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Nocturnal Rumination: Morality in Games

16 Nov

(I wrote this initially for design philosophy for Cultura)

All right, so I hit another detour on writing up things about Physical Combat again, but that’s okay, right?  (It’s just the idea of narrative is so damned interesting!)  I fully recognize my bias in this situation: I dig the anthropology of the mind as related to culture and society.  Blame Justin Achilli’s last two blog posts as the reason for this one (they are really interesting) and the thing I said before.  So, it’s not entirely my fault.

For brevity’s sake, here is the way that I believe development of a human agent occurs: we’re born a blank slate, learning at our mother’s knee and feet (we get language, socialization, enculturation, and generally the ways in which we became altogether good, intelligent people from mama) and often through our father’s actions and words.  As we develop, first out, our culture is printed on us exactly like biological DNA (we learn morality, foodways, traditions, kinship, &c).  Then, we enter society, slowly at first, learning to join the solidarity of the structure in which we live (herein we learn about deviance, civics, conflict, &c).

The shallow and pedantic academe aside, it is important to understand this, because you begin understanding how it works on you. You also find that great narratives involve an instance of deviance (pick a Greek play, a Chekov drama, Shakespeare did as well, any of the god stories from the Celts).  Not all characters violate the culture or society, there has to be some way to make this more meaningful than just something like this: “I’m Evil, so I run around kicking babies and stealing their gum!” or “I’m Good, I pray and save damsels from towers.”  I realize full well this is a genre convention, but I’ll be damned if it’s not something that’s entirely played out.

History is replete with stories of peasant heroes, burned at the stake or drawn and quartered because they violated the law of the land (I’m looking at you William Wallace, Wat Tyler, and Guy Fawkes). It also has the ends of tyrants who did deserve to die and monarchs that quite possibly didn’t deserve to die (the Romanovs, Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette).  Problem is: if you go too deep, the narrative suffers just as much as saying: “KICK DOWN THAT DOOR! I BET THERE’S TREASURE ‘ROUND HERE!”

I don’t pretend to have the answer to this question, nor do I pretend there’s a right way.  I believe that Worldview/Alignment/Humanity/Morality (whatever you call it) has to work for the system you’re developing.  The more narrative based the system or game gets the more nuanced and structured this system should be (this is not to say the more complicated, mind you).  To an extent, the answer for, at least Cultura, is the idea of moral plurality in which the agent’s (a.k.a: Player Character) culture and society inform their actions.

Plurality

Pluralism means simply this: “there’s a whole bunch of different ideas that comprise a specific X (in our article’s case, morality).”  More pointedly, pluralism is often known as relativism when applied to people (same concept, different name).  Obviously this opens a massive can of worms into which we can dig, but moreover this level of detail is pedantic.

Laid bare for a sort of interesting means, good and evil are values ascribed arbitrarily by the cultures in question.  An act is none of the above: good, evil, or neutral.  Until they are defined by the culture viewing them, that is.  Generally, an action is either positive, negative, or nil sum for the culture or society in question.

Now, obviously, most cultures agree on somethings, such as proper care for the dead, murder, incest, stealing, and so forth. At this point, we’re really not discussing that.  We’re discussing whether one can act mostly in a negative way (jadedly cynical, sarcastic, crude, selfish) and still be a participating member of society.  The answer to that question depends on the position of the society and way they do with people that blatantly violate its rules.

Some cultures ostracize; others kill; others remove body parts; still others yet repurpose the individual into something else.  Peoples in a game world modeled after medieval European peasantry are going to view things in a very black and white context (“She’s a witch! BURN HER!”)  However, another group may merely smirk at the thought of the caster that bewitches her foes and controls their minds, labeling her as what she truly is and repurposing her into their structure (Aztecs and Celts were really good at this).

What the hell does this mean?

Earnestly, it only matters insomuch as the player cares about it and is given the chance to care about it, which returns us to the narrative of a story.  If, for example, a character takes newly dead bodies and begins researching on them, he would most likely be considered Evil and quite possibly excommunicated from his church (see European physicians).  He may perceive his action for the greater Good, but one can be damned sure the Church isn’t going to see this as a happy and healthy pursuit.  Yet, the Church is more than willing to send Inquisitors about searching for and burning people as witches and warlocks.

Conversely, a character may commit a crime or not be able to fill their social obligations.  Instead of running that person from the culture, they may be labeled as “Evil,” cursed, and unable to do what normal members of that group do.  Yet, they still fill a role within that society (you’ll see this in a group of Elves in Cultura).

In the long run, it is the player’s choice for their character’s actions.  The responsibility for good, or evil, is to that choice.  If one decides to steal and gets caught, they will pay the penalties for it or attempt to escape.  Being held to the decisions your character makes should be the hallmark of a good story guide and the other players in the group.  I mean, if you steal gold from a noble, there’s a high likelihood they’ll be after you and your friends with haste.

The simple question is: what are you willing to do and for what reasons?

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