Some time ago I wrote an article on the breakdown of the military ideal in modern war stories, especially computer games. It concerned the upcoming game Splinter Cell: Blacklist and certain elements of the press release build that concerned me. Subsequently, the game’s developers have issued a response to the negative media attention the game’s treatment of torture and war crimes has garnered. This response is equally problematic for a number of reasons.
The criticism of the game fell broadly along two lines; firstly that the game experience depicted did not suit the franchise the game is a part of (most entries were renowned for favouring careful, considered play and avoiding combat, while the previewed sections of Blacklist were more all-action and wantonly violent) and secondly that the game’s depiction of the efficacy of torture was inaccurate and inappropriate.
The game’s director claimed that what journalists had seen was “a vertical slice of the game” and that criticism was a “kneejerk reaction”; that what was being shown off was not representative of the game’s nature. Once one strips away the marketing jargon, the conclusions that can be drawn are baffling; in order to promote a game, promotional materials were put out that did not represent it at all well. It was a conscious decision made by the game’s developers to choose what sections to put out for first previews; claiming that it is an overreaction for the press to make judgements based on what has been offered to the press as apparently representative of the game seems like back-tracking. It seems unnecessarily convoluted and language like this tries to put the blame on the media rather than admit a poor press demo was made:
“…The proof is always going to be in the pudding. Talk is talk, and it is just all talk right now. We really need to get a demo out there, for people to see how you can ghost levels, to see the gameplay. It seems to be an overreaction because people are just seeing the ‘pow!’, the explosiveness … What we showed at E3 was very explosive, very violent. That kind of stuff tends to get shown, but as we roll out different aspects of the game you’ll see a lot more diversity and lot more of what hardcore fans are expecting to see.”
However, at the heart of it all, complaints about an unrepresentative trailer are minor ones. The real debate for me was the one about the violence – not per se the act of killing or the use of war as a narrative for escapism, but the methods which the game appeared to condone. The game’s director claimed the following:
“What people won’t say, but what they’ll dance around, is that is the price of freedom to protect Americans and their sedans and SUVs… If it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable, maybe that’s the point. I always know when we’re onto something that’s really touchy and interesting when we get reactions like that. But the truth is it’s really happening. That’s the truth…What would you do to save your country when all it took was to torture someone using the wrong means?”
This, to be honest, misses the point entirely. The complaints about the game were not that the player was tempted to use torture to save the day, but that it happens, the player has no choice about it, and it is shown to work – and then the choice is whether or not to end the victim’s suffering. That is not “the truth”. That is a very carefully selected “truth” that in fact is completely untrue. To claim that modern society is complicit in torture because it is what is needed to “protect freedom” is to be honest arguing the wrong thing. In order for something to be a viable commentary on an issue like war crimes, or modern foreign policy, it needs to begin arguing from a position other than “we do it because it works, like it or not.” Indeed, the “truth” is that it does not work. I do not accept that a positive depiction of the efficacy of torture is effective as a commentary on modern warfare; that seems like a simple cop-out to deflect criticism. The game, in its careful selection of what is interactive and what is not interactive, is forcing its ethical hand. Unequivocally depicting torture as working and as a necessary part of the “price of freedom” is not making the player question their ethics; if someone did not have a preconceived opinion it would if anything, in its depicting it so positively, make it seem a reasonable course of action. On the other hand, people who are already cynical, already question the “price of freedom”, see a distortion of the truth which undermines the message.
The question should not be – and in fact is not – “would you resort to torture to save the day” because that is based entirely on the belief that torture is justifiable in the right circumstances and effective. Unfortunately, those two core principles do not hold true in reality and thus undermine any claims to serious ethical debate or realism the game makes.