Life sometimes hands us odd coincidences that upon reflection turn out to be telling. In my case, I completed the Amber Ledge quests in the Borean Tundra the same day Obama released the previously secret torture memos from the Bush administration. For those of you who have short memories, the Amber Ledge quest chain includes the quest The Art of Persuasion where the character is required to repeatedly jab a captive enemy prisoner with a “Neural Needler,” with each jab producing increasing amounts of psychic pressure until he confesses to the secret location of a captive ally. For those of you with really short memories, Bush was the President of the United States before Obama.
I actually didn’t realize this coincidence had happened until a day later, my mind too absorbed by the game to pay attention to the news. But even at the time the parallel was too obvious for me to ignore. My initial reaction was to abandon the quest chain because there was no way I could condone this type of behavior from my character. But I was only a few quests short of the Nothing Boring About Borean achievement and I didn’t want to waste the time to track down new quests. So I tortured the captive and went on with the game, a little bile in my throat.
An amoral universe
One aspect of the World of Warcraft that has always left a vague distaste in my mouth is that Azeroth is essentially an amoral universe. There is no real moral conflict. By this I do not mean that the world does not present the character with moral situations. Rather, it’s the fact that those situations are all biased towards whatever gets the character loot, experience, achievements. The real problem with the Art of Persuasion quest isn’t that the player is asked to torture a human mob; that’s a genuine moral situation. The real problem is that the reward structure is entirely biased towards torture. Torturing the captive grants the character experience, gold, and a quest completion that counts towards a variety of in-game achievements. Refusing to torture grants the character absolutely nothing.
Another example of this amorality is the quest chain in Zul’drak called Betrayal. Here the player is required to infiltrate a Scourge bastion and through a series of heinous acts earn the leaders trust, find out his plans, and eventually slay him. From a game play perspective that sequence of quests and their scripting was amusing and fun; in fact it is one the better quest chains in the game along with Saving Sharpbeak and the Swift Flight Form quest for Druids. But I remained troubled throughout the quests by the implication that it’s acceptable for the good guys to lie and to deceive to get what they want. Lost in such design is the question that if our actions don’t separate the good from the bad, what does.
Morality versus Reputation
On the surface it would be easy to jab Blizzard with condoning or promoting torture but it’s actually a result of a fundamental choice in game design. Many games at least have meters where the cumulative total of a player’s actions slide the bar closer to good or evil. The original Dungeons and Dragons paper game had the concept of alignment with the dual poles of good/evil and law/chaos. While in some games the character’s alignment is merely cosmetic (has no affect on game play) and there is the occasional annoyance of disagreeing with the developers idea of what constitutes a good or evil action, those games at least gave a nod to the fact that actions had moral consequences. It’s a fundamental truth that what gets measured gets managed and in the World of Warcraft there is no way to manage your character’s morality because it simply isn’t measured. Morality as a meaningful aspect of game play is completely absent.
But that doesn’t mean their aren’t choices to be made; players need to perceive that their actions make a difference somehow. Instead of changing alignment characters gain Reputation with the various game factions. Gaining high reputation with one faction often comes with various rewards including unique gear and titles. Indeed, one of the most difficult achievements in the game is gaining the title “The Exalted”, which is awarded for gaining exalted reputation with 40 of the 44 factions in the game. It’s a telling point that a major game achievement is awarded not to the character who behaves closest to an ideal good but simply to the person who serves the greatest number of powerful interest groups. To be as plain as possible: in WoW kissing the right ass, going along to get along, is what works; morality is irrelevant.
Playing for Good
A similar debate ensued over at Wow.com regarding this issue a few days after I completed The Art of Persuasion quest. Alex Ziebart argues that the best way to envision characters in WoW is as mercenaries. On the other hand, Daniel Whitcomb believes that Varian Wrynn is in the moral right. It’s possible that both views are correct; the non-player characters of Azeroth live in a moral universe while the player characters live in a reputational one. But it leads to some decidedly awkward questions. Alex says that “saving the freaking world is reward enough” for us mercenaries but it’s difficult to imagine why we would care: which achievement is that again, who is that rep grind for. We’re not really Jesus and we’re not really Pontius Pilot; we’re just the guards that stick god with a spear and then cast lots for his garments.
The tragedy of a moral player in an amoral world is that there is no way to play for good. The lone alternative to evil is to simply not play. If you think torturing is wrong and you want your character to reflect that, your only choice is to walk away. One is then left with the awful choice between not playing or not doing good. It’s an uncomfortable dilemma.
6 days ago