I have updated this opinion piece with more accurate info regarding Gears of War 2 and other minor grammar and word order changes. I sent this to Gamasutra and initially I was told they were going to post and then today I was told they weren’t. Here’s the final version I had sent them.
World of War Craft’s Wrath of the Lich King has a quest called The Art of Persuasion. The quest requires the player to use torture to coerce an NPC to give up information the player needs to complete the quest. After reviewing the quest details, it’s clear to me as someone who has researched the topic of torture extensively that the designer has some knowledge of the issue, but unfortunately the execution of the quest and its treatment of the issue of torture is poor and disgustingly irresponsible. It is something the entire industry should take a hard look at and do some soul searching to find out if we’re in this business to be a positive influence on people or do we want to put ourselves in danger of irrelevancy by not giving proper respect to the issues we put into our games?
During the quest, the object the player uses on the prisoner is called a “Neural Needler” and its use description is, “Use: Inflects incredible pain to target, but does no permanent damage.” In one of my books on the history of torture, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” by Alfred McCoy, he writes, “As its most troubling legacy, the CIA’s psychological method, with its scientific patina and avoidance of obvious physical brutality, has created a pretext for the preservation of torture as an acceptable practice within the intelligence community.” The methods developed by the CIA in the 60’s and 70’s are being used today in the “war on terror”. Specifically, techniques such as sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and self-inflicted pain are being used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Poland, Morocco and other secret locations around the world known as blacksites. Those three techniques do not use direct physical pain and evidence of their use can be seen in the Abu Ghraib photos.
Richard Bartle, designer of MUD is “not at all happy with this.” Neither am I and nor should you. We can’t just throw that kind of content into a game with little regard for the complexities of the issue. It’s very difficult to design and program gameplay around the issue of torture without sending a message that you may not want others to interpret as yours. It’s easy to interpret The Art of Persuasion as saying that torture works and more specifically, using techniques that don’t leave physical evidence is OK. Even the title of the quest glorifies the technique as an “art” rather than the barbaric thuggery it should be perceived as. This is wrong and in fact psychological torture can have even more damaging effects on someone than physical torture.
There have been other games that included the issue of torture, some have been indie productions dedicated exclusively to the topic, which were of mixed maturity. In the past I excused myself from taking them seriously because they were small, little known indie projects and do not represent the face of the game industry. With Wrath of the Lich King, it’s different. This time it’s the world’s biggest publisher, Activision Blizzard and one of the world’s most popular MMO franchises that have included a rather crude and amateur approach to torture gameplay.
They aren’t the only ones at fault recently. Gears of War 2, getting rave reviews from all the blind sheep of the game critic’s community for its story can’t even muster the balls to explore the issue of torture in depth. A couple characters suffer from the affects of torture, but in relation to the scope of the whole game, it’s only briefly mentioned. So briefly, it’s rendered trivial and the character you play as, Marcus Fenix, doesn’t seem to think torture is a big deal. After freeing a friend from a torture chamber, Marcus immediately hands him a shotgun hoping he’d get right back into the fight. Torture is not something you shake off. It’s maddening that the news media often describe waterboarding as “simulated drowning” when it’s not and trivializing torture in a game certainly doesn’t help the public’s perception of it either.
As our medium grows in popularity each year, we have to be more careful with our content and take full responsibility for the consequences of poorly designed controversial gameplay. No one else is going to do that but the people that design and program these kinds of gameplay experiences.
This particular situation makes me look at violent videogames as a whole and realize that I don’t have as strong as an opinion towards killing NPCs as I do towards torturing NPCs. I fully admit that’s messed up. It’s clear I and many others in this industry working on Mature themed games have become desensitized and complacent to the content we are creating and its inherent meaning, intended or not.
It’s time to change that. If we continue down this path it won’t be long before the media uses one of our videogames as a scapegoat for the brutal torture of a detainee somewhere in the world. With the US military devoting 50 million to games for combat training, we better hope the CIA isn’t getting ideas of their own.
We need to be much more aware and responsible for the content we put into our games because of their relationship to real world issues that are currently going on. It’s akin to creating a Virginia Tech Rampage game a month after the college shooting happened with little thought given to the complex issues involved. This current situation with torture in a game is slightly different than violence in games because the issue of torture is brand new to America. Never before in our history has the knowledge that government sanctioned torture as an official war policy been revealed. It stings like crazy, it’s painful and I sure as hell don’t want to see the issue of torture haphazardly implemented in any game. Especially, from industry powerhouses like Activision Blizzard and Epic Games. Yes, the issue of torture has been treated poorly in other games, but that’s no excuse for future productions.
This issue has more importance now because it’s a real issue that has damaged our reputation across the world since 2001 and will continue to do so for generations to come. We often tell ourselves that our games are escapism and “it’s just a game”. Sorry, that’s a falsehood because our games exist in a real world and the content of our games if they relate to real world issues could have real consequences. It’s time to take a hard look at ourselves and be more responsible for the content we’re putting into our games. Because our games and the inherent messages they contain do not exist in some alternate reality.
© 2008, Reid Bryant Kimball. All rights reserved.