Cradles of Civilization II: Freedom of Thought

Years ago, Ken Hite and I were discussing the state of the world (I was probably going off about what a horrible human Mugabe was), when Ken made an interesting claim, which I’ll attempt to distill without devaluing it:

“Because the Western World has the freedom to pursue any ideal we choose, we can see a spectrum of ideas that no one else can. We can understand the value of the vote, even if we choose not to exercise it. People born in Mozambique do not have this freedom and therefore do not understand its value. They cannot, for instance, take a different point of view then a neighbor or debate with someone about a parable from their past.”

And while I’m willing to accept that Ken’s point of view is probably 99% correct, it makes me wonder about things like the Chinese “Mandate of Heaven,” a point of view completely wasted on the western world because individualism and freedom eliminate our ability to value the roots of civilization and the weight of collectivism. To paraphrase:

Unlike the divine right of kings, the Mandate of Heaven is predicated on the conduct of the ruler in question. The Mandate of Heaven postulates that heaven blesses the authority of a just ruler, but would be displeased with a despotic ruler and would withdraw its mandate, leading to the overthrow of that ruler. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. The mere fact of a leader having been overthrown is itself indication that he has lost the Mandate of Heaven. Confucius had a huge impact on this philosophy as he spoke about the value of teaching leaders to be good.

The Mandate of Heaven also speaks to the importance of a collective association between the heavens, rulers, and mankind. Everyone was held responsible to a higher principle and therefore expected to rule/behave in a just manner; one that was good for everyone. This collectivist ideal of making civilization work for everyone is predominately asian. Certainly ancient China and India operate on different wavelengths than the western world. And this collectivist thought and action is counter-intuitive to most of us who operate under the guiding principle of “live free or die.”

So. What does this have to do with gaming?

For starters, I believe it limits the kinds of worlds we design. Fantasy societies always seem to be a clash of feudal kingdoms oppressing the peasantry with adventurers living outside the rules and morays of the society. Before the Holy Roman Empire, hell before the Greeks, there are dozens of amazing societies to borrow ideas from, devoid of the Western perspective that the individual is the center of the world. Such inspiration, filtered through a non-Western lens, allows for designs the likes of games like Early Dark (albeit, I was disappointed with the verbose nature of the writing), where not only non-stereotypical worlds are examined, but non-stereotypical “adventures” are explored. My early work on Legend of the Five Rings was about showing the culture as more than just a place with funny names for swords, but societies where people behaved differently and the participants sought out stories much different from dungeon crawls, tomb robbing, and tavern brawls. Decorum and behavior were valued as much, if not more, than a person’s skill with a sword.

When we stop examining gaming as an extension of our own Midwestern contrivances (the D&D alignment system for instance), we begin to see the potential for stories beyond our three act perceptions. Ever wonder why anime never translates well to gaming? Why we love only some kung fu films? Why all modern fantasy novels look the same? We maintain the idea that we are free to think anything we want with our western freedoms, but we are still bound by the structural models of our culture.

Sorry. This is getting preachy. And that’s not my intention. It is my hope that some of my future designs can illustrate this through SHOWING, rather than TELLING.

Time will tell.

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