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Games Entertainment

Torture in Games 249

Recent comments from Richard Bartle, one of the developers for the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), stirred up discussion about whether virtual torture is acceptable as part of modern games. Bartle was referring to a quest in the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, in which players are instructed to extract information from an NPC. He drew criticism for his view from a variety of sources, but Wired is now running a piece provocatively titled, "Why We Need More Torture in Games." The author makes the case that the failure of most media to properly portray how horrible torture actually is (for example, on the TV show 24), and the increased focus on real-world topics like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and waterboarding, could make games the perfect venue for demonstrating the "devastating repercussions" of torture.
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Torture in Games

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @02:39AM (#26129699)

    Killing someone isn't torture in itself. Nearly every game out there involves killing. That's not the same as torture.

  • by Kandenshi ( 832555 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @02:54AM (#26129763)

    I don't play WoW or the MUD mentioned in the article, but I'm curious if the use of torture in these games does/would invariably produce honest factual information from the person/monster being tortured?

    Torture has a somewhat speckled history when it comes to getting at what's actually really going on. Torture someone enough and they'll tell you whatever they think will get you to stop the torture, regardless of if it's true or not.

    It'd be a bit more interesting I'd think if the torture sometimes works, and sometimes leads you off in directions that aren't at all productive(and might actually weaken you).

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:11AM (#26129837)

    Torture produces what you want to hear. Nothing else. More precisely, what the subject tortured thinks that you want to hear so, as you pointed out, you stop torturing it.

    In short, it usually just "confirms" whatever assumption you had in the first place.

    It is utterly useless for getting information because whatever the tortured subject tells you can either be true (if your assumption was correct) or false (if it wasn't and he is making up some story to make you think that he is giving you information to make you stop the torture). And if he's really dedicated, the chance to get a fabrication increases (because making up a story is not dependent on knowing the truth, only on his motivation to end the torture).

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:21AM (#26129885)

    I mean, let's be sensible here. Torture. In other words, making someone feel pain (physical, emotional, pick your poison) to get something from him.

    Anyone here that does NOT know that this is something you don't really want to be subjected to? Well? I see no hands, so either people know or people know about it enough that they don't want to hear the logical followup to that question.

    If we get desensitized to torture, to people being hurt and mutilated for fun and profit, I think something's wrong with the shows that picture it as something "mildly unpleasant" instead of what it is: Physically and even more so emotionally crippling. When we do the same in games, what does it change?

    I mean, besides games having a weaker lobby and getting the thinkofthechildren crowd up in arms about people playing torture.

    Is there a difference between watching torture on TV and executing it yourself in a game? In both cases you watch a character do it. In one case, you get to see it because you issue a command. In the other case you do because you don't issue one, i.e. don't change the channel. Where is the huge difference?

  • by gordo3000 ( 785698 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:24AM (#26129891)

    do you have any evidence to back these assumptions? I'm not talking about another talking head saying the same thing, but I mean evidence pointing to several instances where a prisoner gave details that were expected and they turned out to be false.

    I Personally doubt these methods are as ineffective as everyone likes to portray them.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:26AM (#26129897)

    That's basically what it is. If the quest was to eat human babies (or orc babies on the other side) and there's gold, experience and prestige in it, people will do it. Not because they're not sensitive to the feelings of others, but because it's a friggin' game. I mean, we're already at slaughtering animals, people, undead, ghosts and giants, by the dozen, hundreds, thousands. Eating babies and shocking someone's nuts? We're already at virtual mass murder, who cares about the virtual rest?

  • by Davemania ( 580154 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:28AM (#26129905) Journal
    My impression of WoW is that it is a fairly shallow game in terms of narrative with the quests. Most of these quests are simple grinding with very little aspect to rewards or consequences to the players actions. If the idea is to incoporate consequences or rewards to such things as torture, part of the gaming mechanism would've to be changed such that something valuable to a WoW player would be affected. I don't think WoW has ever presented the concept of good or bad in the gameplay, either faction can do pretty much whatever they want regardless. WoW isn't designed to disucss morality in terms of gameplay.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:34AM (#26129943)

    Umm.... how about pretty much inquisition trial that included torture?

  • by johnsonav ( 1098915 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:54AM (#26130055) Journal

    Umm.... how about pretty much inquisition trial that included torture?

    I don't think he's talking about torture to obtain a confession, but rather torture to obtain actionable information. I would imagine an interrogation could be set up so that the subject is asked questions with only concrete and verifiable answers. The subject could be threatened with even more torture for non-compliance or misinformation. It would then be in his best interest to tell the truth as soon as possible.

