Video games and torture

There's an interesting debate going on right now about World of Warcraft and the implications of torture. The spark seems to be Richard Bartle's (kind of the godfather of WoW and really all MMOs, such as EQ, Ultima, Warhammer online etc.) complaint about several quests in the new WoW expansion which basically require your toon to torture people:

...Now while this means that WotLK is not yet torture for me, there is some torture involved. Specifically, this quest. Basically, you have to take some kind of cow poke and zap a prisoner until he talks...

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.

Broken Toys retorts:

Pretty much no matter how you treat this, issues happen. If you, as Bartle suggests, give some kind of "opt-out" reaction to enable an in-character revulsion to torture, you just stuck a deep political statement into a game where dwarves tool around on Harleys and one of the first NPCs you see as a deathknight is called "Siouxie the Banshee". If you *don't*, you just trivialized a deep political statement, or more damningly, shown you don't really have an opinion on the subject.

Which is all very ironic considering that games like World of Warcraft are all about slaughtering millions of creatures so you can take their stuff and get more powerful so you can take more stuff from more creatures you slaughter. In that context poking people with a painstick before you slaughter them seems like a minor issue.

Hmm, well a minor political issue--but a major narrative one. It's fine to note that WoW's whole point is virtual mass murder--much of it without a point. But that isn't actually a counter-argument, as much as its a change of subject. One of the least enjoyable aspects of WoW is the repetive (kill x number of these) aspect of the game, because the "killing" has no real meaning, often. Comparing one problematic feature with another, doesn't exonerate the first. But that's a core issue, that's hard to remedy. Torture isn't a core issue, and could have been dealt with better.

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It's worth noting that in the new WoW expansion, you don't just torture people, should you roll a death-knight, you kill a lot of innocent people also. That's fine--you are, after all, a death-knight. The torture is actually fine also. I don't expect WoW to schill for my political beliefs--but I expect it to do a good job telling a story.

Let us simply say, that more than most MMOs, WoW is really lore-heavy. The plot is Darth Vaderish, and the constant corruption themes are mind-numbing, but still, the designers clearly took some time to plot out sprawling epic which really draws you in. There are characters in WoW (such as say Garona) who've yet to actually make an in-game appearance, but still hold weight with the fans. Put simply, WoW has really advanced the possibilities for story-telling in MMOs, and thus the possibilities for story-telling, period. But great power, great responsibility. Here is designer Chris Metzen discussing his expectations:

We want to add some layers of psychology that put you in strange moral situations of how you fight the good fight that mimic some of Arthas' own experiences.... By the time you reach level 80 [the expansion's new level cap], by the time you stand toe-to-toe with this bastard, do you still have your pretty principles and highfalutin morality, or is it a mirror reflection? Arthas is after that as much as global domination. It's a hook that makes it personal that Burning Crusade didn't have.

Fair enough but, WoW only half delivers on that promise, as there is no point where your "pretty principles and highfalutin morality" are examined. Here's the Pensive Harpy:

...Blizzard should have made moral choices in Northrend actually MATTER, so that the 'choice' to do something immoral for loot or convenience actually had value, instead of basically expecting people to just play all the quests regardless how bad those quests made them behave, and then wag their finger at us for being so amoral when we were never given a 'real' choice in the first place.

You can't choose amorality when there's no other option. I actually think the addition of torture--and let's face it--terrorism is interesting and offers more story-telling oppurtunities. Most maddening is, as a guildie pointed out to me the other night, Blizzard actually now has the technology to do this, with their world phasing system.  But it seems like they just punted.