Bartle Questions Virtual Torture and the Lack of Choice in WoW’s Quests

Virtual world evangelist Richard Bartle has made the news yet again in the MMO blogosphere. Richard Bartle the grandfather of virtual worlds, recently posted a blog article about some concerns he’s having with Blizzard’s new WoW expansion: Wrath of the Lich King. In particular, there is a quest in which an NPC advocates the use of torture to complete the quest. It’s not the actual torture that concerns him rather it’s the lack of choice that the player is given in order to complete a particular quest.

Given the repugnant nature of actually being asked to torture someone — even in a virtual world — it’s only reasonable that many players would feel very uneasy about engaging in this activity. Bartle has rightly asked some serious questions about competence and motivations of the designer of this quest. Why didn’t the game designer responsible at least offer some alternate way of getting the same result given the controversial nature of the quest?

Regular readers of Wolfshead Online know that we dealt with this very same question quite extensively only four months ago in an article entitled WoW: Is Blizzard Promoting Virtual Torture and Murder with the Deathknight Hero Class? Back in July of 2008 I was the first blogger to publicly raise questions about a Death Knight quest in Wrath of the Lich King that involved torturing innocent civilians under the protection of the (conveniently) evil Scarlet Crusade.

Some Choice Please Mr. Designer

At a glance the sensational issue here is the that a Blizzard quest designer would ask WoW players to engage in torture to complete a quest. However, the real question gets to the heart of the fundamental flaw in mainstream MMOs today: why don’t players have real and meaningful choices?

Bartle asks this core question in a quote from his website:

Now while this means that WotLK is not yet torture for me, there is some torture involved. Specifically, this quest. Basically, you have to take some kind of cow poke and zap a prisoner until he talks.

I’m not at all happy with this. 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.

This is precisely the same point that I made back in July in my original article that was somehow missed by Scott Jennings and others in the mainstream blogosphere. Except in the example that my article was based on, the player playing the Death Knight has NO real choice to refuse to torture civilians. If they refuse, then they can not proceed out of the phased Death Knight starting zone and are condemned forever in virtual Limbo. Therefore the player must do evil deeds in order to progress with his/her Death Knight. Not only is there no choice, the player is forced into role-playing a morally “evil” alignment and then at the conclusion of the grand quest is forced yet again by the designers to play a morally “good” alignment. Are we getting dizzy yet?

Comparing Apples and Oranges

I’d like to briefly address one of Scott’s points on the issue of torture that is not really related to the issue of lack of choice for players. He makes the rationale that torture in the grand scheme of things is not as egregious as thousands of untold killings perpetrated by the typical WoW player:

Which is all very ironic considering that games like World of Warcraft are all about slaughtering millions of creatures so you can take their stuff and get more powerful so you can take more stuff from more creatures you slaughter. In that context poking people with a painstick before you slaughter them seems like a minor issue.

I would contend that in the case of humanoids, they are by design hostile to you and killing them is an act of self-defense which is morally acceptable. This is why that Blizzard doesn’t allow you to kill NPCs of your own faction who are not hostile and of course children NPCs. Even opposing factions can’t kill the other faction’s child NPCs. Torturing someone is not an act of self-defense. Killing someone who wants to kill you is.

Can a Computer Make You Cry?

The exchange between Matt Mihaly and Richard Bartle is well worth reading. Mat commits the classic “it’s just a video game” fallacy. Dear Matt, the whole point of MMOs and virtual worlds is that you are *supposed* to willingly suspend your disbelief and feel that the world and its inhabitants are *real*. I recall the early Electronic Arts ad campaign that posed the revolutionary question: can a computer make you cry? Every designer worth their salt should read that manifesto.

Great works of art, literature, film all have one thing in common: they transport us and they move us — even though we realize they are representations and interpretations of the world around us. It is our primary function as game designers to convince you that our game worlds whether fantasy or real are as consistently believable as possible. That is why I become a game designer.

Concluding Thoughts

As is typical these days on forums and blogs, the usual gang of sophomoric idiots has attacked and vilified Richard Bartle. Bartle has defended his position quite eloquently to the masses — most who just stepped off the Counterstrike bus and who have no clue about game design. It’s clear that many people who play video games and MMOs have become desensitized. These “gamers” enjoy the sense of amoral escapism that has little to no consequences and are only too willing to attack Richard Bartle like he’s some kind of MMO version of Jack Thompson eager to snuff out their virtual freedoms. I hope we have Richard Bartle around for a long time to keep asking the inconvenient questions that the poor little darlin’s have trouble answering.


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