Sunday, October 09, 2011
Ethics and role playing games
One of the few hobbies that I've kept is playing role-playing games. Alas, it has been a while since I've played with real people, so I tend to play over the internet, with people I don't actually know in real life. For those who only know of games such as Dungeons & Dragons by reputation or only know of electronic versions such as video games, the important thing about role-playing games done right is that they are shared storytelling. The story can be dark, flashy, primarily physical, primarily social, gritty, hopeful, serious, silly or anything else that the participants require. While the organizer sets the environment and milieu, it is the job of the other players to decide how the story goes within the setting. There are plenty of motivations for doing this. People just enjoying each other's company, wit and humor; those who want to try out what the world looks like from another point of view; writers who want some practice (or who are still working on getting their 1 million words of bad prose out of the way). But one thing I get is the opportunity to think through how to deal with moral issues that do occur in real life. My wife jokes that I have a habit of playing characters that are like myself. Or more precisely, I take one aspect of me, and make a character that is built on that. Like what beginning writers are told to do, write about something you know. It could be thought of as exploring what ifs. Of course, currently, I am trying to break this by playing a modern day Buddhist monk, Jesuit priest, and paramedic along with a technician in an early industrial setting. (well, I think my wife will call me out on one of these, but I was not trying too hard building that character). But the games I get into tend to be on the grittier side. And one of the effects is that they go into moral issues. Over the past couple years the games I have been in have dealt with racism, class divisions, prejudice, counter-insurgency, and the application of torture. To play well, it means you have to think about the motivations of your character, and the consequences of traits and decisions made along the way. The groups respond in various ways. For some, it becomes repulsive and they want no part in it. Which is frankly how a large part of the real world is like, where moral guardians declare their righteousness and destroy the possibility of intelligent discussion. Others play things out, and let their characters respond to see how things lead (of course, there are often characters who are moral guardians in play, but this still means that things play out). And that is probably one thing that I get in gaming that I don't get in real life anymore. I am no longer active in communities that have learned that a lack of transparency, honesty, and openness leads to failure and death. It has been a few years since the last time I was part of a conversation that included a discussion on how a decision would be made to accept the death of some of those present. In its place is a world where moral outrage is a practiced art form, and moral guardians reserve for themselves the right to have these discussions, and shout down others who may want a say. Not knowing most of my playing companions in person, I have no way of knowing if these are questions they think deeply about, or if these are things that only come up in their lives in the context of games. But I do know that when we are talking about life and death, generally I find that the time to think about it is before you are faced with it for real. Then things tend to work out better. And this is one place to do it.