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The devil’s in the decisions March 21, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, morality & ethics.

I’m just back from a short vacation, so I’m going to fall back on an old gripe of mine to keep the blog updates rolling. Flash back to this article from the New York Times on the rise of Christian games:

There is, however, one vital element of the ”cool” secular gaming experience that Christian developers say they will not embrace: the moral relativism embodied in the R.P.G., or role-playing game. In a game like World of Warcraft, the player is given the opportunity to experience the same virtual environment through the perspectives of a variety of different characters, some much less upright than others. The Christian gamers’ position is that, while you may fight the Devil and lose, you may not fight as the Devil.

This just boggles my mind, for so many reasons, but let’s see if I can restrain my urge to go, “Eeeeeeagh!” long enough to break down the reasons why.

What leads to the conclusion that RPGs are inherently bound to moral relativism? A first answer might be, “Well, don’t they all let you be evil if you want to?” Past history could lead someone to believe that the RPG genre is inherently about letting someone get away with whatever they want to be, no matter how “lawful” or “chaotic”. Look at D&D related games, or World of Warcraft (or most any of the MMORPGs around, for that matter).

But those are straw man examples, and don’t represent the whole genre. There are plenty of RPGs where you are railroaded into playing the good guy, most notably Japanese console RPGs like the Final Fantasy series. You can customize your spells and weapons all you want in those titles, but there’s no way you can decide, “Hey, maybe Sephiroth is on to something; let’s join him in taking over the world instead!”

Similarly, we can see examples in other genres of games that allow the player to live out an evil-acting fantasy. Heck, I just looked at a first-person shooter that does just that, so even the FPS genre isn’t immune to moral relativism.

So it’s probably safe to say that the real issue here isn’t genre, but letting players choose to be evil. (In fact, I’m assuming that this was the journalist going overboard rather than a statement that every interviewed developer would’ve agreed with. Since one of them is currently working on an RPG, it’s probably a safe assumption.)

So the solution, apparently, is to place the user into a situation where they can do no wrong. Every entity they are able to confront is an enemy, and they are morally right in taking whatever action they can against it. Since everything you’re confronting is evil, you are fully justified in using force as the solution to every problem.

Which, I dunno, sounds like Doom to me. Except, of course, it’s “safe”.

‘There’s this assumption when you have a Christian game that the developers are responsible for the experience that the player is having,” Scott Wong says, ”that it’s going to be a spiritually safe kind of experience. But getting into the head of the Devil . . . there would be upheaval, definitely.”

Ok, if your range of options is “be good”, or “get into the head of the Devil”, then I can see where this would make sense. But last time I checked, there were a whole lot of evil things done by human beings. (Christianity asserts that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, after all.) If the user isn’t allowed to do wrong, to fall, then how can it demonstrate the way in which God redeems us and picks us back up?

This isn’t to say that Christian games should encourage people to run amok as serial killers or anything. Allowing someone to choose, to do something, is a powerful learning tool, but it isn’t the choice itself that teaches. The lesson is in the outcome resulting from the choice; the pain felt when the child reaches up and touches the hot stove.

So let the user role-play. If they refuse to listen, and insist on touching the hot stove, then give them the pain as well. Perhaps that means letting them choose to betray someone, and then having that betrayal turned back on them later on. Creating a gameplay choice that results in hardship later on isn’t violating any game design fun-factor regulations, after all. (Fallout‘s drug addiction mechanism is a great example of how this can work.)

It might not always feel safe, but maybe that’s a good thing.



1. Lucian Smith - March 21, 2006

This immediately brought to mind, “The Screwtape Letters”. Which, hmm, would be an interesting RP experience.

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