Game Theory: Torture's Banner Year 

Cruel, inhumane methods are popping up in the Sims franchise--and in real life.

Electrocution or drowning? Fire or starvation? What's your favorite method of torture and execution? These days, everyone seems to have an opinion.

Just take a look at the dozens of user-generated torture manuals available online. Authored by nurses, lawyers, and even high-school students, these witty documents feature humorous pictures of victims in their final death throes.

"I burn them, trap them in a room while having a party, then set everything unto fire and watch them burn till they die. After that, well ... I just do something else to torture them," writes one executioner.

"I refused to let Michael use the toilet, just to see what would happen," confesses another, "and he eventually peed on the floor. When flies began buzzing around the garbage on the carpet, I decided not to let him play on the computer until he'd cleaned up the mess he'd made. And as a final indignity, I removed his refrigerator and waited to see how long it would take him to starve to death. The answer: two days."

Don't worry. These victims are composed of electrons, computer bits, and behavioral algorithms. They live out their days in the imaginary world of the Sims franchise--a beloved game series that gives players God-like control over an entire universe of simulated beings.

If you were to add up all of the Sims who have suffered such indignities during the past 12 months, comparing the tally to the number of flesh-and-blood people who experienced unfathomable pain during the same time period, which number would be higher?

Setting aside the more prolonged and subtle forms of human deprivation (e.g. malnourishment, underdevelopment, and death by diarrhea) and focusing exclusively on the intentional infliction of pain and suffering, we can confidently proclaim that 2006 was a banner year for torture.

Late last year, Saddam Hussein swung at the end of a rope. His execution was said to be just punishment for the deposed dictator's reign of terror in the 1980s and 1990s. Iraq's national-security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told CNN that Saddam "was a broken man. He was afraid. You could see fear in his face."

On Christmas day, British troops raided a police station in Basra, rescuing 127 prisoners from a "fetid dungeon" in which they had been unfairly imprisoned. According to witnesses cited by The New York Times, "some had crushed hands and feet ... while others had cigarette and electrical burns and a significant number had gunshot wounds to their legs and knees."

The previous week, a Navy veteran named Donald Vance filed a federal lawsuit alleging that he had been imprisoned for three months by American soldiers in Iraq's Camp Cropper. Like so many aggrieved Sims, the American citizen says that he was denied food and water for extended periods of time and exposed to interrogation techniques that approached torture. "I couldn't believe they did this to any human being," he told the Associated Press.

And all this during the month of December.

The ubiquity of torture imagery has not been confined to the back pages of our daily newspapers. In movie theaters around the nation, a new subgenre of horror films such as Hostel, Wolf Creek, and Tourist revolves around the graphic depiction of torture. Die-hard horror aficionados have expressed their disappointment with these films that subordinate slasher suspense to what Roger Ebert calls a "sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty."

Torture also dominated critically lauded entertainment titles. Daniel Craig wowed audiences with his stellar performance in Casino Royale, with many reviewers praising the perfectly sculpted physique that he displayed during a lengthy interrogation sequence. Commenting on a similar scene in a recent episode of Sleeper Cell, the critic Jonathan Toomey observed "when the idea of television was first conceived, I don't think it was ever expected that it could feel this satisfying."

Of course, other media forms are given less leeway when it comes to the depiction of torture. During the summer, a cross-platform game based on Tarantino's groundbreaking film Reservoir Dogs was pilloried by journalists and politicians for its explicit violence. Many expressed understandable concern about "signature torture moves" that made it possible to murder captives by pistol-whipping them, melting their eyes with cigarette embers, and chopping off their fingers one at a time. New Zealand officials made it a crime to distribute or even possess the game.

Few can deny that there is something troubling about torture in video games. We're not just watching the atrocities unfold on the screen when playing these games; we're actually directing the pain ourselves. Surely, there is something even more disturbing about torture in the real world of flesh and blood humanity. As Americans, we are all connected to the atrocities that unfold in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Camp Cooper. We avoid thinking about such atrocities, but we cannot escape moral culpability by pretending that they don't exist.

As we gear up for the 2008 presidential elections, politicians will try to shore up their moral credentials by criticizing the never-ending tide of violent video games. Yet, isn't it more important to stop the real torture of real human beings that happens in our name?

This story originally appeared in the San Antonio Current.

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