Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pawns & Perspectives

Adventure Awaits!

Let's shift gears, just for a moment. I said in my blog description that I would sometimes talk about gaming...

Games have always fascinated me from a logical systems point of view, even before I started studying that analytic wonderland called logic. I just didn't always know what to call that fascination. Now, most of the early popular games of the first half of the century were pretty simple matters. Most, like Monopoly, didn't offer much in the line of decision making, much less in terms of those decisions being influencers on the outcome of the game - chess, of course, was the notable exception.

In the second half of the last century we saw a movement away from religion in western society and, in a new generation, a move towards viewpoints critical of religion in particular. I put it to you that gaming has been a significant part of that movement. A generation, perhaps two, was raised on a particular kind of game, indeed a particular game, the likes of which we had never seen before.

I am, of course, speaking of Dungeons & Dragons, and the multitude of games that spawned from it. Dungeons & Dragons was a radically different kind of game in a number of respects, and in some of these respects, it absolutely terrified religious influences in our society - and rightfully so, but not for the reasons the religious presented. They dared not speak of the real reasons...

The first hardcover edition of D&D, AD&D was published in a three part core ruleset, with the "Monster Manual" being the first book published. In it a demon lord of the undead, Orcus, was described as "great." In this context the meaning of the word was clear: great as in powerful. The fanatics, of course, latched onto what they perceived was a positive connotation in the word "great" and squealed that AD&D was worshiping, and promoting worship, of figures such as Orcus. As if Orcus was real. Pfft!

Anything different or new is dangerous to the religious mindset, precisely because it isn't an eternal recapitulation to dogmatic orthodoxy. And, of course, anything that can be exploited as a polarizing factor will be latched onto by religious figures in a desperate clutching at remaining topical. There is much more to D&D that makes it dangerous to the religious mindset.

Role-Playing Games

For anyone not familiar with role-playing games, imagine that you and some friends are around a table. There is a stack of a few hundred blank pages before you. In order to put something, a story, on those pages you are each assigned a role. One is the story's narrator. Others become protagonists within the story. Together, in a cooperative setting, you build a story that slowly fills the pages of the novel, develops the protagonists and antagonists, and writes the scenes. The story can have any of the traditional elements, from heroism to betrayal to just about anything you can imagine. Some of the games have swords and sorcery settings, others are space operas, and others post-apocalyptic high-radiation zones. Still others are cyberpunk corporate wastelands.

Even this example has you playing, in your mind, the role of a story developer using a particular method.

Above all, role-playing is, even among the less cooperative players, a cooperative enterprise. This has implications. After all, religion is not about cooperation; it is about submission.

Interactive Media

To the best of my knowledge, Dungeons & Dragons was one of, if not the first, game to be presented as an interactive medium. Unlike the one way media of television, radio or even of other games with their established regiment of inflexible rules, D&D did something radically different. It assigned roles to the players, not just to the players playing the roles of characters in the fictional game world, but also to the players around the table as participants in the game (character as opposed to gamers). A game or campaign in D&D was a social-interactive, cooperative enterprise in which all persons worked together to build a story. The players' decisions influenced the outcomes of the story - even the progression of it.

This is a far cry from the top down, strictly restrained world of Monopoly. In D&D the gamemaster presents a story, a challenge, and the players seek to resolve that challenge often in ways unforeseen by the gamemaster. This meant that the gamemaster had to adapt his/her work to accommodate new elements as brought up by the players. The story became interactive with players and the game's master participating in its development and resolution. The players stopped being pieces moving around a board according to the dictates of dice in carefully and resolutely locked manners and became vibrant pockets of influence in the game world.

This form of participation gave the game an incredible appeal. Why? Because it was a kind of metaphor for participatory cooperation - a kind of metaphor for democracy actually.

Now when you look at religions, and especially of religion-inspired templates for morality, their vision is invariably top-down, authoritarian, with humans being like pieces in a Monopoly game. Roll the dice and go where they send you. Lucky you if you got to pass Go and collect $200.

And then there was...


In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing was considered a horrible thing, and justly so - if your perspective was that of the fanatic. Later, of course, role-playing would become legitimized methodologies in professional areas ranging from marketing to business management to meta-ethics to psychology to evolutionary biology, and much, much more...

In Dungeons & Dragons, players assumed the role of personalities not their own. Think about what that means for a moment. People are seeing events from the perspective of someone else, even if just a fictional someone else. This was so troublesome to the fanatic that they created stories of "sublimation" into character as scare tactics. The classic example of this was the absurd Tom Hanks film, "Mazes & Monsters." In this film a disturbed young man seeks refuge from his own tormented identity in the character of a fictional character in a role-playing universe. The result is someone getting stabbed. The moral of the story? Role-playing can cause you to lose track of who you are and make you become someone else instead - possibly, indeed probably, someone dangerous.

