Game talkI am speechless

 Posted by (Visited 5956 times)  Game talk  Tagged with: , ,
Dec 092008
 

…the Richard Bartle comments on the torture quest in WoW (and subsequent kerfuffle) hit BoingBoing, but nevermind that. Check out this comment in the discussion thread:

For about 9 months I’ve been working on a game that had torture as one of its selling points. Even though half of the team balked at being asked to design torture (“interrogation”) into a game, they still kept pushing it.

In my experience, people will watch torture, but don’t want to take part in it. Watching it is immersive enough. This idea did not go over well with certain people who just wanted that over the top sensationalist type of game.

On top of that, try making torture “fun”. Either you go full immersion, first-person in your face (scare and disgust most of your audience) OR you make it into a stupid mini-game (disgust a similar amount of people, but bore them to death).
Also, none of the choices in games ever amount to much, so the whole idea of “false intel” is flat. If it’s wrong to begin with, you are just going to teach the player that he played the game wrong, the moral lesson won’t be apparent.

Luckily our studio was shut down a month ago, so that game will never see the light of day.

Torture in video-games — a moral dilemma – Boing Boing.

  48 Responses to “I am speechless”

  1. Wow, I don’t always agree with Mr Bartle, in my belief that he generalizes his own preferences into Universal Truths too much and he NEVER admits a mistake, but this one tops them all.

    As for the comment you quote, yeah it’s quite shocking. I’m sure many developers have wondered what thematic and stylistic extremes it would take for them to quit a project. I want to believe that if I ever felt like that poster did, I would not continue working on that game; I don’t want to spent several years and lots of sweat and blood over something that I will be ashamed of.

    When I was doing our RTS game Praetorians, one of the features was that wildlife would run scared of any troops. Although it was a minor, side feature, I was curious to find if, simplistic as it was, it could have some effect in battle, especially in online matches. However, I had to fight all through the development because everyone wanted to make these animals targetable and killable, and I refused systematically. I just never thought allowing random killing of animals for fun fit at all with a game that focuses purely on the military, and it would also lessen the impact of that feature (since it can be prevented), forcing us to dial it up (more wildlife), making the whole problem just more visible.

  2. Ok. So it’s alright to shoot the hell out of people and kill them in PvP but sticking an NPC with a cattle prod is gruesome? Can we get a grip?

  3. In my experience, people will watch torture, but don’t want to take part in it. … Luckily our studio was shut down a month ago, so that game will never see the light of day.

    Clearly, this commenter is not familiar with Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments. Some people like to believe that they are “above” certain activities because they want to feel safe in a “that would never happen in my world” sort of way.

    Richard Bartle:

    Without some reward for saying no, this is a fiction-breaking quest of major proportions. I don’t mind having torture in an MMO — it’s the kind of thing a designer can use to give interesting choices that say things to the players.

    Despite the Boing Boing spin (apologies to Cory Doctorow), Richard doesn’t appear to be stating that there is no place for torture in games. What he seems to be objecting to is when players are not provided any sort of choice in the matter. For Richard, this issue would appear to be primarily one of design, not politics or human rights.

    I disagree with his suggestion, however, that there should be a choice to decline participating in the activity and a reward for doing so unless the reward is more realistic than idealistic. Torture is not an effective method of interrogation. The proper reward for not engaging in torture is accurate and reliable information.

    That said, people torture other people for all sorts of other reasons, from revenge, punishment, and justice to unadulterated sadism. Information is not always the goal. Sometimes the goal is even simply to be wicked.

  4. Milgram Experiment, ftw.

  5. I think everyone who is opposing Richard’s statements hasn’t read what he said closely enough. :P He’s basically arguing that it is bad design to set up one expectation with players, and then turn around and present something else. So Sanz, your point is off the mark, IMHO.

  6. What exactly are you speechless about though, Raph?

  7. Jare>I don’t always agree with Mr Bartle, in my belief that he generalizes his own preferences into Universal Truths too much and he NEVER admits a mistake

    The very first bullet point of the second post of mine that Raph linked to admits a mistake.

    Richard

    PS: If you want to be formal, I spent 6 years converting the M in “Mr Bartle” in to a D. Or just call me “Richard”.

  8. Morgan Ramsay>Richard doesn’t appear to be stating that there is no place for torture in games. What he seems to be objecting to is when players are not provided any sort of choice in the matter.

    In the Death Knight torture quest, I don’t mind that there’s no choice because that’s part and parcel of what being a DK is at that point. In the Kirin Tor torture quest, the context is all wrong, it makes very little sense, and it’s not at all within the parameters of what the game has been “about” before (at least on the Alliance side). If you’re going to tempt players to do evil things, you should acknowledge it straight afterwards.

    Example: in Teldrassil, where the night elves start, there’s a quest from a satyr in which you’re asked to go kill a bunch of things you know you’re not supposed to go kill. If you do kill them, you get told off by the night elves and have to do a redemption quest to get in their good books again. This is fine: it tells you you’re supposed to be good, and if you do something not so good then you can expect consequences. The second quest flags up that the first quest was making a point.

    >For Richard, this issue would appear to be primarily one of design, not politics or human rights.

