Mark L. Sample

Mark L. Sample is Assistant Professor at George Mason University where he teaches and researches contemporary literature and new media. His work often explores how literary texts interact with, critique and rework visual and media texts. Email:; Web:

Virtual Torture: Videogames and the War on Terror

by Mark L. Sample


This article explores the theoretical, political, and pedagogical dimensions of torture-interrogation in videogames set in the context of the US's Global War on Terror. Paying attention to both narrative elements and ludic aspects of gameplay, I argue that the few games that incorporate interrogation, which include Splinter Cell and 24: The Game, reveal much about how we conceive of torture, and what the limits of our conceptions are. I then propose an oppositional pedagogical approach to gaming that counters the lessons of virtual torture.

Keywords: torture, interrogation, 24, terrorism, Splinter Cell, The Sims, Agamben, Benjamin, War on Terror


This paper joins the growing chorus of scholars urging the serious consideration of videogames as significant cultural productions that reflect and comment upon social and political issues. The latest videogame scholarship has for the most part moved beyond the debates between narratologists and ludologists that defined the early years of the field (cf. Eskelinen, 2001; Aarseth, 2004; Jenkins, 2004), and instead has sought to be equally attune to the thematic and formal elements of games, and to the complex interplay between them. This task is especially important when a videogame clearly situates itself within a real world context like the so-called War on Terror, which has increasingly become a backdrop for both mass-marketed and independently designed videogames. Aware that videogames are capable of shaping the cultural conversation about terrorism, a number of critics have already begun studying the way the War on Terror is imagined in videogames. King and Krzywinska analyze Command and Conquer: Generals (EA Pacific, 2003) as a game "fully saturated" with resonances of the war in Iraq (2006, pp. 60-64), while Bogost shows how September 12th, a Toy World (, 2003) delivers a powerful statement about the failure of unilateral military force to combat non-state terrorism (2007, pp. 84-89). Mixing theoretical questions of interactivity with concerns about global inequities, Galloway reads America's Army (United States Army, 2002) as a "real articulation of the political advantage felt and desired by the majority of Americans" in the post-9/11 world (2006, p. 83). My own research focuses on a defining feature of the United States' engagement with terrorism that has been overlooked in videogame studies: torture-interrogation. Closely analyzing the interface of several videogames in which interrogation is an essential part of gameplay, I argue that the way torture-interrogation is modeled in-game and acted out by the player relies on a wishful logic that mirrors official rationales for torture. I then propose that we draft a counter-pedagogy that leverages representation of torture in videogames into a reconsideration of the dynamics between power and knowledge in the world outside the game world.

One consequence of the Bush-Cheney administration's ongoing war on terror is that Americans have been exposed to the images and discourse of torture in an unprecedented way. Whether it is Seymour Hersh's New Yorker exposé of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the 24-hour news pundits debating the merits of waterboarding, or American primetime television dramas like 24 and Lost, torture seems to be everywhere. Everywhere except popular videogames. This is not to say that violence in videogames is anything but commonplace. Indeed, from Space Invaders (Nishikado, 1978) to Gears of War (Epic, 2006), destruction and death have been mainstays of the medium. Some videogame depictions of mayhem are so realistic that they are used as training tools for the US military, part of a larger web of connections between the military and the game industry that has been well documented (Der Derian, 2001; Kline, Dyer-Witheford, & De Peuter, 2003; Halter, 2006). In 1997, for example, the US Marines modified an off-the-shelf version of Doom (id, 1993) for training (Platoni, 1999, p. 27). More recently, the hit Xbox game Full Spectrum Warrior (Pandemic, 2004) was originally commissioned by the US Army as an urban warfare simulation. And one of the most popular games of all time is the first-person shooter America's Army, designed by the Army as both a recruiting and training tool (Thompson, 2004, p. 35). These games nearly always depict combat scenarios. But interrogation? Torture? These are altogether different situations. Torture for the purpose of interrogation may be as rare in videogames as it is common is real life.

Virtual Torture

Before I turn to two of the few games in which interrogation is an explicit part of gameplay -- Splinter Cell (Ubisoft, 2002) and 24: The Game (SCE, 2006) -- I want to distinguish between torture in the general sense of the word and torture in the legal sense of the word. One can find countless examples of interactive torture true to the Latin root of the word, tortura, meaning twisting or torment. An extreme example might be the eponymously named Torture Game 2 (Cmann, 2008), a browser-based Flash game that allows the player to shoot, scalp, and dismember a lifeless marionette of an avatar. Not surprisingly, the game offended many observers (cf. Benedetti, 2008; Yu, 2008). Attempting to reframe the controversy, Bogost argues that in-game simulations of torture offer the possibility of exposing torture for the repulsive act it is, though Torture Game 2 itself does not do this. A thoroughly decontextualized, gruesome enterprise, Torture Game 2 "fails to explore the logic of torture in a meaningful way" (2008, para. 3). Bogost suggests that a better model might be a game like Manhunt 2 (Rockstar, 2007) for the Nintendo Wii, which forces the player into feeling "disgust and intrigue" as he or she performs "sadistic acts" of murder and brutal butchery (2008, para. 11-12). Even Manhunt 2, however, has little to do with the kind of torture implicit in the War on Terror. To draw out the difference between sheer physical abuse in a game like Torture Game 2 or Manhunt and the kind of torture-interrogation we see in videogames about terrorism, I want to look at a California bill signed into law in 2005 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that would have prohibited the sale of violent videogames to minors. The law was repealed in 2007 by the Ninth Circuit Court, but its legal specificity regarding the definition of torture in videogames is worth pondering.[1]

