We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
I have hacked into Samir Jilani’s network with my iPhone in order to browse a virtual dossier containing his private e-mails. My next task: deciding whether or not the tech CEO poses a terrorist threat to the U.S.
“Hey, we’ve got another meeting with Redmond next week, but let’s hold off on closing any deals,” reads an intercepted message, one Jilani had previously sent to a coworker. “I’m going to be in Iran for a month for Ramadan, I don’t want to be tied up when they’re expecting us to move forward.”
It appears to be a relatively harmless exchange, but an ominous note from my boss appears on the bottom of the screen: “Does any part of this message pose a potential threat to national security?” I feel uncomfortable profiling someone simply for being a Muslim from Iran, but I’ve got no choice in the matter. Now, in order to continue, I’m forced to flag the e-mail as “Pertinent.” I reluctantly check the box and receive a new message: “Thank you for your service, the authorities have been notified.”
To be clear, no federal authorities actually received this notification, and Samir Jilani isn’t real. And I’m definitely not a bona fide National Security Agency spy. This is the brilliant and disturbing iPhone game TouchTone, a subversive commentary on the U.S. security state dressed up as a simplistic mobile game.
Created by Chicago-based indie developers Mike Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend and released in April, TouchTone is designed to play like most of the innocuous fare on Apple’s App Store—at least on the surface. It casts you as a low-level agent for an unnamed NSA-like agency whose job consists of sifting through these communications and alerting your higher-ups to suspicious people. The bulk of the game is confined to a black grid filled with colorful laser beams that recalls the minimalist cybernoir of Tron. The player solves a series of visual puzzles by correctly aligning laser beams with their matching color-coded terminal, using reflector panels that can be shifted by swiping your phone’s screen with your finger. Connect all the lasers to their designated targets and you complete a “hack.” The reward for doing so isn’t a high score but unfettered access to your mark’s texts, e-mails, and phone calls.
You’re continuously praised for your work by your faceless, voiceless boss—code name: Patriot—who speaks in jingoistic agitprop that feels straight out of the mouths of Fox News commentators or Bush administration officials. “Freedom is the defining quality of our nation. It is also what makes us vulnerable,” Patriot says at one point. At another: “The innocent have nothing to hide. The guilty have nowhere to run.”
It takes only a few minutes to feel skeevy about the work you’re doing in TouchTone, which is exactly what the game’s creators intended.
“It’s supposed to be an emotional gut check,” says Boxleiter, the game’s writer, designer, and programmer. I talked with TouchTone’s creators at the new headquarters of a different kind of game “for horrible people.” The pair make games under the developer name Mikengreg from within Cards Against Humanity’s converted warehouse in Bucktown, where dozens of young artists, designers, and gamemakers rent coworking space.
“I just want people to think about this issue, not from a ‘I have nothing to hide, you can look at my shit’ way, but ‘Wow, you get to look at everything, even when I text my girlfriend?’” Boxleiter says. “People don’t empathize, and it’s our job to look at this through a different lens and show it to other people.”
Creating an interactive argument against the NSA isn’t what TouchTone’s developers originally had in mind. Back in 2012, Boxleiter and Wohlwend, who’ve been making games under the name Mikengreg since 2009, released a quirky sports title called Gasketball. Shortly after they finished the game, which turned out to be a financial flop, the pair took a road trip to a video game conference in Seattle. During the 48-hour journey, they managed to quickly craft a prototype for the skeleton of TouchTone. Initially there was no plot or story, just a gridlike board with laser beams that the player would be tasked with connecting to targets placed on the grid’s edges.
“It was abstract at first,” says Wohlwend, TouchTone’s artist. “We were going to do something with light and wavelengths. And then possibly with audio, so you’d hook up different lines and they’d produce certain tones and pitches that created a musical cacophony when spliced together. But that ended up being really weird—and sounded terrible—so it didn’t work very well.”
They didn’t settle on a theme to hang on TouchTone’s sparse frame until the summer of 2013, when the headlines were dominated by Edward Snowden’s leaks regarding the NSA’s clandestine surveillance program PRISM. “We were like, ‘Wow, OK, this is interesting. Maybe we could do this funny send-up of the NSA,’” Boxleiter says. Ultimately, however, they opted to steer away from straight parody. Instead of pointing and laughing, Boxleiter decided to make the player complicit in the NSA’s actions. The game suggests that the person interacting with the app is literally the federal agent, like Ender’s Game as conceived by Snowden. Imagine playing a game of Tetris in which matching the falling tiles was secretly a way to gain control of Russia’s nuclear codes.