    Well, the two are intertwined. If you don’t regard torture as in any way an issue, you’re going to wonder what all the fuss is about here. If you do, though, then you’ll wonder why the quest design doesn’t.

    Personally, I do think torture is bad. Even if I didn’t, though, I know that plenty of other people do, and that this quest would be alarming to them. That doesn’t mean I feel its depiction it has no place in games, though, any more than I think books or movies shouldn’t have it. All I’m saying is that if you do have it, it has to make sense in context, and that the context should be something with which the players are comfortable. If you do cross the boundaries of player expectations, you have to frame what you did back within those boundaries straight away or you’ve changed those expectations for some time.

    I’ll leave it to other people to debate whether asking a 12-year-old player to get their character to torture some NPC for no good reason is fine or not – that’s not where I was coming from, and I don’t have the time to deal with all the grief I’d get if I did that.

    >I disagree with his suggestion, however, that there should be a choice to decline participating in the activity and a reward for doing so unless the reward is more realistic than idealistic.

    That was just an example of how you could flag that this was a quest making an artistic statement. There are plenty of other ways to do it. For example, you could give people the achievement “Torturer”, that would cause them to reflect on what they’d done (even if they didn’t lose achievement points for it).

    Blizzard have only slipped up a little here. There are some other WotLK quests that are similarly distateful (tormenting baby gorillas so as to enrage their mother into making an appearance so you can kill her, for example), but not many. Given that the rotten ones are just a handful among hundreds, I wouldn’t say it was worth pillorying Blizzard for them. I’d hope that they just assumed that people would realise they were being asked to do something morally dubious for a reason (something to do with mirroring Arthas’ ends-justifies-the-means descent into evil, perhaps), but didn’t reckon that 1) without having adverse consequences or an element of choice, it looks as if they don’t think that the acts actually are morally dubious, and 2) some players take “it’s just a game” to extremes and don’t regard anything done with pixels as morally dubious anyway, so unless they’re explicitly told what’s happening then the whole mirroring aspect of the lore goes completely past them.

    Richard

  9. What exactly are you speechless about though, Raph?

    The fact that someone would greenlight a game based on the idea of making torture fun.

  10. Raph:

    The fact that someone would greenlight a game based on the idea of making torture fun.

    As opposed to a game based on the idea of… making assassination fun (e.g., Hitman, Assassin’s Creed)? Or making war fun (Call of Duty)? Or making gladiatorial combat fun (Unreal Tournament)? Or making the road to kingpin fun (Grand Theft Auto, Mafia)? Or making killing sprees fun (Postal)? Or making doping to survive a devastated wasteland fun (Fallout)? Or making serial murder fun (Manhunt)? Or making blood sports fun (Mortal Kombat)? (Those are all franchises, by the way.)

    I’ve had an idea for a game that prominently features cannibalism for sometime now, too.

    But torture? Oh, no, we can’t have that…

  11. Richard Bartle wrote:

    For example, you could give people the achievement “Torturer”, that would cause them to reflect on what they’d done (even if they didn’t lose achievement points for it).

    I’m pretty certain that quite a lot of people would experience that as positive reinforcement for the act of torture. It’s basically a reward that people would strive to get, which would make 9/10 people do the quest, or always pick the “torture” option if there’s the choice between torture and non-torture.

    However, add an equally “interesting” achievement for not doing the quest (choosing to bypass it permanently somehow, for instance), or for picking the non-torture option (if present), and things could get slightly more interesting.

    It still wouldn’t do anything to make people conscious about the choice of torture versus non-torture, though – their choice would simply depend on which achievement they wanted. Hrm.

  12. Isn’t that what Dungeon Keeper was all about? Sadism is in all sorts of games. Fable II had a torture mini game. Lure your spouse down to a chamber and brutally execute her for more points than the common citizen. Black and White allowed you to torture/abuse your following if I remember correctly. I find it a bit alarming that it seems like the mechanic was such a blatant bullet point for the game but greenlighting a game with torture in it doesn’t seem so out of place given the history of games before it.

    From the Dungeon Keeper Wiki:

    The hand also allows the player to “slap” objects and thereby interact with them: creatures will hurry up when slapped, chickens in a Hatchery will “splat,” and some traps will be triggered. Prisoners in the Torture Chamber can thus be treated with a hands-on approach.

  13. I think there is an important distinction between violence, sadism, abuse, and torture. Derek, I think the games you’re describing contain examples of ‘bad things happening to good people for no reason,’ but this isn’t the same thing as the deliberate, ongoing infliction, upon an immobile and unarmed other, of very specific types of pain. At least in Black and White the villagers can run away from you!

    The only other thing I have to add is, if a game about torture being fun ever does hit the shelves, I hope it has terrible gameplay, a really bad rootkit, and is forgotten quickly.

  14. Isn’t that what Dungeon Keeper was all about? [...] Fable II had a torture mini game. [...] Black and White allowed you to torture/abuse your following if I remember correctly.

    You know, I don’t think I’ll see Peter Molyneux’s games in the same light again. It’s nothing new though, I suppose – “Persuadertron”, anyone?

