Morality in Gaming

I've been thinking a lot lately about gaming and free will, particularly as it relates to the 7th Sea game I'm running with C--- and L---. 7th Sea is a game of high adventure that can support a number of different story types. Though the default game presented in the core book is one of swashbuckling adventure, it can encompass a great deal more. I believe one of the flaws with the game that directly resulted in its market failure was its refusal to embrace any given genre. Each supplement, including the nation source books, was intended for an almost entirely separate game. For example, the Eisen book focuses a great deal on mass combat and how to depict military relationships while the Montaigne book is about high culture and courtly life, however both books are largely limited to their respective countries. The implication is that all Eisen games are military games and all military games are Eisen; likewise for Montaigne/courtly politics, Vodacce/intrigue, Castille/guerrilla warfare, etc. and doubly or triply so for the Secret Society supplements.

That said, it's certainly possible to run 7th Sea picking and choosing the elements we like and transplanting them as we see fit, and we're attempting to do just that, but there is one aspect from the core book that we have wholeheartedly embraced: heroism. 7th Sea is a game about heroes, a fact which is even reinforced in the mechanics. Examples include:

* When PCs perform "evil" actions they lose Reputation score. When their Reputation reaches a certain point they become NPCs under the GM's control and the player must create a new character.

* NPCs are divided into Brutes, Henchmen, Villains, and Heroes, each of which has separate mechanics and are treated differently.

* Characters are not killed by default - even the strongest attacks will only knock someone unconscious unless another character deliberately takes a separate action to kill him or her. Thus even the most thuggish warrior subdues his or her opponents rather than resort to lethal violence.

Leaving aside all the various genres depicted by the supplements, this is very in line with the heroic swashbuckling genre depicted in the core book. The problem, however, comes about when players can't step outside that genre. Is it heroic to play a hero if one doesn't have a choice?

In "Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil," Stokes makes the claim that morally correct actions without the free will to choose them are morally neutral and therefore it is the ability to choose good, or at least refrain from choosing evil, that demonstrates morality. He puts it quite succinctly, "... Grand Theft Auto is the most moral video game ever created. After all, no other game allows us to choose not to murder prostitutes."

Now 7th Sea doesn't give you that choice. One can murder prostitutes once or twice, but very quickly the character is taken away as an NPC and the players is forced into playing a hero. By Stokes' standard 7th Sea characters are amoral because while they are defaulted into doing good they never have the opportunity to choose good, and it is the choice that ultimately matters. This directly contradicts John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism that states the most good for the most people is good regardless of what caused it to arise.* Mill would say so long as players aren't murdering the prostitutes, it doesn't matter why and players are good for it. We might imagine that Stokes would counter with the argument that the player is no more moral than a dustbin: the prostitute is not murdered as a result of impotence on part of both the player and the dustbin, not because of any moral choice.

This is not a merely academic question but one that pertains to both how the game is written and how people enjoy the game. It is the difference between a novel where the plot occurs exactly as the author intends and an interactive experience where the participants make choices that affect the outcome. By definition, this makes the characters important because their actions - the actions they choose - are important in as much as they affect the world. A character who can choose to engage the pirates with cannon fire or a boarding party of marines is only choosing method, but the engagement itself is only significant if the character could also have chosen to allow the pirates to ransack the town or even sell out the town and join the pirates. In this example, the player is destined to fight the pirates no matter what.

The limitations need not be that extreme, however. While 7th Sea prohibits morally negative options, it does permit morally neutral options. Thus the player cannot choose to join the pirates (although he could pretend to join them so he could work as a spy or saboteur), but he could choose to pay the pirates a ransom, recruit others to fight the pirates, or let them sack the town while he works on a long-term plan to stop them further down the line. He could even choose to ignore the pirates. In this sense the character has free will to make choices, excluding a certain limited subset of villainous or evil choices. As such, the character has as much free will as people in most modern societies: able to make whatever choices they like within the boundaries prescribed by their societies; in other words, I have free will though I'm no more free to murder prostitutes than the 7th Sea character but my limitations are enforced by police rather than a GM.

This does restore a sense of significance to the players' choices, though the significance is more limited than total free will. How much that appeals to a given player will vary by players' taste but that brings up the concept of meta-morality which forms the crux of my argument. 7th Sea is a moral game, even more so than Grand Theft Auto, because the player has chosen to play it.

As a player I can choose to play whatever game I like. I can play an evil D&D game and portray a burning, pillaging, evil necromancer, during which it is probable I will murder a great many people, prostitutes among them. I can play Grand Theft Auto where I may or may not murder any prostitutes. Or I can choose to play 7th Sea wherein no prostitutes are murdered. If I choose the latter, I have preemptively saved those (fictional) prostitutes, whereas in GTA I am exposing them to my unknown future whims.