According to California Assembly bill 1179,

Torture includes mental as well as physical abuse of the victim. In either case, the virtual victim must be conscious of the abuse at the time it is inflicted; and the player must specifically intend to virtually inflict severe mental or physical pain or suffering upon the victim, apart from killing the victim. ("Violent Video Games," 1746E)

The definition emphasizes that the "severe mental or physical pain" the player inflicts is "apart from killing the victim." In other words, killing the victim is not the goal of torture. In fact, as the law states, the victim must be conscious. What the law does not state, however, is why a "virtual victim" of torture must remain "conscious." Perhaps it is self evident. Nonetheless, it needs to be said: torture, even in videogames, requires a conscious victim because the goal of torture is a verbal response from the victim. Shrieks of pain, yes, but also fully formed words. The goal of torture-interrogation is language: a confession, a recantation, or, in the case of the War on Terror, the acquisition of information from the victim.

According to official rationales for what President Bush has euphemistically termed "an alternative set of procedures" in the pursuit of terrorists (2006, para. 16), torture is simply a practice for the production of knowledge -- or what the CIA and the military call "intelligence." "Intel" -- names, places, dates -- is the engine that transforms torture into interrogation. As then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote to President Bush in an infamous memorandum in January 2002, the War on Terror is "a new kind of war" that requires"the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists […] in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians" (United States, p. 2). Gonzales evokes here what national security experts call the ticking time bomb scenario, in which the explosion of a deadly bomb is imminent, and torture -- "the ability to quickly obtain information" -- is the only sure way to find the bomb and defuse it. Despite this hypothetical scenario's familiarity to viewers of 24 and a host of other film and television productions, it has been widely discredited as just that: hypothetical. Synthesizing years of sociological and legal thought, the prominent Princeton law professor Kim Lane Scheppele concludes that the ticking time bomb scenario clouds both moral and practical judgments, and exploiting it in order to justify torture is at best irresponsible and at worst, morally reprehensible. The entire premise of the hypothetical scenario is faulty, Scheppele argues, as it "presumes, against the evidence, that torture really does produce truth" (2005, p. 338).

Torture does not produce truth, at least not the truth interrogators believe they are seeking. Torture produces the truth of pain, the truth of power. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry's seminal inquiry into the dynamics between pain, power, and language, she describes the searing, "world-destroying pain" that torture brings, which leads to a gradual but utter obliteration of the victim's awareness of self, others, country, world, and ideology (1985, p. 29). As numerous experts in cognitive psychology attest, in the midst of this crushing pain, anyone will say anything to make it stop. When a victim is interrogated through torture, the "intel" is distorted and unreliable, desperate fabrications told to satisfy the torturers' demands for knowledge. The intel is artificial intelligence. And this idea returns us to videogames, where all forms of intel -- like the virtual victims who produce it -- are artificial.

Interrogation in Splinter Cell

One the few games set in the War on Terror in which interrogation is an explicit part of the gameplay is Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, released by Ubisoft in 2002. Part of the successful Tom Clancy franchise of espionage and military games, Splinter Cell was the first Tom Clancy release after September 11, 2001, and it implicitly acknowledges the War on Terror. The game title refers to elite black-ops "intelligence-gathering" units of the National Security Agency who are charged with, as the game manual puts it, "aggressive collection of stored data in hostile territories" that "cannot be obtained by traditional means" (Splinter Cell, 2002, p. 2). The player assumes the role of Sam Fisher, a Splinter Cell agent bound for the Republic of Georgia to investigate terrorist activities in the former Soviet state.

The game begins with Fisher's "training," the initial pre-mission stage of the game when Fisher undergoes obstacle courses, weapons training, and other exercises. Like many videogames, the training phase of Splinter Cell has a twofold non-diegetic purpose. First, the training module teaches the videogame player how to play the game. The player learns the game's core mechanics -- which gamepad or keyboard button does what, how to aim and fire, the different controls for climbing, crouching, jumping, and so on. The training occurs in a low-risk environment, what the videogame theorist James Paul Gee calls a simplified "subdomain" of the larger world of the game, in which mistakes have little or no consequences (2004, p. 121); indeed, failure during training is often a precursor to success in later missions. The second goal of the training module is to teach the player how to become Sam Fisher, learning what he already knows, absorbing Fisher's values and skills as a covert field agent. The manual to the game reveals that "combat, espionage, and constant training have defined" Fisher's life and that "his tactical experience has become part of his instinct" (Splinter Cell, 2002, p. 2). And quickly, it becomes part of the player's "instinct" as well. As the player assumes Fisher's identity, he or she gains access to Fisher's training and knowledge. The player knows to hide in the shadows because Fisher knows to hide in the shadows. Among the tactical knowledge that Sam Fisher knows intuitively, and which the player soon will as well, is the technique of interrogation.