  15. As opposed to a game based on the idea of… making assassination fun (e.g., Hitman, Assassin’s Creed)? Or making war fun (Call of Duty)? Or making gladiatorial combat fun (Unreal Tournament)? Or making the road to kingpin fun (Grand Theft Auto, Mafia)? Or making killing sprees fun (Postal)? Or making doping to survive a devastated wasteland fun (Fallout)? Or making serial murder fun (Manhunt)? Or making blood sports fun (Mortal Kombat)? (Those are all franchises, by the way.)

    In many of the games you listed, the bad thing being made fun is not the core of the user experience, not by a long shot. There’s a narrative wrapper that puts it in a different light, and the game’s systemic models aren’t centrally about the activity. In several of them, the activity is merely dressing for a game system to chunk up that has only tangential bearing on the action depicted — and which fights back, providing challenge.

    In a few of the others — the games were rightfully vilified.

    In the case of a torture game, there is no “fight back” aspect, and it’s questionable what mental model the player is learning to build.

  16. Raph:

    … the bad thing being made fun is not the core of the user experience, not by a long shot.

    You’re telling me that murder is not the core of the Hitman experience? Or that theft is not the core of the Thief experience? Could’ve fooled me. I mean, what was I thinking? Hitmen don’t kill. Thieves don’t steal. They just drink tea and play house.

    There’s a narrative wrapper that puts it in a different light, and the game’s systemic models aren’t centrally about the activity.

    Whatever that means. Sounds like you’re saying that because these published games provide you with more information, you can more effectively rationalize, tolerate, and embrace morally questionable content.

    In a few of the others — the games were rightfully vilified.

    I disagree with your sentiments there. I don’t think you can retrospectively justify vilification of the games listed, particularly vilification in the noncritical ways that some of those games were previously vilified.

    In the case of a torture game, there is no “fight back” aspect, and it’s questionable what mental model the player is learning to build.

    Again, I refer you to Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments for the answer to your question of value.

    And, even not being a game designer, I’m pretty sure one can make games out of 24, Rendition, and Tortured. Note that the commenter’s description of the so-called “torture game” explicitly states that interrogative torture was simply one of the game’s selling points. There’s enough information there to assume that torture in that game would not have been without context, which is clearly all you would need to rationalize, tolerate, and embrace torture as part of, but not core to, the game.

  17. Richard,

    “The very first bullet point of the second post of mine that Raph linked to admits a mistake.”

    I read it, and the very next sentence (“It doesn’t alter the thrust of my argument, though.”) tells me that your words admit the mistake but YOU don’t. :) From a purely design standpoint, I think that was the most important point behind your argument. Plenty of posters have described quests in classic WoW, TBC and WotLK that are as much as if not more ugly than the torture quest (Testing poisons on prisoners for example? Stealing babies from their mothers?).

    It’s true that WotLK is harsher and darker, and makes the cruelty in some of its quests more visible; that’s a very conscious choice by Blizzard, you may like it or not but it’s not a mistake per se. They aren’t trying to make any statements about the morality of these actions, they are just being consistent with the atmosphere and situations that will arise in such a place and time. The torture quest just happens to touch a fashionable subject and/or hit your personal nerve, but as “morally dubious” it’s neither the first nor the worst.

    “without having adverse consequences or an element of choice, it looks as if they don’t think that the acts actually are morally dubious”

    – You have the choice of not doing it, which is why the point about this quest opening Coldarra or not was important. I have abandoned quests I felt bad about, missed out on the rewards in exchange for “doing the right thing”, and I thank the game for putting me in that position and giving me that choice.

    – In times of war (particularly the kind of chaos that is Warcraft’s world), if you torture a prisoner to extract information, the positive consequences will usually be more visible than the negative (these being more subtle and long term). So the game giving adverse consequences would make a rather naive point.

  18. Fun has a connotation that makes it a dangerous word to associate with topics such as extreme violence and torture. Assuming all games have to be “fun” is one of those cultural memes harming our industry like assuming “all games are for kids”.

    Schindler’s List is not a “fun” movie, but it delivers a compelling experience, and makes a lasting reflective impression.

    A game about torture shouldn’t be designed to be “fun”, it should be designed to deliver a compelling experience that showcases or even questions the morality and methods of torture, and/or why societies and governments resort to it.
    Likewise, a game about organized crime (GTA) shouldn’t be “fun” it should provide a compelling experience that highlights the violence and tragedy of organized crime.

    If our industry is going to mature we need to take our medium seriously and embrace that it can be used for fun, but can also be used to deliver compelling experiences about topics that span the full spectrum of human thought and emotion.

  19. No offense Jare, but the thrust of his argument is that they break expectations for certain probably large sets of players. Okay so those sets of players can theoretically extrapolate out that the quest is basically optional, though not handled as such by the text of the quest itself. Doesn’t change the fact of how the quest is handled. Also, as a critique, it’s his comment on the effectiveness of a creative choice from his perspective, with the intent that others may profit from his observation. Given the fact that there is no way of knowing how a writer wraps up a quest until it’s done, a great many people who were expecting some greater delicacy with the issue while doing it are probably going to be disappointed.

