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GameJam_16-9 Verkehr
13 October 2017

Serious Games as a Tool for Privacy-by-Design

In a digitised society, where individual communication is increasingly based on the processing of personal data, explaining the complexity of privacy is hardly feasible. That’s why we at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) decided to organise the “Game Jam: Unveil the Privacy Threat” in order to develop games that could exactly achieve that! Maximilian von Grafenstein, head of the research program “Governance of Data-Driven Innovation”, presents which serious game ideas were developed for which specific educational goal.

Privacy in a digitised society

How can we explain the complexity of privacy to citizens? How can data-driven companies sensitise their employees to the privacy threats that may be caused by their behaviour? Addressing these questions is a highly difficult task because privacy does not mean not disclosing any personal information at all. A strict non-disclosure of personal information could be an effective solution. However, in a digitised society, where individual communication is increasingly based on the processing of personal data, it is hardly feasible. Privacy thus means controlling the potential risks for individuals caused by a disclosure of personal information. But these risks depend on the context in which the information will be used, and on the implementation of legal, technical and organisational measures that control such use (i.e. privacy and security by design). This is the inherent reason why attempts to explain the meaning of privacy often fail: the task seems to be too complex (and also counter-intuitive in light of our everyday behavior in a digitized world).

The Game Jam Idea

That’s why we at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society decided to develop games! Games can make very complex matters understandable in a playful and highly intuitive way. However, many games developed for educational purposes in privacy are rather boring. The game mechanics are often so simplistic that most people would only play them if  they are forced to do so: Play the game or you’re fired! Games like this don’t achieve their actual learning goals (explaining privacy in a really playful and intuitive manner).

In order to create games that intuitively explain the complexity of privacy to its players, we organized, as part of the research project Privacy by Design in Smart Cities, the Game Jam: Unveil the Privacy Threat, which took place last weekend in Berlin. 26 game designers, developers, privacy experts, and artists, who came from all over Europe, the Middle East and even South America, worked on six different game concepts during a two-day development marathon. All game concepts were based on three use cases, each of which were presented by a keynote speaker who is active in this field. The first speaker, Jillian York, Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave five reasons for why this statement is wrong in her keynote “I’ve nothing to hide!”. In her keynote “Oops… wrong recipient ?”, the second speaker, Michelle Dennedy, Vice President and Chief Privacy Officer at Cisco, illustrated how challenging it is, in globally operating data-driven companies, to sensitize employees to privacy when setting up a properly working privacy-by-design methodology. In his keynote “Unravel the anonymization paradox!”, the third speaker, Jonathan Fox, Director Strategy and Planning, Chief Privacy Office, Security & Trust Organization at Cisco ( “the Fox” for short), demonstrated the challenges of data anonymisation. All three use cases were intended to give the game jam participants an initial understanding of the many facets of privacy before they started to develop game concepts that addressed one or even all of them. Some of the game jam participants even worked through the night, supported and guided by several privacy mentors (such as by Michelle Dennedy herself)!

Who’s Sherlock

The showdown took place on Sunday evening, at 6pm: The participants had to pitch their game concepts to a 7-person interdisciplinary expert jury: Lars Vormann from Gamescom, Nico Nowarra from Experimental Game, Meike Kamp from the Berlin Data Protection Authority, Lies van Roessel from the Hans Bredow Institute, Thomas Schildhauer from our institute, Michelle Dennedy, Jillian York, and Eva Schulz-Kamm from Siemens, who sponsored  the prize. The winner got a weekend trip to London for the whole winning team including a visit to The Crystal, the world’s largest exhibition on the future of (smart) cities. So, which game concepts did participants develop to explain the complexity of privacy? And who was the winner?

The first presented game concept “Who’s Sherlock” was a questions-and-answers game that lets its players experience how easy it is to find information about oneself and others in the internet, and how sensitive this kind of information can be in different contexts. The second game concept, “Privacy Rush”, focused on the moment when an individual wants to connect with a public wifi system. Before an individual connects with the system, this browser game is loaded and appears on the screen, aiming to inform the player (i.e., the wifi user) about the privacy risks caused by an insecure connection (as well as how to better protect him or herself). The third game concept “Data Trade” addressed the complexity of today’s data economy. Taking the perspective of a data trader, this card game demonstrates how different data sets can be combined, leading to a higher price on data markets because they generate more  information about individuals. However, this additionally generated information also leads to higher privacy risks and, therefore, the players have to constantly implement and adapt its protection in order to mitigate these risks (because a risky data is set is worth less than a safer one). The fourth game concept “Nothing to hide” lets the game players experience that the “nothing to hide” argument is wrong. The fifth game concept “Smart City” was a simulation game targeting political decision makers who are responsible for urban development decisions. Taking the perspective of a city mayor, the game players can make their cities smarter and smarter by digitizing different public areas (the health sector becomes an ehealth sector, policing becomes predictive etc.). At the end of his or her legislative term, the player’s political decisions will be measured pursuant to the future scenarios simulated in the game. The sixth game concept “Pieces of Data” seeks to teach its players how to manage third-party access rights, i.e. by app providers, to their smartphones. Taking the perspective of an activist in a state that is becoming more and more repressive, the players learn how data collected by their smartphones can harm them, and even other parties – and how to protect themselves against such threats. Because this game was so advanced in its development, it won!

However, all game concepts impressively demonstrated that games can serve as a highly effective tool. In a privacy-by-design framework: They’re not just useful for explaining the complexity of privacy to citizens. In fact, games can even help companies to meet data protection requirements. This might be the case in the context of educating employees in data-driven companies. But it is even possible that games will ultimately support, or even substitute for, the lengthy legal texts that individuals purport to agree with by clicking on a box as part of the informed consent. Based on these experiences, we are eager to get working on making these scenarios a reality! Because this truly is effective privacy by design.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Maximilian von Grafenstein, Prof. Dr.

Associated Researcher, Co-Head of Research Programme

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