Fortuitous Ephiphaneia #3: Ethics and MMORPGs

Ethics and MMORPGs

Clear your mind for a moment.

I want you to answer a question. Don’t worry; there aren’t any right or wrong answers, just your opinion. I want you to decide which of the seven characters from Diablo II possesses the following character traits: Honorable, faithful, virtuous, disciplined, holy, and the embodiment of all things good.

Did you choose the Paladin? I’m guessing that most of you did. In the world of Sanctuary he is a holy warrior who follows the teachings of Zakarum, the Religion of light. Now, set character traits aside for a moment and take up a game perspective. What is it that sets the Paladin apart from any other in the game of Diablo? In other words, what makes a Paladin a Paladin as far as the game is concerned? The most obvious answer would be skills and appearance. (Alright, so technically it is a series of “1s” and “0s” in a computer code but that is beside the point).

Isn’t it interesting that our preconceived notions about character traits have no bearing on the game of Diablo? There is no free will, thus there are no ethical choices that need to be made. Theoretically, you could have picked any of the other 6 characters and associated the aforementioned traits to them and you would be correct because the game code doesn’t care about character traits.

Diablo II is like the majority of RPGs that have been developed through the years in that the game code force-steps your actions. You can either perform the required actions to complete the game, or you can choose not to finish the game; there is no other course of action available. Now, this is not the same as saying that you must complete every quest in the game. For example, if you decide that Deckard Cain should be powerful enough to rescue himself, then you can skip going to Tristram. You can still complete the game and the old sorcerer will still show up when you get to act 2. A force-step action would be something like killing the Ancients at the summit of Mount Arreat to gain access to the Worldstone Keep. This always makes me ask, “Why do I have to kill the good guys to get to the bad guys?” but I have no other choice to make.

Do all RPGs force-step the gamer and eliminate ethical choices? No. Anyone that has played the Baldur’s Gate (BG) series has witnessed first hand the consequences of “being bad”. The local authorities try to arrest you for breaking laws such as stealing. Additionally, you have a reputation to protect and your reputation score determines how NPCs react to you throughout the game. Does this feature of BG necessarily make it a better game than D2? No, not at all. What BG does is make the gaming community aware that things are changing in RPGs. No longer are we force-stepped into making decisions that we would not otherwise make. In my opinion, this brings about an interesting dilemma in games of the future, especially Massively Multi-player On-line Role Playing Games (MMORPGs).

I am curious to see how the ethical issues of RPGs will be addressed in MMORPGs. In the traditional, single-player, story line dependent RPGs of the past it was easy to skirt around the issue of ethics. So you cracked some heads open and did a few things that were morally questionable, big deal, you didn’t really offend anyone because the characters are not real. Even if they have some level of Artificial Intelligence (AI), you know that the computer is just controlling them and that their actions or reactions are computer coded. If their AI is really advanced you can always restart the game, or go back to a previously saved point in time and voila the character that you previously slighted has no recollection of that incident (with the ability to forget so quickly maybe they should go into politics).

MMORPGs on the other hand are a different matter. The characters found in the immense fantasy lands of MMORPGs are controlled by other people; living, breathing, thinking folks who make their own decisions. Commit a crime against one of them and restarting the game will not alter time, nor will it alter the consequences of your actions. Thus, you are responsible for your actions. Yet, what are the consequences? Who is the authority that enforces the consequences?

A “true RPG” in which players are free to make their own choices about everything and wander wherever they want to go is almost too real a world for my tastes. It is almost like creating a world similar to our own where laws and rules need to be made to protect the innocent and prevent others from violating others rights while they operate within that world.

We already see many of the problems associated with free will on battle net in the form of player killers and cheater. As we have already discussed, the game code has virtually eliminated all ethical choices required to complete Diablo II, yet individuals go out and kill other players for various reasons. Since there is no authority that prevents players from being killed by other players, we now have vigilante justice in the form of player killer killers and Blizzard is in a constant chess match to foil the plots of the cheaters. The only other consequences are that the player killers get a reputation on the realm in which they play and eventually get singled out. Sadly, the end result is that the story line gets lost amongst all the ensuing chaos and people stop playing on-line because they don’t know whom they can trust.

I wonder what the real purpose of MMORPGs are suppose to be. Sure they are large, support many players, and give us more choices, but is the story line really so compelling that it needs “massive multiplayer” to make the whole world work? Or, are the game manufacturers just trying to push the envelope of technology for technologies sake? Personally, I play RPGs as a way to relax and give me a break from the real world. So, why would I want to play in an RPG that has the same moral and ethical dilemma’s that I can find in everyday life, isn’t that defeating the whole purpose? I know that many people play on-line to socialize with other gamers, but until some game maker can demonstrate the ability to protect the inhabitants of its fantasy world, I’ll stick to the forums and real life for my social needs.

Disclaimer: Fortuitous Ephiphaneia is written by Drandimere (Paul J. Darling) and hosted by The views expressed in this column are those of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of

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