    Given a choice sight unseen, you will generally go with what you trust. The trust here is that the writing staff would handle the issue either more delicately or simply with slightly better tact, and that trust seems to have been broken. There isn’t really an argument here that “torture is bad, omg” because it’s rather a well duh issue. Not to draw this in even further, but the point is that we all know torture is bad, and to many is far worse than killing, but it isn’t handled with the context or delicacy that a certain group of players would expect. Seeing as how this is a critique of the writing in a single quest, I don’t see how the morality handled in past quests has any bearing on the matter. Conceivably those quests were given more tact or were in appropriate context, but honestly I can’t comment either way.

    As to your second bullet point, there is a great deal of argument that can be formed as to whether torture has any positive consequences at all. The problem is simply that being willing to say “anything” tends to play more to what the torturer wants to hear than to what the person actually knows. Of course, it’s not black and white which is why I say that arguments can be formed rather than declaring any truth. Games do not have to handle this with perfect delicacy, but the fact remains that the issue is deep and varied. More problematic is that torture requires the performance of a sadistic act, now again there is plenty of ground for moral ambiguity, greater good, individual evil, so on and so forth. But to use it in a stark and non ambiguous way in a context that does not seem to support it would probably break immersion for a great deal of people, which is really all that Richard seems to be arguing.

    As a final note, as I’ve worked on my drawing I’ve become a lot more hands off when asking for critique. When someone doesn’t understand something I’ve drawn, within a reasonable shared starting point, it is a failure of mine to correctly communicate it. In this case, even if there is an overarching “slide towards evil” Blizzard failed to communicate that well enough to give context to this particular quest for at least one person. I would much rather prick up my ears and attempt to learn from that than write it off as one person’s eccentricity.

  20. Having not played WoW much at all, and none of its expansions, I can’t really comment with any authority here, except that I agree in principle with this being a questionable design mechanic. If it is one of many ways to access the ‘next’ or ‘new’ part of the game, then I don’t really have a problem with it, so long as there are other ways to get there, and that the torture-route is given in the context of a darker, more sinister, or whatever way of accessing the new content (note – I don’t know how much of the new expansion is in this new area; if it’s a small part, I would think it’s a bit less of a big deal).

    WoW, being a mass-market game, should offer options to that mass of people and not force players down a route that turn off a large segment of them. Of course there is no legal obligation for this, but it just makes more sense to do so.

    There’s reference here to GTA, Postal, Hitman, etc; I agree with Richard here that it’s not so much the action as it is the surprise/unexpected nature that’s an issue. When I buy and play Hitman, I know it’s going to be a game that involves assassination, and when I buy and play GTA, I know that there’s going to be violence, crime, murder, theft, etc. Now, we can argue about whether or not these games themselves are done in good taste, and there are good arguments that they aren’t, but those are separate arguments.

    I don’t buy and play WoW, however, with the expectation that I will need to play out a simulation of torture in order to access a main part of the game. I’ve don’t really have a problem with that being a side-part or an optional route (I like Bethsoft’s Oblivion and kinda find the Dark Brotherhood quests to be rather distasteful, but they’re not the main thrust of the game, and I’m not missing out on, say, access to a huge town by avoiding them, and besides that, it’s a branch of the game, not the main trunk of it), but making it mandatory in a game where we’re not expecting it is more problematic, at the very least from a design perspective.

  21. @Morgan, no, murder’s not at the core of Hitman. It’s actually really hard to encode murder into a gameplay mechanic. The core of Hitman is actually avoidance. It’s a game centering around stealth and infiltration. Beyond that, Hitman has a lot of themes about how what your character is doing is morally difficult for him. One of the recurring themes is how Agent 47 attempts to stop being an assassin, but it always goes south, and the enemies you’re taking out are pretty much horrible human beings, and you’re given incentives for killing anyone other than your target.

    As Raph said, the shooting other people thing is primarily a way to dress up the motion tracking and object identification that all FPS games rely on.

    In terms of the rest of your list… doping is completely optional in Fallout; Call of Duty is about tactical combat not about war, it’s about as much about war as paintball is, same with Unreal Tournament; Mortal Kombat, as a fighting game, is more about predictive abilities and rock paper scissor than anything else, the bloodiness of it is ultimately secondary and is more an attempt to make up for a weak fighting engine, it’s not really surprising that it’s considered near the bottom of the fighting game barrel; Postal, GTA, and Manhunt have had pretty huge negative press, and much of it deserved. (With the exception perhaps of GTAIV) They’re all base, simplistic, depictions of pretty terrible things that glorify rather than illuminate. While I’m not about to deny the rights of their devs to make them, they’re pretty much empty experiences with little redeeming value; they don’t go any further than mindless entertainment for people who go for those things.

    It’s exceptionally difficult to use torture as a dressing for inherently interesting mechanics, something that makes it very hard to avoid it becoming an issue; your target necessarily needs to be unable to defend themselves properly. That means that you’re making a gameplay system where the primary feedback mechanism is the defenseless NPC expressing pain and you continuing to cause it.

    This is no different than what the test subjects were forced to do in Milgram’s experiment where they were forced to shock (apparently to death) a supposed test subject. Press a button, hear a scream, press a button again. But Milgram’s experiments are not relevant when it comes to value to the player; all they demonstrate is that people will do things when put under pressure by an authority figure. There’s no way to take value from that; the test subjects were not enjoying themselves, nor did they come away from the experience with a better understanding of the world. They did something they were not happy about doing because they were told to and that was the extent of it. The value was only to the scientific community.

