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When Real Violence Inspires Virtual Reality

David Furst/Getty Images

From 2003 to 2009, Camp Bucca was a detention facility used by the U.S. military to house prisoners from the Iraq War. As early as 2004, news reports surfaced that the camp was the site of prisoner abuse and torture. Some military experts have linked this abuse and torture to the formation of the Islamic State, or ISIS, group.

By the end of 2016, gamers might have the chance to step into Camp Bucca and torture a few detainees of their own virtually, playing a new game under development in Pittsburgh.

War-themed video games are many, varied and successful. Games from the “Call of Duty” franchise have sold more than 175 million copies since 2003. These games are usually focused on fast-paced action or precise strategy, involving game play that might be morally questionable but is usually contextualized as “good guys” fighting “bad guys.”

The “Camp Bucca” game breaks from this, because it doesn’t frame the player as one of the “good guys.” It follows a lead set by games such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”: In that game’s “No Russian” campaign, players are asked to brutally massacre an airport full of civilians. The best-selling “Grand Theft Auto V” also features an interactive torture scene.

Does including torture or other human rights violations in video games trivialize the actions? Or might it force us to think more critically about them? To answer this question, we have to understand video games and their connection to moral behaviors.

(Very) brief history of gaming and moral panics

One of the first public debates about the antisocial impact of video games on players centered around the 1976 release of “Death Race” – an arcade driving game in which players earned points by running over human-like figures called “gremlins.” The fact that “Death Race” required players to use an actual steering wheel and gas pedal magnified the concerns: Psychiatrist Gerald Driessen suggested that the game amounted to a murder simulator.

Gaming scholar Carly Korucek argues that the public controversy surrounding this game cemented a link in the public mindset between video games and violence – a debate that has continued with games such as “Mortal Kombat,” “DOOM” and “Grand Theft Auto” providing commentators plenty of fodder.

Yet one of the simplest and most enduring descriptions of video games comes from noted game designer Sid Meier (of “Civilization” fame), who argued that the best ones are “a series of interesting decisions.” One way in which game developers are making games more interesting for players is by presenting them with a range of options of varying moral consequence. Some criticize these games for being too simplistic in how they portray “good” and “evil.” But some studies are starting to show that committing moral atrocities in video games can trigger authentic guilt reactions, which might result in causing players to reconsider their decisions, both in the game and in real life.

Gaming and moral disengagement

On its face, playing games that feature and simulate torture might be incredibly dangerous. Taking a basic interpretation of noted psychologist Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory, many scholars argue that video games encourage players (notably, children) to model the behaviors they perform on-screen. Simply put, scholars such as psychologist and communication researcher L. Rowell Huesmann assert that violent video games are a public health threat because they encourage both short-term and long-term aggression.

Other scholars have argued that playing video games with antisocial messages (usually focused on aggressive actions) encourages players to morally disengage from actions in the real world, such as cheating and hostility. Related to this, some have suggested that video games can desensitize players’ reactions to the content, especially after repeated exposures.

Gaming and moral reflection

This paints a rather grim picture of video games featuring antisocial themes. Yet directly linking violent gaming to violent reaction is an oversimplification of what can happen when human players encounter inhuman actions. And some of these findings have been challenged in recent reviews of research.

Game designer and scholar Ian Bogost suggests that video games have matured past a simple focus on entertainment, and our understanding of gaming uses and effects has to mature as well. One of his more provocative arguments focuses on the role of gaming as a source of disgust and disinterest.

Bogost argues that when players experience games such as “The Torture Game 2,” they are often repulsed by the gruesome violence that typifies human torture. In a sense, this disgust reaction is a pro-social one: It encourages the player to reject rather than embrace the on-screen behavior. A real-world example of Bogost’s claims, the Coney Island “Waterboard Thrill Ride,” an animatronic exhibit demonstrating what waterboarding was really like, operated from June to September of 2008 as activist Steve Powers’ way of showing the harsh realities of a practice that people have often heard about but rarely seen.

Gaming and moral meaning

Video games can elicit reactions that are introspective, reflective and somber, especially when players are focused on the increasingly complex narratives in gaming. Unlike film and television, gamers are active coauthors of their experiences, and have been shown to actively avoid committing moral violations when given the choice – especially if those moral concerns were particularly important to the player. Just as we rarely lambaste Stephen Spielberg’s classic movie “Schindler’s List” for encouraging pogroms, it is inaccurate to assume that the only reaction that players can have to questionable video game content is an antisocial one.

As argued by game designer and writer Walt Williams, not all video games frame the player as a hero. Williams’s own “Spec Ops: The Line” is one such example. In the game (a third-person shooter), the player takes control of Captain Martin Walker as he leads an elite Delta Force through a post-war Dubai under rebel military command. A key narrative mechanic of the game hinges on a series of morally gray decisions that players must make in order to advance the story.

One such decision is the infamous “White Phosphorous” episode, in which players are forced to use a chemical weapon on an invading force, only to find out after the fact that the “enemies” were largely civilian refugees under military escort. After using the weapon, the player encounters in graphic detail the horrors of chemical warfare, losing the support of his troops and slowly falling into mental decline. Such a game uses intense and interactive violence to decry warfare, rather than celebrate and glorify it.

What will we learn from playing ‘Camp Bucca’?

As a way of testing how games affect our feelings, I’ve shown my students “The Torture Game 2” and asked them to view game play from the “White Phosphorous” episode – I keep both games in my office for play as well. At the risk of providing small-sample anecdote as scientific argument, their reactions range from anger to shock to repulsion. Few if any seem to enjoy the content, and most are quick to denounce it. Of course, these are students enrolled in college courses aimed at discussing the complexity of media effects.

We don’t know, for example, if somebody who has less ability or interest in contextualizing the game’s torture might have a different reaction: Someone with very strong and negative opinions toward ISIS might relish the opportunity to torture a terrorist. The Red Cross has even asked game developers to prevent players from violating the Geneva Conventions in video games, or at least to punish such violations. Not to mention, an individual with psychopathic tendencies might respond very different to this content.

The context in which a game is played can have an important influence on whether antisocial game content has negative effects. In the case of “Camp Bucca,” the developers seem to be contextualizing torture as a root cause of terrorism, rather than situating it as an achievement or mark of success. In fact, they point out that their game has a “deliberate message” – even if that message is as simple as encouraging players to Google “Camp Bucca.”

Media commentator Amanda Jean wrote that “‘Camp Bucca’’s level of stark, intimate violence and its basis in reality will be a hard pill for many gamers to swallow. For me, I know I won’t be swallowing that pill at all.” Jean is likely right that “Camp Bucca” is hardly an enjoyable game, but as media psychologist Mary Beth Oliver and I discussed, not all games are meant to be enjoyed and not all gamers are motivated by enjoyment. In under 100 years, film evolved from technical demonstrations to emotionally gripping and serious storytelling. Game developer Jesse Schell similarly argues that video games are evolving into a serious storytelling medium.

On this trajectory, games such as “Camp Bucca” might not be a fun pill to swallow, but it could be an incredibly meaningful one for players, albeit a little jagged.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.