A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about buying a copy of Lotus Dimension, an indie TTRPG that encourages players to find non-violent solutions to problems. I haven’t made my way through the whole rulebook yet—I’ve been busy, and frankly, it’s a bit dense. It’s a bit crunchier than I would have expected from an indie TTRPG focused on an interesting premise, and I’m frankly not sure if it will live up to my initial excitement. That said, I really ought to read through the rest of it before I come to any conclusions.
Those questions aside, I’ve also been wondering if Lotus Dimension is the real response to the questions I was asking in my last post—questions about “incentive structures [that] don’t align well with the values that we believe in.” Yes, it’s interesting to have a game that explicitly encourages you for pursuing non-violent solutions to in-game problems, but I’m not sure that changing the incentive structures of a game to align with our values solves the problem of living in a world where those incentive structures are not in place.
Thinking about this this morning, I remembered Miguel Sicart’s fantastic book The Ethics of Computer Games. What I remembered was a specific critique of his about the video game XIII (based on a Belgian comics series that I love despite how dumb—and occasionally problematic—it is), but revisiting the book tonight, it turns out I’d misremembered (or misunderstood) the critique. Nonetheless, Sicart also had a lot to say that I did remember correctly and that is also relevant to what I’m thinking about here. In particular, Sicart notes that “Games force behaviors by rules: the meaning of those behaviors, as communicated through the game world to the player, constitutes the ethics of computer games as designed objects.”
The Lotus Dimension rulebook is clear that the game rewards rather than forces non-violent solutions to problems, but I think Sicart’s observation is still relevant here, and I think it still gets at my underlying concern. Is ethical behavior in a game because the system of the game rewards that behavior truly ethical? Or is it merely a natural human response to the incentive system established by the game? Underneath the concerns I expressed in my last post is a deeper concern—that there’s something vaguely but fundamentally unethical about playing games to win at all.
I’m not going to actually explicitly argue that playing games to win is unethical, but hear me out on what’s bugging me about this. To win a game is to be introduced to a system, to understand what actions are desirable within that system, and then to exploit the system to one’s own advantage—typically at the expense of other players. In the real world, it’s not hard to come up with examples of that behavior being unethical. Heck, in game worlds, it’s not hard to come up with examples of that behavior being problematic. The system established by Axis and Allies intentionally makes it equally likely for the Axis or the Allies to win, even though those are not equally desirable outcomes from any acceptable framework of values and ethics. Even a game that builds ethics and values into its system—like Lotus Dimension—can be won by a player who blindly accepts and exploits the system without engaging in any reflection of their values.
Maybe, then, the best gaming experience for someone who wants practice acting according to their values in the real world is to play games according to their values, whether or not the game rewards it. I’m currently (and slowly) reading Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, a work of Christian anarchism that I thought I ought to read after enjoying Cory Doctorow’s decidedly non-Christian and not even explicitly anarchist Walkaway, and I’m impressed (if not yet entirely convinced) by Tolstoy’s radical insistence on individual ethical behavior. He writes:
In place of the threats of punishments for the noncompliance with the rules, which were made by the former laws, both religious and political, in place of the enticement of rewards for fulfilling them, this teaching called men [sic] to itself only by its being the truth.
Tolstoy seems to think that humans ought to commit to being good without waiting or needing for a system to be in place to reward good behavior or punish bad behavior. I get that we play games for fun, and I don’t think I’m likely to throw the next wargame I play, even if I am less and less convinced that any real-life war is justified. Yet, I think there’s something in here, and I want to keep digging at it.
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