    So unless the goal is to put players under undue emotional stress, this is not something that is useful in a game, and even then, the players would need to take the game as an authority figure instead of switching it off, and also treat the torture victim as something they can empathize with, and that’s harder to make happen (but not impossible, you’d need to really amp up player attachment). But doing this, if you’re successful, is pretty sadistic. The people in Milgram’s experiment, after all, did not find the experience even remotely pleasant.

  22. That should read “for not killing”

  23. Eolirin:

    The core of Hitman is actually avoidance. It’s a game centering around stealth and infiltration. …

    “I’m going to play Hitman to avoid stuff.” Heh. I don’t think so. What you and Raph call “dressing” is what everyone else calls “the core experience.” The actual “dressing” elements are stealth, infiltration, moral dilemmas, etc.

    From a narrow, design-centric perspective, you can break down Hitman into the various components that have been mentioned, but that only tells you what makes the game tick. As you should know, how a thing is used has far greater significance than what makes a thing. Player motivations and player behaviors that logically follow cannot be ignored when we’re talking about the value that a game presents to players.

    they’re pretty much empty experiences with little redeeming value; they don’t go any further than mindless entertainment for people who go for those things.

    There are people who think American football is a barbaric sport that people only enjoy because of their primitive nature. There were probably people back in the day that thought the same about arena combat. Thankfully, these people are in the minority because, quite honestly, they don’t truly understand the value of entertainment to society.

    There’s no way to take value from that; the test subjects were not enjoying themselves, nor did they come away from the experience with a better understanding of the world.

    So… you’re saying that people can’t learn from their experiences? They can’t have developed an appreciation that everyone is capable of evil? The argument that there’s nothing to be learned or reinforced here is wanting.

    The people in Milgram’s experiment, after all, did not find the experience even remotely pleasant.

    I agree with denright’s statement: “If our industry is going to mature we need to take our medium seriously and embrace that it can be used for fun, but can also be used to deliver compelling experiences about topics that span the full spectrum of human thought and emotion.”

    There’s nothing more mindless than sitting on a stool, facing a beautified box, and pulling a lever for hours upon hours in hopes that three icons will match up in a line.

  24. This is all just more political correct BS. If Iraq hadn’t happened, none of you would have your panties all in a bunch about “NPC torture”. We get it. You are against the real life war and the “evil” republicans and Darth Cheney! Leave our video games alone!

    And you do have a choice. Just like you have a choice to PvP or not in a PvP game. You can decide not to play.

  25. And ROFL about murder not being at the core of the “Hitman” mechanic. Could you take a sec to wiki “Hitman”? Thanks….

  26. Sara,

    absolutely no offense, it’s probably me that’s coming out more aggressive than I really mean to.

    “even if there is an overarching “slide towards evil” Blizzard failed to communicate that well enough to give context to this particular quest for at least one person”

    My point about this, which includes both the general atmosphere of WotLK (from the moment you set foot in Northrend) and the fact that similar or arguably worse content already exists since WoW launch, is that any “slide towards evil” will eventually surprise or shock someone no matter how hard you try to cover your bases. It may be because the person wasn’t paying attention to the lore and atmosphere (I often don’t), or sensitivity to a specific topic among those touched by the game (for some it’s torture, or abduction, or murder, or treason – mine was “experimenting with prisoners” some years ago), or something else.

    Labeling that “shock” as bad design is, in my opinion, as misguided as labeling Jack Bauer’s forays into torture as bad writing. You may find it crude, distasteful or even shocking, but once you do, if you step back and look at the overall picture and the pieces you may have missed (or not wanted to accept), it does fit with the direction they have chosen for their product. I don’t find it surprising at all, and in fact if they had put a big neon sign saying “hey we’re going to dial things up a notch” I would have been disappointed at the lack of subtlety. So it’s a lose or lose proposition – you can’t please every single one of the millions that play WoW, and therefore failing to please at least one person is not a mistake, it’s a statistical certainty.

    A missed opportunity to make a stronger point that this was not your run of the mill “kill X bad guys” request? Ok, I give you that, but I tend to avoid judging things by what they could have been. That narrative (and associated mechanics) could have been even better, but it’s still pretty good as it is, considerably better and more interesting than most of what’s out there.

  27. Sanz>This is all just more political correct BS.

    It’s a design issue. Read what Sara Pickell says above, she has it completely right.

    >If Iraq hadn’t happened, none of you would have your panties all in a bunch about “NPC torture”.

    Believe it or not, some people aren’t shallow opportunists who jump on bandwagons merely to take pot shots at here today, gone tomorrow politicians. They actually do believe that torture is morally corrupt. You may not, OK, fair enough – let’s just hope you never get it done on you so you have to change your mind the hard way.

    >We get it. You are against the real life war and the “evil” republicans and Darth Cheney! Leave our video games alone!

    No, you don’t get it. You really, really don’t get it. You’re arguing against what you think was said, rather than what was actually said. The fact that you can construct a complete fabrication of the facts in your head and believe them to be true says more about you and your fears than it does about the really quite nuanced design point I was making.

