The Gamification of Interrogation

As recent events have reminded us, torture for the purposes of interrogation is a part of our cultural heritage in the United States.

And, so are games.

But what about the combination of the two?

Games featuring harsh interrogation techniques are rare, but they’re out there. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about interrogation itself in the real world, and how it is often framed by its proponents as a game.

In its crudest characterization, interrogation is a game of imperfect information between two opposing players. One player has information the other wants. And the game is getting that information. It’s a transaction, not much different in this characterization than playing a hand of Authors. I have three Rudyard Kiplings and I’m pretty sure you have the fourth, and I’m going to keep asking for it until you give it to me. If, in the meantime, I get a couple unwanted Washington Irvings, well, then, that’s how the game goes.

This characterization is horrific, erasing the psychological and physical toll of interrogation, not to mention its moral and ethical failings, yet, at its essence this is how advocates describes the practice of torture-interrogation.

We need look no further than the CIA’s infamous 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual (a copy of which could often found on the set of 24). The manual begins with these words of encouragement, reminiscent of a coach’s pre-game pep talk:

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.

The KUBARK manual goes on to outline various non-coercive and coercive methods of gathering “counterintelligence information” from uncooperative sources. Nearly fifty years later, some of the coercive techniques remain uncomfortably familiar: electric shock, self-inflicted pain, 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. Interrogation is not only a game, it’s a fun game.

Consider the page here (larger image), excerpted from a section on “Techniques of Non-Coercive Interrogation Methods of Resistant Sources.”

Page 75 of the KUBARK Manual
Page 75 of KUBARK (1963)

The first part of this page details an interrogation tactic that taps into the victim’s deep psychological need to feel intelligent, to feel useful. KUBARK explains that “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 victim questions he couldn’t possibly know the answer to. And then, when the interrogator finally asks something the victim does know, he’s more willing to answer. The tactic is similar to asking whether Professor Plum killed Mr. Boddy in the ballroom with the candlestick in a game of Clue, knowing full well that your opponent can’t possibly answer two-thirds of the question because you’re holding Professor Plum and the ballroom in your own hand.

In the case of KUBARK, the CIA imagines that after being asked impossible questions (often questions which emphasize the victim’s low rank in his organization’s hierarchy of command), the victim often experiences a “tremendous feeling of relief…when [the interrogator] finally asks you something you can answer.”

Where do I see the humor? Look at heading of this section: “Spinoza and Mortimer Snerd”—two examples of arcane topics that the victim presumably knows nothing about. It’s a form of trivial pursuit before there was Trivial Pursuit. 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: What a great name for a rock band!

A quick search revealed two facts: first, that Mortimer Snerd was, alongside the more famous Charlie McCarthy, one of the characters of the great puppeteer and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen; and two, that in the seventies Mortimer Snerd was indeed the name of a small-time rock band—supposedly the first Kiss tribute band, in turns out.

That’s trivia worth being tortured for. But should the CIA ever come knocking at my door, at least now I know the answer. And I know who this Spinoza fellow is, too. He’s the philosopher who said “unusquisque tantum juris habet, quantum potentia valet“—translated by Schopenhauer as “each man has as much right as he has power.”

Might makes right? An appropriate allusion after all in a playbook written for interrogators and torturers.

[Interrogation Room photograph courtesy of Flickr user Jane Houle / Creative Commons License]


  1. Great article on a disturbing topic. Black humour also helps people in-humanize each other.

    Just as people view interrogation as a game, I think we’re seeing more of it in best-selling video game titles. It also made me realize that games featuring “enhanced interrogation” or torture were rare when the article you linked to was written, but less so. Both recent games in the ridiculously popular Call of Duty series have featured torture, briefly in Modern Warfare 2 but as a central plot device in Black Ops. And much was made in reviews of Splinter Cell: Conviction of game mechanics that let you literally smash an “opponent” around a destructible environment.

    Certainly reflects how quickly the yard posts have shifted on this question, eh?

  2. It may be entirely coincidental that in the same day I was tweeted this post:…or perhaps not. One issue for me on integrating games into the curriculum is that it may take away freedom from students who
    a. don’t want to learn information through the games in the curricula or
    b. are adept at finding information directly, and not hidden through games which are acting less as games and more as “behavioral skinner boxes.”
    One game (well HL1 game mod) you may be interested in looking at further does not feature explicit acts of torture but does have the interesting aspect of the player trying to extract information from illegal immigrant detainees is “Escape from Woomera”. See

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