  • by penguinchris ( 1020961 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [sirhcniugnep]> on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:58AM (#26130067) Homepage

    I had that game too (still have the CDs on my shelf) and though I'm sure we'd think it was cheesy now, at the time, compared to the very simple graphics in most games it was pretty engrossing to interact with "real" people. As you described, some sequences were very effective - some were plain silly as well :)

    I have the one where you're a submarine captain, too, forgot what it's called... That one was engrossing as well, except it seemed much more scripted and linear than Spycraft did. I still remember clearly what the XO says to you, and the look of despair on his face as he says it, when you make a bad decision and end up sinking the submarine (probably because I sank it dozens of times...)

    But anyway... the main thing I was going to say is, can you imagine anyone releasing a game now with live-action torture sequences? What publisher would allow that? It would be a very effective statement against torture, but I can't see it happening, despite the amount of violence and debauchery available to you in other games. Spycraft was an effective statement as well, but not timely.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:01AM (#26130093)

    If he knows it. If he's in the unfortunate position to know nothing of interest for his torturer, he's basically dead (or worse) if he does not lie and try to find out what his torturer wants to hear.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:03AM (#26130105)

    So what the US try to tell a potential enemy is that it's better for him to fight to death than face capture?

    Dunno, am I the only one who thinks there's an inherent flaw in that logic?

  • Also (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:04AM (#26130109)

    In the WoW universe, little is permanent. Death is a minor inconvenience, not something that is forever. If a player dies, they spawn as a spirit at a nearby graveyard and walk back to their body and resurrect. NPCs (computer controlled characters) simply respawn in the same spot after a certain amount of time.

    If the real world worked like that, well we'd probably have a rather different value system. If killing someone meant they had to walk back for a couple minutes and caused them no permanent harm at all, I imagine it wouldn't be such a big deal.

    The rules of a game world are vastly different than our own so even if you want to ignore the fact that this is just entertainment, you can't try and apply the same morals to it.

  • by johnsonav ( 1098915 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:18AM (#26130181) Journal

    Very true. If he doesn't know, he's pretty much screwed. I'm not saying that torture is the end-all-be-all of interrogation techniques, but the common misconception that torture is useless, is harmful to the debate. There are so many better arguments against torture.

    Most individuals could think of a situation where they would make the decision to torture, even if the results may possibly be false. The strongest arguments against torture do not deny that fact. They rest on the dangers of legitimizing and institutionalizing an action so repugnant to the civilized character.

  • by Sobrique ( 543255 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:24AM (#26130217) Homepage
    I like how we get to perform some kind of moral calculus with torture vs. killing in a game, and we're able to debate which is 'more acceptable'. I mean, it's a bit like GTA3 - a game based on assault, murder and large scale theft - and the uproar about a sex scene in it.

    Either morality is relevant in a game context or it isn't - if it is, then we should be disapproving of _anything_ in the game which is immoral (and in most cases that's anything that's actually illegal - killing 'bad guys' just because they're there isn't particularly moral). If it isn't, who cares about a spot of torture within the context of World of Warcraft, which lets not forget has a fundamental underlying premise of genocide - exterminating entire races based on their species.

    Not exactly the height of morality there.

  • by Sobrique ( 543255 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @06:01AM (#26130611) Homepage
    Indeed. Assertions that 'torture doesn't work' muddies the waters on the debate. It mostly does within it's own constraints - you don't get to punch someone a couple of times and get detailed intel out of them, but you can certainly extract a lot of leads given enough time. You can also definitely elict confessions which are relevant from a propganda point of view.

    But that's not why we condemn it:

    • We reject torture because it's calculated harm to another human and we consider that against human rights
    • We reject torture because it is self defeating - the harm caused guarantees the war will continue.
    • We reject torture because of the diplomatic effect - if decent folk won't talk to you because of what you do, diplomacy is hurt.

    The effectiveness or not is a moot point - however effective it is, the price is too high.

  • by Phyrexicaid ( 1176935 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @06:12AM (#26130665)
    They were torturing for actionable evidence. They had people complaining of "spells" and "curses" being placed on them. They needed to find out who was doing these horrible things. They tortured innocent people until they confessed to being the ones responsible.

    Now you have people complaining about terrorists. You need to find out where these terrorists are. You torture innocent people until they confess that they are terrorists, and tell you where their secret base is. How many people in Gitmo are innocent? How many have been released after spending a year or more there?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @07:11AM (#26130911)

    I don't like WoW. That being said, I think it has to be said that WoW's narrative is precisely as shallow as the players make it.

