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.

No, what disturbs me is not symbolic violence, in itself, but the surrounding atmospherics, the unquestioned rhetoric of hate and anger. This rhetoric is no mere symbol of something other and outside but is itself comprised of language and emotion that, in fact, performs itself. It asks by design, by setting, scene, story, by task to be performed in-game. It is the very same range of language and emotion that speaks murderous even genocidal rage in the larger, real world outside. What disturbs me is the clear appeal to far too many MMORPG players of the vituperative cult of one-up-manship that, stoking a strain of Hobbesian vain glory, finds elevation for self in the degradation of others, expressing itself at its furthest, most offensive and at once so casual unexamined extreme in the discourse of chattel slavery: he was owned.

Well and good you say, but it is only playing at violence, playing at hate. Catharsis in literature, in play, in virtual reality has long been understood by reasonable reflective people to be, indeed, a critical cultural safeguard against evil acted out in earnest. And I would not disagree. It would hardly be a virtuous game to compel players to play virtuously. That’s not a game; that’s a catechism class; that’s a PvE server.

But if the virtues of playing at war, playing at hate, are not to be denied, how much greater the virtue, greater the potential fun to playing at peace in games of war?

And what is to stop us? The rules of the game? What a laughable idea, for it is very much the case that the so-called “rules” of the real world also proclaim that to the vicious belong the spoils. The aspiration to peace in real life also requires, first and foremost, a refusal to recognize and abide by such so-called “rules,” which are usually not written by the successful but instead wielded by the resentful to beat down scapegoats for their own disappointments. It real life, too, playing for peace quixotically requires setting aside the realistic “rules” that produce nothing but endless killing, conflict and war; abjuring the conditions called “winning” and “victory”; and making space for others — other beings, other rules.

How can this be done? I have many partial things I’ve tried, things that have brought me great satisfaction, but I have no definitive answers. Let us find them. Two things are certain: (1) Non-violence in games of war is more a challenge to player skill, wit and cunning than sowing death and destruction. And (2), like any great challenge, it can be fun.

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