Gameplay and Artificial Intelligence Programmer

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

Category : VideoGames Oct 2nd, 2013

In GTA V there’s torture, and I mean the good stuff, we’ve got waterboarding, electroshock, pulling teeth, you know… torture. This isn’t a cut scene, this is gameplay. You rotate the right analogue stick to extract teeth, hold the back bumpers to attach each of the jumper cables, its gruesome stuff and hard to watch, which is good! Torture is a horrible, horrible thing that shouldn’t be romanticised, that’s not what I have a problem with. What I have a problem with is that it works.

You’re torturing a man to get a description of another man, there’s no ticking bomb, no kidnapped child to rescue no urgentness to the scene. It’s pretty heavily implied that the guy you’re torturing is just an innocent guy, he merely fitted an audio system for the man you’re trying to get a description of, and that he would very calmly answer your questions if you asked them before you extracted one of his teeth. But answer your questions he does, and you take out the guy he described (for whatever reason) so, hooray, tortured worked! We got the bad guy! You’re then told to dispose of the guy you’ve tortured, but your character, pleasant soul that he is, decides to drop him at the airport instead (broken, bleeding and shirtless) so he can get a new life. On the way your character treats you to a diatribe on how “Torture is for the torturer” and that “Torture doesn’t work” just after the game has shown us torture working.
Torture doesn’t work. Simple. Doesn’t matter who you ask. The FBI interrogator. The US Army Training Manual. Scientists. Saying otherwise is harmful because, simply, people will believe you.
GTA says nothing about torture, but it shows you it working, and that’s enough to be harmful. I’m not advocating that torture shouldn’t be depicted in video games, in fact, I’m asking for more questions to be asked about these kinds of aspects of society. But we have to accept that anything we show carries with it a message, and we have to be careful what that message is. Maybe the people who wrote this scene are pro-torture, that’s fine, they have every right to be. But then I have the right to say that I disagree with them and hold the game in lower esteem, even if what I find disagreeable in the game has nothing to do with gameplay or is only a small aspect of a larger whole. That’s where games should be right now, accountable for what they show.

Difficult Questions about Videogames, and What is a Videogame?

While perusing the university library last week I came across a book,  Difficult Questions About Videogames. Its back-cover tell me that it is:

“…a unique and vital document of the state of contemporary thinking and opinion on this mos pervasive, important and misunderstood of popular cultural forms.”

So, marketing aside, what is it actually? Well, the authors invited 71 people to answer thirteen different questions about videogames, from defining what they are, to what they should become. As a bonus, the contributors were names I actually recognised, like Ian Bogost, Warren Spector or Chris Hecker. The people who are actually important in this industry is a constantly changing list, so it was nice to see some people who I could take seriously. It appears that the publishers of this book intended it to be part of a massive series that would prompt gamers to think about the games that they are playing, 8 years after its publication however I can’t find evidence of it on the web. The web address they give goes to this very garish clothing website:

Anyway. Why am I bothering to talk about this book? Well, I though I would have a go at answering the questions as a way of collating my thoughts and to avoid staring at someone glassy-eyed when one these questions eventually comes up somewhere or other. So, without further ado:

What is a videogame?

A game played on a computer, usually using a monitor or a digital display as an interface between the two. That’s the easy part of the definition. The hard part comes when you try to define what a game is.

A definition of a game would go something like; a system of rules designed to test skill in a particular area (mental, physical etc.) There must be at least one human player, and the system is usually somehow scored in order to determine whether someone (or whom) won.

But even this definition doesn’t go very far to describe what a videogame can achieve or what makes them unique, it’s just too clinical. The most obvious standout part of a videogame is the fact that it is interactive. Continued iterative computation of the rules/laws coded into videogames coupled with the constantly changing inputs from the player produces complexity never seen before in any gaming medium. The seemingly emergent behaviour this causes is what makes videogames as addictive and immersive as they are. Eventually, videogames are going to be one of the expressive mediums, an art. Videogames will be propaganda,  manifestos, poetry and treatises. But not yet, more study is needed into the aesthetics and cultural aspects of games before we can really claim to be on the same level as literature or music.

It’s important to note that I don’t really like the name ‘game’ to describe what we do or make. Not because of any semblance of childishness it may invoke, but rather the idea that what we make must be in some way competitive or possess goals. Insisting upon calling these things games unfairly excludes important pieces of work, such as The Sims, whose lack of goals mean it is much more apt to describe it as a toy. While this may seem just like an argument over semantics, if we seek to branch out into different methods of interaction or to explore different and new themes we will not be put off by petulant pedantics, imediatly disregarding what we have made because it is “not a game”, this happened with ‘Dear Esther’ and will only happen more as game developers become braver. As to what we should call these things, I like Interactive media as a nice catch all. But if we convince enough people that games don’t have to be “games” then we won’t need a new name.