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Being "Bad" in a game setting

Mister Nizz


Another Great Article from the Escapist

I have often mentioned articles in The Escapist, a free monthly gaming E-zine with professional standard layout and graphics and a surprising amount of authors involved in the gaming industry. Much of their material is focused on computer gaming, which I enjoy, but not nearly as much as the paper and metal kind. Every once in a while, though, you encounter a real gem, as I discovered in Issue 69 recently. In IS RAPE WRONG ON AZEROTH? author Bruce Sterling Woodcock opines on one of my personal favorite subjects, the idea that morality has a place in games.

Like many gamers who grew up in the '70s and '80s, my formative gaming experiences came not on the computer or the console, but on pen-and-paper, in the basement of a friend's house playing whatever RPG we happened to be into at the time. It was during one such session that my brother, the game master, confronted my character with a very carefully crafted encounter.

Below, in a small valley, lay a group of centaurs who were preparing to burn a small halfling at the stake. Now, I had no notion of this person's guilt or innocence, and I had no idea if the centaurs were administering justice or just being cruel. But instead of riding down into the valley on horseback and demanding an explanation as my brother had expected, my character instead quietly dismounted his steed, carefully got into a protected position in the hills above, and began to rain down missile attacks on the unsuspecting centaurs. thought nothing of the moral implications of such a decision: I had the tactical high ground! Charging down into a pack of potentially hostile centaurs would not only have meant giving up the combat advantages of both height and surprise, but could also very well have been suicide!

As an example of a moral gray area, that's questionable. I could tell stories of RPG evil that would make this author's hair turn white. However, I see where the author is going with this. He had no way of knowing if the hobbit had wronged the centaurs in some grevious manner, nor was he acquainted with centaur customs. Perhaps burning at the stake is par for the course in their view of morality?

Morality as an issue in gaming has been with us for many years. Very RARELY does a game design around the idea of morality, and that's the thrust of this article. The groundbreaking Ultima IV actually had a morality subsystem embedded into it-- you built the character's world view (and sense of good and evil) from a series of quite intricate questions the program asks you at the very beginning of the adventure. The result was a character that had a distinctive moral outlook, and woe be unto he who deviated from that world view! I remember that game, by Origins Systems, back in the late 80s or early 90s. I remember thinking all that "questiaonaire stuff" was pretty boring at the time, but looking back I can see where origins was going with this. For the first time in a gaming context, you were capabile of living in a logically consistent, ethical world with REAL CONSEQUENCES for transgressors. I love that. Many games have had little code bits hidden in the main engine to at least give the player some form of consequence for either a mistake (as noted in the next segment) or an outright evil action:

More recently, while I was playing The Godfather and battling with the game's rather imprecise targeting system, I found myself accidentally strangling an innocent woman who was passing by, instead of the well-dressed gangster I had intended. As I dragged her lifeless body into the nearby alleyway, I felt a growing unease in the pit of my stomach. Had I just turned the game into a serial murder simulator? I explored this possibility further, finding out just how many innocent women I could murder without raising too much heat from the police. Within minutes, I became quite disgusted with myself and couldn't even stand to play the game again for a day or two.

There were no real long-term consequences for killing multiple innocent civilians in the game; indeed, some amount of "collateral damage" was expected and built into the mechanics of the game so the player wouldn't be unduly punished for a few stray bullets. But the resulting freedom of choice actually had a much more profound effect on me than any cutscene of being arrested and hauled off to jail would have.

Woodcock cites Michael Ruse's somewhat well-known article "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?" (which I read qutie a few years ago and highly recommend-- it can be found in the collection THE DARWINIAN PARADIGM). He says:

"If intelligent alien species existed on other planets in the universe, they might have different notions of morality than our own. Taking his cue from the growing field of what is now known as evolutionary psychology, Ruse argued that much of what we consider moral is shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and natural selection. Indeed, many biologists today believe that a variety of beliefs and behaviors like justice, fairness, mutual cooperation, reciprocal altruism, proportionality, inclusive fitness, kin favoritism and even the instinct to protect children all evolved from basic biological behaviors that made those who followed such principles more likely to survive and pass those values on to their offspring."

That's an interesting mindview to approach gaming with. In essence, Woodcock is stating WE are the aliens, when we enter into a gaming world, no matter if your playing a graph paper and pencil RPG, wargame, or computer game. You are entering into a world that is pristine and free from our sense of reality. WE change the world by imposing our moral world view upon it. I'm not sure I would personally extend the paradigm quite that far, but it's an interesting point nonetheless. I have always thought that we play evil characters doing evil things (and yes, I certainly have done this before, but not lately) because it appeals to the worst part of our natures-- the adolescent desire to be God, to mete out our reality and impose it on others. The id is a nasty place to visit, as we all should know. When we find ourselves in a consequence free environment (only a game, right?), what monsters do we let forth?

IS RAPE WRONG ON AZEROTH? is a great article and a good companion piece to The Escapist's earlier
WHAT THE OTHER GUY THINKS, a fantastic essay on the life of the filler character. I recoomend the October issue highly, as it focuses entirely upon the idea of good and evil in gaming.