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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 bryll ( 854882 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @02:44AM (#26129723) Homepage
    An old live-action video game from the mid '90s titled Spycraft: The Great Game had a torture sequence. You had to interrogate someone and had control over how much voltage to use. It was quite easy to inadvertently kill her - and I will say that the first time I hit a switch and saw an actor screaming in pain actually was very jarring. Even knowing damn well it was an actor in a video game.
  • by unitron ( 5733 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:00AM (#26129795) Homepage Journal

    From the article...

    It's quite possible Blizzard has a much larger, slow-moving point to make about torture.

    So, I would argue, might the TV show 24. Look how often the torture on that show doesn't work out as planned.

  • I like Bartle (Score:4, Interesting)

    by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <qg@biodome.org> on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:06AM (#26129809) Homepage Journal

    After reading Designing Virtual Worlds I happened to log onto his MUD2 [mud.co.uk] server and look around. Ahh.. memories. And so many missing features! The MUD descendants truly were fertile lands of innovation. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of wandering around in MUD2 I got sufficiently bored and tried to kill something. Bartle kindly informed me that I was a guest and guests should act more polite than that. If I wanted to create an account I could do some killing, but only in the appropriate area, etc, etc. All very British and proper. Of course, the next command I just had to try was 'rape'. Bartle hates that command, so the result was predictably hilarious. I was immediately disconnected and my IP address was banned. Beautiful.

  • by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:31AM (#26129927)
    So, I would argue, might the TV show 24. Look how often the torture on that show doesn't work out as planned.

    Seems to work just about all the time -- unless it's Jack being tortured. And the creators of the show exhibit no such agenda.

    See this Slate article [slate.com], for example:

    Jack Bauer--played by Kiefer Sutherland--was an inspiration at early "brainstorming meetings" of military officials at Guantanamo in September of 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial new interrogation techniques including water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas." Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show "reflects real life."

    Amnd teh New Yorker [newyorker.com]:

    This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind 24. Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming.... Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise--that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's securitywas having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."

  • by shoor ( 33382 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:33AM (#26129931)

    A lot depends on how it's done of course. The point would be to learn something and not just reinforcement attitudes and habits.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milgram_Experiment [wikipedia.org]

  • by Onymous Coward ( 97719 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:04AM (#26130111) Homepage

    Which is great for those of us with adequately working prosocial wiring in our heads, which most of us have. I think it's a great way to help make the horrible actuality a little more real than the glossed-over, glamorous version we get programmed into us from Hollywood.

    But there are those of us who have our wiring messed up [go.com]. I don't know what the frequency is, and in net forums the tendency to mouth off creates a disproportionate appearance, but I imagine there are enough out there that it deserves societal effort to rectify. If you've ever been bullied by a real (chronic) bully, you know that that kind of behavior needs fixing for the whole of society to be healthier. This kind of wiring responds positively to the suffering of others, so the stark horror of torture wouldn't necessarily be the ethically edifying experience one would hope for.

    But I'm not contradicting myself — I say put torture in video games, have the majority of us get a better grip on the awfulness. Giving bullies virtual persons to antagonize might settle them a little further into their ruts, but they should be addressed more from a causal perspective — how'd they get that way in the first place? The benefit of enlightening the greater majority I think outweighs the harm in further solidifying already durable bullying tendencies.

  • by unitron ( 5733 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @04:38AM (#26130275) Homepage Journal

    They tortured the son of the Sec Def, but didn't get the info they were looking for. They either tortured, or were about to (I disremember) the Sec Def's daughter, but since she didn't have the info they wanted, that wouldn't have done any good either. They tortured the CTU-running woman of Arabic or Persian descent, but since she didn't have the info they wanted, that didn't do any good either.

    In other words, the vibe I get from the show is that torture doesn't work out nearly as often as its cheerleaders would like to think. I guess Chertoff, et al, are too busy getting a hard on at the thought of being able to get away with shredding The Constitution to notice. Just because the right-wing lunatics think the show supports their way of thinking doesn't necessarily mean that it actually does.

  • by Sobrique ( 543255 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @05:02AM (#26130369) Homepage
    You misunderstand torture. Hurting someone to get an answer to a question does this - the subject will do whatever is necessary to end the pain, and that includes telling you what they think you want to hear. However the point of torture isn't to do that - it's to 'break' them mentally, and force them to disconnect from reality and previous motivations and emotions. It's using torment (physical or psychological) to ... essentially drive them insane, and distort their trust relationship towards their torturer.

    A bit like stockholm syndrome, really. As you say reliability is suspect, as you've ... more or less literally made someone insane ... but it's far from 'utterly useless'. There's a shortage of 'proof' on the matter for the very simple reason that the people who do it are already confident that it works, and those that don't... well, can you really see an independant scientific study of torture? It doesn't even work, as constraining and consenting to it by definition removes it's effectiveness - the torturer has to push his victim past the point at which they can no longer cope with the abuse.

    Ugly business, but it _does_ work.

  • by Sobrique ( 543255 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @05:20AM (#26130451) Homepage
    I would be inclined to agree. Regardless of how 'effective' torture is, are we - as citizens responsible for electing the government - prepared to accept that done in our name?

