The Arc of the Virtual Universe

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The sentiment ranks high among Martin Luther King’s many inspiring messages to struggling followers facing long odds and uncertainty in the face of seemingly intractable opposition. Not to trivialize but it could as well serve as the paradigm for good, challenging game development.

Games tap into and exploit our human experience of tasks as drivers of meaning, even when, as in the case of games, those tasks are nominally meaningless, nominally inconsequential to the “real world” in which we live. We derive a sense of accomplishment, which is not just technical but also and most importantly moral, from persistence through difficult tasks toward game goals. But more so than in real life, the fragile meaning-producing effects of arbitrary game tasks depends upon faith; faith and timely, repeated reassurance that, yes indeed, in the end, “We Shall Overcome.” Game tasks that are too hard quickly lose their charm. The game’s underlying meaninglessness emerges and we quit, with maybe a brief pout of frustration, even rage for some, but no lasting sense of shame. After all, it’s only a game, and evidently not a very good one.

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the_rules_of_the_gameThe concept of an avowedly pacifist virtual organization represents a constellation of ideas, ideals and intuitions I’ve been kicking about for quite a few years by now, ever since shifting the preponderance of my game time from the first-person shooters I’d played since DOOM (1993) to MMORPGs, starting with World of Warcraft, which I joined on Dethecus in 2005.

I want to be clear. It is not symbolic violence, per se, that disturbs me. For pure mindless joy and giddy terror — and I can get into it — no weapon has yet topped the pump-action single-barrel shotgun of the original Doom for leaping blind around corners and charging dangerous doorways, solo-berzerking or co-op with textbook Marine squad tactics. Neither is it, continuing in the ID Software vein, a simple differentiation between bot and human enemies that stirs my pacifist disposition. I still find the space for play opened by the smaller “courts” of Quake III – Team Arena as elegant in their way as the finest jostling mid-air ballet of professional basketball.

All games, all team sports are symbolic warfare. We understand that. We accept that. The overriding theme of “Fair Play” and “Equal Chances” weave their redemptive spell, whether it be Team Fortress II or Warsong Gulch. It is “game.” It is “sport.” Not “reality,” not even “virtual reality.” And within the fictive buffer of “game” or “sport,” symbolic violence goes down easily, whether the “tag” be represented as a touch, a flag, a tackle or a virtual death.

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When we are faced with an enemy, a person or group of people wishing to do us harm, we can view this as an opportunity to develop patience and tolerance. We need these qualities; they are useful to us. And the only occasion we have to develop them is when we are challenged by an enemy. So, from this point of view, our enemy is our guru, or teacher. Irrespective of their motivation, from our point of view, enemies are very beneficial, a blessing.— His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, An Open Heart (2001)

Where is it written that the best that can be said of massively multi-player online games, psychologically, socially, morally, is that old saw catharsis; That, at best, MMOs offer pre-emptive release in play of emotions and ill-considered impulses fraught with danger to self and others in so-called “real life”? Better kill here, than kill there.

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Kurukulla of Venture Co.

Out in the wild, successful avoidance of unpleasantness — combat and killing — requires a level of vigilance and situation awareness considerably higher than all but the most ruthless PvP characters typically muster. For while it is always an advantage to strike the first blow, with surprise on one’s side, and to avoid picking fights one might lose, the true pacifist must not only seize control, from the start, of any encounter with superior opponents but also must diffuse potential aggression from those of inferior ability, which the violent-natured may more or less disregard, dispatching any such fools as they come.

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