Tuesday, December 9, 2008

And now a word from your conscience

Richard Bartle has written what I consider a necessary piece on one of the new quests in Lich King, and I recommend reading it through - it's short, so the short attention span crowd should be able to handle it.

Basically, he is commenting on a quest that is a vital part of a vital chain of quests that lead to The Nexus. If you don't complete this quest, you don't go to the Nexus, or at least not under your own power (i.e. if you can endure the shame of being summoned, you'll be fine). The quest in question is The Art of Persuasion. Go ahead and read the quest text.

As you can see, the goal of the quest is to extract information from a prisoner. The process to do so is to torture the prisoner. And the most galling part of this is that the Kirin Tor mage right there is asking you to do so because he finds it morally wrong to do so himself, as part of the higher ideals of the Kirin Tor.

Isn't it ironic that in order to gain faction with the Kirin Tor, you have to do things for them that they themselves find to be morally reprehensible. Hello, Blizzard? Alannis called. She wants her irony back.

Now, Bartle has been pretty thoroughly flamed over this post, but I am going to completely agree with him on this. Like him, I went ahead and did the dirty thing, but in the back of my mind I was not believing what was happening.

You may ask: Isn't this just a game? Is this not merely the actions of an avatar in a virtual universe? Surely, you jest. Your avatar did not make the decision to use torture to advance a cause. You did. I can't make that more direct. It doesn't matter that the "prisoner" in this case was imaginary; it's the fact that you, as a person, are asked to make this moral decision - torture, or no cookie. As far as I am concerned, saying the prisoner is just an avatar is the final step in dehumanizing one's enemy. That chain starts with "They killed innocent people in an office building, therefore it is OK to torture them".

You may disagree here, but in your heart you know that Bartle is right, as I am.

We have resigned ourselves to the fact that we are "heroes" regardless of how many times we effectively steal, murder, assault, and otherwise damage our pixilated adversary. We have come to terms with the idea that we are somehow more righteous than our adversaries even as we kill them and loot the bodies for prizes. The shores of Azeroth are awash in the blood of troggs, demons, dark iron dwarves, cultists, and other ne'er-do-wells. But in this expansion, Blizzard has notched it up a bit.
  • Torture of prisoners
  • Killing an adversary's mothers and stealing the babies. And delivering them in a bag.
  • Killing people in retribution for them killing game animals.
I have to say, Blizzard has started down a slippery moral slope with some of these. DHETA was especially galling, but it doesn't come close to the torture quest.

As Bartle noted, it's unthinkable that there wasn't at least the option to opt out of the torture scenario explicitly. Instead, such "losers" should just abandon the quest. There is no way to take a principled stand against these things, in such a way that truly declares your values.

Would a Paladin or Priest of the Light truly be OK with this? I can't imagine either would. In my past AD&D campaigns, a paladin choosing such a path would suffer extreme consequences. I realize that WoW is no AD&D clone, but there are certain core design principles for the class that define the term "Holy", and the power of Paladins especially flows from that source, and that source alone.

I applaud Mr. Bartle for voicing this concern, and hope that Blizzard will listen and make this right in the long term. Given their love of griefers, though, I find that to be unlikely.

There are two very excellent book series by a fellow named Stephen Donaldson - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and The Gap Cycle - that a lot of people will not read because both have a non-gratuitous rape occurring early on. A lot of people are sensitive to that sort of thing, and given my druthers I would have rather not seen them in there either. Yet, some of these people would defend the torture quest as "it's only pixels." OK, I'll play along. Would you feel the same way if there was a quest in WoW to go rape someone, and you were given no choice to make a stand? If it's morally OK to make the call to torture, why wouldn't it be OK to make the call to go rape somebody?  What about children?

Hey, it's your immortal soul or whatever. Tarnish it as you will. But I think you should have the choice to demur in a positive way, rather than take the lame "turn a blind eye to it" approach and "just decline" the quest. That's the easy way out.