Torture in video-games -- a moral dilemma

Games writer and MUD inventor Richard Bartle was startled to discover that a new World of Warcraft mission includes the option of torturing a captive for information, using "some kind of cow poke." When he wrote critically about this, he was deluged with Warcraft-lovers who wanted him to, you know, chill out, it's only a game, you know. His thoughtful response raises a lot of difficult and meaty questions about fantasy play.
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...

When I signed up to play WoW I knew it had fireballs, so I expected killing. I knew it had rogues, so I expected thieving. I had to wait until the second expansion to find out it had gratuitous torture. This does not fall within the parameters of what I was expecting. It's as if you were reading the new book 8 of the Harry Potter series and Harry turns to drugs and uses his magic powers for sport to blind people. JKR can put that kind of stuff in her books if she likes, freedom of speech being what it is and all, but it's shattered your expectations. I wasn't expecting consequence-free torture quests in WoW. Getting one was a shock.

Torture (part 1), Tortuous Replies... (part 2) (via Wonderland)


  1. The current James Bond movie appears to begin with the planned torture of a prisoner, presumably sanctioned by the British. I say “apparently” and “presumably” because I walked out. Something about Bond seeking to extract information from a guy tied to a chair was too creepy for me. Sign of the times I guess.

  2. Back when I was a WOW addict I liked playing Taurens the best. They were so huge and noble and not-so-subtly Native American themed.

    In several of the early Tauren quests you have to go out and cull cuddly looking woodland creatures. The purported goal of these missions is always to “Restore the Balance of Nature.” I got a sordid kick out of this, even though in real life I don’t enjoy hunting at all.

    Once, at a much higher level in the game, I was working on a quest when a cuddly looking woodland creature meandered across my path. Without hesitation I blasted it with a spell. Another player who happened to witness this approached me and typed: “WTF?”

    I responded: “Balance of Nature,” and continued on my way.

    I don’t know if it’s an inherently bad thing to allow something in this game that would be unconscionable in real life. I don’t like to kill sentient bipeds, or even cuddly woodland creatures. In fact, I’m a freaking vegetarian. But killing is fun in video games. So I think it should be left up to the tastes of the players to determine whether it’s okay to allow torture in WOW.

    Personally, I don’t think I would enjoy it, and that’s coming from someone who really got a kick out of blasting an infant deer with an arcing bolt of death.

  3. There is no Geneva convention in World of Warcraft. There isn’t even a Geneva in World of Warcraft.

    Why get so hung up on the torture issue, anyway? There are routine massacres going on nonstop in Azeroth… nobody ever questions that. Am I supposed to believe that carving someone up with a magical axe is innocent roleplaying hijinks but poking someone with a cattle prod is taboo?

  4. Right,
    so deliberately setting out to murder a living being (or 20) for pure greed, or because some total stranger suggested it would be cool, then tearing the corpse apart for giblets is totally within your moral compass.
    But poking them with a stick and letting them live is more abhorrant to you.

    1 episode of standover tactics in a storyline made up of 1000 physical assaults and cold-blooded murder and assassination?

    Either it’s a game (so yeah, chill) or you really think there is some deeper psychological connection with you and your character and all the killing, looting and slaughter you cause.

    Me, I actually feel there is a connection (it wouldn’t be as much fun unless there was) but hey, I can tell the difference. … unless a very nice car pulls up alongside me and I get a little twitchy with the desire to go all GTA on the drivers ass…

    I offer you a (very slightly tangental) comic:

  5. I don’t think that these posts are really responsive to the points that Richard raises, namely:

    1. If “it’s just a game” then why not add rape quests and child mutilation quests too?

    2. Not having a “torturer” class in the game means that it’s possible to play for years without encountering it or deciding whether it’s the kind of thing you want in your play. Adding torture to a game that never had it is noteworthy and, for some players, shocking

  6. This is the same argument made about any other unpleasantness in books/movies/games/etc. Everybody has their line, and the author’s line is clearly a lot farther into the safe zone than most players.

    I would point out that there are plenty of people whose lines are even farther back, who would (and do) take offense to the violence and crude jokes that comprise a good portion of the five thousand or so other quests in the game. The game has at least two or three “poop collection” quests. I’m sure somebody out there is just as offended by that as the author is about the “torture” quest. Should the whole game be condemned because they are squeamish? The author’s argument of “Yes, but this is different” is completely invalid. The poop-quest haters probably think their concerns are different too. The fact is, they’re all the same.

    Having played the game for several years and having done that quest, I can testify that it is not in the least bit gruesome or explicit. There is no special torture animation. If it wasn’t for the quest text and the text bubbles of the “victim”, you would think you were simply beating him to death like any other enemy in the game. The whole thing lasts maybe 30 sec. Combine that with the fact that it really is a vital part of that particular class’s backstory, and it would be absurd to remove the quest just because one or two people get upset.

  7. I recently wrote an article on the subject of morality in virtual worlds which was printed by Adbusters magazine.

    Virtual torture is just the start of morally questionable content that videogames are going to force us to deal with. Virtual sex is already happening to some degree (though I’ve not yet heard of virtual rape). And sex between virtual adults and children was an issue that Second Life has already had to face.

    I can imagine in the future, someone will make a game that really pushes the boundaries.

    The article is here:

    There are some really interesting comments on the subject as well.


  8. It’s deliciously ironic that in his response to the fanboys, Bartle’s already complained about people who didn’t actually read his blog entries and took some time to figure out what the hell he was talking about…

    …and yet people are still responding the same way, as if he has not yet responded to the objections of his original post.

    The question is not whether the quest, morally or ethically, should have been included in the first place (he said it already; if it was a moral or ethical issue it would have gone to Terra Nova).

    The question was whether Blizzard should have put in torture where there was no reason for torture to be put in the first place (it’s not the Death Knight quest, people, this is the Alliance, the side of nobility and justice!) without any consequence in player choice.

    In other words, if Blizzard should be allowed to be so damn lazy in their quest design, and their attitude of treating torture like it was nothing.

