Thursday, November 1, 2007

Religion and Politics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

While in theory I like the idea of a Star Trek MMORPG addressing in dramatic form current-day social issues (and have said so), I have grave doubts about any game development studio being able to be fair-minded in its presentation of such things. Very few people are able to resist the temptation to define questions they care about in terms of what they personally believe to be the Right Answer.

But there's absolutely zero entertainment value in telling people who are paying to play a game what they're supposed to think. At best, you're preaching to the converted; at worst, you're unnecessarily driving off customers who came to play a game, not to be told that their belief system is stupid.

The difference is that we experience canon Star Trek (TV shows and movies) as passive and generally isolated viewers of carefully-crafted stories told by someone else. The Star Trek experience is tightly controlled.

In a Star Trek MMORPG, on the other hand, we will to a large extent be active tellers of our own stories in a place where we interact with many other storytellers. How we experience Star Trek in Star Trek Online will depend in large measure on what other people choose to do with us and around us and to us.

What are the implications of this significant difference in how Star Trek is experienced when it comes to emotionally-charged content such as religious or political questions?

In other words, should we expect people to respond the same way to some provocative element in a massively multiplayer game as they would if they were watching that same provocation as an episode of a TV show?

The point here is, I think, a pretty simple one: If you see something on TV that you disagree with, what happens? You yell at the TV as you switch to a different channel. If you're really annoyed, you stop watching that program. And if you're really, really offended, you write letters to the show's advertisers explaining your annoyance.

A very, very small number of people ever go beyond that to starting a campaign to get the show cancelled. The vast majority of people who get ticked off by some political/religious/sexual/etc. content that challenges their views just grumble and turn the channel.

That's TV. Now consider the typical online game, whose features are designed to encourage zero-sum hypercompetitive behavior and which is filled with players constantly and anonymously interacting with each other. Oh, and make sure that many of those players are -- let's put it politely -- not yet at a complete stage in their social development.

Now throw some real-world political/religious/sexual question into the game. Even better, give in to the temptation to tell people what to think on that question -- dramatize your specific stand on it that's intended to be at odds with bourgeois conventional values, that's deliberately intended to "provoke."

I can imagine there being some MMORPG where the player base handles this situation in a mature way, using the questions as an opportunity to explore and challenge their beliefs in constructive collaboration with other players.

I also imagine that any such MMORPG would have 100 players. At most.

Meanwhile, in a typical mass-market MMORPG, I'm equally confident that you would quickly have thousands of players outraged and complaining in-game, which would inspire thousands of other players to mock them, which would just generate more outrage, and all over some hard-edged real-world question that has zero relevance to the lore of the game.

I don't see how that could do anything but inspire subscribers to stop subscribing in droves. Even if they agree with the developers on a particular question, many of them won't enjoy the subsequent firestorm inside the game (started but not ended by the people who don't agree on the question) that has nothing at all to do with actually playing the game.

In summary, when I'm annoyed by something on TV, I just change the channel. I don't bug anybody else. But when I'm annoyed by something in a multiplayer game world, I can (and probably will) inflict my annoyance on other subscribers, which can't do anything but injure their gameplay. I therefore conclude that the potential value of confronting people's beliefs is not only inappropriate but unworkable for a subscription-based multiplayer game -- not one whose designers intend it to be appealing to a mass market, anyway.

I should add here that this position is not inconsistent with my view that a fairly simulationist (or single-player) Star Trek game might be an appropriate venue for such challenging ethical questions. But I don't think a conventional Star Trek MMORPG could successfully stick a political/religious/sexual thumb in people's eyes too often and get away with it... and that's if they can manage to be scrupulously fair in how they pose these questions, rather than injecting their own political/religious/sexual biases into the game by rewarding what they consider to be the "right" answers.

As a theoretical concept, I find the notion of a belief-challenging MMORPG interesting. As a practical concept, I don't believe it could be widely successful.

But as always, that's just my opinion. I support individuals having the freedom to make games intended to challenge conventional beliefs -- even games like the recent "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!". [WARNING: potentially objectionable content at that link]

I also support the right of publishers to refuse to publish such games that want to "challenge beliefs"... and that includes whoever might decide to refuse to publish a Star Trek Online MMORPG because its writers go too far in thinking of the game as an opportunity to "educate" others.