Splinter Cell: Conviction and the Question of Torture

I’ve been thinking a bit too much about “Nerd-Culture” lately, about the entertainment I enjoy and why I enjoy it.  One of the things that interest me and bother me the most is the idea of violence and the roll I take in the violence.  What does it say about me if I enjoy it?  And I do.  I really do enjoy it.  The reason I’m thinking about this now is the upcoming game, Splinter Cell: Conviction and the beating scene at the beginning of the game.  When the game starts, the games hero (and my hero, Mr. Sam Fisher) walks into bathroom and starts beating the tar out of a guy, looking for information on the person who killed his daughter.  Sam Fisher punches the guy’s head through a porcelain sink.  He punches his head through a wooden door, knees him until the door breaks behind the guy, smashes his head into a mirror and so on.  Sam says, “This doesn’t stop until you tell me.”  And this is gameplay.  The player will be making Sam do different violent acts in order to gain information from the thug.  I, the gamer, will beat a guy, a virtual guy but still a guy, until I get information that I need to get what I want.  Is that torture?  And is that ok?  Are we crossing a line?

Yes, I am threading the new Splinter Cell game into the Torture debate.  I think the fact that the scene is even in the game reflects how the Torture debate has become part of our cultural index.  The debate, essentially, is whether or not we should torture people in order to gain information we need to save lives.  The Obama Administration has said “No”.  Others have said yes, and that we have and that we should.  Beating people to gain intelligence isn’t new and it happens more than we think.  But I can’t remember a video game that I’ve ever played that has allowed me to actively engage in it.  Or have I?  In the very first Splinter Cell games, Sam is allowed to sneak up behind a non-playable character, choke the NPC, and ask him for information.  It is called “Interrogations”.  In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, you even put a knife to the NPC’s neck.  Is that torture? In the article Virtual Torture: Video Games and the War on Terror written by Mark L. Sample last year, he says yes, yes it is.

“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’”.

The prevailing justification is always that beating, threatening or torturing bad people is fine, and that if the bad people weren’t doing something bad we wouldn’t have to torture them and beat them to get the information.  And the Sam Fisher character has even more justification because these bad people have killed his daughter.  Why not beat the crap out of them?  Same goes for the terror suspect after September 11, 2001.  Thousands of Americans died because of them.  Why not torture them.  Wait?  You are saying that the Splinter Cell scenario and 9/11 are two different things?  I would argue no.

There isn’t a difference between the two because there are other ways to get information, and that is what bugs me about the new Splinter Cell game.  In the old Splinter Cell games, you had to sneak around and overhear conversations.  You had to steal data from computers. You had to break into offices and find files.  You gathered information through detective techniques.  Yes, you could “interrogate” NPCs, but that was an option.  You didn’t have to do it if you didn’t want to.  In fact, if you took your time, you could avoid being seen or heard by any enemy in the game.  It took you longer and was more difficult, but it was completely possible.  The same goes for the CIA.  There are other ways to find out intelligence.  Beating someone or torturing them is, perhaps, a quicker way.  But it is also the easier way.  It is also the riskier of options.  What someone tells you under duress could be factually off.  They could be lying.  People can do that.  Data and files and surveillance can too, but not as easily.  And evidence gathered under a beating can’t hold up in a court of law.  Torture is also, you know, evil.

So what does this say about the new Splinter Cell?  Will Sam Fisher dig through files and look for information and gather evidence and intelligence?  Or will he beat people up until he gets what he wants?  And do I have a choice? Is this a sign that the Splinter Cell series is going down a more brawny, tough guy avenue after years of being stealth and spy orientated?  And what does that say about me as a person if I actively want to beat a guy up and that I enjoy the process?  These are questions I don’t have the answer to. But these are questions we as gamers might have to start asking ourselves in this new world that we live in.