Violence in video games has generated its fair share of controversy over the past few decades as the pastime has grown in prominence, popularity and technical ability. From the cries of "murder simulator" from the likes of Jack Thompson and Joe Lieberman after "Grand Theft Auto 3's" release in the early 2000s to the more recent rise of independent game publishing that has allowed for blatantly gore-fueled titles (like last year's "Hatred"), the medium has long had an association with the grisly.
And it hasn't always had much of a point, at least from a narrative perspective. Violence and gore is often used as a selling point or shtick for certain franchises (I'm thinking the latest "Mortal Kombat" games and the series of "fatalities" they're famous for), a sort of shock-and-awe layer of icing on top of core gameplay to sweeten the deal. A few titles have tried to twist genre conventions to get players to actually consider the atrocities committed by the character under their control, but it's usually done as a bait-and-switch, asking players to question their actions only after they've taken place and outside consequences have been revealed.
What's been missing is the direct cause and effect between violence and consequence. Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an article detailing a game currently in development that, as the article's title states, lets the player torture Iraqi prisoners. Based in Camp Bucca (a real-world detention center in southeast Iraq) sometime during the Iraq war, the player is charged with interrogating prisoners via means of electrocution and waterboarding, as well as with managing cell arrangements around the camp.
As the article details, Camp Bucca is most notable for its role in breeding the collection of fighters that would later create what we now know to be the terror group ISIS. And there's the effect: torture, and you create terrorists.
Torture and other types of one-on-one interpersonal violence has come up before in games, particularly in releases from Rockstar Games like "Grand Theft Auto 5," which itself featured a waterboarding mission, and the "Manhunt" series, which if not outright involving torture does encourage particularly sadistic acts of violence. But these titles have still had a central purpose of entertainment and story progression that wraps the violence up into a more "acceptable" and fantasy format.
It's not clear yet how the torture in the Camp Bucca game will be portrayed or if it will cross into similar levels of over-the-top as some Rockstar entries (something tells me it won't). The Pittsburgh-based team behind the project has chosen to remain nameless, and so far, only a handful of screenshots have been released. But the degree of violence shown doesn't matter so much as whether the team can divorce it from the ingrained entertainment standpoint that games so often have.
As Kaveh Waddell, the author of the Atlantic article, states, "It all comes down to whether the game can convey what its designers want it to: the brutality of state-sanctioned torture, the link between abuse and radicalization, and, in the words of one of the game's designers, 'the firsthand revulsion of being in the position of torturer.'" That revulsion is key; without it, the game's message runs the risk of being eclipsed by the very act it's trying to highlight.
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