Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Torture Test

When I met Peter Rauch in Reggio Emilia at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference, he was presenting about the way that torture functioned in the game mechanic of a number of popular videogames and was also arguing that it could be possible to build a serious game, possibly for the purposes of training military personnel, that would show why torture was inhumane and ultimately counterproductive, in order to underscore the value of human rights pinciples.

As the issue of torture is back in the headlines during what is essentially an interregnum between the Bush and Obama administrations, Rauch's questions about modeling torture with computational media are worth examining again, especially given some of the recent game criticism in the blogosphere about The Torture Game 2, a simple physics simulation with ropes, implements of torture, and lethal weapons that I found similar to many of the Internet "theatres of cruelty" already out there, such as Interactive Buddy, whic I write about in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book.

There is certainly a long literary history of graphic descriptions of ingenious forms of torture from early modern lives of the saints to postmodern fiction, and there is also a tradition of creating compelling representational experiences by placing the reader in a position of agency (or potential agency) in the story of a tortured body in great works by Poe, Kafka, and many others.

It is the aesthetics of horror that MSNBC's Winda Benedetti acknowledges when she points out the creative uses of the "paint" function of the game in its Grand Guignol potential artistry. Perhaps the most interesting extended argument about how The Torture Game 2 functions is made by Ian Bogost in "Simulating Torture," who claims that the lack of vividness and verisimilitude in the experience of interacting with what he calls a "voodoo doll" does little to raise consciousness about the human dimensions of torture and that Manhunt 2 is much more likely to move potential players to reflect about the larger meanings of the rules of a game about torture.

When I interviewed one of the developers of the negotiation training game ELECT BiLAT, Peggy Weil, I asked her if there were any kinds of military videogames that she would never do. As someone also involved with the Gone Gitmo project, which simulates human rights violations taking place at the Guantanamo Bay facility in Second Life, Weil initially responded that she would never make an interrogation game, although she later qualified that statement by observing that being willing to participate in discourses about interrogation could also be a way to prevent abuse.

Certainly more nuanced thinking about this subject needs to be pursued as we contemplate our geopolitical future and the role we all play in enacting U.S. policy as citizens.

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