The interrogation training in Splinter Cell begins with Sam Fisher stalking an NPC -- a non-player character, in this case an unsuspecting guard. When Fisher grabs the NPC he automatically puts a choker hold on him. At this point an on-screen tutorial advises, "If the character has any useful information the Interrogate interaction will appear. Select this interaction to force the character to talk." Because the game's interrogation option only appears when the NPC has valuable information, the player is told whom to torture and when (see Figure 1). The player knows by virtue of the game interface that the apprenticeship in torture will always have a pay-off. The information is always useful, and always useful immediately. Here the intel is a five-digit key code that opens a door in the room. There is a proximity, then, between the site of torture and the site of information efficacy, where the intel is put to use. Such proximity reinforces the notion that not only does torture work well, it works well now. Put simply, Splinter Cell presents the fantasy that perfect information is always the outcome of coercive interrogation.

Figure 1: The Interrogation Interface in Splinter Cell

As modest as this interrogation is by the standards of the CIA, it is enlightening in many respects. The interrogation ends simply, without a fuss, as the game instructs the player, "After you get the information you need, press Fire [Left mouse button] to knock out and release your opponent" (see Figure 2). Interrogation is thus imagined as a straightforward procedure between the player and a generic "opponent" with a definite beginning and end. By avoiding rhetoric like "victim," "hostage," "suspect," or even "terrorist," the game denies any power relationship beyond "player" and "opponent." There are no complicating linguistic or social circumstances, no language barriers, and no chance for nationality or ethnicity to play a role in the interrogation. The deliberate word choice structures the interrogation as a zero-sum game that denies the asymmetrical power dynamic that exists in reality between interrogator and interrogated. As Scarry notes, although it is invisible, the "distance between their physical realities is colossal, for the prisoner is in overwhelming physical pain while the torturer is utterly without pain" (1985, p. 36).

Figure 2: Ending the Interrogation in Splinter Cell

The human distance between the interrogator and the interrogated is further magnified in Splinter Cell because the player's point of view is always behind the opponent during an interrogation (see Figure 3). The player never catches so much as a glimpse of the opponent's face. This faceless, generic victim is also compliant. He does not struggle or resist, and he rewards Fisher's coercion instantly. There are traces in this non-player character of Foucault's "docile body," a subject trained by subtle and cunning disciplinary mechanisms (1977, pp. 135-138). But in this case, rather than the regulated space and structured time that Foucault counts as the chief means of programmatic coercion of soldiers and school children alike, the NPC is programmed by software code -- programmed essentially to be a predetermined useful and capable interrogation subject. The guard is there to be tortured. What all of this adds up to is a naturalization of interrogation. Courted through the process by a user-friendly interface and an accommodating victim, the players is led to see interrogation as an entirely reasonable course of action, if not the only course of action.

Figure 3: The Faceless Opponent in Splinter Cell

Interrogation in 24: The Game

With its crude chokehold maneuver, Splinter Cell seems almost nostalgic in its representation of torture. The game certainly does not capture the technologically-sophisticated and clinically-savvy nature of modern torture-interrogation. To see a more systematic approach to torture I turn now to another videogame that situates itself squarely within the post-9/11 War on Terror. That game is 24: The Game, designed for the Playstation 2 by Sony Computer Entertainment. Released in early 2006, 24: The Game is based on the popular FOX television series of the same name, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a rogue agent for the United States' fictional Counter Terrorist Unit. On the television show, Bauer routinely engages in interrogation techniques that involve torture. In a 2007 New Yorker profile of 24's creator, Joel Surnow, Jane Mayer reports that the first five seasons of 24 included a total of sixty-seven acts of torture, or, as Mayer puts it, "more than one [torture scene] every other show" (2007, p. 68). Torture is such a commonplace occurrence on the television series that the videogame version of 24, written by some of the series' original screenwriters and featuring voice acting from Kiefer Sutherland, would not be worthy of the name without it.[2]

The 24 game manual explicitly highlights the role of interrogation in the War on Terror: "Interrogation skills are of vital importance when you're battling against the clock as well as a network of terrorists" (24: The Game, 2006, p. 14). Emphasizing its necessity in the face of an imminent terrorist attack, the manual characterizes interrogation as a "skill" -- knowledge that can be learned, passed on, even evaluated. Certainly this has been the viewpoint of the CIA, whose notorious 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual begins with these words of encouragement: "There is nothing mysterious about interrogation. It consists of no more than obtaining needed information through responses to questions. As is true with all craftsmen, some interrogators are more able than others; and some of their superiority may be innate" (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1963, p. 1, emphasis added). Mayer reports that there are "several copies" of KUBARK at the production offices of 24 (2007, p. 70), and no doubt the game's writers were familiar with this document, for the game repeatedly fetishizes torture as an art form that demands patient practice.