    Richard

  28. The fact that someone would greenlight a game based on the idea of making torture fun.

    Would?

    Those games were and are being made. Most of them coming out of Japan and of rather pornographic nature.

  29. Richard Bartle:

    I did zap him, pretty well in disbelief — I thought that surely the quest-giver would step in and stop it at some point? It didn’t happen, though. Unless there’s some kind of awful consequence further down the line, it would seem that Blizzard’s designers are OK with breaking the Geneva convention.

    Well they may be, but I’m not. [...]

    There would be less confusion without this passage. This passage sends the message that you’re opposed to the quest because a) the act of torture offends your sensibilities and b) you think the quest violates the Geneva Conventions. Your design argument was clarified in the last paragraph, but the preceding comment leaves a moralistic aftertaste.

    They actually do believe that torture is morally corrupt. You may not, OK, fair enough – let’s just hope you never get it done on you so you have to change your mind the hard way.

    The torture entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asserts that there are forms of torture, labelled inhumane treatment, that are not prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, so I wouldn’t be so quick to hold up these treaties as the most brightly shining examples of moral justice. More importantly, I wish that people would think about torture in a similar critical manner and beyond the casual “torture is bad, say no to torture” refrain. (The encyclopedia entry only covers the morality of torture. The ineffectiveness of torture in obtaining information appears excluded.)

  30. Morgan Ramsay>This passage sends the message that you’re opposed to the quest because a) the act of torture offends your sensibilities and b) you think the quest violates the Geneva Conventions.

    Well the intent of the passage was to explain why the quest stood out. The act of torture does indeed offend my sensibilities, although if I thought it was just me who was offended I wouldn’t have mentioned it. If I didn’t think it would offend the sensibilities of anyone who was playing, there would be no point in bringing the matter up – just as I didn’t talk about all those hundreds of other quests that are run of the mill.

    I don’t think that the quest violates the actual Geneva Convention. I do think that if it you did that to someone in the real world then you would be breaking laws on the treatment of prisoners, but Azeroth isn’t the real world. “The Geneva Convention” is just the catch-all term I used to mean “morally justified behaviours in war”. Previous to this quest, Alliance characters hadn’t been asked to do anything which would have broken the Geneva Convention if it did apply in Azeroth. Now, they were being asked to do so. That’s a departure from the norm, and it merits comment.

    >Your design argument was clarified in the last paragraph, but the preceding comment leaves a moralistic aftertaste.

    It is moralistic. If there were no moral objections to torture, people wouldn’t find the quest morally objectionable. It would therefore be useless for making any kind of artistic statement, because it would be just one everyday quest among hundreds.

    >The torture entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy asserts that there are forms of torture, labelled inhumane treatment, that are not prohibited by the Geneva Conventions

    Oh great, so now when I make blog posts on my own blog about minor design imperfections, I have to look up the terms I use in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy first?

    As it happens, I did actually look up the Geneva Convention to make sure that it covered what I was talking about. Although the sense I was using it was that of a more general cipher for “ethically acceptable rules of war” (most of which is actually covered by other conventions and protocols), nevertheless I made sure that it did address the issue I was talking about (treaty III article 17, if you want to check it yourself: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever”).

    >so I wouldn’t be so quick to hold up these treaties as the most brightly shining examples of moral justice.

    They may be tarnished, but all that means is that if you obey them then you could still be acting immorally; if you break them, you’re definitely acting immorally (by the International Red Cross Committee’s definition of “immorally”).

    Just as a matter of interest, why do you think Blizzard put in that quest?

    Richard

  31. Richard Bartle:

    Oh great, so now when I make blog posts on my own blog about minor design imperfections, I have to look up the terms I use in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy first?

    No, I was just generally lamenting the lost art of critical thought. In the U.S., we have people who don’t know that we have three branches of government. Likewise, there are also people who haven’t thought about the morality of torture beyond their initial knee-jerk reactions. I bet that most people can’t even name five methods of torture.

    but all that means is that if you obey them then you could still be acting immorally; if you break them, you’re definitely acting immorally

    That sounds like “believe in God, just in case.” Are there higher standards than the Geneva Conventions? I think so, but discovering what those are would require rediscovering that lost art I mentioned.

    Just as a matter of interest, why do you think Blizzard put in that quest?

    I think two designers were bouncing ideas back and forth, and found the quest to be darkly comedic. I don’t think there was any malice on their part. I also don’t think they were trying to make any sort of artistic statement. Warcraft has a history of black humor. Repeatedly selecting a unit in Warcraft II would result in the unit saying, “Will you stop touching me!?” Doing the same with a sheep would cause the critter to explode. In the Warcraft universe, torture is only tradition.

  32. This reminds me of the latest season of Heroes, and how (for example) Sylar and Elle started to fall in love and were so cute with their power-learning moments. The producers presented something the audience wasn’t prepared for, and expectations were broken in a very jarring way that had viewers going “WTF was that all about?!”

  33. Morgan:

    Warcraft has a history of black humor. Repeatedly selecting a unit in Warcraft II would result in the unit saying, “Will you stop touching me!?” Doing the same with a sheep would cause the critter to explode. In the Warcraft universe, torture is only tradition.

