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Commentary: Design Lessons from Torture in Games

Reid gives a quick overview of torture in videogames and discusses how one of them has an important procedural message embedded in its mechanics.

Last week saw the release of several crucial memos written during the early years of the Bush administration regarding official government policy on the use of torture on detainees caught in the war on terror. It’s a hot topic on TV, with CNN and MSNBC news programs covering it nightly. The New York Times has written editorials calling for the impeachment of Jay Bybee, one of the lawyers who authored some of the damaging opinions. Blogs are pointing their readers to petitions for special prosecution investigations and impeachments. Readers are having heated discussions about the revelations, particularly what it all means for the American people and the consequences we face if we don’t impeach and hold those responsible accountable.

Over the years, since the Bush regime’s use of torture was first revealed, especially with Abu Ghraib, there has been small indie videogames released featuring torture as their core gameplay mechanic. This is not an exhaustive list but only a small sampling. Most of them are forgetful but one of them embodies a valuable lesson for game designers. Here is a small and certainly not exhaustive sampling of the most notable torture games I have found.

Nick Anderson: Torture Time!

Torture Time!

This is a sad case of a rush job trying to capitalize on timeliness of current events. If you play it, you’ll notice it’s very easy to fail and have no idea why. It lacks proper feedback in the waterboarding stage, doesn’t make clear what the goal is and what the rules are. It has other “mini-games”, but they aren’t really games. Overall, it’s an example of what not to do in a torture game and worst of all, it doesn’t say anything worthwhile.

Torture Game and Torture Game 2

Torture Game 2

Torture and Torture 2 flash games are more “simulations”, though that’s even too generous a word. It’s more like a sick toy, where you are given a set of tools, such as spears, razor blades and even a chainsaw. Choose the tool and inflict the damage. The character is rendered as ragdoll, so it is lifeless and lacks empathetic qualities. That’s unfortunate, because it ignores the human toll and misrepresents the horrible fact that torture is done to living, breathing human beings who feel the same joy and pain that anyone else does. The design lesson I learned from this was that nothing is off limits for games or sims. No topic is too sick or controversial. The Torture games have hundreds of posts from people making suggestions for more torture actions and tools.

Rendition: An Interactive War on Terror

Rendition Game

Rendition is a more interesting piece. The author states it is a political art experiment and I’m not so sure it works as intended. The concept is that you have to interrogate a detainee, but there’s a language barrier and the only available actions are to torture the detainee by beatings. The designer says it’s a statement on our own culpability, in that we have to act to stop torture, in this case, by quitting the game. When the player is awarded points for each type of physical beating they engage in, I feel it works against the author’s intent. The design lesson here is that it's really hard to make artistic statements in games and you must choose your mechanics wisely so not to confuse or conflict with the message.

Big Bugdet Games

Recent big budget titles have flirted with the topic of torture, but handled them just as irresponsibly.

Gears of War 2 (NOTE - spoilers ahead)

Gears of War 2 - Tai commits suicide

Gear of War 2 does not have any torture gameplay but does touch on the subject in its narrative. It features two characters that have been tortured and both die within moments of being freed. One commits suicide while the other is murdered.

The design lesson I learned from this relates to narrative design, not gameplay design. Narratively, it conveys a disturbing message that those who are tortured are not worth reintegrating back into society and thus are better off killed. Try telling that to John McCain.

Also, I can't understand why Dom, who's been searching for his wife the whole game would kill her, no matter how tortured or close to death she was. Nothing in the narrative gave me insight into why his character would act this way and it felt wrong. I wonder if no one had a good answer for how to wrap up this plot thread after that cinematic ends, so it was decided killing her would be "convenient". 

Gears of War 2 - moments before Dom murders his tortured wife.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King has a quest called The Art of Persuasion. It’s clear looking at the quest details the designer is well aware of the concept of extraordinary rendition, where detainees are sent to other countries to be tortured by other people because they are not bound by any “code of conduct”.

World of Warcraft's The Art of Persuasion

The item details for the Neural Needler are particularly striking. 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 the book, “A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” by Alfred McCoy, it states, “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 were being used throughout the Bush administration. Specifically, techniques such as sleep deprivation, exploitation of phobias and stress positions were 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 is detailed in the recently released memos.

The Art of Persuasion quest

While it’s good that the quest in WotLK is a little more accurate in the approaches of torture; using outsiders and inflicting only psychological pain, it’s as far as it goes in handling the gameplay of torture responsibly, which leaves a lot to be desired.

Richard Bartle stirred up controversy by explaining that he was disappointed with the quest because he felt like he was forced to torture when he did not want to because it went against his morals. Adam Bishop recently wrote about a similar situation in Far Cry 2. He did not want to destroy a malaria medication and almost stopped playing the game because it did not allow him to resolve the conflict in a way that he felt would be morally acceptable to him.

The design lesson to take away from this is when dealing with complex and controversial moral issues, you should consider allowing players the freedom to express their views and resolve the conflict on their own terms, not yours. But then there's an issue of ethical design authoriship. If a player wants to torture, is it ethical to allow them to do that. Is it OK to balance that out by presenting natural consequences?

Calabouço Tétrico

The one game that stands out above all the others is Calabouço Tétrico. Not because it renders the affects of torture accurately, or simulates in a systemic way how torture comes to be used, but because it expresses a Procedural Rhetoric. Ian Bogost says a game has procedural rhetoric, "Anytime the argument is being advanced in whole or in part by the way the rules function." In other words, Calabouço Tétrico conveys an important message through its tight coupling of art and game mechanics. It can't do it based on the art alone; it depends on the rules of the gameplay.

Calabouco Tetrico - Torture Tetris

The game plays exactly the same as Tetris, only the art is changed and the various shaped blocks are people in tortured positions. I encourage you to try it out for a few minutes. I found it uniquely disturbing because I knew it was Tetris, but it wasn’t because it transcended the abstract nature of Tetris and engaged real world concepts and ideas thanks to its art.

The important design lesson of Calabouço Tétrico is that you can dress up abstract mechanics to say something meaningful. When blocks stack up and reach the top, triggering the fail screen, the meaning becomes clear; “No matter how hard we try to keep the truth of torture and our culpability in it from rising to the surface, it will catch up to us.”

Fail state for torture tetris

Whether we did it once or 183 times, what was done during the Bush administration in the war on terror will have lasting impact for generations to come. It’s up to the American people to hold those responsible accountable. This includes the CIA operatives who were implementing the torture, CIA headquarters giving the orders to torture, lawyers justifying the torture, politicians encouraging the torture and Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush for authorizing the torture. If we don’t hold all involved accountable, then accountability will fall on the American people.

In the end, the question is, who will be holding the pitchforks demanding answers and justice? Will it be our enemies who rose from the stains of our torture? Or will it be us? If we American’s neglect our responsibility, much like what happens in Calabouço Tétrico, no matter how hard we’ll try to spin it, move it and make it disappear... it will catch up to us.

Also posted at my personal blog Reiding...

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