"A good interrogator," the game manual advises, "knows exactly when to play the good guy, calming a jumpy suspect, and equally knows when nothing but raw aggression will yield the kind of answers that can save lives" (24: The Game, 2006, p. 14). Notwithstanding the CIA's claim in KUBARK that "sound interrogation…rests upon…certain broad principles, chiefly psychological, which are not hard to understand" (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1963, p. 1), it is not accurate that "good" interrogators "know exactly" what to do, in either the real world or in the game world. We don't know what to do. However, the game tries to teach us.

When Jack Bauer reaches the stage of the game that requires questioning Robert Daniels, the only lead in a domestic terrorist plot, a special "Interrogate Daniels" mission begins. This "interrogation mode" offers a more fully realized user interface than Splinter Cell, essentially providing on-the-spot training through the game's HUD -- heads-up display. A key feature of the HUD is a "stress graph," which looks like a cross between an EKG reading and a polygraph test, which measures the victim's psychological status moment to moment (see Figure 4).[3] What Splinter Cell disavows (that the faceless opponent is a thinking, feeling person), 24 not only concedes but makes central to the interrogation. A floating horizontal blue band on the stress graph represents the "Cooperation Zone." This is "the point at which suspects momentarily begin to crack, allowing you to extract information that can be used to continue the interrogation" (24: The Game, p. 14). The onscreen tutorial likewise explains, "Only when the suspect's stress level is within the Cooperation Zone can you extract information and progress the interrogation." This idea of a well-defined cooperation zone is a fantasy, of course, which bears no relationship to what we know about human psychology, but it does reverberate with the CIA's own emphasis on the critical role of cooperation. Explains KUBARK:

The long-range purpose of CI [counterintelligence] interrogation is to get from the source all the useful counterintelligence information that he has. The short-range purpose is to enlist his cooperation toward this end or, if he is resistant, to destroy his capacity for resistance and replace it with a cooperative attitude. (U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1963, p. 38, emphasis added).

Figure 4: The Interrogation Stress Graph in 24: The Game

The player strives to keep Daniels in the "Cooperation Zone" by either lowering or raising his stress levels. This is done with the PS2 gamepad, where four buttons correspond to different approaches toward the interrogation. Jack can either be "calm" or "aggressive" toward Daniels, and he can either attempt to "coax" or "break" him. The player decides which tactic to use -- and he may use several within the space of a few seconds -- based on the current position of the cooperation zone. The stress graph is thus a biofeedback system, transforming internal psychological states into external data, which allows the player to hone his or her interrogation technique on the spot. The correct sequence of tactics culminates with Jack threatening Daniels with a gun aimed at his head, at which point Daniels "breaks" (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Breaking a Suspect in 24: The Game

There is a curious leveling effect in the way that the torturer's actions are mapped onto gamepad buttons in 24: The Game. The buttons that allow the player to run and jump in other parts of the game are the same buttons that enable torture here. Torture, this mapping suggests, is no different than any of the other actions available to a player throughout a game. Torture is no longer grossly unique, a singular phenomenon confined to an ambiguous moral and legal territory; it has instead been incorporated deep within the structure of the game, normalizing what would otherwise be an affront to human dignity. Coterminous with what Fredric Jameson has called in another context the waning of affect (1991, p. 15), there is a paradoxical deepening of effect, in which the press of a single button -- say the button that launches Daniels' final breaking point -- initiates an entire sequence of actions disproportionate to the touch of the button. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin's observations about the mechanization of human life in "On Some Motifs on Baudelaire." Speaking of the invention of matches in the nineteenth century, Benjamin writes that "one single abrupt movement of the hand triggers a process of many steps." Benjamin sees the photographer's camera as the epitome of this kind of chain reaction machine work, for "a touch of the finger now sufficed to fix an event for an unlimited period of time" (1968, pp. 174-175).

