Monday, June 25, 2007

Player Ethics vs. Character Ethics +

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
... if they code in options for behavior that are viable and interact only with fictional characters, and then say that you as a player are punished permanently or otherwise because you've chosen a style of play that the creators didn't prefer, despite the fact that they have set up the possibility themselves, that in my opinion is little more than bullying.
I agree with you here, but note that this changes the argument. This is no longer about character actions entirely within the magic circle; it's about behavior that breaks the circle, that conflates the character's actions with the player's actions.

In a way this breaking the circle is inevitable -- characters in a game can't do anything without the player (otherwise they'd be sims). This is why the case of Mr. Bungle [note: link to explicit text] is so interesting, if in a very unhappy way. The hacks used to perpetuate non-consensual sexual acts on other characters may have been allowable within the game world, but it's the player behind those acts that we want to punish for shattering the expected gameplay experience of other players. If I-the-player use my character to foul up your game, how is the developers punishing only my character going to have any meaningful effect?

I think there has to be some provision for developers to apply real-world consequences to players for the in-game behaviors they express their characters. That said, doing so ought to happen only under specific circumstances, such as in response to players intentionally using their characters to break the magic circle for other players. In general, if a character is doing something within the context of the game world's ethics, then even if that action goes against what those ethics say is right behavior the game itself should punish the character, not the player.

If that's what you're saying, then we're in agreement. But note that taking away XP for not following the Prime Directive is not punishment against a player! The player doesn't earn XP; the character does.

The counterargument here is that even if it's the character that's penalized in the game world, the player still pays the price in the extra time that's now required to do what he was trying to do. I'm actually sympathetic to that -- I certainly wouldn't want to play a game where my investment of time was repeatedly jerked around according to somebody else's ideas of right and wrong.

But the solution to this is not to force developers to make a game world with the code of ethics one prefers in the real world, or no ethical code at all, or some other feature demand. Consumers can't be allowed to have that kind of veto power over the game design process; if we could, no one would want to develop games.

The only viable solution is to vote with your wallet. If the developers of Game X implement something you can't stand, don't play Game X. If you really object to it, you're free to go online and say so.

Does that blow? Yes. It's a lousy solution. But the alternative of being able to force game developers to implement a game according to someone else's vision is worse.

That doesn't mean we can't ask for what we want, of course....

Originally Posted by writerguy731:
If Perpetual doesn't want you to break the Prime Directive, then they shouldn't let that be an option - and if they do, then the players that choose to do so shouldn't be punished for it, or should be aware of the consequences beforehand. If a player breaks the Prime Directive because they think that's what Kirk would've done, or it's the best option in a bad situation, or they believe the end justifies the means or whatever, and then after the mission they're surprised when the game says that, sorry, they just aren't moral enough to earn a Sovereign ship, then STO simply isn't a game I want to play.
I don't understand why you're talking about this as though it's players themselves whose ethics are being tested. Players won't be earning real starships. Only characters in Star Trek Online will have their starship earnings potential put at risk through their in-game actions. So if my character loses some prestige because he interfered with a pre-warp culture, how does that constitute any kind of ethical judgment whatsoever about me as a real person?

I don't believe that slowing down a character's prestige earnings because he ignored the Prime Directive says anything at all about the ethical qualities of that character's player. If it did, these things wouldn't be "roleplaying" games; they'd be character assessment tools.

But let's say I'm somehow wrong about this, and the player's personal standards of behavior really do somehow matter in a fabricated virtual gameworld. What would be the practical result of that on the game design process?

What would a Star Trek MMORPG look like without gameplay consequences for Starfleet characters who violate Starfleet rules of behavior? Would a Star Trek game in which anything goes feel enough like Star Trek to deserve that label? When Captain Ransom wants to murder alien lifeforms to get home faster, a Star Trek roleplaying game should say, "Hey, no problem, guy -- kill as many of 'em you want"?

What might CBS have to say about standing this part of their license on its head, even if the developer tries to make a "the needs of the gameplay outweigh the needs of Star Trek" argument for it?

If there are or will be other games (e.g., the Multiverse version of Firefly) whose licenses clearly show characters living in a Shades of Gray world, why does Star Trek Online have to be another such game?

Isn't having a clear ethical code within the game world not a defect, but in fact a valuable product differentiator for a Star Trek MMORPG?

I personally think anyone developing a mass market MMORPG based on Star Trek needs to embed a clear code of behavior for Starfleet characters, with meaningful effects on gameplay for ignoring that code. And I personally will have difficulty playing a Star Trek Online in which that's not the case, and if other things I consider equally important are discarded. But at the end of the day, it's up to Star Trek's MMORPG licensor to make those calls, and I fully support their role as the only official source for gameplay design decisions.

If I don't like it, I can choose not to play in that world.

And complain about it, of course. :)