Where are the Hacking Simulators?

Games where you play as a security hacker breaking into computer systems seem like a perfect match for the medium. They can make you feel how a hacker should feel, at least as portrayed by Hollywood.

You interact with the world in the exact same way that the player character does. This is the closest you can get to being the player character, short of putting on a VR headset!

If this is such a brilliant concept, why are there just two (see Addenum) hacking games out there?

The term "hacker"

I am aware that "hacker" as used within popular culture (computer criminal, black hat hacker) does not describe those who call themselves hackers (people who make computers do impressive things). "Cracker" would be the most specific term, but in the context of video games it means something different!.

I will therefore use the term "hacker" to refer to black hat hackers throughout this article.

The two games

The first hacking simulator (though I'd love to be proved wrong! see Addenum) is a 2001 title called Uplink. The gameplay consists of breaking into various computer systems by picking the correct cracking software for each security feature that you encounter. You must complete your heist before you are tracked down by the computer's administrator. You can optimise your performance by recognizing bottlenecks and allocating more computing power to the program that is holding you back.

Screenshot of Uplink

In many ways, this game was way ahead of its time! You, the player, do exactly what the player-character would be doing within the game world: you get your assignments from a job board, you do the task, and then you e-mail whoever gave you the contract to get your payment. The immersion is taken even further by the way that save games are handled: you create a new save by signing up for Uplink using a username and password. Then, you can load your save game by logging in with a specific set of credentials.

Screenshot of Hacknet

The second hacking simulator did not come out until 2015. It is called Hacknet and it improves upon Uplink in a few major ways. It looks a lot better, which makes sense given that it has 14 years of Moore's law to take advantage of. It has a command-line interface, which gives the game verisimilitude. The writing is more engaging, and the pacing of the story is fantastic.

The core of the game, however, is the same - it turns you into a hacker. And just like with Uplink, I wouldn't risk playing it on a plane.

Why is this such a good idea?

I believe video games are a fundamentally different type of media because they are interactive. They let you make choices, and they enable those choices to have consequences. Games can make you feel guilty, which is difficult to achieve through other forms of storytelling.

Games such as Uplink and Hacknet take the concept of games even further. They have completely eliminated the fourth wall. There is no separation between the characters and the audience. The characters treat the player as if they are a computer hacker, and the player must act their part. Since it's useful to have names for things, let's call this idea "total immersion".

You can achieve total immersion in other media, such as through letters addressed directly to the reader. However, interactivity brings it to a whole new level. This is further enhanced by the fact that the actions that the player character would perform match up exactly to what the player is doing.

Are there any other games that use total immersion?

In Duskers you use remote-controlled drones in order to explore derelict spaceships. You experience the game's world through the user interface of the program that controls these drones.

In Orwell you interact with a government security program that allows you to tap into the online life of its citizens. You are tasked with finding the culprits behind a series of terrorist attacks.

Finally, TIS-100 is an assembly programming game that even comes with a reference manual. The entire interface lives within the computer you are supposedly repairing.

Closing Thoughts

I think hacking simulators are cool because they enable total immersion - the erasure of elements that are "about" the game, making the game itself seem real. Unfortunately, there's not that many out there. Several other titles are using total immersion techniques, though I'd love to see more!

Addenum: More Games

The discusson at Lobste.rs revealed several other games along the same theme.

I've since found out that the game Hacker predates Uplink by over a decade!