    The fact that I believe politicized depictions of torture to be disgusting, regardless of the medium, aside, I don’t think this is a fair characterization of Blizzard’s history. “Will you stop touching me?” is a joke, not the deliberate infliction of intense pain. Similarly, a sheep exploding is a piece of shock humor, because the player clearly doesn’t expect that the first time. It is perfectly contextual given that in a typical game of Warcraft II, several hundred digital lives are abruptly and violently ended.

    This is not the same thing at all as the premeditated, purposeful, ongoing infliction of pain (but not death!) on a captive in order to get information. I think this quest represents a departure for Blizzard, and not a positive one.

  34. Morgan Ramsay>I bet that most people can’t even name five methods of torture.

    Oh, we got that at school when I was a kid (in the UK, obviously). The rack, thumbscrews, the iron maiden, branding irons, the breaking wheel… If you want to include tortuous executions, there’s hanging/drawing/quartering and boiling in oil; if you want to include cruel and inhumane punishments there’s the stocks, pillory and the gossip’s bridle. Those are just the ones we were told about – there are some more exotic ones in museums.

    >>but all that means is that if you obey them then you could still be acting immorally; if you break them, you’re definitely acting immorally
    >That sounds like “believe in God, just in case.”

    Well the way I read it, you were suggesting that the Geneva Conventions were flawed, with the implication that this meant they weren’t worth following if you wanted to play morally. I was saying that if you wanted to play morally, then following them might give you that but breaking them certainly wouldn’t give you it. I don’t see where the “believe in God just in case” equivalence comes from.

    >I think two designers were bouncing ideas back and forth, and found the quest to be darkly comedic.

    If they wanted humour from it then they could have made it a lot more amusing. About the only funny thing there, if you want to read it that way, is the hypocrisy of the quest-giver. There was plenty of opportunity to vamp it up a bit. Also, it suffers from the same problem as if it were intended as an artistic statement: there’s nothing about is that obviously says, “this is supposed to be funny”, so if they were intending it to be a comedy quest then how were people to know? They did a bad job of it (unless they think, for some reason, that torture is inherently comedic).

    >I don’t think there was any malice on their part.

    No, but it would lead one to think that the designers in question thought torture to be suitable comedy subject matter for a game that 12-year-olds are supposed to play.

    >In the Warcraft universe, torture is only tradition.

    It’s not one that Alliance players have been asked to participate before with in WoW. If it’s tradition, it’s not well-observed.

    Richard

  35. Bret:

    This is not the same thing at all as the premeditated, purposeful, ongoing infliction of pain (but not death!) on a captive in order to get information.

    In Warcraft II, you can molest your troops and send them to their death, as well as cause sheep to explode. You are deliberately causing pain and death to your troops and various critters. You are the torturer in those instances. Suddenly this activity is no longer funny in first-person? *sigh*

    Similarly, a sheep exploding is a piece of shock humor, because the player clearly doesn’t expect that the first time.

    You think players only did that once!? Personally, I made myself the shepherd and called over people to demonstrate.

  36. In Warcraft II, you can molest your troops and send them to their death, as well as cause sheep to explode. You are deliberately causing pain and death to your troops and various critters. You are the torturer in those instances. Suddenly this activity is no longer funny in first-person? *sigh*

    You can molest and kill your troops, yes, but the game does reward you for doing those things, nor does it require them. Nor is there a specific feedback that indicates you successfully tortured someone; there is merely the death sprite, which plays when a unit’s HP reaches zero. If someone wants to pretend they’re playing TortureCraft using the Warcraft graphical engine, well, that’s not really a design problem.

    I can melt a chess piece in a saucepan, but nobody’s going to call Chess a barbaric step backwards for the medium of boardgames.

  37. Bret:

    I can melt a chess piece in a saucepan, but nobody’s going to call Chess a barbaric step backwards for the medium of boardgames.

    That’s a really bad comparison.

  38. Richard Bartle:

    Oh, we got that at school when I was a kid (in the UK, obviously).

    The UK has a longer history of public executions and torture. In the US, you say “torture” and people are apt to think “bad cops beating up a suspect in a small, locked room.” Hooray for Hollywood.

    I was just reading an article in Proceedings called What Makes Piracy Work? that talks about the methods of torture used by the Barbary corsairs and others:

    [I]t is important to remember that many practices, which in our eyes are shocking examples of cruel and unusual punishment, were by early modern standards quite normal; all early-modern states — including those of Europe — employed harsh means of corporal and capital punishment. [...] Methods of torture included bludgeonings, setting feet and hair afire, public whippingos, impaling on pikes and giant hooks, genital mutilation, and even crucifixion. Over the course of their existence, the corsairs captured and enslaved tens of thousands of Christian men, women, and children. Those who were not ransomed successfully could be worked to death and then denied the decency of a proper burial. Instead, early modern sources decried, their corpses were left to rot and be eaten by dogs.

    Poking and prodding a sorcerer, who can supposedly heal himself instantly, is comparatively kind. (I’m not making a statement about whether a lesser degree of torture is preferable to the methods described above; although, obviously, if I had a choice in the matter—and one never does—I’d not want to be impaled, mutilated, and eaten by dogs.)

