‘Violence is one of the most fun things to watch’
- Quentin Tarantino
One of the defining characteristics of this year’s E3 was diversity. From the beautifully crafted caricature of World War I in Valiant Hearts: The Great War (2014) to the throwback simplicity of Heavy Bullets while Oculus Rift spearheaded the race towards virtual reality among hardware designers. It provided a reminder of the constantly shifting nature of the industry and the reassurance that there are no shortage of ideas among its developers. But with these new ideas there inevitable came criticism – in this case it arrived in the form of Brad Buschmann, an Ohio State University professor who recently argued the ‘disturbing’ trend of violent imagery in mainstream gaming as an increasingly visible aspect of the medium. While this argument is nothing new, his claims may just find some weight among the concept of merging interactivity with violent imagery on screen. While this has always existed in gaming it has only been at this year’s trade show that the full impact of such an experience is beginning to make itself felt. With the emergence of the next phase of interactivity represented by Oculus Rift, the possibility for a fully immersive experience that could potentially be offered in the context of a game such as Mortal Kombat X with its stomach churning fatalities does lend credence to Buschmann’s assertions of a disturbing trend on the horizon for consumers of video games.
If you combine this interactivity with the situations that seem to be ever more common in violent games such as Manhunt (2003), Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Call of Duty: Black Ops and most recently Grand Theft Auto V (2013), a point is being made to actively involve the player in one of the most sadist methods of inflicting violence – torture.
In 1961, Yale University conducted what is now known as the ‘Milgram Experiment’ to test the psychological effects of torture. The intention was not to discover how much pain could be tolerated or to investigate any post traumatic stress symptoms but rather how much could be dished out by the torturer him/herself before morality and conscience began to take hold – if at all. The experiments involved two participants; ‘the Teacher’ was rigged up to a computer that could deliver an electric shock through wires attached to the wrist while ‘the Experimenter’ monitored and controlled the device with which the shocks were generated from. Both were separated from each other but the Experimenter was able to observe and record reactions from the Teacher without being seen by the latter. The results provided clear evidence of the ease with which torture could be inflicted through detachment from the victim. The disconnection and dissociation the Teacher and Experimenter had (or rather, didn’t have) with each other indicated the human conscience was able to endure far more extreme levels of moral conflict if responsibility was reduced to only conceptual levels. In other words, it proved that it is far easier to cause pain to someone anonymous and unknowing rather than looking them in the eye.
Torture has been a subtext of entertainment for many years with films being at the forefront of presenting such imagery without ever implicating the viewer as being complicit. Countless examples include the so-called ‘torture porn’ sub-genre of horror films that are known for depicting visceral and graphic scenes of the mutilation of one character by another. However the viewer is always protected and reassured by the knowledge that they are only a passive observer, much like the Experimenter. The very fact that they are aware of their disconnection from the events on screen allows a much greater degree of tolerance of the violence being witnessed. It also allows all personal responsibility to be waived and enables freedom from conscience and all manner of questions regarding morality never have to be confronted. It is in this freedom that the gap between films and games grows ever wider and difficult issues of games’ interactivity over film’s passivity come to light. Of the many examples that can now be cited as transforming a the player into a torturer, Fallout 3 (2008) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) stand at the forefront of those examples that make an active point of drawing the player into the act of torture – using very different though equally disturbing methods.
Violence has existed in games more or less from their beginnings. Not simply from the release of more controversial examples like Doom (1993) and Duke Nukem 3D (1996) but from as early as Super Mario Bros. (1985) that required you to avoid spike traps and being burned to death by lava. All being released at a time when gaming technology was still in its infancy, it meant games often had more control over the player than vice versa. Players were forced down linear paths, there was never any question as to the goal that needed to be accomplished and little to no story context for the events being experienced. So they were free of complicit torture due to the player having only minimal control over their actions. This betrays the nature of torture which is to have absolute control over the fate of the victim.
