Did you ever notice that when Americans talk about torture they are always in the power position? They always see themselves as the person deciding whether or not to torture someone? They never put themselves in the shoes of the person being tortured. They never consider that they might be wrongfully held and tortured.
- Interrobang, writer, Canadian, brilliant friend
I’ve played violent video games. I’ve killed billions of pixels (most look like monsters, but not all). I’ve watched violent movies and TV. I’ve seen thousands of simulated murders. I don’t think playing the games or watching the movies makes me more apt to pick up a gun and go on a shooting spree. (I can’t speak for everyone though, considering this: 8-Year-Old Shot and Killed Caregiver After Playing Grand Theft Auto. I wonder what games or shows other kids were playing or watching before they shot people? What if they were playing Super Mario Bros or watching Barney?)
I’ve also seen torture used in TV and movies. Remember 24? Kiefer Sutherland was always saying, “There is no time!” and “We have no other choice!” Torture was a convenient shortcut to the next plot point. The people tortured were bad, Kiefer was good. Torture worked. The whole setup of 24 evoked the ticking time bomb scenario: The clock is right there in the corner people! There is no time! Except for this commercial break. …
I could go on and on about why the acceptance of torture and its use as a storytelling shortcut in our current media is bad for our country’s soul. But I’m not going to. In 2007 the Dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, met with the creative team behind the hit Fox Television show 24 to tell them to stop using torture because American soldiers were copying the show’s tactics. If he couldn’t convince them to knock it off then I don’t think I’ll have much impact.
Three years ago I stopped writing about torture. I was at a dinner party with old friends. I was questioning their views on torture when a woman I used to date asked me, “Wow Spocko, when did you get so dark?”
But yesterday when I read Jesus Diaz’s article at Kinja I felt the need to comment. He said,
One of the biggest games of the year—Tom Clancy’s new Splinter Cell: Blacklist—takes players right into Guantanamo Bay prison camp to torture an inmate—and then lets them ‘decide to spare or kill their interrogated target.’
The review of the game by Stephen Totilo is interesting because he acknowledges the use of torture and thinks it was a gutsy move by the creators.
My first instinct, upon seeing the level, was to commend Ubisoft Toronto, the game’s development studio, for having the guts to go there—for having the will to use modern video game graphics to render a place that the millions of people who play
Splinter Cell video games will probably never visit.
In theory, Splinter Cell: Blacklist could let us walk through Gitmo. It could let us feel as if we were seeing this forbidden place at our own pace. It could let us explore.
Hell, it could let us decide whether to torture the guy or not.
The game does not do this.
If you watch the video section in the clip, you will note that the torture scene is scripted. To complete that level you torture the person. Your only decision is if you want to spare his life or kill him. The victim even says that it would be more merciful to kill him quickly (“Hey, thanks for permission!”). I don’t know what happens after the “kill or spare” screen, but one way or another your character tortured the prisoner.
A lot of time and energy go into creating the graphics of the game to be realistic, but just how much went into the reality of the torture scene? Probably about as much as on 24. Tom Clancy’s is the name on this franchise game. They never met a weapons system they didn’t love or an American who was morally culpable for war crimes. Clancy just lends his name, he probably gets to sign off on the font and not much more. Besides, it’s just pixels on a screen! Right? No actual arms were crushed! Lighten up everyone!
I’m not going to condemn the use of torture in the game, after all, it IS something we Americans do. That’s the reality in this fantasy world. However I do want to examine the underlying assumptions and attitudes of the writers and producers of the game.
Who are these people who create and guide these games, ex-military? Former CIA agents? RCMP? They are folks like Maxime Beland, founding member of Ubisoft Toronto and Creative Director for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. He says he likes to solve puzzles. Great. Challenge yourself, Maxime! Make better game play that shows how torture provides false info. Teach players to win without using torture. Heck, call up Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, tell him that video games are as big as TV and you don’t want to screw up new recruits. Maybe he can provide the direction for a AI engine for integrations. Maybe Jade Raymond, the managing director for Ubisoft Toronto has some power over the direction of a game. Is she just like President Obama, who is forced to keep Gitmo open because reasons?
I’m not going to ask the game developers remove torture from their games, but I’d like them to be real about it.
First, let the players decide if they should torture at all. Second, if your hero tortures the prisoner, how about he gives him false information? How about the tables get turned and the hero gets tortured? How about setting up the game engine so that actual interrogation techniques will work and torture fails 95 out of 100 times, just like in real life? Could there be multiplayer modes where people are captured, tortured and reveal false info under torture? Instead of going for Jack Bauer cliché, go deeper. You’ve done research on geographical locations and dug into history books, now dig into torture. How will using torture change the game? The people doing the torture? The people being tortured?
I started out with the biggest point I wanted to make about this video game, and pretty much all of the various depictions of torture in TV and in movies: Point of view. As Interrobang said, your point of view makes a world of difference. The next time you hear an American talking about torture, notice if they ever put themselves in the position of the person without power being tortured.
Video games allow people to immerse themselves in a fantasy world and try on actions and attitudes that they might not hold in real life. The people aren’t real, they are just pixels on the screen, but the question to ask is, “Are you setting expectations of what to do in a situation based on how you think the world works or how it really works?”
The people at Westpoint saw exactly how powerful the writing and attitude of 24 was on the minds of new recruits. I’d like to challenge the video game authors and developers to greater reality not just in graphics, but ethics. Can you get people back to disgust for torture or are you going keep using it as a shortcut to storytelling?
I like to encourage my readers to share their thoughts with me and others. I’d like to hear what you think. Maybe the people at Ubisoft Toronto do too.
Tweet to the developer at @ubisoft or start a conversation on the issue with Jade Raymond @ubitorontomngr. Or ask what @splintercell players think of the torture scene. Drop a note to the head of communications HEATHER.STEELE at UBISOFT dot COM.
Video games are a powerful force in our culture, let’s not wait until the generals at Westpoint get around to noticing.
UPDATE: Reading up on the history of this game and especially this torture scene, it appears that Ubisoft said they removed the scene. (Feb 2013 article in Gameinformer by Adam Biessener says that Ubisoft was going to remove the scene.) I wonder what changed?