    The folks at Blizzard spent a lot of time writing quest text for a whole lot of NPCs, not to mention many interactive objects, and blending hundreds (thousands?) of hours of unique quests into one big story. Every single quest has at least two pages of explanation (intro and completion), and usually more than that. All of these things link into one moderately cohesive fantasy world.

    So, what's the first thing players generally do when they start playing? They speed up the quest text so they can click through without reading. When they get lost because they didn't listen to the directions that the quest givers suggested, they install mods that tell them precisely where every touchpoint in the quest is, and exactly how to complete them, complete with floating directional arrows, maps, and ETAs. Then, when that isn't good enough, they comb through online databases to find exactly what quests will give them the very best gear and where to gain the most experience as quickly as possible. So, the player doesn't see a wily necromancer in a castle as a plague upon the smallfolk; the player sees a pinata (and already knows what will eventually fall out). Power-gaming scorches all the flavor out of a fantasy world, just as speed reading and cramming make great literature tedious.

    In any case, if someone wanted to explore torture and the treatment of human beings in WoW, I really think they'd have to get several concessions from Blizzard, such as upping the ante in PVP or adding some old-fashioned non-instanced raid territory. Some griefers I've met in MUDs and on old EQ's PVP servers could give Philip Zimbardo lessons on human depravity -- and that's what needs to be looked at: a human's willingness to inflict injury (even virtual) on another human.

    Call me when there's a quest that involves locking another PC's avatar down, stealing/destroying their gear, calling them racial slurs, cooking their remains for consumption, pushing them into an inescapable (or massively inconvenient) hole, or deleveling them. Of course, I don't think it's coincidental that the most successful MMO of them all has gone to great pains to ensure that none of these activities are possible to any great degree.

    Oh, and get off my lawn, or my buddies will corpse-camp you until Wednesday. Because we can.

  • by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @08:39AM (#26131285)

    Some people only understand the utilitarian aspect.

    Some folks would gladly have the government torture a "goddamn terr'st" because they are not people. And of course these same folks are usually more than happy with the idea of suspending due process because they're "terr'sts".

    This seems to come about due to a mix of racism, fear, faith in the government, a desire for some sort of revenge and a genuine lack of understanding of modern justice systems. What's more disturbing is that a lot of folk are willing to put up with a few innocent individuals being imprisoned, tortured and killed (in good faith, of course!) if it the government says it's doing it to keep them safe.

    The worst aspect of this (for me) is that I occasionally hear these opinions espoused by my own mother. Then I feel compelled to remind her that since Dad married an Iranian woman, that wrongly accused suspect could be me next.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @10:11AM (#26131991)

    Torture does have blowback, especially these days where people are not illiterate and unarmed like how most of the serfs were in the Middle Ages.

    Note how big government is trying very hard to fix that for you.

  • by unlametheweak ( 1102159 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @10:28AM (#26132209)

    The failure of most media to properly portray how horrible torture actually is (for example, on the TV show 24), and the increased focus on real-world topics like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and waterboarding, could make games the perfect venue for demonstrating the "devastating repercussions" of torture.

    Unfortunately the authors premise is wrong. There is certainly no evidence that the more graphic news scenes that came out of the Vietnam War influenced anybody to stop going to war or killing, and neither did the images out of Abu Ghraib prison seem to influence people (who think torture is acceptable) to change their minds.

    As a person who was in the military before, there were instructors (who illegally) imposed their own (relatively mild) forms of torture on their recruits during war games when they captured people (actually these instructors consisted largely of Special Forces people who had a history of abusing their power). Even in this more controlled and sanctioned scenario the psychological trauma caused in many people will never compare to what anybody can merely see in a video game.

    If you want realism then you have to experience it for yourself. I'd rather have something more akin to what police departments do, and that is actually have volunteer officers experience the effects of tasers and pepper spray for themselves, or in the military where they have soldiers take off their gas masks in a small room with tear gas. Other than that it's all fun and games.

    As for the nut-jobs, they will always be around no matter what technology they may get their rocks off with. They need more help than just keeping them away from video games.

  • WTF? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by hobbit ( 5915 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @10:28AM (#26132211)

    The author makes the case that the failure of most media to properly portray how horrible torture actually is (for example, on the TV show 24), and the increased focus on real-world topics like Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and waterboarding, could make games the perfect venue for demonstrating the "devastating repercussions" of torture.

    Yep, just like everyone who's ever played a FPS knows exactly how terrible the horrors of war are.