Of course, many contemporary videogames operate in a virtual sense under this same principle, of inconsequential input giving way to consequential output. It is a dynamic that is easily overlooked, precisely because it is so familiar. This new mode of haptic density is closely tied to Benjamin's distinction between two types of experience: Erfahrung, lived experience accumulated over time that gels into knowledge; and Erlebnis, an isolated, fleeting experience that acknowledges no past or outside connections, the epitome of which for Benjamin is the information gleaned from a newspaper, whose value "does not survive the moment in which it was new" (p. 90). Benjamin argued that modern life increasingly replaces Erfahrung -- true experience -- with Erlebnis. To use Benjamin's evocative phrase, Erlebnis "struts about in the borrowed garb of experience" (1968, p. 185). One can imagine that the gamepad buttons, which might be pressed a thousand times during a single session of 24: The Game, are a mechanism through which Erfahrung is supplanted by Erlebnis. So much rides on performing the immediate action that the larger framing experience dissipates, leaving only the shock of the present moment, and that too is fragmented. As such, the game conceals the full experience of torture-interrogation from the player, imparting instead a stylized distillation that focuses only on the next goal. With its mechanized, nearly rote approach to torture, the game fails at the task Bogost lays out for simulations of torture or murder: "We should simulate torture not to take the place of real acts, but to renew our disgust for them" (2008, para. 12).

The chief reason 24: The Game does nothing to renew our disgust for torture-interrogation is because the interrogation is presented so clearly as a game. Unlike Splinter Cell, it is possible to get the interrogation wrong in 24: The Game. There are correct moves and incorrect moves. Even though the player has four choices, not all of these choices are available all the time. Deciding repeatedly to be calm may gray out the aggressive option, limiting the player's future choices. Likewise, continual aggression without any coaxing may prevent the "break" option from ever appearing. Getting the interrogation just right -- pressing the right buttons at the right time -- is an end itself, a minigame whose gameplay is further constrained by a four minute time limit. Inexorably counting down the seconds, the iconic glowing 24 digital clock in the lower right hand corner of the HUD telegraphs tension, suspense, and the constant threat of failure.

The minigame structure of interrogation in 24 suggests that torture is winnable. Indeed, if the player should fail to find the right sequence of interrogation tactics within the allotted time, he or she has recourse to an option not available to real life interrogators: a do-over. That is, if the interrogation fails, the player can restart the interrogation from the moment of Daniels' takedown. The illusion that there is a right way to question Daniels is overshadowed only by the illusion that there is a better way and even a best way to question him. I refer here to the fact that a player's interrogation technique is scored in 24: The Game. At the end of every mission, the game tallies statistics about the player's performance. In the case of the "Interrogating Daniels" mission, the score is based upon three criteria: the number of questions used (with an ideal target of fourteen); the number of times Daniels leaves the "cooperation zone" and hits extreme high or low stress (the target is zero and each moment of extreme stress detracts from the player's overall standing); and finally, the number of "Breaking stage misses" -- the number of times the player could have broken Daniels but didn't. Even if the player is initially successful in the interrogation minigame, he or she can replay the mission until the arbitrary target criteria is met. In this way, 24: The Game models an astonishingly misguided vision of torture: it is repeatable and scorable, possible to quantify and evaluate according to predefined rubrics.

The irony of the interrogation mission in 24: The Game is that the "vital information" Bauer obtains from Daniels is, in an unimaginative echo of Splinter Cell, yet another key code, for a door that provides rooftop access for enemy snipers. The intel requires no deciphering, no corroboration, no sense of larger historical or political contexts. The intel is the kind of denuded information that characterizes Benjamin's Erlebnis, information which "lives only at that moment" (Benjamin, 1968, p. 90). With the four minute timer and the relatively mundane outcome (viz. Daniels does not provide the location of a nuclear bomb), 24: The Game presents a ticking time bomb scenario without the bomb. The disparity between the method of gathering intel (torture) and the intel actually gathered (a key code) is unacknowledged by the game. One reading of this incongruity suggests that 24: The Game trivializes torture to the point where it becomes the answer to the most trifling of national security concerns. Read another way, though, the disparity reveals that intel, even if it chances to be true, never matches the coercive methods used in its acquisition.

The State of Exception in Videogames

Perhaps the most telling aspect of 24: The Game's vision of torture occurs during a cut-scene, one of those cinematic interludes that is "outside gameplay, but…not outside the narrative of gameplay" (Galloway, 2006, p. 11). In a cut-scene preceding the "Interrogate Daniels" mission, we see that during the struggle to apprehend Daniels, Bauer shoots him in the stomach. Bauer wounds Robert Daniels in this cut-scene regardless of how the player had restrained Daniels at the end of the previous mission. Even if the player had just moments ago wrestled Daniels to the ground without firing a weapon, the cut-scene shows Daniels being shot. The player has no choice in the matter.