  9. I’ve played that quest, and I think it’s intentionally designed to leave you feeling a little uneasy. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion seems to have several quests that are somewhat amoral, or at least questionable, and I really doubt the designers of the game were oblivious to this when they implemented them.

    I, too, was looking to an alternative to torturing the guy to continue, and couldn’t find one. I don’t think the message they’re trying to send is that torture is fine or necessary, but rather that the Alliance, who are supposed to be the “good guys”, aren’t necessarily so heroic and perfect all the time. A later quest (I won’t say much, to avoid spoilers) has the Alliance being outright racist and unjust, and leaves the Horde looking like the “good guys”, even to me, an Alliance player.

  10. The problem really is that it sounds like the torture is divorced from an idea of the morality (or immorality) of the character. I can understand torture (and worse things) if the character is supposed to be evil and uncaring.

    I guess it depends which class this is for. I can understand if it’s something like a death knight or warlock, but if the game is trying to imply that torture is a normal part of the operation of, say, a warrior or paladin, that’s a very different story. That would sound like a justification of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the like.

    But hell, if it’s for a warlock, well…

  11. @ 2: Indeed. (Casino Royale, anyone?)

    Yeah, Bartle says he frames his reaction as a design critique rather than a moral one, arguing that the design covenant breaks because a) there’s a bait-and-switch going on and b) it violates player trust to have shocking content without the game acknowledging that it might be shocking. I don’t really buy it.

    On the first point, I disagree with his analogy of The Simpsons turning into South Park without warning. He sees WoW players as “people who thought they were playing a game with cartoon-level violence and evil,” which I can’t say is accurate. Toon Town has cartoon violence and evil. The nature of violence and of evil in WoW is decidedly more explicit (and complicated) than that game, or what one would expect in Pokemon.

    This particular quest would likely not surprise one who has played WoW for an extended period of time. Take the many flavors of genocidal quests (quilboars, anyone?), assassination quests, and the occasional “let’s perform fiendish experiments on our captives” quests. Wiping out entire communities of sentient creatures for money and l00t is pretty disturbing; being instructed to torture a prisoner for information isn’t that big a leap in the moral continuum the game has already established through other quests. That doesn’t mean one has to play as a unquestioning engine of furious destruction. One has choices in how one plays the game, including leveling.

    And this is where I generally disagree with him on the second point. One does have the option of dropping the quest; just because you initially accepted doesn’t mean you have to go through with it. As a mechanic, it does acknowledge that a player may not want to perform a given quest. True, it doesn’t provide a feedback mechanism for the player’s decision, but that level of interactivity is a shortcoming in the interactive design of all the quests, not just this one. (Ah, if only one could soothe Mankrik’s broken heart by bringing him flowers and dancing with him, instead of wiping out the quilboar…)

  12. @12: Why does the depiction of the act have to be a justification of it? It’s more likely meant to be seen as decrying such acts, showing that they shouldn’t be treated as cavalierly as the depiction treats them.

    Such instances of egregious torture in the real world are precisely what makes me think that the torture quest makes sense in the game. The fact is, sometimes torture happens at the behest of institutions that are generally considered to be morally compassed. And it’s appropriate that a game would reflect this fact.

  13. #13: It’s not the depiction of the act in itself. It’s the depiction of a situation in which the only way the supposedly good character can complete their quest is via torture. That starts to sound like the kinds of arguments that the far (and not-so-far) right in the U.S. use in defence of the nation’s own recent acts of torture.

    If the situation were, as you describe in para 2, one of the hero being ordered to torture by a larger institution, that would be better (although, again, the game not allowing the option to refuse is a problem – that seems to justify the “just following orders” defence).

    If it were pen and paper roleplaying, it would make for an interesting dilemma (and a good GM could get a lot of mileage out of it). But, in that case, if a “good” character chose to engage in the torture, there would be consequences, even if they were just being wracked by a guilty conscience.

  14. “So, either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.”

    I’m sure that like all the other instances in the game you can go there anyway, and if you’ve been playing long enough to be playing WOTLK then you know this, so there is an option to say “NO” to torture, just click the Abandon Quest button!

    And “Consequence free torture quests” give this author problems but consequence free death dealing, sacking and looting entire towns and burning homeseads is all right?

    If you are going to jump into a virtual world, be it a book, movie or video game you subject yourself to whatever the authors want to throw at you. Sometimes you may put a book down in disgust and never pick it up again, sometimes you’ll walk out of a movie, you always have the power to do that. Hence why it is a virtual world and not the real one.

    If you were writing that as part of your role as general manager of a convenience store the regional manager showed up and asked you to whip one of the checkout assistants in front of the other staff to find out who had been stealing cigarettes then I might have joined you in a little outrage!

    But this is a game that you choose to play, where you choose to kill and loot and whoop and cheer at the deaths of massive demons and little critters alike…Where you collect offal for money and submit others to your will. It’s a fictional world, you play a fictional character, involved in fictional events.

    Make a little separation between this roleplay world and the real one and you should be able to sleep soundly at night.


  15. And, of course, I’m not reading #11’s comments either. Sorry, it’s late.

    Having played a little of the Warcraft 3 storyline, I do remember the corruption of Prince Arthas. I would guess that they are deliberately aiming at provoking people into thinking about torture and other moral issues, as well as showing what a slippery slope ignoring them can be.

    I can accept the proposal that the Alliance is not as good as it’s made out to be far better than the idea that they are above rebuke, even when they’re out torturing people.

  16. Just so that everybody is on the same page, here is a link to a high-res video that I took of the quest. Please watch it before you make any decisions as to the acceptability of the content.

    Personally, if you’re on board with murder as an acceptable game mechanic, then I don’t see how you can be so upset with torture as an acceptable game mechanic. A decent percentage of this game is spent hacking people to bits for fun and profit. I don’t get how that is fine, but as soon as you’re doing it for “information”, it’s suddenly taboo.

