|December 12th, 2008|
…please explain to me again why killing NPCs in games is fine but sticking them with a cattle prod is evil.
Here’s your explanation, from my theory-of-fun/game-grammar point of view.
In killing NPCs (or popping any other sort of experience balloon), we are definitely seeing a “kill” dressing put on top of a statistical exercise. We are being entrained around measuring odds, optimizing behavior towards success, and then receiving a reward. The reward is generally utilitarian in some other aspect of the game. In other words, you do it, and there’s a reason for it — you kill the mob and you get back the loot, the XP, etc.
Although the killing is itself morally dubious as a ‘dressing’ for these underlying mechanics (see my previous writings on the subject), players do learn to see past the fiction fairly quickly, and cease seeing this as a moral issue, because they are smart: they know it’s just a game, and they move onto the underlying systemic reality very quickly.
In the case of torture, we have a mismatch of dressing and system. You are asked by the game to prod a systemic model and get stuff back. The systemic model is “push at least hard enough to get results, but not too hard.” Let’s look at the decision tree of the model:
- If you push too little, you are encouraged to push harder
- if you get incorrect info, you cannot easily tell, so you keep doing what you are doing
- if you get correct info, you are rewarded, so you keep doing what you are doing
- if you get no info, you are not rewarded, so you push even harder; the feedback in a fictional sense is “be more cruel”
- If you push too much, the subject starts to die
- You will get correct info, up to the moment of death (“everyone breaks”)
- The feedback is theoretically “maximize your investment” since you want to garner maximum info per subject
- but bottomfeeding tendencies or law of diminishing returns may actually not encourage this, particularly since…
- If you push at the optimal rate
- You get feedback that is a lie for some period of time, but cannot tell
- then you get feedback that is correct for some period of time
- they you get feedback that is desperate say-anything-to-please-you lies again
- If you are successful, the game goes on forever, unless you push the subject too hard by accident, or there is a mechanic where the system “wears out” — meaning, you cannot help but torture the NPC to death
- You can now either ‘kill’ the thing you tortured
- Or you can let it go
- Or you can keep going without valid rewards after some period of time
The problem here is that the feedback of ANY response is extremely powerful, psychologically. Having a little guy bounce bleeding and broken in N+ is powerful. Pressing a little button to make a cartoon character go ZAP! surrounded by little cartoon electrical bolts is fun. The more realistic it is, the more uncomfortable we may be with it, unless desensitized; however, the natural mechanic of games is that players will see through the dressing that this is a human, because they are smart, and therefore come in with a greater willingness to say it’s just pretend even though they are in fact responding positively to the stimuli of the fictional depiction.
So here we have a game with strong visceral feedback loops, almost Pavlovian ones, on the “dressing” level. But the utilitarian feedback is a mess — you cannot tell easily what is true and what is lie, and even success carries you from good responses to bad responses invisibly. We use that feedback to determine our takeaways and our next actions. But success in manipulating the model is rewarded with the same thing as failure in manipulating the model with excessive cruelty. Failure in manipulating the model is teaching you to use yet more cruelty.
As a game, not only is this unwinnable, but it is teaching you to jump to maximum cruelty as quickly as possible to get the breaking point as fast as possible, followed by either maintaining sustained levels of cruelty indefinitely, or simply eliminating the subject. It is a game that encourages bottomfeeding, and encourages misunderstanding of the model. It’s outright bad game design. And in an iterative scenario, particularly one where you trade turns with an opponent, it fails the iterative tit-for-tat test and social construct very badly, since the negative action is so incredibly negative that it basically ends the game. Repeated use drives both sides to do it more.
This, interestingly, exactly the problem with torture in real life, and why it is evil on so many levels. It fails at extracting decent info, you cannot tell what is decent info, it is cruel, it usually does not end (see the historical treatments of gulag prisoners, etc), and finally, if you do it so does the other guy. This is why, in a massive social gesture of breaking the tit-for-tat cycle, the nations of the world outlawed it.
What this game doesn’t do is teach you that playing it is evil. Because games teach. And this is a very bad mental model to teach, which then is paired to a dressing that actively reinforces the mental model and works to desensitize. In other words, when you make this game, you aren’t teaching people that torture is evil. You are actually teaching that torture is fun, because the reward structure is simply “press the button and get a reward!” even though many of the rewards are fool’s gold.
Can this be done better? Certainly. You surround it with well-executed fictional dressing about how what you are about to do is horrible, and then you continue on by decisively showing that the rewards you got were mostly useless. And then, the final boss would be getting tortured yourself, in an unwinnable scenario.
But you cannot get past the problem that the torture minigame, taken in isolation, is still evil. Every game atom is a game in its own right. And you just know that some people will play just that part and skip the cutscenes, or not reach the final boss, or clone just that minigame and put it up as a Flash game. So it would have to be very carefully done. This is where you get the debates in other media about “is this a valid artistic statement, or is it simply glorifying torture?”
On some level it is disappointing that this even has to be explicated, and it is a sign that as gamers, we are all too willing to accept the models in games at face value, or assume that because they are merely toy models that they do not train us in any fashion. But if that were the case, games could not serve as a power for good, as a way to teach, a way to enact positive change in the world. If you grant the power for positive change, you must also grant the power for evil uses, just as soaring rhetoric can be used in service of good or evil, just as stirring writing can be used for good or evil, just as group identity can drive civil rights or can drive Holocaust.
And did I just invoke Godwin’s Law on myself? Yes, I did, because frankly, this all makes me a little sick to my stomach and I want to be done talking about it.