Thursday, November 03, 2011

My Thoughts On Norn Torture

OK, first, a background. There is a series of games called Creatures. Currently, the series includes Creatures 1, 2 and 3, as well as a free game called Creatures Docking Station, and two children's games called Creatures Adventures and Creatures Playground, and soon there'll be a free-to-play online game Creatures 4. In each game, you raise these creatures called norns (though there are other species some players choose to raise instead, who differ only superficially from norns).

The really interesting thing is that this isn't just a pets game. It's a simulation of life. The norns have their own biochemistry, and their own neural network brains, with the features of both being controlled by individual genetic codes. If two norns have a child, the child will have the features of both parents, as well as a few unique mutations. Over time, you could end up with a population of norns substantially different from the ones you started out with.

It's also a very open-ended game. The manuals and such suggest raising and nurturing your norns, but there are many other things you could do. I prefer to run experiments on my norns. Some people code injectible objects for the game, or create new breeds of norns. Some ignore the norns to play with the ecosystem in the game. Some raise the other two species - grendels and ettins - that are present in most of the games. Some leave their norns to their own devices to watch natural selection in action. And some decide to torture their norns for fun.

This last point caused an outcry in the Creatures Community. A Creatures player named AntiNorn put up a website about torturing norns, including several agents that would help torture norns, and some norns that he'd tortured. Several other Creatures players proceeded to flame him viciously and try to get his site shut down. Debates erupted on Creatures chat forums about the ethics of norn torture and whether norns counted as alive enough for animal rights.

This was all before my time with Creatures. AntiNorn has left the Creatures community, other norn torturers are active but much less vocal, and the 'norn rights' people have mostly gone silent as well. It's interesting how certain things become topical at one time and less so at another time. But anyway, I'm weighing in on this issue now.

I consider norns alive. My definition of life requires that a creature have inherited variations between individuals, that they need to eat to live and that they can die. Individual varieties of norns don't meet those criteria, but norns as a group certainly do. However, I don't think norn torture is wrong.

Here's my reasoning. What makes torture wrong for other living creatures? The simple answer is that it causes suffering. But it's not just the immediate suffering at the moment of torture, it's the psychological trauma that results which causes the bulk of the suffering. If torture caused only immediate suffering and no long term suffering, it would be much less problematic.

Well, that's what it does with norns. There are several cognitive mechanisms required for psychological trauma to occur. One of the big ones that is present in almost all lifeforms is classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian conditioning.

There are two types of conditioning - classical and operant. Operant conditioning is when a behavior is either rewarded or punished. If the behavior is rewarded, it becomes more frequent, and if it is punished it becomes less frequent. So, for example, if a rat is given a treat for pushing a bar then bar-pushing will increase, whereas if the bar's presses cause the floor to electrify, the rat will avoid pressing the bar. Operant conditioning also takes into account the environment; if bar pressing provides food when the light is off and shocks when it's on, the rat will press the bar only when the light is off.

Classical conditioning, first described by Pavlov, is when a stimulus that automatically causes a certain response is paired with another stimulus, and the new stimulus comes to trigger the same response. For example, a dog salivates when food is put in his mouth; when a bell is always rung before the food is delivered, the dog starts to salivate at the bell. Classical conditioning can also involve conditioned emotional reactions, such as conditioned fear.

In real-life creatures, classical conditioning is more basic than operant conditioning. Most creatures have both, those that only have one always have classical conditioning without operant conditioning. Norns are the opposite - they are capable of simple operant conditioning (though not chaining), but they aren't capable of classical conditioning.

Which means that when a norn is tortured, they go through all the unpleasant emotions of the torture, but once it's over and they've calmed down, they're fine. They may have some weird learnt behaviors, but they experience no more emotional distress than a norn who has been raised kindly all his/her life. Unlike humans or even many real-life animals, they won't feel terror at stimuli similar to the torture setting.

Of course, there's more to trauma than classical conditioning. But most of the other parts of trauma require even more complex cognition. Learnt helplessness, for example, requires the ability to realize that you can't do anything to stop the situation, which means you have to have a running tally of what you've tried and a systematic trial-and-error process instead of just random behavior. Losing the 'just world' illusion is another important part of trauma, but that requires that you have a worldview, that you're capable of forming a general conception of the world you live in, which is a pretty high-level ability. Disrupted attachment can be a consequence of certain types of trauma, but only for creatures who care for their young. C3/DS norns can learn to like or dislike individuals, but don't need emotional attachment - prior generations of norns can't even do that much, only form concepts of norns/grendels/ettins as a group. They show no more interest in their young as in any other juvenile norns, and the offspring themselves have no need for parental affection.

So, though I think norns are alive, I think it's fine to torture them, because they can't be traumatized. Sure, they can experience immediate suffering, but they experience immediate suffering when they are punished, when they try something that was a bad idea (eg eating rotting stuff) or when they do not address their own needs (eg not eating when hungry). I see no problem with norns experiencing immediate suffering at times.

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Blogger Futhark said...

Hello! Did you know the cwiki has moved? In case you'd be willing to update the links here, the links are HTTPS now, and the "" substring has gone away:

- AntiNorn is now at
- Creatures 4 is now at

9:52 PM  

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