  17. Gah! I didn’t realize makes a preview of it. Click “download” to get the actual high-res version where you can read the quest and NPC speech text.

  18. “Giving people a quest to torture someone for no good reason is going to shock some people; not everyone, but a good number.”

    Having played this quest, I am firmly within the “shocked” camp. I was completely taken aback by what I was had to do.

    Non-players should realize that ‘death’ in WoW is always followed by a resurrection. Your character ‘kills’ almost non-stop while you play, but the NPC’s you kill always respawn later, and if you die, you come right back as well.

    The NPC in this case is wailing out in pain and begging you to stop, which you cannot do without forfeiting the quest line. This feels VERY fundamentally different from any previous quest including the Death Knight quest chain.

  19. “There is no Geneva convention in World of Warcraft.”

    Not yet, but a judge in Australia has just ruled that the Simpsons are people and therefore have human rights.

    Neil Gaiman’s Journal
    the word ‘person’ included fictional or imaginary characters

    “In my view, the magistrate was correct in determining that, in respect of both the commonwealth and the NSW offences, the word ‘person’ included fictional or imaginary characters …,” the judge said.

    “And I suspect the Judge might have just inadvertantly granted human rights to cartoon characters.”

    I’m beginning to think the human species is stark raving mad.

  20. #15: you probably didn’t play the game, this quest, read the original article, or all of that.

    There are plenty of quest chains in WoW that you *need* to complete in order to enter instances. Most if not all of the higher level instances work that way, and many of the lower level instances do.

  21. It’s interesting when a game is making much more valid political points than any of the established media.

    I think the designers could have made the situation much more taut by offering the XP in such a way that you can refuse it.

  22. I think that the disconnect here is that Mr Bartle was playing WOW as if it was a Role Playing Game (in the sense of a tabletop game where you try and take on the role of a character and play through any moral dillemas as realistically as possible).

    I’m not a WOW player myself, but most of my friends are, and they say that this quite difficult to do in WOW because most players treat it as a Role Playing Game (in the sense of a complicated fantasy resource management game where you gain resources by killing things).

  23. Here’s what I think is the key bit from Richard Bartle’s response-to-the-response:

    People who thought they were playing a game with cartoon-level violence and evil in context now find they bought into the wrong fiction. This is not what WoW is about any more.
    It’s this last point — the breaking of the covenant between designer and player — that I was raising. Either Blizzard didn’t know torture would be problematical for some people, or they did know but didn’t acknowledge it. Neither of these is satisfactory.

    The point he wants to make, as I understand it, is that it breaks the game. Some people didn’t spend/waste all that time and money to get to this point.

  24. There’s a mission in GuildWars where you have to interrogate a Kournan for info..I do believe he dies after. Or you let him run off, I dunno. It’s um..a game.

    Perhaps it’s more shocking in WoW because you’re playing those silly cartoon looking characters..

  25. zax at #15 writes:

    > If you are going to jump into a virtual world, be it a book, movie or video game you subject yourself to whatever the authors want to throw at you. Sometimes you may put a book down in disgust and never pick it up again, sometimes you’ll walk out of a movie, you always have the power to do that.

    Yes – and you also have the power to talk about it, criticise it, get into arguments about it, sit down with friends – or strangers – and pick apart what’s good and what’s bad. There’s always more than “take it or leave it”.

  26. I’m not a WoW player, but if I remember my Warcraft, there’s a strong theme of moral corruption when you get too near to the Lich King. It’s not unlike the corruption of a young Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels. (Which incidentally Cory, involved child mutilation!)

    That being said, this reminds me of the complaints about other games. Take killing hookers in GTA for instance. It’s possible, but not required. Disturbing deeds are performed only due to the choices that the player makes. So the question is: Are the game designers wrong for allowed you to be awful?


  27. Just as an FYI, you don’t HAVE to do this quest. You can read the requirements for the quest and decline to do it. Richard is correct in that it is the simplest way to gain access to the first dungeon, Nexus, but it isn’t the only way. There are plenty of alternative methods to gain access that should be well known to anyone who has made it to the second expansion.

  28. Sure, torture is wrong… but its not the first time you’ve done other things just like it in the game. I cant even count the number of times i was sent to go kill the messenger/general/whoever to get the secret documents/invasion plans/cookie recipe. It happens all the time. Heck, one of the first quests for the undead is to test out a poison on one of their prisoners… which ends up killing the prisoner.

    I agree with #11

    I think it might be that he just didn’t realize he had been doing stuff like this the entire time.

  29. I don’t know that you could call it “torture for no good reason” though… it’s to retrieve information on where to rescue someone who IIRC is about to be sacrificed in some kind of dark ritual. Of course, there are dozens of instances of that same sort of quest throughout the game and none of the others reverted to torture (though I think at least a couple had you collecting reagents for a truth serum of some kind… one wonders why that wasn’t used here).

    What got me wasn’t really the torture itself, but the hypocrisy of it — the guy who gives you the quest says that his order’s vows prohibit him from participating in torture, so you’ll have to do it (using the torture device he hands you) and he’ll “just be over there, tidying up those books”. It seemed to be pretty clearly a comment on the US policy. We aren’t “allowed” to torture, so we ship our prisoners in need of more direct forms of information extraction off to countries where torture is legal, or at least, grey.

    I declined the quest a couple of times, then accepted it and spent a few minutes zapping the questgiver instead. Sadly, he didn’t respond, so I just went ahead and finished the quest.

    Anyway, as previously noted, you don’t have to do the quest to get to the instance. Someone does though, because you need at least 2 people who can get there to bring anyone else through. That or you can wait until you’re able to fly there on your own.

  30. Wait till he gets to the rape quest thats required to enter Naxramas o__O;

    and thats only for the 10 man version!

  31. When he wrote critically about this, he was deluged with Warcraft-lovers who wanted him to, you know, chill out, it’s only a game, you know. His thoughtful response raises a lot of difficult and meaty questions about fantasy play.

