Wednesday, 14 October 2009

morality play

This month's RPG Carnival deals with morality - both in game and audience. The title comes from a style of medieval and Tudor-era theatre where personified attributes (e.g. justice, charity) urge characters (and the audience) to live a good life.  Born of mystery plays where religion was distributed by the stage, a morality play is a Renaissance take on allegory.

What role does morality have in escapist entertainment?  Escapism permits a get away from the dolorous or banal nature of the real world.  Can entertainment vicariously give a moral holiday to an audience expected only to witness events?  When entertainment is interactive, is simulation of evil merely self-indulgent or actually evil? Where does escapism become transgression?

Moral holiday is a term coined by philosopher William James to describe a temporary respite from moral concerns using belief in an absolute reality - trusting the world to look after itself a while - until the individual is ready to return to striving for a better place.  Protagonists from Richard III to Dexter delight audiences while performing atrocities.  Of course, protests are made due to the immoral nature of it all.

Escapism is compatible with both morality and banality.  Banal escapism is certainly possible by the medium of 'reality TV' so moral escapism can and has been since Aesop.  I could tell you about my paladin but the heroic stance is often a default state.  This has led to examples of actual play subverting the social contract of a game due to dissatisfaction with formulaic adventure or a missing incentive to be heroic.

Allen Varney wrote an excellent article, Do The Right Thing where he notes many games use resource-based survival and the scarcity of games considering morality beyond good vs. evil or moral spectra with ethical bells & whistles.  Attempts to justify morality by mechanics foundered on relativism, consider Vampire with it's paths of enlightenment and numerous hierarchies of sins.

Yet laws without authority or sanction are inherently weak and one size doesn't fit all even with superheroes.  Moving from zero-sum into business ethics a moment, is a moral element an essential component in games design if only to provide context?  Is morality a genre convention or part of a social contract between players and to a larger extent, society?  Like it or not, the audience is part of a greater thing.

Violation of taboo is a provocative element and may be used for satire or shock value to reinforce established morals.  Using entertainment to justify evil acts exposes your ethical or moral integrity to criticism.  Players can ignore a moral framework and play as they like - rebellion against conformity moves to territory where things may bite not only in-game but also in reality.  How good is a game if it's censored and censured?

The tipping point comes when the moral holiday becomes the moral retirement plan or when a consensual line is crossed.  Visiting a carnival and living in one are different things and require at least a shift in viewpoint.  Where there are those threatened by an alternative point of view, they need either to be shown the fears are baseless or where appropriate, reminded of the basic right to freedom of speech.


  1. Thanks for the link to my article "Do the Right Thing." It's interesting that piece, from 1991, still gets discussed. My point there was that designers of roleplaying campaign settings would improve the utility of their settings by establishing a default moral framework, to which the player characters could adhere or from which they could depart as they prefer. Regardless, the framework provides a meaningful context for their actions.

  2. You're welcome Allen! That article is still relevant - is it worrying this area hasn't gone much further in game design?

    I think a baseline morality is useful in games but think there is a gap in measuring deviation and use in system without opposite poles being symmetrical. Good using lethal poisons? Really? Book of Exalted Deeds argues for it but I'm not convinced...

    Computer RPGs like Black & White or Fable III seem to do this but tabletop hasn't gone much further than Unknown Armies or Ravenloft. Here's an opportunity I think...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Greatest Hits