Consider vehicular homicide in conjunction with drunk driving. We recognize that a person cannot be held accountable for actions they did not have control over, but we still consider drunk driving a morally negative action. It doesn't matter that the driver did not have the motor coordination to avoid an accident nor does it matter that the driver lacked the inhibitions to restrain himself from driving while lacking said coordination. We hold the driver accountable because he did not restrain himself while still sober. A driver who turns over his keys to a designated sober friend prior to drinking is moral because he is making a choice to limit his future actions in such a way that precludes potentially harmful actions. It is the self-imposed limitation that is moral in this instance. Comparably, a player who chooses to play 7th Sea is self-imposing a limitation on his ability to choose villainous actions.

7th Sea characters cannot be moral but the decision to play a character in 7th Sea is highly moral.

This is where the crux of most of the player disputes we've had in 7th Sea have come from. As I've said before, not every character is right for every game, but that also means not every game is right for every character. Given how invested players become in their characters we may extrapolate that not every game is right for every player and thus not every player is right for every game. If a player wants to play a "grim and gritty" game of high drama where the PCs are constantly having to make difficult choices, 7th Sea is absolutely the wrong game, if only because the character can't necessarily make that choice. But if a player wants to play a game where he or she plays a hero and, even when the character is tempted will still do what's right in the end, 7th Sea is just about perfect.

* With extensive supporting arguments that say why it's not okay to kill 1,000 people in order to benefit another 1,001 people, which is basically the anti-Nazi qualifier.

Dance of the Day - Malcolm X

From the 1992 movie. Given how much ballroom dance has become an expensive and therefore upper class form of recreation, it's easy to forget that many of the styles originated in lower class communities. Obviously Latin dances are Hispanic in origin, but how many people remember - really remember - that swing dancing was originally an African American style of dancing? I love its inclusion in Malcom X and consider its placement highly appropriate. Everything about it from the music to the steps was part of a minority subculture which in turn became part of a white counter-culture which in turn was co-opted and became part of mainstream white culture after it was sanitized. Real Lindy hop fast, loose, and dirty (A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin both have scenes that better depict what it was really like) but it was there.

I wish I knew when things changed.

Edit: And, as kittydesade pointed out, today is Malcolm X's birthday.

Thoughts on Thor

I saw Thor this afternoon. I liked it.

This will be spoiler-free.

Initially I was very suspicious the idea of Thor as a movie. A second-tier superhero at best, the idea of a movie about Thor generates even less interest than Daredevil did. Moreover, THor seems like the hero least suited for adaptation to the big-screen. This may work in a comic book...

... but it's hard to imagine that picture translating well to the big screen. Moreover, Thor runs into the same problem that movies about Superman run into: he's a god. What kind of stakes can a movie like that have? This felt mostly like an excuse for another Marvel action movie, and one I planned to skip. I see most superhero movies these days, but my time and budget are both quite limited and I didn't intend to go out of my way to see this any more than I did for the remake of The Hulk or X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I became cautiously interested when I heard that Kenneth Branagh was directing. I respect his work as an actor and he's been very good about selecting his projects. When I saw the final trailer last week I decided to give it a shot at matinee pricing, if my schedule allowed. Thanks to an unexpected opening, it did.

The movie works, and it does so for several reasons. The first, and perhaps the most significant, is that it Branagh has his actors play everything completely straight. Comedy is present, but quite sparse compared to typical Marvel movie fare - much more so than either Iron Man - and is limited to a few low-key scenes. It is completely absent from the scenes that take place in Asgard and the movie benefits from this choice. Quite frankly, Thor has always looked ridiculous and the supporting cast doesn't fare much better. The movie refuses to acknowledge this. There is no point where someone tells Thor, "Your armor looks stupid," or tells Loki, "You look like a confused, retarded, lesbian cat confronting her sexuality" (he does, by the way). Nor does Branagh hide the designs. Instead, he fills his frame with them, early and constantly, so by the time the weighty drama is unfolding the viewer is used to them, if not completely accepting. Moreover, the different visual motifs used for Earth, Asgard, Jotunheim (the realm of the frost giants, ancient enemies of the Asgardians) give each a distinct feel so that we can take Asgard as is, if only because it is distinctly its own realm.

The other reason the film works so well is that Branagh is not content to simply film a comic book story, but seeks to make an epic. I don't know if screenwriters Miller, Stentz, and Payne intended literary allusions within their tale, but the story I find Thor resembling strongest is nothing from the bit of Norse mythology I know, nor even the Greek or Roman pantheon, but rather that of the epic of Gilgamesh.

