Monday, September 23, 2013

The hierarchy of video game sins

Grand Theft Auto 5 launched recently.  Everyone seems to be of the opinion that if you like a game where you get to be a violent lunatic running around a dystopian city murdering, robbing, and destroying indiscriminately it is a great game.  There is just one fly in the ointment:  In order to get through the game you need to guide your character through a graphic torture scene where you use a variety of implements to inflict horrors on another person.  People have predictably flipped out over this but I think they haven't any ground to stand on.

It is clear that torture scenes are troubling.  In World of Warcraft where a very tame 'zap the guy till he talks' scene was instituted people freaked out and the torture scene in GTA5 is an order of magnitude more brutal.  People really do not like torturing others - something about the intense suffering involved really triggers sympathy in a way that combat does not.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that in games when you fight enemies they rarely show any sign of suffering or damage until they are dead.  There are two states for an enemy mook:  Attacking you furiously and lying on the ground.  Being sad or terrified doesn't figure into it, unlike in real life.  In a simulated torture scene though the person being tortured is desperate, scared, and mentally falling apart and that triggers sympathy in us that never appears in stand up fights.

Given that I think it is extremely understandable that we have more empathy for a torture victim than a random person gunned down in a moment of savagery but I don't think that means that it shouldn't be portrayed.  If we are okay with games making entertainment out of massacring pedestrians then we really can't be too picky about torture which certainly is lower on the badness scale than mass murder.  Just because a thing is more disturbing does not mean it should be banned.  It does mean that such a game should have a 18+ rating on the box because that rating is in part meant to reflect how disturbing it is though.

Games need to be able to depict desperate and savage occurrences.  They aren't everyone's cup of tea but that isn't the point - just like in film, books, or other media we have freedom to create whatever stories we desire as long as we don't hurt real people.  With that freedom in place many games are going to show horrendous violence and that is okay.  Just like in other media you aren't required to view it if you don't like it.  I have no desire to play through GTA5 myself but I think that it is important that others be able to and we need to resist foolish knee jerk reactions that blame violent video games for real life situations that are entirely unrelated.


  1. I was bothered by the 'zap the guy till he talks' scene in WoW - I really wish there had been an option to bypass that quest chain. Torture is dehumanizing in a way that typical video game cartoon violence isn't. This topic is reminding me of the Milgram experiment where people wound up inflicting (imaginary) harm on other people because the person in authority was telling them to do so. In this case it feels like the video game is the authority, and the players are being told to do something they (potentially) don't want to do with the very real threat of not being allowed to continue playing unless they do. Even pretend torture desensitizes us to actual torture. If the player ever finds themselves in a real word situation where torture is an option, the mental pathway of following through with the torture is already there. I'm not sure exactly why I find this so different from the other violence depicted in the game...I'll have to think about that a bit...but I do find it *very* different. I'd put it in the same class as forcing the player to play through a rape scene. And I don't think either of these things should be incorporated into wildly commercially popular video games.

  2. It's also not what you're signing up for. When you're playing WoW you're not at all surprised when you're told to go kill some wolves for their pelts or some orcs because they're 'the bad guys'. You knew coming in when you bought an RPG that it was going to involve combat. You didn't know it was going to involve torture, because most such games don't involve torture.

    I'm also not convinced that torture is actually lower on the badness scale than murder.

  3. Torture is presumably lower on the badness scale than murder in its outcomes (though not always), but I would be much more quick to have compassion for a murderer than a torturer. Killing a person is worse than killing a stray cat, but we have a lot more reason to be afraid of a person who kills a stray cat than we do to be afraid of the vast majority of people who have killed another person.

    There are a couple of things that are very troublesome about the torture scene in WoW. First of all, it really is different than the killing because in WoW all the violence is fictional in the extreme. No one is hurt until they die, no one appears to experience pain, people who "die" just end up being around a few minutes later, so it's a lot more like getting someone's flag in flag football than it is like hurting anyone. It's very gamey. The torture victim pleads with you to stop until they tell you what you want to know. This is a lot more like real torture, and kind of violates the rules of WoW where actions don't have consequences. In WoW insults can be worse than murder. In WoW, torture is *far* worse than murder.

    I also don't like that there is a transferable lesson from the torture. We all know that there is nothing similar between WoW violence and real life violence, and we know that there is nothing similar about WoW torture and real life torture. In particular, torture *worked* in WoW. There are plenty of people walking around who think that torture, while extreme, is ultimately the best way to extract information from a very uncooperative person. This is not true, and having torture work in the game reinforces that dangerous idea because it is a real idea that people really have.

    I feel differently about Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto is a franchise built around making people uncomfortable (less the people who play it and more the people who complain that other people play it). In order to maintain that franchise they have to continue to be shocking, and stealing a tank from the military to kill cops just isn't shocking anymore. Grand Theft Auto has always had very disturbing and despicable things in it. It's the game where you can have sex with a hooker and then beat her up to get your money back. Basically if Grand Theft Auto is distressing to you then it is doing its job. We can argue over the merits of such a franchise, but I'm much more accepting of art intended to disturb than art that tacitly imports dangerous messages.

  4. I agree that the torture scene in WOW was way more of an outlier. WOW is all about pop culture references and cartoony violence so torture really stood out there. GTA5 is exactly the sort of place you would expect to find savage and realistic torture and it doesn't feel like it stood out there in the same way.

    While I do find torture scenes in games unpleasant I don't jump on the bandwagon of suggesting that the government should regulate them. Much like high school football there are good reasons to think that torture scenes in games aren't a good idea and cause issues down the road but we still shouldn't ban them. It just won't work and the government shouldn't get involved in that level of censorship.

  5. Well, I think you know I agree that there is no government intervention called for. Honestly, people just think that the government should step in and regulate anything they don't approve of.

  6. Yeah, it is true. I have shifted more and more away from government intervention as the years pass. There are so many things that I heartily disapprove of and yet I generally think the government shouldn't step in and stop them. Gentle regulation such as 18+ descriptors on games are a very reasonable thing for the govt to do but outright banning things is just asking for trouble; a light touch is the best way.

  7. Also, I read elsewhere that apparently the torture scene in GTA actually reminds players that torture *doesn't* work. So it might be a big step up from WoW.