One of the most talked about characteristics of Fallout 3 and what is now considered one of the hallmarks in modern game design in general is the amount of freedom given to the player. But while the game provides choice in many respects, it repeatedly encourages the player to take an active role in the torture of enemies thus making them a complicit participant in the violence on screen. The game takes place entirely in an open non-linear world that contains no time limits and missions that can be completed in any order the player chooses at any pace they desire. While offering a wealth of opportunities, where this becomes problematic in the debate on torture in games is the choices that seem tailored to causing as much pain as possible to your enemies. At the forefront of this is the Vault-tech Assisted Targeting System (V.A.T.S.) which allows the player to target individual body parts on enemies. Combined with the ability to cripple limbs and the slow motion gameplay whenever the feature is used, bodies are left at the mercy of the player who can assign varying degrees of lethality to each limb. The role-playing elements that allow the assignment of ‘perks’ to improve your performance when using V.A.T.S. extend to the ability to cause more damage but also comes with the automatic ability to make them explode in a shower of bloody limbs when shot. This would seem to indicate that if you want to have the best chance at surviving the game, you have to be as violent as possible. Aside from the developments in RPG mechanics, improvements in technology and physics engines also allow the dismemberment of corpses that was once impossible due to the limitations inherent to the days of Doom. Most conflicting of all is a mission that requires you to assume the role of a maniacal childlike mass murderer known as ‘the Pint-sized Slasher’ where the only objective is to massacre an entire neighbourhood of innocents. The player is never under threat here and is left to dish out violence as mercifully quickly or as brutally slowly as they see fit. So while the game does indeed offer a choice to the player to be as violent as they decide, the combination of freedom with violent perks seems bent on pushing them towards a violent choice when dealing with enemies or civilians alike. The promise of more effective performances in combat if one chooses the more violent perks incidentally takes place far before this mission so the idea of choice concerning the level of violence one wants to cause seems to be not only endorsed but recommended by the game’s mechanics. Fallout 3‘s one saving grace for how it might justify such encouragement is that it still presents the player with just enough of a choice to avoid committing these acts of violence. The game is certainly not impossible without these perks or without decimating any enemy you come into contact with but it cannot be denied that it all but demands you assume the role of a torturer in order to be at your best in the world it presents you with.
For all its technical accomplishments, the depiction of torture in Fallout 3 suffers under a lack of specific context. The story doesn’t require it nor do the missions present you with specific reason for it aside from the simple idea that you can. So when games do present it in a context of which the most volatile is the real world and political kind, the issue becomes even murkier. Call of Duty: Black Ops is a game that is steeped in political commentary from the mission text being blacked out in the style of a redacted government document to the methods in which information was extracted from the enemy. At the start of the mission ‘numbers’ the player character is depicted as placing a shard of glass in the mouth of a torture victim before punching him repeatedly. This is all seen from a first-person perspective and requiring button prompts making the player both active and personally involved but the more disturbing question is whether or not the player has been complicit in something real. The use of torture as an interrogation method during the War on Terror has long been kept secret by the United States including by the Bush Administration and all accusations that any such activity took place have been vehemently denied. But if you take the example of the film Zero Dark Thirty which has become infamous for suggesting the location of Osama Bin Laden was extracted through torture, the argument is far from one sided. On one, CIA officials as well as Vietnam veteran John McCain who was captured and tortured by the Vietnamese have branded the film’s suggestions of waterboarding as nonsense. On the other, Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal both defended their belief that torture did indeed take place. The Huffington Post writer G Robery Denson also defended it by claiming that artistic expression was being made a scapegoat for information that had already been admitted by government officials. So how can we possibly tell one way or the other? As long as this dilemma exists, the question remains that events such as those in Black Ops may indeed have taken place and without any definitive closure to the argument, depictions of torture remain frighteningly believable for the player and without the safety of the knowledge that they are experiencing something fictional, their implied complicity becomes all the more disturbing.
What does all of this mean for the act of torture itself? How do games deal with the violence and the implications behind such depictions if we were to see them simply for what they are for just a moment? Whether it’s fictionalised sensationalism or political commentary, the simple concept of prolonged physical pain has never been something that games deal with very well for the simple reason that they have to remain entertainment. There is only so far that one can take the portrayal of pain before it becomes undesirable for those who have to play through it. One of the problems with Manhunt 2 (2007) was that it was so overpowering and pointlessly violent that it ceased to be entertainment and became something far less savoury. It was unfortunate since the game had a good opportunity to make an interesting commentary on the line between observing and being complicit in torture in the same way the Milgram experiment had done. This is particularly true in the original game where much of the violence was seen through CCTV cameras. One thing that Manhunt 2 did accomplish was to raise the question of what the point of such imagery is in the first place. What would we ultimately get out of it if there was no context by which to judge or comment on it beyond the violence itself? After all, countless games and films are guilty of this. Perhaps it’s ironic that the severity of the image may be the only safeguard against being too absorbed in the idea of complicity if one is disinclined to experience it to begin with.
Perhaps the general rule should be that whenever instances of torture are featured as entertainment, they are always accompanied by story context, music, sound effects and many other methods of dressing up extreme violence as palatable entertainment. If you were to take a game that consisted of nothing more than one person torturing another with none of the above, the response from the audience is likely to be more of disgust than of joy (for lack of a better word). In fact a browser game known simply as Torture Game 2 consists of exactly that and incurred the wrath of Fox News in a way I have yet to see with a AAA game that does employ those elements that are simply more cleverly disguised. But what if this is ultimately where games can blur the distinction between fictional entertainment and the perception of reality by placing the gamer in the shoes of a torturer for those seeking more than the mere passive observance in ‘torture porn’ cinema? Does this demand that story and all forms of context be stripped away in order for the purity of the experience to emerge? It would certainly seem the more visceral a game is, the more believable and disturbing it becomes. But if professional game developers were ever to focus on creating a realistic and visceral torture scene in a game due to audience demand, the fact that such demand exists would probably be more disturbing than the scene itself.