Waterboarding for Compassion

It has been announced that a group of video game designers from Pittsburgh are going to release a "first person shooter" game that turns the player into a real-time torturer of Iraqi prisoners at Camp Bucca, which was an American detention facility used during the Iraq war. The makers of this game are reported to have paid scrupulous attention to modern American techniques of torture as drawn from the report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2014; from an International Red Cross report released in 2004 on abuse in Guantanamo, and from a CIA counterintelligence manual called Kubark written in 1963.

The player has access to a number of difference types of tortures provided by a menu, plus the player can control the intensity of the torture, enabling the player to torture his prisoner to death.

A first person shooter game is one where the player himself controls the weapons and attacks people in real time.  Torture first began to appear in these games in about 2000.  In these games, as well as in the television programs whose cultural values they mirror, while the enemy may torture prisoners, torture is also considered an appropriate tool to be used by the hero to extract information (which it always does).

But the interesting thing about this new torture game is not that it's the first game on the market to be soley centered around torture; the game is specifically designed to be realistic enough that it forces the player to despise it and see it for the evil that it is.

Growing up as a Baby Boomer, my childhood was filled with toy soldiers and cowboys and Indians.  Wild West and war movies were what we went to or watched on television.  War games are what we played after school. And even the girls would play them.  In the common medium of television at least, the characters of the enemy, if they were even introduced as humans, was only to make the more villainous.  There was nothing shocking about our heroes mowing them down by the dozens. We never thought of the enemy as people with families.  So it hasn't bothered me very much to see my son preoccupied playing on-line first person shooters with his friends.  It's the game that he has in his day.

Still, I am at an age and level of experience where I have now in my life met a number of people who have killed someone at some point, and not just during a war.  I have never met one who was not affected in some way.

Torture was introduced to some video games around 2000.  When it was introduced, it was used as a just another weapon; in this case one that could extract information.  It always worked.  The use of torture in video games mirrored the more common use of torture on television programs and in the movies.  Shows like "24" used it so frequently that it appeared, apparently, in one out of every two episodes.  Whatever the moral arguments have been about using torture, it has entered popular culture and is now a part of our entertainment.

If shooting someone down with a rifle from a distance can seen to be impersonal, torturing someone is a very intimate way to hurt or kill someone.  It is this intimacy itself that the makers of this torture game (the first game to be entirely devoted to torture) are trying to capture.  The visuals of the game are said to be very vivid.  The player not only has to use torture to extract information; the player also has to maintain a group of detainees, being also in control of how they are housed, who they are housed with, and when they are to be tortured.  For in addition of making one become utterly disgusted as a human with torture, the game is designed to show how useless it is and how it can have unintended effects.

Camp Bucca is best known for incubating the group of fighters who would go on to create ISIS: The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held there for five years, where he likely forged many of the connections that make up the group’s network today. The developers say they chose to have the player wrestle with cell assignments to underscore the role of American prison camps in radicalizing the next generation of fighters and terrorists.

The game also mocks one of the most common game conventions; the use of points. While one can earn greater or lesser points, one eventually discovers that the points do not matter at all and that there is no way to win the game.

Torture is an odd thing in the public mind.  There are many who think that it works or at least is worth a try, although the evidence is that it doesn't work at all.  And among those people willing to inflict it upon others, there are some who don't care if it works or not, figuring that someone who is tortured deserves the pain.  (Donald Trump is one of these).

Even among those who think it is useful, there are a very large number of euphemisms for it, as though torture becomes gentler and less barbaric if we call it something nice.

But will the game work?  It will certainly be bought by a few freaks who really want to add torture to their hobbies.  As for others, I wonder if someone will buy it with the intention of trying to experience the lesson it tries to teach.  I doubt it.  But the whole project is interesting in the way that it addresses how we manage, innocently through our entertainments, like children playing with cowboys, to hide the blood on our hands.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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