Gilgamesh, the oldest known story in literature, is about superheros behaving badly. Gilgamesh is a powerful king who abuses his power and so the gods teach him humility, which yields to many a wacky yarn and in the end Gilgamesh becomes a great and wise king. I'm paraphrasing, obviously. At the very least go read a synopsis (here's one). While Thor doesn't attempt to follow Gilgamesh point for point, there are enough similarities that I feel comfortable calling it a spiritual successor.

This use of epic allows for several effects. The first is relevancy. Thor is a story about power. How one acquires power, how one uses power, how power can be abused, how power is shared, how power is lost, what power is good for, and what makes one worthy of power. While The Dark Knight handled the issue better and more effectively, particularly with regard to America's role as either world policeman or self-appointed vigilante, Thor makes a worthy attempt to grapple with these issues. The first act may be intended as a parallel for the start of the Iraq War, but rather than focus on what has already occurred, the remainder of the film deals with the consequences - the unexpected consequences - of what unleashing power has wrought. The film never hits you over the head with the parallel, to the point that I question whether it's even truly there, but the questions about power remain universal in their relevance, so perhaps that's why I'm able to apply them to Iraq. Regardless, it makes the theme quite significant and I applaud Branagh's deft handling.

The second effect of using epic is both the most obvious and the most subtle. Mosty mythologies about deities can be summed up as, "Gods behaving badly." This is just as true of Thor as most other such stories, such as The Illiad, and like The Illiad the effect in Thor is that the gods are humanized. It is easy to see Thor as an arrogant, presumptuous boy who is scared at what it will take to fill his father's shoes and is looking for an easy way to what he thinks is living up to his father's legacy. It is easy to see Odin as an old man who is worried that he hasn't done enough to teach his sons and is punishing them because he's frustrated and doesn't know how to be a better father. And Loki...

I promised no spoilers. I'm just going to say that Loki made the film for me. Everything about the character was perfectly done, from his plot lines to Tom Hiddleston's emotional and moving performance. Loki was what turned the film from camp to an epic.

Even if he does look like a retarded, lesbian cat.

Should you go see this movie? Eh. If you're not a fan of modern comic book movies, this one won't change your mind. If you've enjoyed the last decade's releases from Marvel, however, this is one of the good ones.

GenCon Schedule

Time for my annual GenCon preview:

08:00 AM - 10:00 AM - BGM1119310 - Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM - SEM1122700 - Things You Think About Games
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM - SPA1118525 - Bellydance for EVERY Body

12:00 PM - 01:00 PM - Lunch

01:00 PM - 02:00 PM - SEM1123845 - 7 Words You Can't Say While Gaming
02:00 PM - 03:00 PM - SPA1117847 - Ballroom Dance for Beginners: Waltz (note: Wynd and I will be running this event)
03:00 PM - 04:00 PM - SPA1117849 - Latin Dance for Beginners: Cha Cha (note: Wynd and I will be running this event)
04:00 PM - 05:00 PM - SEM1120296 - Dirty Secrets of Game Design

05:00 PM - 06:30 PM - Dinner
06:30 PM - 07:00 PM - Costume Change

07:00 PM - 12:00 AM - LRP1120048 - Victim's Ball 3: City of Ladies* - Call of Cthulhu

10:00 AM - 11:00 AM - SEM1122698 - Hamlet's Hit Points
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM - SPA1118527 - American Tribal Style Belly Dance - Introduction

12:00 PM - 1:00 PM - Lunch

01:00 PM - 02:00 PM - SEM1120437 - Faith and Fellowship: Finding God in your Gaming
02:00 PM - 03:00 PM - SPA1117851 - Ballroom Dance for Beginners: Foxtrot
03:00 PM - 04:00 PM - SPA1117854 - Latin Dance for Beginners: Rumba (note: Wynd and I will be running this event)

04:00 PM - 05:00 PM - Shopping
05:00 PM - 07:00 PM - Dinner

07:00 PM - 11:00 PM - Running Heroes of Rokugan modules


09:00 AM - 01:00 PM - Running Heroes of Rokugan modules

01:00 PM - 02:00 PM - Lunch

02:00 PM - 06:00 PM - RPG1118485 - Summer Storms - Legend of the Five Rings (Heroes of Rokugan)

06:00 PM - 08:00 PM - Dinner

08:00 PM - 11:00 PM - LRP1118486 - Spoils of War - Legend of the Five Rings (Heroes of Rokugan)


09:00 AM - 01:00 PM - RPG1118893 - Swashbuckling 101 - 7th Sea

01:00 PM - 02:00 PM - Lunch

02:00 PM - 03:00 PM - SEM1120081 - Steampunk Gaming

* Notice for Dancers: This is a Call of Cthulhu larp that will feature opportunity for in-character dancing (big band era. Swing, lindy, Charleston, probably some foxtrot and quickstep).