She says she asks herself a litany of questions before she dives into making a game: Is she respecting the subject? Has she researched the issue exhaustively? Can she provoke the emotional response she’s looking for? She uses her games’ structures—like the late revelation in Train—to draw out specific responses from players. In another game from the same series that’s based on Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, players start out working together as partners, before circumstances cause them turn on each other halfway through the game. (“And they always do,” Romero says.)
The Camp Bucca game, too, uses structure to make a point. Throughout the game, the player accrues points by completing assigned tasks, or loses them by failing. But the points never amount to anything. The game can’t be won.
Back in 2014, the design team had set out to create a fictional horror game. But when one of the members started to read about Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi detention facility that became synonymous with prisoner abuse and torture, he learned of abuses at Camp Bucca that he felt were underreported. Shifting the focus of the game to Bucca made sense in the context of the horror game they were already planning to build, the designer said.
After operating for nearly two years in complete secrecy—few outside the development team even knew the game existed—they launched a test balloon. In May, one of the developers granted an anonymous interview to the local CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, sharing just a few broad-strokes details for a two-minute segment. Though the coverage was vague, it was enough to spark some impassioned commentary on Facebook, most of it negative.
“So tired of these liberal asshats!” one commenter wrote. “They were the enemy! If you need information that could save U.S. troops’ lives [I don’t care] if they dust off ancient torture devices and torture them to death with them!”
More than one person said that they’re excited to play even though they don’t usually enjoy video games, suggesting they were drawn to the idea of torturing virtual Iraqis.
There’s precedent for using torture as a gameplay tool in video games—a controversial mission in the most recent Grand Theft Auto game, for example, requires the player to waterboard a man to extract information he was willing to give before the torture even began—but what’s new is placing interactive torture in the context of real-world events whose legacy remains raw.
Eight years ago, the journalist Clive Thompson called for “more” and “better” torture in video games, because games are particularly good at walking players through cause and effect: Do this, and something else will (or won’t) happen. In Camp Bucca, the developers set up a logical chain they want players to follow: Torture, and you will create ISIS.
But how critical is it that the torture be violent, graphic, and in-your-face? One of the screenshots the developers sent me shows a first-person view of electrified nodes being held near a detainee’s chest; another shot shows a detainee flat on his back, his head covered by an opaque black hood, with bright blood splatters splashed out onto the white floor. (Click here to see that graphic image.)