    Are we prepared to accept the atrocities at Guantanamo bay (and I have no doubt similar/worse things elsewhere that haven't been 'noticed') as a price for 'more security'? Are we prepared to accept the possiblity of global nuclear war as the price for maintaining our 'deterrence'?

    Torture is ugly. War is ugly. And the most 'effective' is also the ugliest. Being the biggest and the nastiest and the scariest comes at the price of having to back it up occasionally. At what point do we say 'too much'?

  • by gandhi_2 ( 1108023 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @05:39AM (#26130535) Homepage
    I hear everyone jumping on the bandwaggon..."torure does not work".

    You keep basing it off what the victim says. It's un-reliable, etc...

    Torture can be useful to get what ISN'T said. What you already know the victim knows...but you'd like to fill in gaps or corroborate gaps in other theories.

    In the medical field, the "pertinent negative" information....what the patient ISN'T saying is often more important than what he or she IS.

    A better argument is that we can win wars without it. It is beneath us. It is wasteful and can lose your Hearts and Minds battle.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @06:57AM (#26130861)

    Every single time a good guy tortures someone, they get results... and we're the good guys, right?

  • by SuiteSisterMary ( 123932 ) <slebrun AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @07:50AM (#26131061) Journal

    Spoilers Ahoy.

    One of the main mission sequences in Saint's Row 2 is a progression against a gang that starts out with slipping nuclear waste into the tattoo ink of a guy that pissed you off, and later progresses to 'rescuing' (then delivering the Emperor's Mercy) to one of your lieutenant's who's been chained to a truck and dragged around town, to kidnapping the guy's girlfriend, putting her in the trunk of a car, then sticking that car on a monster truck course that the guy is going through.

    Some of it is played for laughs, and some of it (like the character's reaction to his lieutenant's bloody, broken, road-rashed body) is played disturbingly straight.

  • Just ask this guy [washingtonpost.com]. (But what does he know, he only got results like info on Zarqawi's [wikipedia.org] location, not revenge.)
  • Re:Also (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jim_Maryland ( 718224 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:25PM (#26133557)
    Until they add a reason that you should have let him live, you still have no consequences for killing Varimathras. If WoW offered a bit more moral consequences for your actions (maybe an achievement for "protect the innocent" or "nice guy"), maybe we'd see people thinking a little more about their actions. Then again, realizing it is a game, how many would care?
  • by zarthrag ( 650912 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @12:26PM (#26133565)
    Metal Gear Solid - it had an actual torture section of the game that actually changes the ending. If you give-in to the torture, you get to save your girlfriend, Merryl. If you don't, you keep the secrets - but Merryl is killed (and, though the game doesn't show it, it is implied that she'll be raped first.) Disturbing, now that I think back on it.
  • by Reapy ( 688651 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @01:08PM (#26134023)

    I recall a random tv show, one of those things that reports weird cases.

    I am going to badly m aul the details of it, but here is a somewhat summary:

    The case was something like murder/rape of a young girl. I believe there were 4 friends who were tried for it. What happened was the police kept the kids in the questioning room for like 20+ hours non stop. At the end I think some of them signed confessions to the murder and admitted guilt.

    Only, several days later, they found the real killer, had evidence, pretty much had the guy who really did it. But what happened was due to the kid signing a confession, he was tried and found guilty, when in reality he had just signed to make the "torture" stop. In this case it wasn't the literal hot poker medieval thing, but a similar thing of caging someone relentlessly questioning a person.

    But yeah, I don't know of any studies about the effectiveness of torture or whatever. Works in movies a lot though ;)

  • Re:Also (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jim_Maryland ( 718224 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @01:25PM (#26134273)
    I haven't checked to see if the Horde (which my characters are) has that or a similar achievement. I do know that we have had guild members hit other guild members with snowballs while they are moving past the slimes right after Patchwerk in Nax. The snowball knocks them down and they die when the slow moving slimes hit them. Apparently several guild members aren't too concerned about the consequences (armor repair cost).
  • by localman ( 111171 ) on Tuesday December 16, 2008 @03:47PM (#26136431) Homepage

    Of course you doubt it, because you want so bad for there to be some way in which our power allows us to get what we want.

    My grandfather and his brother were captured by the Polish secret police in 1949. They had helped Eastern European refugees escape to the west from the Nazis during the war, but when those refugees returned to eastern Europe, Stalin suspected they were western spies. To find out who they were, and get evidence against them, my grandfather and his brother were held and tortured over a period of five years until they gave them the names of the refugees they had helped.

    Was the information true? The soviets eventually got as many names as they wanted. After all that time and under duress it's not clear if the list was complete or error free. More importantly, the premise that the refugees were dangerous spies was false so even to the degree that the information was actionable it was under false assumptions.

    I was told growing up that reliance on kidnappings and torture was the proof of why Communism was evil and our Democracy was inherently better. Now I know that was a lie. People like yourself, under any religious or government system, will justify evil acts to themselves if they want.

    If you want to read more about it: they wrote a book [snailshell.com].


"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas