going.
Are we heading to some Orwellian 1984 type of future? Will the combined marketing power of Microsoft, Google and Facebook be enough to control the world? Microsoft knowing how much Netflix I watch isn't that big a deal, but I'm sure we all have a few web searches we'd rather keep to ourselves. With us putting more and more of ourselves on the Internet, questions of what privacy we're giving up are becoming more pressing. Our online anonymity is constantly being challenged and this is a conversation we'll continue to have for many years.
Nevertheless, giving in to the new technocracy might have some benefits. If you submit to your new cyber-overlords in time, you'll receive a free digital hat.