Video game designers and theorists have often debated the value of cut-scenes (cf. Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, pp. 406-413; Juul, 2005, pp. 145-148), but in this case the cut-scene is essential to the logic of the interrogation mission, and the narrative discrepancy it creates soon becomes clear: Jack Bauer injures Robert Daniels not because it is necessary, but because it gives Bauer leverage in the interrogation. That leverage is pain. Throughout his questioning, Daniels repeatedly pleads for medical care, and Jack Bauer repeatedly withholds this care. For example, as the player presses the "coax" button, Bauer promises Daniels deliverance from his pain, telling him, "I'll call an ambulance as soon as you start cooperating." Later Jack again dangles the lure of medical attention as a reward for cooperation: "I'm not going to let you die. You just have to help me." In both cases, the burden is placed on Daniels. He becomes responsible for the pain that Jack inflicted. This "I can't help you until you help me" scenario (which in fact is another line Jack utters verbatim during the interrogation) recalls the torture tactics developed by the CIA, which, as the historian Alfred McCoy explains (2006), "causes victims to feel responsible for their suffering and thus capitulate more readily to their torturers," who come to be seen as the victims' rescuers (p. 8).

This transformation of Jack Bauer into a heroic figure who will save a helpless victim masks what just occurred: a brutal abuse of power in the name of state security. By unnecessarily wounding Daniels, Bauer exercises sovereign power, the foundation of which, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben makes clear (2005), is the power to suspend the rule of law in the name of preserving the rule of law, a situation known as a "state of exception." Also called "martial law" or "state of emergency," the state of exception has become, Agamben argues, a permanent feature of contemporary life in even supposedly democratic nations. Agamben points out the obvious problem with the situation: "the emergency measures they seek to justify in the name of defending the democratic constitution are the same ones that lead to its ruin" (p. 8). In other words, Bush's "alternative set of procedures" are imagined to protect the very same rule of law the suspension of which enables torture in the first place. Torture, Agamben's work suggests, is the logical consequence of the state of exception.

To draw out the implications of these ideas I want to turn to a final videogame that at first glance has nothing to do with either torture or war. I want to consider Will Wright's blockbuster simulation, The Sims (2000). Unlike 24: The Game, which is fanatically goal-oriented and time-sensitive, The Sims is an open-ended simulation that thrives on what Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern call "emergent narrative" (2006, p. 644). Indeed, thousands of players share their Sims stories online, describing the characters they have created, posting photo albums of their simulated families, and weaving their own narratives around these families. It is one of these Sim stories that I want to explore now, a sardonic report of the virtual torture of two Sims, named Mr. and Mrs. Victim.

In September 2004, a few months after Seymour Hersh had broken the story of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib (Hersh, 2004), a LiveJournal blogger with the pseudonym Evergrey posted an account of two Sim characters she had imprisoned in a cell-like "Box" with "no light, no bathroom, and no food source" (Evergrey, 2004, para. 4).[4] Evergrey begins her weblog entry, which is illustrated with screen shots from the game, by explaining, "I guess people actually play this game to make their little sims happy. I'll admit that i did that for awhile, but to be honest, it just got boring. So of course I reverted to my typical gaming pattern of torturing innocents to death" (para. 1). Evergrey waited and watched as these virtual people, governed by complex artificial intelligence algorithms, endured sleep deprivation, stood in their own urine, went without food or water, and eventually died in confinement.

In Figure 6 we see Mr. and Mrs. Victim in the Box. Even more than the NPC guard in Splinter Cell, the characters in The Sims are Foucauldian docile bodies, entirely shaped and managed by the player. Choosing from among hundreds of combinations of gender, skin color, body type, and clothing, players create their own Sims. Even more important to the flow of the game than a character's physical appearance, however, is his or her personality, which players also shape, by adjusting key character traits. Because they are subject to both the player's initial molding of their personality and the constant exercise of the player's mouse-clicking, which variously compels and restrains the Sims, they are essentially bodies-in-training, inviting -- even demanding -- disciplinary tactics from the player. But what happens when the player abandons these docile bodies, placing them in a bare room with no guidance, with nothing to do but let virtual biology run its virtual course?

Figure 6: The Death Box in The Sims

It is immediately obvious that for all of its cartoonishness, the HUD in The Sims reveals more about the effects of torture than the stress graph in 24: The Game. Like 24, The Sims maps a bodily index to pain and suffering. While 24 charts the informant's breaking point, The Sims distills joy, displeasure, and misery onto eight colorful bar graphs, a "Mood Panel" which measures levels of hunger, comfort, hygiene, and other vital statistics. A Taylorist vision of our inner lives, where emotional and physical needs can be precisely quantified, The Sims fully realizes what Foucault calls "bio-power." Arising in the intersection between disciplinary institutions (schools, hospitals, prisons, barracks, etc.) and the exactitude of modern demographics (birth rates, health records, etc.), bio-power is a system for "the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life." Or as Foucault rephrases it more darkly, bio-power is a new means for "achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations" (1990, p. 140).

To see this subjugation and control at work, look at the red gauges under "Bladder" and "Room" in the Mood panel in Figure 7, which shows that a number of Mr. Victim's "needs" are reaching a crisis state. During the course of a normal Sims game, the player can boost a Sim's happiness by eating a meal, watching television, visiting neighbors, or even going to the bathroom, actions all chosen with the click of a mouse button. However, in the death house, Evergrey does nothing. Left to his own devices in what amounts to solitary confinement, Mr. Victim urinates all over himself and cries out for a shower (Figure 8). Like Robert Daniels in 24: The Game, Mr. Victim is denied critical attention that would ease his suffering. Evergrey comments at this point, "The sims in The Box are getting pretty damned ripe. They scream and gnash their teeth, begging me, their cruel, heartless deity, to have mercy" (para. 8). Unlike Jack Bauer, however, Evergrey never promises mercy.

