Wired’s Thompson: We Need More Torture in Games

The controversy continues over a torture quest found in the recent Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft.

As GamePolitics reported last week, the "Art of Persuasion" quest gained notoriety when MUD co-creator Richard Bartle wrote about his discomfort with for the mission’s requirement that the player torture information out of a prisoner.

Some were appalled by the quest while others excused it as just a game. However, in a thought-provoking column, Wired’s Clive Thompson looks deeper and argues for even more instances of virtual torture in games:

Torture has devastating repercussions. It permanently erodes the character of the torturer and, worse, of the public that condones the torture… From my perspective, Americans aren’t thinking very seriously about those consequences…


Why? Partly because U.S. officials refuse to describe or admit clearly what they’re doing. But equally important, I think, is that our mass culture is filled with wildly misleading ideas about how torture works… Which is why we need more torture in videogames.

Games are excellent vehicles for helping people inhabit complex, difficult situations… What’s more, gamers love this stuff. Several of the biggest recent games were praised precisely because the moral acts inside them had long-term consequences. In BioShock, you could either save or exploit the Little Sisters… In Fable, decisions made in the first 15 minutes of play… change the moral tenor of your home town 15 years later…

I’d like to see games that had more torture — and better torture — in them. In this alarming chapter of American history, they might wind up fueling the best public debate yet.

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  1. Karsten Aaen says:

    I sort of a agree with Thompson here, I think ? (I’m torn here, I find) – especially if there is consequence for the player who decides to torture the (innocent?) man in the game.

    On the other hand the tv-series ROOTS did show how ‘evil’ some plantations owners were to their slaves; waterboarding has also been shown on the news. In a Danish tv-documentary ‘your neighbour’s son’ Danish tv proved that almost anyone could become a torturer or a tormentor/executioner. In the Harry Potter books nasty stuff also happens to Harry and his friends….

    From a design point I find the torture quest in WoW lacking; you do not have the option to say ‘no’, or to kill the questgiver, or to liberate the prisoner…. In BG1, in the mines of Cloakwood? you could choose to flood the mines or not. In Icewind Dale 1, signs of horrible acts were all around. And in Mass Effect you have to make a choice concerning someone; you also get to decide whether a species will survive or not.

    Given this information, I can sort of understand why some feel that people’s reactions to this quest (art of persuasion) is that ‘it is no big deal’ and ‘it is only virtual pixels that are being tortured’. And yes it is. And apparently the torture of the pixels have sparked a good discussion and debate over this at several WoW blogs and forums. And that is definetely a good thing…

  2. Artificial Selection says:

    Am i the only one who is tired of always being the hero, or in some cases the comical villain? Games should be what litterature is, free. Some of the people posting here make it sound like the only use for torture in games is to show the players, nay to teach the players that torture is ethically and morally wrong.

    What’s morally wrong is when you restrict storytelling elements to only one use.

  3. Zero Beat says:

    The debate would include such questions as "What is torture?" and "What if the torturee had vital information that is a matter of national security and the only way to get him to talk is torture?  Would it be appropriate then?"


    "That’s not ironic. That’s justice."

  4. Moriarty70 says:

    Thinking they’re a thing of the past is just what the Inquisition want’s you to believe. That way neither you nor anyone else will expect them.

  5. DarkSaber says:

    Well, there IS that Saw in development. Odds are it’s gonna stink out load though.


    I LIKE the fence. I get 2 groups to laugh at then.

  6. Archgabe says:

    If there has to be a debate over something like torture (which in my mind only has to consist of "torture is bad" and "I agree, lets never do it… ever") then lets make it a really good one.  The more graphic, the better.  The more disturbing, the better.  The more people who get angry over this, the better.  The sooner torture becomes a thing of the past, like the Inquisition, the better.

  7. darkenchanter says:


    While I certanly wouldn’t say we should be pointing at Manhunt 2 as an example to show the press about, originally the game had moral conflicts, before they were stripped away by the esrb/bbfc. Because apparently having a bad ending counts as an unlockable and therefore a good thing to achieve, thus prompting you to use more violence to get said bad ending. I mean yes, you get a different final level, but the bad one is naff. I would have loved to see the morals play into the final build, but sadly it was not meant to be.

  8. asmodai says:

    You know what really disgusts me…

    That people can get excited over virtual torture (and let’s face it, a blue zap and some text =\= realistic torture scene, the character does not even move/react) and yet remain silent on the issue of real torture, particularly government mandated.

    Reminds me of the Fat Princess drama that got the feminists all riled up.  There are enough problems in the real world without trying to solve ‘issues’ in the virtual one…

    To me, the people that complain about this sort of shit are just too bloody lazy to get off their ass and tackle a real issue (which might involve some actual work), so they sit at their desk blogging away as if it actually makes any difference.  Which is a pity because there are plenty of real inequities and injustices in this world already…

  9. Father Time says:

    But the best way to stir up controversy would be manhunt style torture and excessive violence.

    One could easily have the character go from waterboarding to castrating men with pliers to get information from the more adamant enemies (if that makes any sense).


    "What for you bury me in the cold cold ground?" – Tasmanian devil

  10. E. Zachary Knight says:

    I am of the opinion that there needs to be more controversial stuff in games. We need to make people think. Controversy is an easy and effective way of starting a discussion. But I am not talking about Manhunt type controversy, but more stuff like this.

