The Expressive Work of Spaces of Torture in Videogames
At the 2014 MLA conference in Chicago I appeared on a panel called “Torture and Popular Culture.” I used the occasion to revisit a topic I had written about several years earlier—representations of torture-interrogation in videogames. My comments are suggestive more than conclusive, and I am looking forward to developing these ideas further.
Today I want to talk about spaces of torture—dungeons, labs, prisons—in contemporary videogames and explore the way these spaces are not simply gruesome narrative backdrops but are key expressive features in popular culture’s ongoing reckoning with modern torture. Continue reading “Sites of Pain and Telling”→
In a recent post on the group blog Play the Past, I wrote about the way torture-interrogation is often described by its proponents as a kind of game. I wrestled for a long time with the title of that post: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” Why? Because I oppose the general trend toward “gamifying” real world activities—mapping game-like trappings such as badges, points, and achievements onto otherwise routine or necessary activities.
A better term for such “gamification” is, as Margaret Robertson argues, pointsification. And I oppose it. I oppose pointsification and the gamification of life. Instead of “gamifying” activities in our daily life, we need to meanify them—imbue them with meaning. The things that we do to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die, we need to see as worth doing in order to live, breathe, eat, laugh, love, and die. A leaderboard is not the path toward discovering this worthwhileness.
So, back to my title and what troubled me about it: “The Gamification of Interrogation.” I didn’t want this title to appear to be an endorsement of gamification. Perhaps the most cogent argument against both the practice of gamification and the rhetoric of the word itself comes from Ian Bogost, who observes that the contorted noun “gamification” acts as a kind of magic word, making “something seem easy to accomplish, even if it is in fact difficult.”
Ian proposes that we begin calling gamification what it really is. Because gamification seeks to “replace real incentives with fictional ones,” he argues that we call it “exploitationware”—a malevolent practice that exploits a user’s loyalty with fake rewards.
I’m skeptical that “exploitationware” will catch on, even among the detractor’s of gamification. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Its five syllables are so confrontational that even those who despise gamification might not be sympathetic to the word. Yet Ian himself suggests the way forward:
[quote]the best move is to distance games from the concept [of gamification] entirely, by showing its connection to the more insidious activities that really comprise it.[/quote]
And this is where my title comes in. I’ve connected gamification to an insidious activity, interrogation. I’m not trying to substitute a more accurate word for gamification. Rather, I’m using “gamification,” but in conjunction with human activities that absolutely should not be turned into a game. Activities that most people would recoil to conceive as a game.
The gamification of torture.
The gamification of radiation poisoning.
The gamification of child pornography.
This is how we disabuse the public of the ideology of gamification. Not by inventing another ungainly word, but by making the word itself ungainly. Making it ungamely.
Prison Tower Barb photo courtesy of Flickr user Dana Gonzales / Creative Commons License]
I’ve never seen a more fitting description of a rowing machine than in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man:
There was no fitness center in his hotel. He found a gym not far away and worked out when there was time. No one used the rowing machine. He half hated the thing, it made him angry, but he felt the intensity of the workout, the need to pull and strain, set his body against a sleek dumb punishing piece of steel and cable.
DeLillo captures the essence of the rowing machine: more than any other piece of exercise equipment, the rowing machine is a punishment, a throwback to the ancient days of galley slaves. But here the Barbary overlords with their whips and chains are internalized. Beset only by his own thoughts, the exerciser rows for dear life, chased by nothing and chasing nothing.
The rowing machine is a self-imposed disciplinary sentence. With every stroke, one’s very life seems at stake. It’s like trying to outrow death itself. A strenuous workout on a rowing machine is as close to drowning on dry land one can come.
It is also a pointless endeavor, and for DeLillo’s character, who has become a professional gambler in the wake of 9/11, its pointlessness is its very point. In true gambler fashion, he “half hates” the thing yet continues to submit to it. The anger it provokes is all that matters.
I’ve written before about the creepy interrogation manual the CIA issued in 1983 on “Human Resource Exploitation.” The precursor to this manual is the infamous Kubark report, written in 1963. This CIA document outlines various coercive and non-coercive methods of gathering “counterintelligence information” from uncooperative sources. Over forty years later, some of the coercive techniques remain uncomfortably familiar: electric shock, self-inflicted pain, and sensory deprivation in a cell (or even better, confinement in a “water-tank or iron lung”).
But even more disturbing than the interrogation techniques Kubark teaches is the report’s tone.
Kubark is written with a sense of humor.
