Bad Design: Torture in World of Warcraft

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.

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10 thoughts on “Bad Design: Torture in World of Warcraft


  1. I do not have a dog in the fight since I neither game nor torture, but it occurs to me that perhaps the underlying message is this: we all have free will. when placed in a situation where torture is a possibility, there will be multiple pressures to engage and real world conseqences (to ourselves) for backing away. after internal agonizing over the decision, after choosing to torture because of external gains, one is simply left with a non-crucial piece of information one could have found else where. Instead of being rewarded, players are left with a dirty feeling they can’t quite shake.

    shrug I dunno. Maybe they’re pro-torture people who are trying to convey the glory of the act. but it doesn’t really sound like it… it sounds like they have spawned a discussion that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

    oh. and yes. I’m rather naive 🙂


  2. There are obviously no real consequences in an MMO, so the situation is only a simulation of the real decisions – and can’t ever match them. Thus you’ll have to simulate consequences somehow, and World of Warcraft can not do that (it doesn’t provide the technological base to implement any kind of serious consequences – the world is static).

    Since a meaningful decision, whatever that may look like, is not possible, I feel that the designers should have taken the opportunity to educate the players with the quest. Or just leave it out entirely.

    I do not think that the WoW quest designers actively wanted to tell us that “torture is good”, they just carelessly threw something together.

    Players, by and large, do not feel dirty after torturing the NPC – the discussion on the quest issue has shown this. You may want to check on the Milgram experiment to see why. It is quite frightening.


  3. You either did not read his posts, or you fail at comprehension.

    I agree with Richard that the Death Knight starter quests are no problem, because they show the evil of the Lich King. They are deliberately set up to show this to the player, giving you a reason to break free from the evil. In fact, I think Blizzard did very well designing that part of the expansion.

    The quest in question, however, is a normal quest all the "good guys" are made to complete.

    If you don't see the difference then honestly there's not much I can do for you.


  4. The relevant point is that, at a time when the use of torture is under current political discussion, our media and entertainment industry have a responsibility to treat the topic of torture ethically and responsibly. If the media portrays torture as an effective and ethical means of interrogation and obtaining information, it becomes part of our culture’s belief system and affects real people’s decisions and eventually real laws. Torture is neither a valid nor ethical means of interrogation and is not an effective means of obtaining accurate information (as expressed by many experienced interrogators http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/us_law/etn/primetime/interrogators.asp). The point is that WOW, which is played by millions of young people, should not be communicating a pro-torture message.


  5. Interesting article thanks! Since a meaningful decision, whatever that may look like, is not possible, I feel that the designers should have taken the opportunity to educate the players with the quest. Or just leave it out entirely.


  6. The relevant point is that, at a time when the use of torture is under current political discussion, our media and entertainment industry have a responsibility to treat the topic of torture ethically and responsibly. If the media portrays torture as an effective and ethical means of interrogation and obtaining information, it becomes part of our culture’s belief system and affects real people’s decisions and eventually real laws. Torture is neither a valid nor ethical means of interrogation and is not an effective means of obtaining accurate information (as expressed by many experienced interrogators http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/us_law/etn/primet…). The point is that WOW, which is played by millions of young people, should not be communicating a pro-torture message.


  7. I have to agree about all this—and Blizzard has done much worse before: I stop playing Warcraft 2 (I think it was 2) when the storyline quest REQUIRED (and I repeat REQUIRED) the mass murder and extermination of a town of innocent people in order to progress through the game. You lost me there, guys.


  8. You mean the culling of stratholme in WC3, right?

    Yeah I did not enjoy that too much either, but I still think there are a few differences; one being that you play a character who is not your alter-ego that you have identified with for years; and two, it is clearly depicted as evil in the game series.

    I wish, though, that they’d given us choices in both cases.


  9. High pressure is where air is colder (the air sinks to the ground), low pressure where it is warmer (and rises). Surface winds go from high to low pressure areas. Add to it the general prevailing wind directions generated by the spin of the planet and you got yourself basic wind patterns.

    To be truthful, I am fudging this sort of thing a lot – I think my basic approach is okay but I am not exactly a climatologist or anything like that. 🙂

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