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10:32pm on Wednesday, 26th November, 2008:
Hmm, my outburst on torture in WoW last week seems to have reached "life of its own" status. It was picked up by Broken Toys, where (as usual) the discussion was generally sane. However, from there it went to blogs all over the place, with each extra step leading to further misunderstandings about what I was actually trying to say. Some of these were quite bizarre.
So, rather than attempt to answer all 140+ comments on Kotaku et al, here are a few things to note (in no particular order):
- It turns out you didn't actually need to do the quest to access Coldarra (where the Nexus is). People on my server who played in the beta thought you did, and were issuing LFGs saying you had to know the flight path to get there. OK, so I was misinformed there. It doesn't alter the thrust of my argument, though.
- I know WoW is not real life. I know the Geneva Convention doesn't apply there. No real-life laws apply there. Blizzard could put a quest to rape characters in there: real life anti-rape laws wouldn't apply. Nevertheless, a lot of people would be very disturbed by such a quest. Likewise, not everyone is OK with torture. This is the case in real life, too: yes, killing is worse than torture, but that doesn't mean that if you kill people then torture is fine. Evidence: the aforesaid 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.
- The quest I was complaining about was The Art of Persuasion. I wasn't complaining about some Death Knight quest that involves torture. See, at this point Death Knights are evil — so evil, they torture people — so it makes sense. It's in context. It shows you just how nasty your character is before it breaks free of the Lich King's influence. So when people tell me all this, because they couldn't be arsed to click the link in my blog that showed exactly what I was talking about, it's annoying. When they rant on about how I must be stupid if I don't know DKs are evil, it's doubly annoying. When they tell me DKS ARE EVIL then it's triply annoying.
- Yes, I do realise this is only a computer game.
- I only mentioned that one quest because that was the one that was badly designed.
- I am aware that playing WoW means you get to kill thousands of creatures. I am aware that murder is a worse crime than torture. Murder is a worse crime than anything (other than mass murder). However, previous quests have not exactly asked you to commit murder (at least for the Alliance — I don't know about Horde). It's always been for some morally justifiable purpose (self defence, most of the time). Whether you believe that torture can ever be morally justified or not (personally, I don't), you can't justify it in this particular case. Sticking a pain stick up some prisoner's jacksy to make him talk is uncalled for. Jeez, a simple Eye of Kilrogg will find out all you want to know for you, you didn't even need to capture the prisoner in the first place!
- There are other things I don't like about WoW quests, too, they just didn't reach the threshold that prompted me to blog about them. All that hunting neutral animals because you want bits and pieces of them to make some elixir with an amusing effect isn't exactly responsible. Still, WoW is an American game, and hunting is much more socially acceptable there, so what the hey. Besides, if I get jumped on for complaining about something as "trivial" as torture, what would have happened if I'd said, "you know, those level 1 wolves you want me to kill don't actually seem to be all that offensive"? WoW isn't alone here, of course — there was similar stuff in LotRO when I played that. No torture of prisoners, though.
- There's a contradiction between "you have to torture this guy because if you don't then the Blue Dragonflight will destroy the world!" and "if you don't like it, don't do the quest". If I don't do it and the world isn't destroyed, that means it wasn't necessary in the first place, right? So why do the guys want me to torture him?
- Strangely, I had noticed WoW was "just a game". For the many players who seem to think that this means anything goes, I guess you're really hoping Blizzard will be putting in some child sex quests in the next expansion. After all, no children are being hurt, it's just pixels on a screen, and if you get XP then why not?
- No, really, this was NOT complaint about the Death Knight quest. Really! Click the link in the original article!
- Yeah, I did see that bit about declining the quest. I didn't see the bit about not being asked to do it in the first place...
- I'm fine with Manhunt. I've never played it, but I'm fine with it. People who bought it knew exactly what they were getting. This isn't an argument about violent computer games. This is an argument about watching The Simpsons and suddenly being subjected to a stream of profanities. Uh? The Simpsons suddenly changed into South Park? It's the change that's the issue, not what it changed to.
- I'm not growing a vagina (I checked).
- As a designer, I actually like WoW. It's one of my favourite MMOs. If I were playing an MMO with poor design, I wouldn't be as surprised if I came across something that didn't make sense. That I was for WoW meant it was bloggable
What's vaguely dispiriting about this is that I was basically making an obscure design point. I wasn't making a moral point — I'd have blogged on Terra Nova for that. I was saying:
- Giving people a quest to torture someone for no good reason is going to shock some people; not everyone, but a good number.
- Shocking people in a work of art such as an MMO is fine, you're allowed to do it. It's making an artistic statement.
- If you do decide to shock people, you need to flag up that you know you're shocking them. This is so they know it's an artistic statement and not that you think the shocking thing isn't shocking.
- Blizzard didn't flag up that they knew they were doing something that would shock people. The prisoner gave good information, your reputation with the Kirin Tor rose, and you got to continue with the quest chain.
- This gives the impression that Blizzard thinks it's OK to torture prisoners, and that torture actually works.
- It also means the shock remains. 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.
It's a pretty obscure point that will only make sense to a very small number of people with a designer mentality. Still, I only put it on my blog, it's not as if I pasted it all over the Internet or anything...
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