Strength of Character — Axioms of Morality

Thanks to scores of bad video games in the 80s and 90s, digital roleplaying games are nothing more than “adventure games” where people put on funny pants and change their hairdos as story “benchmarks.” Characters are always on some revenge trip and eager to save the world from some tired cliche of villainy. And from all that bad stereotyping comes a slew of confused morality tales; games where you have no choice but to do what the author considers to be the right thing. “Ah. Slay the lich you say. Of course. He’s not a confused man, but a vile evil that must be stamped out. I won’t bother learning anything other than how to slay him.” It’s the plot of transformers all over again. Omegatron is evil because OpPr tells us so!

And when games like Fable and Mass Effect come along, trying to create “choices,” but all they really do is confuse us even further. Though we are sold games about tough choices, we’re really just sold a game that keeps a running total of how “nice” you were during your lack of choices. These games aren’t about choosing between good and evil, but rather about choosing between nice and mean — even the Genophage decision you make in Mass Effect 1 (which could be considered an evil act if you destroy the cure) gets white-washed by the final episode.

I mean what the heck?

This one-dimensional methodology of storytelling doesn’t stop with video games. Genre TV, anime, 4-color comics, Bruckheimer movies. The list of lazy approaches to morality in writing is long enough that I think I’ve made my point and I can start a new paragraph.

Players read crap, watch crap, and digest crap and then come to the game table with a diet of crap as their foundation for storytelling. Is it any wonder old school gamers and new age gamers clash? [Then something amazing like Breaking Bad shows up on TV and no one knows how to translate it into gaming. I think I’ll do another post about this subject another time.]

So while players show up with their highly sanitized view of Midwestern ethics and assume the rest of the world thinks the same way they do, roleplaying games stymie and grind to a halt, lacking any innovation in terms of tone and theme. “Oh look. Another war of ancient forces trying to shape mankind. Ho-hum.” With the players having all this bad fiction to reinforce their play style, it’s not confusing how quickly they resist anything that’s not sanitized “just right.”

Add to the mix, a plethora of bad adventures written to “trick the players.” Every bad game writers thinks, “this will really get them.” [Meet one of these guys at a game convention and try enjoying his session. Ooofff.] What’s more, clichéd writing and overused tropes have ruined players trust for NPCs and so even the nice ones aren’t to be trusted. Everything is upside down and the entire genre of writing has cannibalized itself. The readers can’t agree on what constitutes good writing and the writers are getting paid 2 cents a word to churn out all ideas.

All of this combines to create a foundation of poor association between right-wrong, good-bad, evil-notevil, stinky-clean.

Which brings me, along a very strange path, to my ultimate point.

Nice does not equal good. Mean does not equal evil.

To often in gaming, as soon as someone behaves like a jerk, we associate him/her with evil. As soon as they say one bad thing about a PC, they are the enemy.

But the world doesn’t work like that. What was “ethical” or moral 5,000 years ago isn’t necessarily moral now. And certainly not across cultural boundaries. Spartans used to through babies with malformed skulls into pits so they would starve to death. Not “nice,” to be sure. But evil? When it develops as a tool to keep their society strong?

Elements of story that were once tools of questionable ethics have been discarded. Tough decisions are gone. And players who think an NPC is mean, quickly work to get rid of him/her from the story. RPGs have become places for staying forever inside our comfort zone.

And what about Paladins? All Paladins are douche bag idealists who impose their will on others. But, does that make them evil?

Add to all of this confusion the fact that we are now desensitized to true acts of evil. Video games create monolithic robots of rage and fury that are unleashed on the earth to destroy everything. So in order for something to be truly evil in a game context it must eat babies and destroy entire nations. The messages of what is “bad” are so confused, we are always stuck looking into the barrel of the ethics gun and wondering if there is “nice” or “mean” in this chamber?

Could all of this be related to the “self-esteem” generation that gets trophies for just showing up?

Any sociologists out there who understand young people want a crack at that one?

Games like Skyrim are trying to break out of this mold (so I’ve read). The upcoming DayZ has a new approach to decision-making trees. And Heavy Rain and Walking Dead are new interactive-movie style games that give players more control over their decision matrices. Perhaps in an attempt to break away from the narrow-minded one-dimensional storytelling approach that results in mean-nice axiom that people have been confusing with evil-good for so long.

Maybe that’s the new road? I hope so.

But in its stead, we have players and GMs (in a tabletop context), devoid of decision trees, still adhering to antiquated models of good and evil. As soon as a bad word is said from some idealistic do-gooder, he’s no longer someone to be trusted. Hurting feelings somehow violates any possibility of righteousness.

It’s a perplexing paradox is you ask me. One I don’t have an answer to, but I’d be curious to hear from others about this.


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