Some sites call them "ragdoll games"; others, the more honest ones, "torture games." All games of the genre have two characteristic features: a submissive, often restrained NPC and a bevy of tools the player can use to, well, hurt him. I say "him" because, from what I've seen, none of these games are about torturing women. Homoerotic sexual torture games and rape games arguably constitute formally similar but distinct sub-genres. In March of this year, Warner Brothers made a promotional game for A Nightmare On Elm Street called Keep Her Awake that shared many of the features of torture webgames, but it was quickly replaced with a non-interactive trailer after Boing Boing caused a small uproar.
Another commonality of torture webgames is a lack of contextual information. It's now fairly common to see "torture" missions in narrative-driven games, typically motivated by a need to force information from an NPC. These webgames aren't about intelligence-driven torture; they're about punishment. And one class of people that apparently isn't safe from representation in a torture webgame is the demagogue.
Ed Halter dedicates quite a few pages of From Sun Tzu to XBOX to the bin Laden whac-a-mole and torture games of the early 2000s. These games emerged soon after the 9/11 attacks, and, in many ways, they initiated the newsgames genre (though we now classify them as "tabloid games"). These bin Laden webgames are universally crude, brutish things. Torture Bin Laden lets players beat the villain with a baseball bat, cut him with a knife, or shoot him with a cruise missile to simulated applause. Osamagotchi conjures up a more twisted fantasy of revenge, featuring tools to keep bin Laden alive longer and the option to surround him with topless anime women.
Recently I came across a political torture game that I hadn't seen before, despite its 2006 release. The victim in this game is common in political games outside the United States, even though few Americans would recognize the name: Hassan Nasrallah is the Secretary General of Hezbollah, a figured reviled by Israelis because of his anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and guiding hand in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict. I wrote about two Nasrallah games (also covered by Halter's book) in my "History of Editorial Games, Part One." The most likely reason that I'd never come across this torture game before is that I hadn't been searching in Hebrew.
Of course, we have to do a little more legwork to understand why reputable institutions would participate in the creation of a torture advergame. All of the games I've found about Nasrallah were created in 2006, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict. In times of war, machismo runs high. It makes something resembling sense that a fitness center would advertise its facilities through politically charged artifacts such as these, especially considering Israel's compulsory military service. The logic goes something like, "keeping fit helps keep the country safe"; the imperative form would be: "keep fit and keep us safe."
Playing these games doesn't entail complicity or moral compromise. They're a window into the anxiety, anger, or delusion of their creators. Whatever torture webgames might be, there are two things that they definitely are not: they're not actual torture, and they don't require intent to actually torture from their players. Political torture webgames seem to be little more than contemporary voodoo dolls, therapeutic and benign. Both those religious ceremonies and these games take place inside a magic circle of play---and that is the extent of both their magics. Unfortunate things happen to people all the time; what is a voodoo doll but a culturally-situated way to externalize hopes that those unfortunate things happen a little sooner?