    People who disagreed with Richard Bartle = inarticulate appeals to “you know, chill out.”

    Richard Bartle = “thoughtful.”


    It’s not like I advocate torture in games or out, but what was really the other side of the argument? Was it that poorly stated?

  32. Who’s to say you’re supposed to be rewarded for doing the right thing, or punished for doing evil?

    That’s not how it works in the real world. And, with the new expansion (which IS considerably darker than the previous ones), that’s not how it works in the World of Warcraft, either.

    This seems like the argument of “good must win” etc. etc. that were part of the old comics cold and rarely made for great art… not saying WoW is great art, but in its best moments it comes close.

    The expansion had a quote from Nietzsche on its packaging, for heaven’s sake, and nothing exemplifies “battle not with monsters lest you become one” like the story of Arthas, unless it’s the final day of the zombie invasion when people stopped going “Hey cool! Zombies!” and started getting killed before walking five feet in any city or most towns … and they started to fight back… and the found that it was inevitable that they get turned into a zombie…

    So, yeah, I don’t think this is “Blizzard condoning torture” … maybe “Blizzard admitting torture works,” but everyone KNOWS torture works. The United States Government admitted torture worked when it started training special forces to withstand it, are you saying it shouldn’t do that, either? A childish ignorance is no solution to real moral problems.

  33. From a total game perspective: Arthas had a moral dilema too. He made his choice. All along you are told that he had to do what he had to do in order to save the people from Azeroth. And now he is paying for it. Same thing with this quest. You can either do it or hit that “abandon quest” button.

    sy lv t ln, t s gm. nd wld sggst t ths gy t chck gn, thnk h S grwng vgn… r rpdly shrnkng pns.

    Gz. S mch d bt gm.

  34. I really am confused that someone would think that “killing” repeatedly in-game is okay “because they resurrect afterwards!”

    If someone repeatedly killed me and then shocked me back to life or injected me with adrenaline or whatever – “resurrected” me – isn’t that in the Geneva convention as torture?

    I notice no one has really ADDRESSED the idea that it’s not okay to torture but it’s okay to go on a killing spree?

  35. “chill out, it’s only a game, you know”… Exactly!

    No really, I’m not a big wow gamer (I hate it) but what the hell is gaming all about? For some it’s to overpass personal limits, but for the majority I think it’s to be or feel what it’s like to be something or somebody else. It’s being the hero of an action movie, or of a fantasy novel, etc… and you do stuff you wouldn’t normally do in rl, like killing, stealing, destroying and all that.

    I’d never harm a person knowing there are consequences (even virtual consequences like xp loss ^^ (yeah, I’m serious about gaming)), but I have a lot of fun torturing and killing and smashing and bombing and shooting and plundering, in VIDEO GAMES, where there actually is no harm done. Like when I was a little kid and played lego it was a lot of fun to get the little guys eaten by giant monsters and emulate the screams of their suffering.

    I don’t think it’s unethical, it’s the only way to sustain to these barbarian needs humans have. The only way to try and live together in a civilized society where you don’t need to kill to eat anymore, or to sleep safely or whatever.

    And I think it’s hypocritical to pretend you don’t have fun when you slaughter an innocent little monster, or a gangster mob, or even a civilian in a virtual world.

    GLHF everybody!

    PS: please excuse my English, not my native language.

  36. The Undead quest “A New Plague” always made me deeply uneasy, to the point where I refuse to do it. Feeding a staving enemy POW a toxic pumpkin that causes them to rot away and die in front of you isn’t my idea of a good time, and I have gleefully slaughtered thousands in various games.

    Something about the defenselessness and plaintive nature of the victim really upset me, so I can definitely see Bartle’s point re: the torture quest.

  37. How do actors live with the guilt, then? Take that guy who signs up to play Hamlet– he gets to set up a couple of his college buds for execution, drive his girlfriend insane, go all misogynist with mom, randomly kill a guy, and plot to kill his uncle.

    It’s not torture– no one feels pain. Can you have torture without pain? No more than you can have murder without death.

  38. ..everyone KNOWS torture works..

    CIA: “This agency does not do torture. Torture does not work” CBS

    Robert Fisk: “Torture Still Doesn’t Work”

    Interrogation expert Stuart Herrington: “Two problems with torture: It’s wrong and it doesn’t work”

    Coleen Rowley: “Torture Is Wrong, Illegal and It Doesn’t Work” HuffingtonPost

    Apparently, not everyone got Firefly’s memo.

    ..are you saying it shouldn’t do that, either?

    Yes, Fly, I am “saying it shouldn’t do that, either”. Show me the evidence of torture solving “real moral problems.”

  39. Did I go to slashdot and not realize it? Because it seems that a lot of people commenting didn’t even bother to RTFA.

    For one thing the inclusion of torture is a tacit acceptance of the notion that torture is actually an effective way of gaining accurate information which is highly debatable.

    I’ve never played WOW (not much of an mmo player. I’m more of a shooter person) but I’m curious as to what those who say “It is just a game” would say to Bartle’s example of a child molesting quest. Would people be so quick to dismiss it because it was “just a game?”

  40. i believe #11 hit it on the head. i haven’t done that quest yet — having only just gotten to northrend myself — but i have drawn the line in other places, so i understand his reluctance.

    for instance, i would be interested to know if mr. bartle has done the nesingwary line of quests. i happen to ride an elekk (an elephant), and i know that this questline requires you to kill wild elekk to complete it. as someone who really loves my mount (in game) and also feels (in real life) that killing elephants is wrong, i have vowed to not complete the quest line.

    why i feel so strongly about the elekk, when, for instance, i have been happily burning down gazelle, rhino, and other in-game equivalents, i don’t know. it must because i love my mount so much. he trumpets and grunts, and he’s been reliable for me. killing his kin just bothers me.

  41. Torture, for anyone willing to consider it and all of its true implication, is effectively putting one’s brains to torture.

  42. I think Mr. Bartle is misunderstanding what this quest means to RPing and immersion as a gameplay decision because of several assumptions he’s making that, in WoW at least, are wrong.

