If you have played the Borean Tundra area in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft MMORPG, you probably came across the quest “The Art of Persuasion”.
In this quest, the player has to torture a prisoner to obtain information about the prisoner’s organization. This continues past the point where the NPC begs the player to stop, until he eventually reveals the location of a prisoner.
Stop! I beg you, please stop. Please…
When I reached this quest I was playing Juria, my sweet little innocent Gnome mage. Not only do I personally find torture disgusting; Juria would also never do any such thing. (In a perfect world, she would be a complete pacifist, but that is not a course of action that gets you far in World of Warcraft.) Quests in the game are completely linear “like it or leave it” affairs, so there was no option to refuse torture besides declining the quest. Since it seemed that the quest chain was important in the storyline progressing, and because I figured I’d have enough of an annoying time gaining enough experience points to level 80, I decided to simply do the quest. After all, I am capable of distinguishing between a vector model and a real human being.
I moved on with a bad aftertaste and eventually forgot about this quest until Pedro sent me a link to Richard Bartle’s blog posting criticizing the torture quest. Boy did Richard get a lot of (unjustified) FLAK for that, but he is of course completely right.
Games are – besides a fun activity – about teaching us something. Whether it is practicing one’s dexterity and reaction speed in a platform game, our logic or intuition in an adventure or puzzle game, or moral choices. This doesn’t mean games should be preachy, but when a choice can be made in the game, it should offer consequences for those actions and – ideally – reinforce correct moral choices.
The correct moral choice in this case is that “torture is bad”. This is a general consensus, and I would say that anybody who categorically disagrees with that statement has a serious mental problem. Humane treatment of humans and also of prisoners is the basic idea behind the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such works.
This is also the morality that should be valid inside the game’s fiction. While the Alliance has not always been a “force of good” (there are the Orc internment camps, after all), the Alliance as represented by the players in World of Warcraft is definitely a force of good. Likewise, the Horde is attempting to reform itself to become better people than the horde of the early Warcraft titles. Torture of prisoners is what the antagonists engage in: The Scarlet Crusade for example.
Blizzard does not offer the player any choice; they reward the player for incorrectly torturing the player. The character will gain experience points and gold and – though I haven’t done the math – it is possible that the quest is required for certain in-game achievements like “Complete x quests in Borean Tundra”. There is no necessity to actually torture the prisoner (he does not reveal anything crucial, nor anything that could not be found out in any other way). There are no consequences. The whole thing is meaningless.
Blizzard has passed up a great opportunity to let the player make a meaningful choice. They have failed to teach us anything, and, even worse, are teaching us something that is counterproductive. It would have been very easy to implement two alternate quest lines, one where the player accepts to torture the prisoner, and one where he does not, with appropriate in-game consequences. (For example, in The Burning Crusade, you can choose to follow either of two factions at one point, so it is possible to do this with the World of Warcraft engine.) The torture quest could be the “easy option”, but result in a penalty; the “humane” quest may be a lot more effort, but result in a greater reward.
As it stands, this one quest is a good example of how not to do quest design, and also a very revealing insight into the minds of the Blizzard game designers – and the many, many World of Warcraft players who have attacked Richard for stating that torture is a bad thing.