Richard Bartle’s post about a quest in Wrath of the Lich King that requires the player to torture an NPC got a lot of feedback, much of it negative. Bartle writes,
Now while this means that WotLK is not yet torture for me, there is some torture involved. Specifically, this quest. Basically, you have to take some kind of cow poke and zap a prisoner until he talks.
I’m not at all happy with this. I was expecting for there to be some way to tell the guy who gave you the quest that no, actually I don’t want to torture a prisoner, but there didn’t seem to be any way to do that. Worse, the quest is part of a chain you need to complete to gain access to the Nexus, which is the first instance you encounter (if you start on the west of the continent, as I did). So, either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.
I did zap him, pretty well in disbelief — I thought that surely the quest-giver would step in and stop it at some point? It didn’t happen, though. Unless there’s some kind of awful consequence further down the line, it would seem that Blizzard’s designers are OK with breaking the Geneva convention.
Well they may be, but I’m not. Without some reward for saying no, this is a fiction-breaking quest of major proportions. I don’t mind having torture in an MMO — it’s the kind of thing a designer can use to give interesting choices that say things to the players. However, I do mind its being placed there casually as a run-of-the-mill quest with no regard for the fact that it would ring alarm bells: this means either that the designer can’t see anything wrong with it, or that they’re actually in favour of it and are forcing it on the player base to make a point. Neither case is satisfactory.
I did the question that Bartle is talking about, though it is not the only torture quest in the game. Both my wife and I remember doing a quest where you have to beat up some NPC until he gives you the information you need — that may be a rogue-specific quest, however.
Anyway, I had no problem doing either quest, and I suspect the main reason it’s not generally an issue is that video games as a dramatic medium are simply not compelling. Torture is no more real in a game like World of Warcraft than slaughtering village after village of sentient beings is real — it is just a Pavlovian put in place by the designers.
After all, in order to get to the point where Bartle could worry about the ethics of torture in a video game, his character had to slaughter thousands and thousands of sentient beings. And yet, this is largely unremarkable and unremarked upon precisely because of the lack of real emotional connection.
And, frankly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I never felt guilty over my efforts at military domination of the world in Risk nor the nuking of enemies in Civilization. A torture mechanic at this point seems like a fairly small thing to suddenly draw a line on the sand over.