Consider the page here (larger image), excerpted from a section on “Techniques of Non-Coercive Interrogation Methods of Resistant Sources.”
This page details an interrogation tactic that taps into the deep psychological need to feel intelligent. Kubark explains, “continued questioning about lofty topics that the source knows nothing about may pave the way for extraction of information at lower levels.” Quite simply, ask the subject questions he couldn’t possibly know the answer to. And then, when the interrogator asks something the subject probably does know the answer to, he’s more likely to answer. After being asked impossible questions (often questions which highlight the subject’s low rank in his organization’s hierarchy of command), the subject often experiences a “tremendous feeling of relief…when [the interrogator] finally asks you something you can answer.”
Now where do I see the humor? Look at heading of this section: “Spinoza and Mortimer Snerd”—two examples of lofty topics that the victim presumably knows nothing about.
It’s supposed to be a joke, but there is a serious disconnect between the material and the gratuitously obscure allusions in the heading.
Especially when you consider who Mortimer Snerd is.
I’ll admit—I didn’t know myself. My first thought was just as incongruous as the CIA’s little joke: Wow, now that’s a great name for a rock band.
A quick search revealed two things: first, that Mortimer Snerd was, alongside the more famous Charlie McCarthy, one of the characters of the great puppeteer and ventriloquist Edgar Bergren; and two, that in the seventies Mortimer Snerdwas the name of a small-time rock band—supposedly the first Kiss tribute band, in fact.
Now that’s trivia worth being tortured for. But should the CIA ever come knocking at my door, at least I now know the answer. Now I just have to figure out who this Spinoza fellow is.
Jane Mayer, an uncompromising journalist who’s become a thorn in the side of the Bush administration (for her reporting on current U.S. torture tactics and the method of “extraordinary rendition”), has written a New Yorker profile of Joel Surnow, one of the creators of the hit television show 24. Her profile focuses on Surnow’s support of torture and his show’s over-reliance on what security experts call the “ticking time bomb scenario”—a hypothetical situation used in 24 to justify torture, but which has never occurred in real life.
In her article, Mayer reveals that “several copies of the C.I.A.’s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual can be found at the ’24’ offices.” I find this simply amazing. The KUBARK manual, which I mentioned in an earlier post on the CIA , is infamous for its straightforward tips on how to conduct coercive interrogations. Even more amazing, the lead writer for 24 admits that most of the torture scenes in 24 are not inspired by the CIA. Gordon tells Mayer, “for the most part, our imaginations are the source. Sometimes these ideas are inspired by a scene’s location or come from props—what’s on the set.” Gordon goes on to say that he (and reportedly Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jack Bauer) are running into torture “fatigue.” They’re getting tired of it.
Maybe they should, as U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan (who also happens to be the dean at West Point) suggests, “do a show where torture backfires.” Because in real life, that’s what happens. Not only is torture illegal and unethical. It simply doesn’t work.
Here is Mayer herself, talking about torture in 24:
My current research project revolves around the use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror”—and I’m uncovering a wealth of astonishing, depressing material, much of it compliments of the U.S. government.
Here is a page from a top secret CIA manual on “Human Resource Exploitation,” distributed by CIA trainers in Latin America in the seventies and eighties (the full manual, along with its precursor, the notorious “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual from 1963, are available at the excellent National Security Archive). If you click the image for a larger version, you can read the CIA’s suggestions for the best way to arrest individuals hostile to the current government (say, labor organizers in Honduras):
The manner and timing of arrest should be planned to achieve surprise and the maximum amount of mental discomfort. He should therefore be arrested at a moment when he least suspects it and when his mental and physical resistance is at its lowest. Ideally in the early hours of the morning. When arrested at this time, most subjects experience intense feelings of shock, insecurity, and psychological stress and for the most part have great difficulty adjusting to the situation. It is also important that the arresting party behave in such a manner as to impress the subject with their efficiency.
Wow. This wouldn’t be out of place in some Gestapo training manual, would it? The CIA’s advised method–strike at dawn, be efficient, disorient your victim–reminds me of the so-called Dew Breakers of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s ruthless regime in Haiti, the secret police who would come shortly before dawn (thus breaking the dew) to arrest and torture anyone who dared speak out against Duvalier. (Edwidge Danticat eloquently writes about one such officer of the Tonton Macoutes in her novel The Dew Breaker.)
My hats off to the CIA for their insights and inspiration to all those aspiring fascists out there. Way to export democracy, guys.