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  11. Father Time says:

    Oh who cares what Fox has to say about games, all their whining and moaning will accomplish nothing except free advertising. Sure the games might be banned in Australia or Germany but torture is mostly an issue for the U.S.

    And I bet if you have a certain portion of it off camera (although you might still be able to see sillhouettes (sp) or hear the brutal sounds) you can easily avoid an Ao rating.


    "What for you bury me in the cold cold ground?" – Tasmanian devil

  12. Neeneko says:

    True, major publishers will probably shy away from things like this.


    But it is yet one more thing that indy developers could probably address and hopefully bring some new blood into an increasingly dull and repeditive industry.

  13. shady8x says:

    I think complex moral choices that effect the overall course of a game are always a great idea.

    As for putting saddistic torture into games, sure why not? oh right the AO rating… and FOX telling everyone how they were right about games all along… and Bans… hmm kind of doubt that a major game deloper would risk millions of dollars on this…

  14. Neeneko says:

    Yeah, slavery is a pretty poorly taught aspect of American history too.  They almost never mention that the Irish were treated even worse (they were cheaper then slaves and just as indentured)  for instance.

  15. Neeneko says:

    Ugh.  ANY positive teaching of Christophere Columbus pisses me off.

    He was a crack-pot who just happened to get lucky and find land.  All this BS about ‘he thought the earth was round when everyone else thought it was flat!’ garbage is pure fabrication.  He is one of the worst kinds of role models to give children (including as you mentioned, what he did to the Arawak)

  16. DeepThorn says:

    Yeah, I think laziness will prevail, and there will be no change.  That is one of the things I was thinking about.  Of course things like slavery are pretty overplayed in some schools and underplayed in others.  Making it sound like everyone owned a slave, and treated the slaves like horrid animals that they beat and raped all of time just is insane, but acting like the slaves were given everything and treated great isn’t right either.

    There was abuse, but from my research, it wasn’t common.  There were secret relationships and babies, that was rare because society looked down on interracial relationships, it still does today in some places.  There were tons of different things that happened around that time period and the founding of the nation.

    Assisted suicide and death penalty stuff is good things for people to know about too.  Same with the fact that marriage didn’t start out as part of religion but was adopted by it, but I am against religion being taught in schools, and that includes anti-religion, unless it is an absolutely optional class with as much credit to the curriculum as a study hall.

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  17. Bennett Beeny says:

    My daughter was just taught at school that Christopher Columbus was a hero who helped the Arawak indians.  I guess my daughter’s teacher didn’t get the memo about him having the hands cut off of Arawaks who didn’t bring him enough gold, or how he and his cronies eventually got so frustrated with the lack of gold that they just had the entire population hunted to extinction.

    I was quick to get that memo to the teacher.  But the real question is this – now that she knows, will her teaching reflect it?  Somehow I doubt it.

  18. Neeneko says:

    Keep in mind, those things are still barely taught in many american schools and a few decades ago even less so.

    The native american example is actually a good one.  Go back a generation and the mistreatment was not taught.  Even today it is handled very differntly from school to school and in some regions manifest destinty is still taught as a wonderful thing.

    I can recall my school was unusual in that it questioned the Gulf of Tonkin insodent.  My GF’s school didn’t even talk about it.  The Japanese camps in WWII are only starting to be addressed over the last decade or so, and schools are not going over Regan erra (or cold war in general) ickyness.

    Progress?  Yep! A long way to go.. also Yep!

  19. Neeneko says:

    While I think a good use of torture in a game would be you go through that entire process and the victim finally gives up some information which turns out to be wrong because they would say anything to make it stop.

    Thus teaching the player that torture for information doesn’t always get you honesty (which in America is a big deal considering in TV/Movies it is always portrayed as ‘torture someone and they will give you the truth’, when in reality it is a pretty worthless form of information gathering)

  20. Bennett Beeny says:

    Well, the real problem with torture is that it’s wrong even if the guy is guilty.  John McCain, for example, was guilty of what his torturers were accusing him (i.e. bombing civilians), but that still doesn’t mean that torturing him was right.

  21. SeanB says:

    I would love to see a torture scene in a game, where you employ the most heinous tools, the most horrible practices, blood everywhere, with the victim begging for it all to stop, while you beg him to confess to his crimes and release the names of his cohorts.

    Then, once you’ve nearly destroyed him, he collapses, near death. It’s only then that your superior walks into the room and tells you that while you’ve been in the torture room, the real culprit has been found. The man you’ve been torturing was 100% innocent…..

    This is the way many real life torture scenes end.

  22. Solipsis says:

    I keep track of some of the more prominent WoW blogs, and that torture quest provoked a lot of intelligent discussion. From a community that much more frequently is just discussing the ways to max their damage, there was a lot of discomfort with the idea of torture – a definite slipping into the skin of the character that isn’t all that common even in a roleplaying game. It was really thought provoking and I was highly impressed at the time. I’m not at all in favor of stifling discussion about unpleasant realities, and the discussion I’ve seen has been both realistic and meaningful. I’m inclined to agree with Thompson, don’t push it under the rug, people respond in surprising ways.

  23. shady8x says:

    What the hell are you talking about?

    We are taught about slavery and the treatment of native americans…

    What else should we be teaching? we shouldn’t have challenged britain? we should have stayed out of wwII?

    seriously what are you talking about?

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