    And I've played enough Tetris in my life to know exactly what it's like to be a bricklayer.

  • Re:Also (Score:3, Insightful)

    by unlametheweak ( 1102159 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @10:40AM (#26132359)

    Any game that would be at all realistic would be a game that nobody would want to play.
    Spending 80 dollars for a game where you got killed and then could never revive yourself certainly wouldn't be much fun.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:33PM (#26133645)

    What people fail to see is that a system like this can easily be abused against them, too, just like the inquisition was. What if, say, the government decides that the 2nd has to fall and whoever wants to keep his guns is a bloody terr'ist because only them would want to keep weapons. The whole constitution (the old piece of paper that is here to defend you, not against the terrorists, but against a much bigger threat: An overreaching government) becomes very toothless when it gets an unspoken amendment reading "only valid if government doesn't give you a label that makes all these things void".

    Because that is what the civil rights amendments are about: Limiting the governments power over you. The government must not silence you, they must not take away your guns, they must not put soldiers in your homes, they must not simply pick you up and haul you away, they must not browbeat you into confessing and so on. If they can strip these rights from you at will, the whole constitution becomes pointless, because they will of course only apply those labels to those that disagree with them, which in turn means that these amendments become void for all. You HAVE to conform with the government doctrine or your rights are gone. What kind of rights are those, then, if they cease to exist when you need them?

  • Entertainment? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:52PM (#26133865)

    A friend of mine is a religious education teacher at a secondary school. He asked the kids which of them had played video games that graphically depict killing and murder, and whether this was acceptable. Predictably, most had played them, and none thought there was anything wrong with this - "it's just a game".

    So he suggested a hypothetical game called Rape The Kid - you play a psycho that has to find children and rape them, for points - would they play this, after all, "it's only a game"? They were all horrified.

    How far do you personally want to go and still call this entertainment? At the risk of sounding like some moralising religious nutter myself, where do you want your brain to be at?

  • Effectiveness (Score:3, Insightful)

    by thebheffect ( 1409105 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @01:30PM (#26134365)
    The whole 'torture doesn't work' argument is valid, but only if you use the process being described. Relying on a single person's confession is bad practice. It's comparable to performing one test in an experiment and using that as your findings. One would think you would have multiple interrogations and be able sort out the differences and inconsistencies to piece together pretty accurate intel. Like other have said though, the 'accuracy' of torture shouldn't be the deciding factor. If that's where we are as a society, then maybe it's too late.
  • by wasmoke ( 1055116 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @01:54PM (#26134767)
    I agree with you there, Sobrique. Not sure if you're American, but I am, and one of the fundamental issues I take with my culture is how violence, drugs, and language are all taken in stride, but woe be to whoever (whomever?) shows sexuality in a video game. Remember the uproar over Mass Effect's alleged "hardcore" sex scenes? The media jumped all over it just based on these rumors, while in reality there is just a bit of ass shown in the game. Never mind the hundreds of people you have the option of killing. Don't like the people in the Feros colony? Kill them all as soon as you get the chance!
    In The Great Gatsby, there's one scene where the woman (I've forgotten her name) gets hit by a car, and the book details one of her naked breasts halfway torn off and flapping in the wind. This is considered an art form. In games, ANY mention of sexuality is immediately torn to shreds by the media.
    I play games for the story, and hence I consider my games a form of entertainment [like movies, books, etc], not simply a toy. I guess my point is, moral issues should carry the same weight in any entertainment medium.

    I've rambled on for far too long.
  • by Sparton ( 1358159 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:57PM (#26137399)

    80 hours of nonstop anything can be torture for most people, regardless of what you're doing.

    Especially since if it's 80 straight hours, you're already causing multiple days of sleep deprivation.

  • There was a guy a couple of years ago who got FBI agents running willy nilly all over the country breaking up imaginary terrorist attacks because he was just making up shit for his torturers. I couldn't find a link though in two minutes of Googling, so I'll just point out that the Nazis and the Japanese weren't able to torture themselves to victory, nor were the Soviets, past masters of the art, able to torture their way out of the Cold War. George Bush and Dick Cheney have looked at the Soviet's stunning success and are now trying to emulate it.

    Now, you could take from this the idea that torture is ineffective and a waste of time, but I think otherwise. What ever benefits you see from torture are going to be washed away by the fact that I and everyone else hate your guts and want to kill you for being evil. Torture is one part of the reason Why We Fight whenever we do and you definitely want to be with us instead of against us.

"I think trash is the most important manifestation of culture we have in my lifetime." - Johnny Legend