Figure 7: The Sims Mood Panel

Figure 8: Humiliating the Victims in The Sims

As time passes, the situation for the Sims worsens. Evergrey performs only one action on the Sims' behalf, lighting the fireplace. Very quickly the fire engulfs the entire building (standard Sims building codes -- which Evergrey has intentionally disregarded -- recommend a smoke detector and fire extinguisher near every heat source). Evergrey gleefully describes the scene (shown Figure 9):

Mrs. Victim is thus far spared from the cleansing flames by standing in the puddle of Mr. Victim's urine. The deceased Mr. Victim. Death is pretty pissed off about there being no door, by the way. You see his hands? I'm pretty sure that's a "what the FUCK?" gesture. Mrs. Victim is yelling and screaming. (para. 10)

By the end, corpses litter the green suburban lawn (Figure 10). Mr. and Mrs. Victim are dead, and so are the neighbors, who had been trying to get in the Box.

Figure 9: Flames Engulf the Box in The Sims

Figure 10: The Grim Aftermath in The Sims

The power of Everygrey's "landscape of possibilities," to use Will Wright's characterization of his game (Wardrip-Fruin & Harrigan, 2004, p. 13), is that it allows the player to explore in a sustained way what happens when cruelty or apathy knows no limits. Making the most of the open-ended sandbox nature of The Sims, Evergrey unleashes a god-like violence that is pure and obliterating. Enacted in a world without laws, her act of violence, which is better understood as inaction, underscores the fact that both Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell and Jack Bauer in 24 are federal agents, acting on the behalf of the United States government. However much their acts of torture may violent law, they still operate, however brutally, in the dialectic between law and violence.

Superceding the relationship between law and violence, Evergrey has inadvertently illustrated with The Sims what happens when the state of exception becomes the rule. The result is what Agamben calls the "materialization of the state of exception": a kind of prison camp (1998, p. 174). The archetype of the camp for Agamben is the Nazi concentration camp, but his idea encompasses any number of contemporary internment centres, from camps for Darfurian refugees to the CIA's secret "black site" prisons in Europe and Asia, where unknown numbers of "illegal enemy combatants" are held (Priest, 2005, p. A1). In camps like these, prisoners are "stripped of every right" and live a "bare life" of simple survival (Agamben, 1998, p. 183), a bare life that could barely be called living. Functioning in a legal netherworld, a space "outside the normal juridical order" where law itself is suspended, the camp's inhabitants can be subjected to the most demeaning, brutal acts of cruelty, and yet not one "act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime" (Agamben, 1998, pp. 169-171). Everygrey's Box is exactly this: a virtual realization of the ideal form of the state of exception, the camp, where one may kill with impunity.

A Counter Pedagogy for Virtual Torture

How can we parlay the seemingly marginal instance of torture in videogames into a broader exploration of the pedagogical implications -- and potential -- of these games? Splinter Cell, 24: The Game, and even The Sims are fictive, imagined representations of reality, not reality itself. Yet these imagined representations of reality nonetheless reveal much about how we think about the real world -- how we envision it working, what we regard as proper or wrong, who we imagine possesses power, and who we imagine suffers as a result.

If we consider 24: The Game and The Sims side-by-side, there is an obvious difference between the two games: there is no secret, not even a fabricated one, that the Sims can reveal to stop their torture. The tortured Sims have no answer. The reason there is no answer in The Sims is because there is no question. Everygrey's playing of The Sims disrupts what Elaine Scarry counts as the two distinct acts that structure torture: the physical and the verbal. The physical act consists of pain and cruelty: the chokehold in Splinter Cell or the gun at Daniels' head in 24. The verbal act consists of the torturer's questions and the victim's answers. Scarry argues that "almost anyone looking at the physical act of torture would be immediately appalled and repulsed by the torturers" (p. 35). However, when torture enters into the realm of language, the victim's pain becomes secondary while his "answer" becomes primary. As the verbal act takes centre stage, an inversion of power and sympathy occurs, in which the question is injudiciously translated into "the motive," justifying the interrogator and his techniques. Meanwhile the victim's answers become a betrayal -- a weakness, an act of treachery against his comrades and his cause. But what happens when there is no question, when there is no answer? First, it becomes evident that the dream of perfect information is really only the dream of perfect justification. Second, political expediency, the engine driving torture in Splinter Cell and 24, is laid bare in The Sims as simple sadism.