    The first is that the quests completed during your time in WoW are the moral caliber of your character. Almost everyone I know who RPs (and I know quite a few since I’ve randomly ended up on an RP server) thinks of their quests as something they’re being asked to do. Their character is a lens for interpreting the actions they’re performing and the quests objectives say far more about the quest giver than they say about you. Most of the RPers I know LOVE that quest because it sets up the Kirin Tor (the mages who ask you to torture the poor guy) as a faction that’s willing to do anything for their cause. Essentially Bartle thinks that players will interpret this quest as “my player is a torturer now, this sucks” when far more often the reaction is “the Kirin Tor are torturers now, how interesting.”

    The second assumption is that morally questionable acts must be flagged in order to be interpreted properly. WoW is full of quests that have a dark, morally shady (or just plain morally wrong!) edge to them. Of course this is more prominent on the Horde side where the Forsaken are poisoning people left and right to test out a new plague. However, even the alliance has had more than a few morally shady things they’ve done to level up and get to this torture quest. What’s notable about these quests is that almost none of them have a nice “what we just did was wrong, I hope we both learned lessons” ending. WoW has ALWAYS been a game that put you in an uncomfortable position morally and asked you to interpret that yourself, the only notable thing here is that they’ve added torture to the list of morally uncomfortable acts.

    From a design standpoint, unless you do think of Torture as some especially morally horrendous act worse than what characters have done before, flagging the torture as something especially morally horrendous would have been distracting to players used to making up their own mind about these moral issues. The character can RP themselves as being uncomfortable with torture, they don’t need an NPC telling them it’s okay to not like it. Essentially, I think Blizzard’s designers have thought through the shock this quest will cause players and what the means for their gameplay and immersion much more thoroughly than Bartle has.

    On a side note, Cory I really wish that you’d participate in popular MMO’s more so as to get a less removed view on the subject. I know you’re fascinated by online games and you’re currently expanding Anda’s Game so it’s on your mind even more often, but all of your MMO posts seem to be written as somebody on the outside looking in. I’m unused to thinking of you as the guy that just doesn’t “get it” about any topic so it’s especially distracting on the rare occasion it does occur.

    For instance if you were playing WoW or were more engaged in the lore you’d know that the very questline Bartle is complaining about culminates in something that could be thought of as the rape quest you rhetorically ask for. Now I admit the rape isn’t committed by your character, but the game IS dealing with another of these “off-limits” topics in a way that really supports the immersion rather than shaking you out of it.

    There are interesting moral questions here about MMO’s such as the morality of the mercenary outlook of RPers that removes them from their actions but they aren’t the questions that are being asked in Richard Bartle’s original post and they’re questions you could be asking if you participated more in these games.

    Of course with a new child and a writing career I can understand not wanting to have your life swallowed up by the World of Warcraft. Still perusing WoW blogs that are more about the gameplay and less about the academics or spending an afternoon on WoWWiki would probably be pretty edifying.

  43. I can see the authors point- but I’m wondering if he is not aware of the structure of the quest within the larger Northrend story line. Previous posters who noted the cruelty of the Lich King are quite right. One of the early Death Knight quests has you murder citizen npcs – not something I was really happy about having played a Paladin for 3 years! However I understood the dev’s desire to bring the player into the storyline of corruption and cold blood that Death Knights agree to commit. Did I enjoy playing through that quest line? Not really. Then again I can think of numerous passages in literature that I did not particularly enjoy reading through either. Did the author have to play through that quest? No. Did I have to play a Death Knight? No. Did I have to read “The Road”? No…lol. But if we chose to enter into those stories we can hardly scream “Unfair!” at their creators.

  44. I would like to point out that you don’t NEED to partake in said quest to venture into Nexus. It’s still entirely voluntary, but as stated, you will miss out on a chain quest by not participating.

    **NERD ALERT**
    You can venture in it as early as lv 68, without having done any of the quests in that zone.
    /end **NERD ALERT**

  45. Dangit.

    In the time it took me to write my Treatise On WoW Torture (an even-handed, discerning, and thought-provoking opus including links to the actual quest text and item descriptions), everyone made all the points I was going to make.

    You will all be receiving cease-and-desists shortly. Thank you for your time.

  46. One really important thing games are able to do that lets them be a viable art form is put players in morally uncomfortable situations. That’s done pretty deliberately in Wrath in increasingly questionable circumstances. Not only are the torture quests worth defending, they’re worth praising for being really well done.

    If you’re not comfortable with it you can decline the quest. Please don’t pretend you were forced to do the quest to get into an instance you can just walk into at any time and then go BOOO HOOO THE GAME WANTED ME TO HURTED THAT MAN because you’re used to the cartoony Russians In Space business from the previous expansion. A lot of the storytelling in Northrend is unabashedly dark and it’s also some of the best World of Warcraft has ever done.

    Torturing somebody without any karmic repercussions isn’t too heartwarming, but it is pretty realistic. And appropriate to the tone of everything else in Outland besides.

  47. I rememember when the Burning Crusade expansion came out, I rolled a troll toon and sent him to Silvermoon city to start doing the blood elf quests. I got to a point when I needed to repair and went to a bowyer in one of the blood elf outposts. I clicked on the NPC to repair and he refused to repair me, told me to leave, and referred to me as “filth”. At first I was like, WTF, but then I remembered that there’s no love lost between the trolls and the blood elves, so it made sense to me.

    Am I to now believe that Blizzard is condoning racism because they put this little wrinkle in their game? No. As a man of color, I sadly have come across the same sentiments in RL, but I was not put off or shocked by finding this ingame. I thought it was a fine example of following the Lore of the game. Just because the trolls are now allies of the blood elves, doesn’t mean everyone has to be nicey-nicey.

    As for torture, it was a viable way to get information in the Medieval age, which I think is where WOW would be/is set if it were to be put into a historical context. Sometimes even the “good guys” have pull up their big boy pants and get their hands dirty.