    I don’t see where the “believe in God just in case” equivalence comes from.

    “Obey the Geneva Conventions, just in case not doing so results in immoral behavior.” Or, “It’s better than nothing.”

    The Geneva Conventions are treaties, contracts, and like all contracts, they’re not absolutely ironclad. They become outdated, reinterpreted, and for the most part, they lay out a strict framework for moral warfighting. I was suggesting that total reliance on these treaties is a bad thing if you want to cover all of your bases. (As you can see, I’m not accepting your use of the phrase “Geneva Conventions” as a catch-all phrase!)

    If they wanted humour from it then they could have made it a lot more amusing.

    Sure, but the same can be said about a lot of things. To each his own sort of humor. I used to live next-door to a game designer who never played “good guys” in games that allowed you the choice because playing the “bad guys” was always a lot more fun for him. I can’t bring myself to play an “evil” character. In Neverwinter Nights 2, you’re given the choice early on to save someone, leave them to bleed out, or slit their throat. I chose the latter option once and then immediately started a new character. However, this returns us back to us agreeing that there should be a choice.

    They did a bad job of it (unless they think, for some reason, that torture is inherently comedic).

    Some people think Holocaust jokes are funny. *shrugs* There’s no accounting for taste.

    If it’s tradition, it’s not well-observed.

    I’m not disagreeing with you.

  39. Bartle> Believe it or not, some people aren’t shallow opportunists who jump on bandwagons merely to take pot shots at here today, gone tomorrow politicians. They actually do believe that torture is morally corrupt. You may not, OK, fair enough – let’s just hope you never get it done on you so you have to change your mind the hard way.

    Ok please explain to me again why killing NPCs in games is fine but sticking them with a cattle prod is evil. You must surely be against killing stuff right? And I bet you drive a green car too right?

    Forget the car point…I was just rubbing it in…explain why killing is ok and torture is evil. Take your time thinking about it…

  40. Sanz:

    [E]xplain why killing is ok and torture is evil.

    Refer to this article.

  41. Morgan:

    That’s a really bad comparison.

    It’s meant to illustrate that the possibility of interpreting a game in a dark/”unacceptable” way is not the same thing as the game being explicitly, unavoidably dark.

  42. [...] been watching a discussion over at Raph Koster’s blog (subject: I am Speechless) one the subject of torture in games. Now the author has broken it out into its very own post. In [...]

  43. Hum. Torture in a game could be fun if it’s progressive. Let’s say that due to none of the information actually being true (as reported by your superior), you are gradually given the green light to try more excruciating methods of torture.

    I don’t think that the torturing would work well in itself, but tying it in with detective elements could provide means of torturing the “right” way, where the information leaks are enough to keep interest in the occupant up and running, but vague enough where nothing ever comes of the info given, or “just barely”.

    Bring in the guy’s family once you hit level 3 and you can expand those mechanics a bit.

    As fun as I think I could make this game, it’s sick, but it could be attractive all the same if the game was more about how conniving and evil you can be rather than about seeing blood and guts.

  44. Pritchard:

    rather than about seeing blood and guts.

    There are many methods of torture that do not involve “blood and guts.” Sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, shaming, and coercion by deception are all forms of torture.

  45. sanz>Ok please explain to me again why killing NPCs in games is fine but sticking them with a cattle prod is evil.

    Did I say it was evil?

    What it is is cruel.

    >You must surely be against killing stuff right?

    Not at all. If you’re standing at me with a gun, about to pull the trigger, I’d have no compunction about pulling my trigger first and blowing your head six feet off your body. Killing can be morally justified – it’s murder that can’t.

    >And I bet you drive a green car too right?

    No, it’s silvery blue. The previous one was green though…

    Richard

  46. Morgan Ramsay>In the US, you say “torture” and people are apt to think “bad cops beating up a suspect in a small, locked room.” Hooray for Hollywood.

    Well, in part that’s one of the reasons torture should be banned outright. Once the government sanctions its use for extreme cases, it’s opened the door. People have an “if you can do it in that case, why not this case?” argument, and before you know it the police are indeed beating information out of suspects.

    >Poking and prodding a sorcerer, who can supposedly heal himself instantly, is comparatively kind.

    It must be pretty bad if it only takes 3 pokes for him to spill the beans and he doesn’t lie.

    >“Obey the Geneva Conventions, just in case not doing so results in immoral behavior.” Or, “It’s better than nothing.”

    But not doing so does result in amoral behviour, doesn’t it? Obeying it can, too, of course.

    >(As you can see, I’m not accepting your use of the phrase “Geneva Conventions” as a catch-all phrase!)

    Well that’s how I meant it. If you don’t accept it, there’s not a lot I can say. I know what I meant, but have no way of proving that.

    >Some people think Holocaust jokes are funny. *shrugs* There’s no accounting for taste.

    Indeed, but I probably wouldn’t want to play a game where the mass industrialised murder of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals was played for laughs. Likewise, do I want to play one in which torture is played for laughs?

    Richard

  47. Morgan, I’m aware of this, but torture being a “bad” thing, horror movies and whatnot try and play the blood and guts card.

  48. Torture as a selling point.

    How would you approach the issue if the developers of America’s Army would adopt this marketing approach?

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