Monday, June 25, 2007

Player Ethics vs. Character Ethics

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
... "ethics" in STO should apply to us as players- the real humans behind the keyboards when we affect other real people behind real keyboards - and not as characters - digital avatars that affect numbers in a computer program.
Wow. That's a remarkable position to take. I have a really hard time agreeing that that's how virtual worlds in general and a Star Trek MMORPG in particular should be designed.

It seems to me that what we're talking about is the difference between a game world in which no one is capable of appropriately criticizing the behavior of another, versus one in which some things that are possible are not considered good behavior. I think of these competing constructions as "Shades of Gray" versus "Right and Wrong," respectively.

The big problem I have with asserting that MMORPGs should be designed according to the Shades of Gray model is that it ignores the concept of the "magic circle." This is the critical notion that everything that happens in an imagined world is real to the characters who inhabit and act in that world -- they exist inside a magic circle. Literature almost always follows this pattern -- the characters in a book don't talk or act as though they "know" they're merely fictional characters; they talk and act as though they're real and so is everyone else in that fictional world. Actors in a play or a TV show or a movie create the same illusion of reality. That's what being a "good actor" means.

This pretense of a magic circle in which unreal things are treated as real is what Coleridge called the "willing suspension of disbelief." It enables us to learn from unreal things by pretending that they are real. By agreeing to put ourselves inside the magic circle, we become able to understand what happens there with respect to our real lives. (This is also the power of myth that Joseph Campbell explored so thoroughly.)

Most RPGs are designed to produce the same effect. By building a world of places inhabited by characters with apparent intentionality, RPGs create a magic circle. And when we play that game, we enter the magic circle. Most of us, when we play a character in such an invented world, choose to behave as though we ourselves are in that world. We willingly suspend disbelief; we pretend that what is in this imaginary world is real and manipulate/inhabit our avatar there accordingly.

It's true that unlike reading a book or watching a movie, playing an RPG (tabletop or online) actively involves the real-world person. The experience is no longer passive; it's interactive. This means that the magic circle is defined in part by what I do, and by what you do, and by what everybody else does inside the fiction of the game world. But that doesn't invalidate the magic circle -- it just means that people have to actively cooperate to maintain the illusion of reality. The fact that some people don't care to do so doesn't mean that everybody else should give up and go along with the loss of the imaginary reality. For them, the rules of the virtual world -- including the ethics of that imagined reality -- should be treated as though they have real effect on all the characters within that world.

So yes -- outside the game, in the real world, real-world ethics apply. But inside the game world, virtual-world ethics (including some that differ from real-world ethics) are perfectly capable of applying if the world's creators have designed it to work that way. There is absolutely nothing about virtual worlds (including MMORPGs) that requires them to be ethically neutral inside the magic circle. If a world's designers want to impose ethical absolutes that the characters in the magic circle of that world will be subject to, then they not only can do so, they should do so if that's necessary for telling a particular story. If the mythic needs of an imagined world require that some actions are right and some are wrong and there are tangible consequences in that world depending on which actions a character takes, then the developers must implement game functions that "enforce one moral code." If they don't, their created world will fail to tell the desired story.

(Not all stories are proper to tell, even in a game setting, however. While in a liberal society we try to extend a lot of freedom to creators to tell whatever stories they want, there are some limits to what can be said even within the aspect of a virtual world. A gameworld in which pedophilia was treated as ethically acceptable, for example, would not be tolerated because our real-world ethics tell us that even imaginary/virtual tolerance of such behaviors are dangerous. So there are some cases where real-world social ethics trump the sovereign literary power of a world creator -- there are some kinds of worlds that may not be created. My point is that in all other worlds -- the ones which are permissible -- it's by definition OK to apply ethical standards to the characters in those worlds other than the standards of behavior common to our real world.)

Is it OK for there to be some RPGs whose developers try to allow characters (as controlled by their players) to do whatever they want in the game world? Sure. It's possible to have a Shades of Gray RPG with a magic circle -- within that circle, might makes right, Thomas Hobbes runs the show, and if you can get away with it, it's allowable. EVE Online is close to being that kind of game. Not everyone wants to play such a game, of course.

But not having to play that kind of game means it must also be OK for designers to create Right and Wrong worlds in which value judgments on behavior are possible and even desirable. The magic circle also supports the design of games in which some the designers of that world impose a particular standard of ethical action on characters. Not everyone will want to play this kind of game, either, but again, they shouldn't have to. If such worlds aren't a person's cup of tea, they can play something else. The existence of worlds where good and evil can be clearly identified shouldn't be censored because some people are more comfortable believing that no absolute standard of right and wrong should exist even in an imaginary world, that everything must always and everywhere be some shade of gray.

Game designers, as creators of worlds, have the power to make both kinds of game. The designers of the world of Star Trek Online are free to build a game world in which the ethical elements of the Star Trek license are made real and have a meaningful impact on the characters in that world. And gamers have the freedom to choose which type of magic circle they prefer to step into through the persona of their character. And that's just how it should be.

This power of creation, not incidentally, is why Richard Bartle insists that describing game designers as political rulers is less accurate than describing them as gods.