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.

Compared to traditional fictive literature, most commercial game storylines are more primitive. more univocal. It’s hard to imagine a RPG or MMORPG storyline that doesn’t end happily ever after. Even if one never plays to the end, to the highest level, or to some form of player among player fame, most games project a most flattering arc to the virtual universe right from the start. From inception, be it waking from a dream, rising from the grave, emerging from a vat, or washed up with amnesia on a tropical beach, you in the person of your avatar are special, destined for great if yet unnamed things. You have a special talisman, dogtags, tattoo, aura, or just something in your face or pocket that marks you out for destiny. You are The One. You just have to persevere to realize it. As we play, happily ever after is happily hovering all along.

But if one chooses to play for peace in virtual worlds of war, if one opts for non-violence where violence is the surest mechanism lending the gut feel of reality to pixels on the screen, one has stepped off the reassuring arc of the virtual universe, away from the paths carefully created by game designers to make game tasks drive the experience of meaning. Instead of happily ever after, there’s a fair chance all hell will break loose.

This is obviously more true in MMOs and MMORPGs - L’enfer, c’est les autres – than in solo RPGs. In single player role-playing games, the course of non-violence is almost certainly more difficult, more frustrating, and perhaps impossible beyond a certain point, without creative exceptions to pacifist principles. The challenge of reaching the promised happily ever after proceeds, if at all, along twisted paths rather than any graceful narrative bend toward justice. This kind of virtual pacifism, however affecting, is ultimately more a puzzle-solving exercise, interesting but morally safe. One will encounter many questions of technique and explore, with a difference, the virtual world’s baked-in ideological presumptions, but one will be safe, still in the game, sheltered from the most troubling question of true pacifism and true non-violent practice: The Question of Evil.

Not so in massively multiplayer games, where one is brought face to face, avatar to avatar, with real human propensities, partially cloaked and given license by the triple mask of remote interaction, pseudonymity, and the common, though ironically unsporting notion that game play, itself, is a kind of “Get Out of Jail Free” card for all sorts of sandbox behaviors, in MMOs, as well as under formal role play in MMORPGs. Pacifism and non-violent pracitce aside, to play a PvP massively multiplayer game at all is to encounter all varieties of human malevolence with no sure signs delineating what is feigned for “fun” and what is deeply, deeply ugly, even clinical. However “nice” one would like to believe most players playing bad truly are, it’s an odds on bet that the genuinely loathsome, the deeply troubled, the out-and-out sociopaths are there, too, and not there, just for fun, playing good, unless it is all the better to stab you in the back.

This phenomenon, this almost inevitable encounter with human malevolence, is the major reason game companies offer PvE environments where player combat is consensual, as well as various kinds and degrees of shelter from the storm in PvP worlds. It is also why many gamers will not play MMOs of any kind, the better to keep repugnant human nature and its discontents more completely out of sight and out if mind. Not for all, PvP MMOs are a peculiar kind of fun, even more peculiar to play as a pacifist. But, of course, in what other order of virtual reality than a violent PvP would there be any significant virtue to playing pacifist?

One can play pacifist, practice non-violence, on the QT in MMOs, not declaring what one is doing but simply pursuing, encounter to encounter, situation to situation, one’s own course of action, in which case one’s experience is on the whole tactical, but not therefore uninteresting. Many an exponent of non-violence – Gandhi, Tenzin Gyatso – has also advocated non-violence as an objectively more effective means to ends. This is an open question that can be explored, creatively in violent massively multiplayer games.

If one’s goal is racking up kills, of course, there’s nothing to investigate. Get serious. But if one has other objectives, such as leveling up, amassing a fortune, controlling a region, non-violent practice may well better, more expeditiously serve those ends. It takes trial to explore, to determine this. In my MMO experience, which I’ve written about elsewhere, non-violence is an effective practice, conserving time and resources, moving one quickly past distracting, irrelevant combat and feuds with problem individuals one just doesn’t care about. Is this pragmatic, non-compassionate, even selfish view of non-violence commensurate with a more principled, moral vision? Interesting question. What does your virtual experimentation tell you?



World of Warcraft Veteran Quiz: When was this article’s image taken on Dethecus? Bonus Points: Where was it taken?

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