“I want people to get this voyeuristic, creepy vibe while playing, so they realize, ‘This is what I’m agreeing to when I agree with what the NSA is doing,’” Boxleiter says. “This is why what the NSA does is wrong. Instead of screaming ‘Look how stupid the NSA is!’ I’d rather show you.”
That kind of instructive objective is not often seen in the medium of video games, which have improved in graphic fidelity much faster in recent years than they have in intelligence. “Video games don’t tell very good stories,” Boxleiter says. “People hold up Grand Theft Auto as a good example of satire, but it’s juvenile frat-boy satire.”
When writing TouchTone, Boxleiter took his cues from entertainment outside of video games, particularly the sharp political satire of Netflix’s House of Cards. He also immersed himself in coverage of the Snowden leaks in an attempt to fully grasp how the NSA operates, in hopes of conveying that in the game’s script. To get the details right, he found himself googling phrases like “What type of plutonium do you need to make a dirty bomb?” or “What kind of [damage] would a dirty bomb do at a city center?” Boxleiter suspects his research, ironically, may have landed him on a real-life NSA watch list.
The result is a story built in three acts distinguished by setting: Silicon Valley, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Patriot asks you to surveil a series of “people of interest” until you can round up enough ostensibly incriminating information to get them sent to prison or a holding cell at Guantanamo Bay. The first major target is the aforementioned Jilani, who appears very suspicious in early communications you uncover. But as you solve more puzzles and continue to read his communications, you learn that the truth about Jilani is much more complicated than you’ve been led to believe. However, because of the overzealous nature of your work at the NSA, you continue to gather “pertinent” information that flags him as a threat to national security.
The use of a Muslim-American character is intentional, Boxleiter says, to make a point about the racial profiling that takes place in the name of national security. “Currently in the American psyche, people deny that they’re racist and deny that there’s any religious war going on,” Boxleiter says. “But for a lot of people, it’s Christianity versus Islam and Americans versus the Middle East. They’re the bad dark people and we’re the good white people.”
This is where this story about the creation of TouchTone, much like the mysterious plot within the game, gets a little muddled.
In my face-to-face conversation with Boxleiter and Wohlwend back in April, shortly after the game’s release, Boxleiter told me that he based Samir Jilani on a game-developer friend, a bearded Muslim man who lives in the Netherlands and whose family is from Egypt. This friend, he said, travels to America a lot, and constantly has to deal with “random” searches and profiling at airports. Boxleiter also said when his friend came to Chicago to play an early version of the game, he asked, “Is Samir me?”
It was a compelling narrative tidbit that prompted me, a few days later, to ask Boxleiter if I could speak to his friend. I initially received no reply. After repeated inquiries went unreturned for several days, Boxleiter finally replied via e-mail: “I don’t think the inspiration is important, he’s just a guy who fits a profile which leads to harassment from the government.” Later, in response to yet another request, Boxleiter said, “We talked to our friend and he’s not interested in being included in the story.”
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up my search for the inspiration for Jilani. It wasn’t long before an acute irony began to sink in as I tried to “profile” Boxleiter’s Twitter followers in search of a man who appeared to be dark-skinned and bearded. I combed his list and stumbled on the profile of Rami Ismail, who runs the indie game studio Vlambeer. As I would learn later, he is also Muslim, lives in the Netherlands, and has family in Egypt—a perfect match for Boxleiter’s description of the real-life Jilani. Ismail worked with Wohlwend on the iOS hit Ridiculous Fishing, and also accompanied the Mikengreg duo on the long road trip to Seattle that eventually spawned TouchTone.
In a phone conversation, Ismail denied any knowledge that Jilani was based on him, adding that he never asked Boxleiter if that was the case. He also noted he’s rarely profiled in airports, and hasn’t visited Chicago in years. Maybe, Ismail suggested, Jilani is based on someone else?
Considering the specificity of Boxleiter’s description, that seems unlikely. So now I’m left to puzzle out the truth about a game that’s essentially about the obfuscation of truth. Should I believe Boxleiter’s other assertions about TouchTone, among them that he received an e-mail from an unnamed former congressional staffer who said the game was “amazingly right on” about the inner workings of the NSA? Do I take at face value Boxleiter’s and Wohlwend’s claim that a TouchTone player accused Mikengreg of being contracted by the NSA to make the game as a recruiting tool?
I don’t know. After some initial buzz from critics and fans in April—when Apple featured the game on the home page of its App Store—both TouchTone and its creators have been relatively quiet. It’s now been more than three months since Boxleiter and Wohlwend stopped responding to my communications, and I’ve accepted that the full, unvarnished backstory about the game is probably out of reach. If only a special level of TouchTone allowed me to tap into their e-mails to find out. Patriot, my fictional NSA boss, would be proud. v