  48. “1. If “it’s just a game” then why not add rape quests and child mutilation quests too?”

    Because sex is still a no-no in gaming. There IS a child kidnapping repeatable daily quest where you have to gather up 12 babies in a bag (well raccoon-humanoid…things) and deliver them to a walrus…guy. It’s not clear what exactly he does with them, only that they can’t be allowed to grow up and become “bad”.

    So you can worry about WOW players gathering up babies in bags in real life, or you can just chill because it’s a game.

  49. The torture thing bugs me too, but what’s weird to me about it is that if you experience any kind of moral qualms about what you’re doing in World of Warcraft, how did you get to Outland in the first place? This is a world where clubbing baby animals to death is a rite of passage, and all your adventures are about killing things for money. I deleted my first Warcraft account after taking the shape of a purple panther, sneaking around a troll village, and killing troll women while they gathered water. I had been doing it for a full hour and I realized I was feeling physically sick.

    There’s something fundamentally evil about WoW. It’s a corporate vision about what a world of adventure should look like; you spend all your time trying to acquire stuff that is just that tiny little bit better than the garbage you already have. The people who say it’s great training for project managers are right, but that’s *why* you shouldn’t play it. A) most project managers are evil B) who sits down to plan an adventure and says, first thing we need is a manager?

    The guys who built World of Warcraft set up a world of magic where everything revolves around money. Can you imagine anything more nihilistic? Imagine if you had magic at your disposal and you were *still* trapped in a rat race. The toons all live in a consumerist wasteland of constant killing. It’s like some late-70s sci-fi satire, except people *want* to be there.

    Let me tell you the secret of World of Warcraft: it *is* satire. People think there’s no way to win the game. They get addicted to chasing gold and the next shiny new weapon. But there is a way to win the game. It’s when you step back from the keyboard and say, fuck this, I have too much self-respect. That’s when you’ve *won* the game. If you never got addicted, you haven’t played; but if you never deactivated your account in disgust at what you’ve become, then you haven’t won yet. The whole point of WoW is, let’s model this disgusting nihilistic worldview, and see how long it takes for people to demand better of themselves.

  50. Poking things to the point of stupidity is a time honored tradition in the Warcraft games. All the way back to the original strategy game…where poking a sheep revealed that they complained loudly and in English.

    Just a matter of time till they took it to the next level. Disturbing yes. Unexpected? Not if you’ve been a video game play over the last 30 years.

  51. I did this quest last night on my paladin, so this is still a bit fresh in my mind. I’m really glad that I’m not the only person who wasn’t happy with the way this quest played out. Last night, I became so frustrated I did a ‘/yell THIS QUEST IS HORRIBLE’, to a cacophony of ‘qq n00b fag’ over the general chat. Of course, I play on a PVP server which eventually forces you to become a bit callous to the NPCs in general and the other faction as a whole. It is, after all, the ‘World of Warcraft’, not the ‘World of Peaceful Socio-Political Solutions to Troubling Diplomatic Situations…-craft’. The brutality scale of the latest patch has really been turned up. It’s quite different from the space fairing high fantasy of the previous expansion.

    I try to at least play lip service to the RP aspect of the game. Neither I nor my character would torture, quite the opposite. In the Scarlet Monastery dungeon, we receive moral justification to kill members of Scarlet Crusade because they’re torturers. At the same time, I realize that I had just slaughtered around 20 of the same evil wizards in the course of doing this quest, so it’s a little hypocritical for me to be squeamish at this point. It’s just that the violence level has always been basically cartoonish. I guess the problem is which cartoon. In WOW, we’ve gone from ‘The Last Unicorn’ and ‘Black Cauldron’ toward ‘Grave of the Fireflies’.

    BTW, the Allys are no more the ‘good’ faction that the Horde is the ‘evil’ faction. Anyone who has ever been on the business end of a gnome warlock or a night elf rogue is very aware of this. The philosophical division is more about control vs freedom. If things were really divided on a good/evil line, it would be closer to humans/orcs/gnomes/forsaken/belves vs tauren/trolls/draenae/nelves/dwarves. The dividing qualification would be the warlock class.

  52. it’s kind of funny how people say that torture in game is bad, but other aspects in the same game are perfectly alright, just because torture is the “flavour of the month” now, every one is suddenly appauled by it, but griefing on another player, pretending to perform sexual acts on the corpse or even psychological abuse is all perfectly alright because it’s a PVP server. So if we make a torture server, will it be all good???

  53. Why does the writer claim it’s gratuitous torture? This isn’t beating up prostitutes for shits and giggles like in GTA. There’s a clearly set back story, a clearly defined reason for the torture, a clear goal for the information you’re getting, and you do not in fact end up murdering the prisoner in the process. I’d say he gets off far better than most of the other recipients of our quests.

    The Death Knight torture quest makes perfect sense because you’re evil incarnate at the time. The Nexus torture quest is a “information will save the world” situation – we should all be used to that from the movies. And the Argent Crusade torture quest in Dragonblight, well that’s just good old fashioned deceit and manipulation – and we should all be used to that from the news.

  54. I’m cruelly tempted to disemvowel a few posts just to hear the complaints about how I’ve violated human rights and caused grievous suffering. Then we could have a meaningful talk about separating fantasy from reality.

  55. A lot of people are repulsed by torture because we’ve seen real torture being committed on a large scale by people who are supposed to be representing us, and it was done to such an extreme degree that it is recognized as blatantly wrong to plenty of people.

    The problem with that approch, though, is that it means our morality is a function of the current fashions.

    I haven’t seen this particular torture scene, but just about every torture scene I have seen gets it wrong. When you torture poeple, you don’t get the correct information, you get wrong information, you get confessions to whatever you want them to confess to. See McCain’s “confession” while being tortured as a POW that he was an air pirate or war criminal or whatever it was.

    The invasion of Iraq was based on bad intel obtained from torture.

