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Do we have any ethical responsibilities as designers? Where do we draw the line regarding what we force players to experience versus what we allow them to live through should they choose it?

Shelly Warmuth, Blogger

September 24, 2013

3 Min Read

GTA V Torture scene

Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto are no strangers to controversy.  In fact, I'd say they seek it out.  Controversy drives sales.  Is this good for our industry, though?  Are we, as developers, beholden to any ethics?

In case this is new information for you, GTA V features a graphic, and unskippable, torture scene.  If you are to complete the story, you must participate in this mission and, in order to be fully awarded for the quest, you must use multiple implements of torture.  The torture mission ends with the killing of a man who may or may not be the correct target and an almost gratuitous message from Trevor about the ineffectiveness of torture as a means of obtaining accurate information.

While I agree with that message, I'm having a difficult time condoning forcing players through that experience to send it.  Is it powerful?  Very.  Games are interactive experiences.  If you feel repulsed, and you should, you're receiving that powerful message.  But, how far is too far?  When do we finally cross the line?  Is this it?  Have we crossed it?  I believe we have.

It feels as if we keep trying to up the ante on repulsive acts in games.  For me, it began with the airport massacre of innocent civilians, many of them cowering and begging for their lives, in Modern Warfare 2--but you could skip that.  You didn't have to shoot innocents.  Then, we moved up to uncomfortable, but seemingly necessary ethical choices in The Walking Dead.  From there, Spec Ops: The Line was an entire game focused on making you do things for what you thought were the right reasons, only to find that you were the one in the wrong all along.  Spec Ops was the first game to really make me feel as if I had no choice but to experience Yager's. (the developer's) message in full.

Of course, there are other uncomfortable scenes in GTA V, such as the strip club.  There are controversial sex scenes in Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins.  The baptism scene in Bioshock: infinite so disturbed Breen Malmberg that he asked Valve for a refund.  Games have been trying to get players to make meaningful ethical decisions for years:

  • Shadow of the Colossus--Kill the big, peaceful, colossi

  • Bioshock--To save or harvest the Little Sisters

  • inFamous--To play Cole as good or evil and the consequences of each

  • Fallout 3--Much of the game!

  • Add your favorite example here.

Still, with the exception of Shadow of the Colossus and Spec Ops (from this list) none of the games actually forced you to play it as the developer intends or not at all. It's a bold choice, to be sure.  Rockstar risks alienating a large part of their audience or, at the very least, forcing them to stop playing.  While controversy does sell games, I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with this show of force from Rockstar.  Audiences have as much right not to play the game as they have to avoid an overly graphic violent movie or to choose not to watch a porn flick.  But, Rockstar fails to honor the power of our industry to touch players effectively precisely because it's an interactive medium.  Or, maybe I'm wrong--maybe that was their intent all along.

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