Assuming a personality and perspective not your own and seeking to role-play it honestly involves some mental gymnastics the sort of which the fanatic, obsessed with the petty smallness of their own delusion cannot tolerate. It involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes, in spinning stories (recharacterizing events) to meet that perspective. Among the religious leaders, already engaged in endless spin, the ability of the populace to do the same, even just to recognizing it happening, is deadly to their enterprise - the enterprise of keeping the wool pulled over your eyes. Imagine if that were to happen. Pedophile-sympathizers within the church might not be able to pass off crimes as attempts to forgive the pedophile. The church might actually start being held responsible, and people might start seeing through the absurd spin.

Role-playing gives people the opportunity and ability to look beyond their own immediate interests and perspectives. It is a similar effect to having, say, a worldwide communications network that allows you to meet people and hear ideas different from one's own. This is a kind of practical empathy - the likes of which is antithetical to the religious engine of conflict mentality in which people with other beliefs are alien, strange, dangerous - enemies.

For the record, as a 30+ year long role-playing gamer, I have never seen anyone get sublimated into character. Quite the opposite, in fact, Despite our geekiness we seem more aware of the line between fantasy and reality than most. And that has to be the most terrifying thing of all for fanatics who want us to believe in gods, devils, unicorns, miracles and a host of other nonsense that directly conflicts with reality. The Phelpses and Campings of the world must really hate us...

The worst emotional influence I've seen is some depression over the lost of a loved character. Sorry, Darren.

Ethics as Story Conflict

Gary Gygax was a writer. An interesting question to ask is from what perspective a writer will approach game design. Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of war games, like Avalon Hill games, involving units on a battlefield. The units on the Avalon Hill style battlefield became heroes. The great leap for D&D was in having players adopt the role of these heroes and a fantasy world simulation was woven around that. D&D was, and is in large part, a conflict-based game. In writing stories conflict is always an integral part. One would expect a writer, trained in this to bring that perspective to a game that he was co-designing (along with Dave Arneson).

Now, in seeking to create a simulation of a swords & sorcery society, one would only expect that a simulation of ethics in some form or another would be included. In D&D that simulation took the form of the nine alignments. In the ethics of the D&D universe, the ethical alignments are depicted by two axes. One axis runs the gamut from good to neutral to evil. The second axis runs the gamut from lawful to neutral to chaotic. There are nine permutations: Lawful good, lawful neutral, lawful evil, neutral good, true neutral (neutral neutral), neutral evil, chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and finally chaotic evil.

What is astonishing about the "nine-alignment" depiction of ethics is not its failure, but its success - as a story-telling conceit -success that would lead to intense critique. Entertainingly, much of the discussion is about what each alignment means, but that is not to my point here. What is to my point is that the alignments were structured as conflict-driving devices. More interestingly still, the nine-alignments were surprisingly representative of the morality of religions, complete with adherence and orthodoxy requirements. The nine alignments were dogmatic. Even being true neutral did not mean being unaligned. It meant striving to maintain a balance between the extremes. There is no third axis representing live and let live vs convert or die. Everything was convert or die.

Sound familiar?

If you are able to posit the idea of other perspectives possibly being legitimate in some way or another, and if  you depict ethics as a conflict engine, then it is a short step to realizing that the paladin is not the noble knight in shining, holy armour as depicted, but is instead a killer for a cause. Does that sound familiar? One would expect it to. It is the story of every soldier who kills for nationalism. Of every person brutalized in the name of vital interests. Of every child slain because their, or someone else's, religion depicted them as something less than human...

Expanding the Ruleset

In this age of computer gaming, player choices influencing outcomes is a primary consideration in game design, whether the game is PvP or PvE (Player versus Player or Player versus Environment) oriented. What is at work is a philosophy of game design that incorporates the player's input in the unfolding of the events of the game (either real or illusory). Some games do it better than others, and one of the issues in game design is the limits on the impacts on the outcomes players can have, even in an ideal world of unlimited processing power and unlimited storage capacity.

We have similar issues when confronting ideas such as freedom and responsibility in a social setting. One of the meta-game issues among some games was the tendency on the part of rules to favour the players or to favour the environment. The difference between "say yes to the players unless you absolutely can't" versus a "say no to the players unless they are exceptional rules-lawyers" mentalities. Religions, I have found, are a mentality of "No! You must not! If you do you will be punished!" And under no circumstances ever consider that maybe the rules might be subject to revision through negotiation - that the mere subjects might have input into the ruleset.

Equally interesting to me, however, is the idea of games like Dungeons & Dragons qua simulation. In a strong sense these logical structures are very much like the norms, values, rules, and structures of a society. Do we wish to depict ethics as two axes of mutually exclusive dogmatically held ethos - all of which are "legitimate justification" for often lethal conflict, about limiting and restricting? Or will we have the courage to add another axis, perhaps more? Perhaps do away with the axes altogether...?

Tell me, are you excited by the possible directions our examinations into ethics might take us, or are you constrained by fear and think morality exists to keep intrinsic monsters under control...?

When we engage in social theory, indeed in meta-ethics deliberations, are we interested in expanding the ruleset, or restricting it? I, for one, am interesting in expanding the ruleset. I prefer Hobbits happy and free to Hobbits in chains.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I don't think even you knew what you did for us. From me, as one growing up in a generation with D&D, thank you for providing all that fun, and more, expanding my perspective. I took an interest in logic and analytic ethics, in part, because of you.