Debate over what is considered 'right' and 'wrong' in terms of behavior in a videogame has become commonplace in recent years. Virtually any mass media commentary on the myriad evils of Grand Theft Auto or the 'Debbie Does Dallas in Space' view of Mass Effect drives this point home -- everyone has a different mindset in terms of what's acceptable to them. While gamers easily dismiss many of these notions as being uninformed and taken out of context, now and again something comes to light within the gaming community itself that sparks debate. A good example has been the recent (and heated) discussion of torture in games, stemming from the views expressed by Dr. Richard Bartle. He argued his points on the questionable existence of torture in "The Art of Persuasion" quest in World of Warcraft, which set off a flurry of responses from gamers and peers.
MMO industry luminary Raph Koster weighs in with his own views on the matter in a post titled "Are games about torture evil?". Specifically, Koster addresses this comment at his website: "... please explain to me again why killing NPCs in games is fine but sticking them with a cattle prod is evil." However, Koster seems less concerned with arbitrary notions of right and wrong as he is with the game design that leads us down this path in the first place.
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For instance, is it merely the presentation of an underlying 'action/reward' game mechanic that suddenly makes "killing" (or "torture" for that matter) in a game into a bad thing? Koster writes: "In killing NPCs (or popping any other sort of experience balloon), we are definitely seeing a 'kill' dressing put on top of a statistical exercise. [...] Although the killing is itself morally dubious as a 'dressing' for these underlying mechanics, players do learn to see past the fiction fairly quickly, and cease seeing this as a moral issue, because they are smart: they know it's just a game, and they move onto the underlying systemic reality very quickly."
Koster views torture quite differently from the now standard (and thoroughly desensitized) act of killing NPCs in games. Conducting torture in a game is reliant on feedback, and this is the issue Koster takes with this particular dressing of the game mechanics. "The utilitarian feedback is a mess -- you cannot tell easily what is true and what is lie, and even success carries you from good responses to bad responses invisibly," he writes.
In this respect, Koster points out the parallel between bad game design and its real world counterpart. "This, interestingly, (is) exactly the problem with torture in real life, and why it is evil on so many levels," Koster writes. (And perhaps that's where World of Warcraft's 'torture' quest fails -- if games teach us, on some level, then the WoW quest doesn't impress upon gamers that this activity is 'wrong' through feedback from these actions. Indeed, by progressing in the game through the use of torture, on some level people are taught to accept the use of torture rather than being taught to reject it.) Koster believes that the implementation of the WoW quest torture in a game could be done better, seen in this light of games as a teaching tool. The game designers could impart more of a sense of the pointlessness of committing these acts, through diminishing or useless rewards.
Koster's discourse on the topic is detailed, and of course context is key in discussions of this nature. What has been written here is only a brief mention of his points. We recommend that readers interested in these viewpoints read them in their entirety, in Koster's "Are games about torture evil?"