    2002-01-01: Captured terrorist Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi is tortured by US agents. During this time, al-Libi claims that al Quaeda sent operatives to Iraq to acquire chemcial and biological weapons and training. In Feb 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) states al-Libi “has been undergoing debriefs for several weeks and may be describing scenarios to the debriefers that he knows will retain their interest”. (Apparently, “debriefing” is code for “torture”.) Even though the DIA doubts al-Libi’s claims, CIA Director, George Tenet, authorized the use of al-Libi’s claims in Secretary Powell’s Feb 2003 speech to the UN.

    Anyone who thinks torture gets you good intelligence is living in a movie script plot.

    So, if the game wanted to be realistic, it would present you a prisoner, and then offer you the chance to torture that prisoner. And if you do, the prisoner would give you false information just to get you to stop torturing him, then you’d use that information on your quest, and only after you’ve invested many, many hours of gameplay, would you find out that the information was false, and you wasted all sorts of time, money, and maybe lost some allies, and even made some new enemies you didn’t have before.

    All because you believed the Rambo-movie version of reality.

  56. I’m reminded of something one of my professors told me once. In short, academics often mistake personal taboos for systematic failures.

    I know people who don’t play WoW because of all the killing. I know people who won’t let their kids play WoW because you can get drunk. I suppose there are people who will object to WoW for reasons of torture, religion, chat channel language, vegetarianism, and not wanting to huff that wacky Tuskarr incense that makes you see spirits.

    Mr. Bartle is of course entitled to his opinion, but I think the argument that Blizzard has brazenly defied some universal, unspoken covenant is a stretch. No doubt they’ve damaged their relationship with Mr. Bartle. It is compelling to say that much.

  57. I didn’t do the quest Bartle is talking about since I started in the other area of Northrend, but I did run into a number of quest chains that I found reprehensible. The one that really got me was when I was investigating and then destroying the Royal Apothecary Society’s attempt to plague a Vrykul town. Felt like a series of good deed, then I get sent with a satchel I recovered to a nearby alchemist. She mixes up a potion from the contents of the satchel and tells me to go feed it to the Vrykul prisoner in the jail. I immediately had alarm bells going off, but I was in the middle of a quest chain where I had been doing good, and so I pressed on.

    Sadly, as I feared, the potion makes the prisoner get surrounded with miasmatic green clouds, vomit, turn into a green ooze and then explode. I felt awful because that’s not the character I choose to play in that world, and I felt I was railroaded/mislead into the choice. After that I started abandoning quest lines the moment I spotted anything that sounded even vaguely evil.

    We’ll note I had no problem doing evil things in KotOR and had one of the most profound gameplay experiences I’ve had explicitly due to intentionally choosing to do an evil deed (it made me feel terrible, and the emotional impact of it was one of the most dramatic that a computer game has induced in me ever, which was a really good thing). It’s about agency and choice, and not being tricked (as a player) into doing things that go against our moral desires. On the upside, since then I’ve started reading the quest text far more carefully, and thinking about what it might mean, which from the point of view of engagement is a good thing.

  58. I did the quest a few weeks ago, and was startled to see the callousness the game requires, but mostly got over it. After all, most of the leadup quests are killing poachers for rewards. You, uh, do have to bring their ears to the druids of D.E.H.T.A. (work out the phonetic), so there’s some savagery there still, but most of those quests revolve around saving baby mammoths (that /whimper at you) and killing the Mammoth Slayer. Most amusing in all this is the 3-minute debuff you get after killing any non-hostile animal in the area that will presumably make the D.E.H.T.A. folks attack you–I didn’t bother to find out.

    Other quests in that particular zone (Borean Tundra) did revolve around a fairly heavy-handed ecology theme, like rescuing oil-covered animals, so it made the torture aspect of the later one even more jarring. Maybe that’s Blizz’ idea of “balance”?

    But there is PG-13 stuff all over the place. Ran The Culling of Stratholme last night, where Arthas just runs around with your group offing civilians left and right.

    I don’t really like the torture angle, but I’m really enjoying the rest of the new content. Beats the hell out of endlessly collecting 12 jars of Magic Fairy Dust from %RANDOM MONSTER%.

  59. Is torture in WoW any different from torture in Fox’s series 24?

    There have been numerous articles suggesting that shows like 24, where there’s always a ticking time bomb, where torture is always an option and our hero, Jack Bauer, always succeeds in getting the bad guys to talk, have been instrumental in getting Americans to accept, and even support, torture and the abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

    Some recent articles:
    How Jack Bauer Shaped US Torture Policy

    Scalia: The Jack Bauer Torture Test

    Our torture policy has deeper roots in Fox television than the Constitution.

    The Real Abu Ghraib Whitewash: “24” and Public Acceptance of Torture

    Whatever the merits of hand-wringing, when we get to the stage where a Supreme Court Justice is citing that “fact” that a fictional character “saved Los Angeles” as an argument in support of torture, you know that the line between fact and fiction is nowhere near as clear as some would pretend.

  60. @GILESBOWKETT: Man, well spoken, well spoken.

    It’s important to remember that WoW is brought to us by the same corporation that owns Unversial Music and a big chunk of NBC, and a major backer of the RIAA. That’s who you’re giving your $20 to every months.

    As with so much media, it seems like conditioning. See an act of violence, and act of torture enough times, and it becomes routine, it dulls the brains instinctual revulsion. Yes, our conscious knows it’s a game, knows it’s not reality…but our subconscious can get confused.

    Sure, it’s a game, and everyone knows it’s a game. But the subconscious acts in funny ways. Even as you know it’s a game,

    First, somebody chats that “this torture missions is f***** up.” Everybody jeers, they’re too involved in what they’re doing.

    Next, somebody says “that torture of P.O.W.s in Afghanistan is f******* up.” Everyone jeers, they’re too involved in what they’re doing.

  61. Okay. Been reading a few Boing Boing threads this morning and all I can say is, today must be Everything is Serious Day.

    I just can’t make the connection between WoW angst and anything more important than this hangnail I seem to have collected in the last ten minutes. If you don’t like the game, then don’t play it. What is so hard about this?