I wonder, then, if we can leverage Evergrey's Box -- her distillation of the state of exception -- into a counter pedagogy of virtual torture. With their detailed game manuals, on-screen tutorials, and interface designs, Splinter Cell and 24: The Game teach players how to interrogate virtual victims, a skill, I should be clear, that does not translate into the real world. But can games also teach us not to interrogate, a way of thinking that could translate into the real world? Retaining the look and feel of interrogation -- confinement, humiliation, denying basic needs and withholding medical care -- but missing the verbal component that Scarry identifies, Everygrey's playing of The Sims suggests the possibility of a third act aside from the physical and the verbal that might reframe virtual torture in videogames, a third act that if not an explicit part of gameplay can nonetheless be adopted by players. I will tentatively call this act the deliberation. With its root in the Latin noun libra, meaning a balance or a pair of scales, and its several senses that all suggest careful consideration, intentionality, and a measured pace that will not be hastened by outside pressure, the act of deliberation fills the space between action and inaction, between the touch of a button and an act of torture.

In his classic work Man, Play, and Games, Roger Caillois calls gameplay an "uncertain activity. Doubt must remain until the end." Using the example of a card game, Caillois continues, "When the outcome is no longer in doubt, play stops and the players lay down their hands" (1979, p. 7). In other words, the more certain a player is, the more information he or she possesses, the closer the game is to collapsing under its own weight, leaving no space for Erfahrung to develop. This is of course one of the great pleasures of gaming, a thrilling experience itself that should not be discounted or devalued. But it is also a perplexing economy: instead of experience producing knowledge and understanding, it triggers erasure, amnesia.

I propose that the purposeful act of deliberation -- the pause that stands still against the tide of the game -- recuperates Erfahrung from Erlebnis, transforming isolated moments of pure information into an experience weighty with resonances from the past and present. Deliberation is palpably evident in Evergrey's commentary in the sense that her blog post is an accounting of her actions and their consequences, a story in which we can discern, however sardonic it may be, a kernel of counsel for her readers. She makes her violence legible, something altogether missing from the United States' approach to the War on Terror and the videogame representations of this war. Consider 24: The Game: despite the extreme measures the game takes to codify the stress and pain produced by interrogation, the net effect is to obfuscate violence rather than elucidate it. The only aspect of 24: The Game that invites deliberation is the end-of-mission score screen (Figure 11), which a counter-pedagogy should seize upon as an opportunity for reflection about the methodology and goals of torture-interrogation.

Figure 11: Scoring the Interrogation in 24: The Game

Imagine an in-game mechanism that allows players to comment upon their statistics with their own thoughts about what went wrong during their interrogation, or what was wrong or impractical with the way the interrogation was imagined by the game designers. Imagine players uploading their interrogations to YouTube and annotating their gameplay. Imagine other players, or even non-players, commenting upon these videos. What would be the impact of these tactics, which are similar to the kind of pedagogical interventions Gonzalo Frasca envisions in "Videogames of the Oppressed," his farsighted application of Augusto Boal's efforts to ferment critical thinking through performance (Frasca, 2004). Rather than encouraging a fetishization of verisimilitude or a desire to meet or exceed the game's arbitrary scoring rubric, I believe the result could be a thoughtful deliberation, in which the problematics of torture might be clarified. Deliberation -- weighing torture in videogames, not in some abstract sense, but in a way attentive to the particulars of individual games -- offers a way to begin questioning the production of power and knowledge in the global War on Terror. Tortured AI characters in videogames produce only artificial intelligence, if any at all. Video games themselves, however, have much to teach us, about the failure of information, the failure of intelligence, the failure of experience.


[1]Shortly after Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill (documented at, it was challenged in court by two trade groups, the Video Software Dealers Association and the Entertainment Software Association. A federal judge quickly issued a preliminary injunction on First Amendment grounds, and in August, 2007, the judge reaffirmed his initial decision and repealed the law (see VSDA v. Schwarzenegger, 2007).

[2]24's producers worked closely with Sony to make sure that the feel and plotting of 24: The Game matched that of the television series. The "biggest difference" between the series and the game, according to Duppy Demetrius, a writer for the show and lead writer for the game, was "how much I'm able to blow up" (Hermida, 2006).

[3] The screen shots included in this essay were taken from my own playing of 24: The Game, which I have recorded and reproduced on YouTube:

[4] Evergrey's original Sims post was "friendslocked" -- meaning only select friends could read the entry. With Everygrey's permission, one of these friends reproduced the entire entry on a separate, unlocked blog. All quotations (with Evergrey's idiosyncratic punctuation preserved ) and images come from this "mirrored" version. The images have since disappeared from the mirror, so I have reproduced many of them here.


I would like to extend a special thanks to my colleague Byron Hawk for his thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this paper. I am also in debt to the Cultural Studies community at George Mason University, whose feedback on a presentation of these ideas at an embryonic stage was valuable as well. Finally I am deeply appreciative of the perceptive suggestions of my reviewers at Game Studies.


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