  62. #46 That would be because we recognize the RL analogies. Most people, even though it is totally possible to do so, are not capable of keeping the distinctions as rigid as they might like. By this I don’t mean playing GTA will make you have to go kill a hooker in RL, but be contemptuous to one in RL?

    You bet.

  63. In my opinion, people who play immoraly like doing so with moral constraints. So the proper response to torturing someone is:

    1) they give you false information which leads you into a trap

    2) you are later attacked by paladins who have come to arrest you

    3) the torture victim, overcome by Stockholm-Syndrome, becomes a whining, worthless, friendly-firing addition to your party and cannot be disbanded.

  64. Heh, timely.
    For about 9 months I’ve been working on a game that had torture as one of its selling points. Even though half of the team balked at being asked to design torture (“interrogation”) into a game, they still kept pushing it.

    In my experience, people will watch torture, but don’t want to take part in it. Watching it is immersive enough. This idea did not go over well with certain people who just wanted that over the top sensationalist type of game.

    On top of that, try making torture “fun”. Either you go full immersion, first-person in your face (scare and disgust most of your audience) OR you make it into a stupid mini-game (disgust a similar amount of people, but bore them to death).
    Also, none of the choices in games ever amount to much, so the whole idea of “false intel” is flat. If it’s wrong to begin with, you are just going to teach the player that he played the game wrong, the moral lesson won’t be apparent.

    Luckily our studio was shut down a month ago, so that game will never see the light of day.

  65. “Gratuitous torture” lol.

    I just finished a couple of the torture quests…

    I assure you, they involve magical items that have no animations, there is no sound, there is no blood, no smoke, no burning, nothing… nothing but text. “Ohhh. Owww! I’ll never tell you anything, blood elf!”

    Give me a break. Human beings come up with the whackiest stuff to get wrung up about.

  66. I played through this quest on the Horde side, but even then I didn’t think it was justified. (To call the Horde “evil” is an oversimplification. They are certainly not as evil as the Scourge, for instance.)

    I read through the original two posts and about half the comments here, but my largest concern was only incidentally raised: that this quest depicts torture as something that yields good information. This is why torture is beyond the pale: it doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to.

    But don’t take my word for it. There was a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post from a former interrogator who successfully used humane interrogation techniques, leading to the death of that al-Qaeda dude Zarqawi, that is definitely worth reading (

    Since this experienced military interrogator has a lot more credibility than I do on this issue, I’ll leave you with some of his words (though I recommend you read the whole thing):

    “I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology — one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information. I personally conducted more than 300 interrogations, and I supervised more than 1,000. The methods my team used are not classified (they’re listed in the unclassified Field Manual), but the way we used them was, I like to think, unique. We got to know our enemies, we learned to negotiate with them, and we adapted criminal investigative techniques to our work (something that the Field Manual permits, under the concept of “ruses and trickery”). It worked. Our efforts started a chain of successes that ultimately led to Zarqawi.


    I know the counter-argument well — that we need the rough stuff for the truly hard cases, such as battle-hardened core leaders of al-Qaeda, not just run-of-the-mill Iraqi insurgents. But that’s not always true: We turned several hard cases, including some foreign fighters, by using our new techniques. A few of them never abandoned the jihadist cause but still gave up critical information. One actually told me, ‘I thought you would torture me, and when you didn’t, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That’s why I decided to cooperate.’


    I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans. “

  67. All this really shows is that we’ve reached a point culturally where torture is shorthand for something morally swampy instead of morally wrong. And all this theorizing about different ways that our subconscious brains secretly want to torture people every time torture is presented as effective is just an (incredibly intellectually flimsy) way of justifying why people should HAVE to think about torture the way we do.

    Of course I do find torture morally reprehensible and I don’t think it’s effective but people are getting all up in arms about an effect of a culture that increasingly condones torture as if it were the cause.

    I’d be interested in seeing how many of the people in this thread pretending like even showing “effective torture” is morally wrong (a position both Cory and Mr. Bartle are smart enough not to take) have sat around feeling superior to those unenlightened souls attempting to censor art that shows too much sex or regular run-of-the-mill violence.

  68. Most of the people playing WoW don’t even bother reading the quests or reading what the NPCs are saying.

    They are just using the QuestHelper or similar addons and move from one dot of the map to the other to complete their quests until they reach the level cap and start doing more interesting things in the game than killing boars.

    I personally found that particular quest funny and entertaining.

  69. One thing kind of funny about reading this comment:

    “Its a quest you need to do to access the Nexus.”

    No. Its not.

    Yes, its a quest thats part of a line LEADING into Nexus. Thats it.

    Yes, you can turn around and just skip that content should you desire. You can either talk to the dragon and get the flight point, or get summoned over, or even turn around and fly through the shield when you’re lvl 77.

    Let’s also ignore the context this quest is put in shall we?

    One of the main driving forces of the game’s universe is being used to possibly destroy the entire world. Its not like, you know, you’re doing it just for giggles.

  70. I don’t know how I feel about people that invest so much emotional energy into a character in a video game. I’ve played video games and RPG games for 25+ years but I’ve always understood that they are games, nothing more.

    I’ve read some comments where people are infusing their ingame toons with their own personal moral code. I don’t get it. I’m having flashbacks of all of those D&D scares of the past where parents and church groups were afraid that if johnny’s paladin died in a dungeon, Johnny would be so distraught that he would kill himself in real life. I’ve always felt this was BS, but now…I’m not sure.

  71. This is an interesting article. I just ran this quest again last night, and it still unnerves me. Maybe that was the point?

    One nitpick: Alliance players, you are not playing “the good guys.” Nor are Horde players playing “the bad guys.” That hasn’t been the case since Warcraft 3, way back in 2002. Get with the times, people. =P I suspect it’s because you’ve been conditioned to think that humans = good, greenskins = bad, and/or that it’s personally gratifying to self-identify as the hero. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

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