I can find theology anywhere.
I’m a gamer nerd, and one of the things that happens occasionally is that folks around here take up a computer game. Our current Thing is Guild Wars 2, an MMORPG that is due to come out Real Soon Now (we have been participating in the open beta events and playing around with it, hence my ability to actually talk about it).
There are a number of selling points for GW2 – it is very pretty. It doesn’t do the standard All Fantasy Games Are D&D In Fancy Dress thing where all the available species to play are basically the same, with well-known worn-smooth personalities. It has sufficiently intricate worldbuilding to have generated actually interesting-as-a-species human characters with something going for them other than ‘adaptability’ (though, as I commented when this came up in conversation, if that bar were any lower it would be painted on the ground). There aren’t arbitrary “this species can’t play that character class” things. It is not a pay-per-month game so, for folks with complicated lives who may not be able to spend a lot of consistent time gaming, it’s not a constant ongoing expense to try to get some relaxation in. (It makes its ongoing money from ‘you can throw cash at it to get these impulse transactions’ and expansion modules, as I understand it.)
But the thing that gets my serious attention and leads to this post is the way the game structure encourages ma’at.
I’m going to take a moment and compare this to another MMORPG, World of Warcraft. I’ll throw out a few traits of WoW:
- The playerbase is split between two factions, which are not only at best suspicious of each other and at worst in active conflict, but have no means of communication between them.
- The first person to land an attack on a given monster “tags” it, such that – regardless of how much other people might contribute to killing the monster – they and their group get sole credit for and rewards for killing the monster.
- Resource competition can be very harsh in other ways as well, as, for example, if someone collects all the copper lumps in a particular area, there are no copper lumps available for anyone else.
- Advancement and gear acquisition is heavily dungeon-oriented, and one has to run dungeons many times over in order to collect all of one’s desired equipment through randomised drops. At high levels, the opportunity to do these dungeons is also highly competetive, as groups of people capable of running these dungeons can get very strict and demanding.
- Various classes are limited in what they are able to do in groups with others. Some have the ability to provide assists to other characters; some can heal other characters; some can bring downed players back from the dead; some can help move folks around. In general, people are locked into roles: the big guy who holds monsters in place, the person who hits monsters hard, the person who keeps everyone else from dying or brings them back when they’ve fallen down. (Some classes can perform more than one of these roles, but they need to pick one to specialise in and tend not to be as good at the other options once they’ve done so.)
- Questing sometimes comes across as fundamentally pointless. Not long after a new release came out that opened a new continent (after I had stopped playing WoW) I saw a cartoon in which a character talked about the beautiful vistas and new sights in the new continent, and how wonderful it is to meet new people: he then approached an “NPC” to ask what glorious things one could do to help, and got the answer, “I need you to kill five yetis.” Because two-fifths of quests are ‘I need you to kill [number] [nouns]’ or ‘I need you to kill [nouns] until you get [number] items from them’.
- Further, in order to get those quests, you have to actively find and talk to the quest-giver. If that character had killed two yetis before he got to the guy who wanted him to kill yetis, the guy would have still said “I want you to kill five yetis”, not “I want you to kill three yetis.”
Some of the things that result from this include: a lot of competition and hostility around game resources in areas that currently have a lot of players, which can include some amazing passive-aggressive moves; inter-faction rivalry and hostility that can include significantly powerful characters killing support NPCs and lower-level players for sport and preventing them from being able to complete their missions; complicated politics within guilds that do dungeoncrawls; “grinding”, in other words performing relentless, tedious slaughter of random critters in order to achieve character advancement.
I’m sure you can see how the structure of the game leads to these kinds of results. Which – you know, I played WoW for years and I had a lot of fun with it, before a variety of factors led to my quitting. There’s nothing wrong with the way this universe is set up so long as it’s fun for the people involved, and a lot of people really enjoy a lot of that stuff. It’s okay.
But it’s interesting to see how different structures for setting up a world can create different results.
In Guild Wars 2, there is no tagging of monsters. If there is a pack of rabid wolverines tearing across the countryside slaughtering farm animals and sending villagers fleeing in terror, and you join in the impromptu gathering of heroes who are vanquishing rabid wolverines and saving the cows, then you get experience commensurate with your contribution and have an appropriate shot at getting trophies and useful loot off whatever rabid wolverines you contribute to killing. Which means that, rather than spotting a rampaging monster, noticing its tag, and going, “Eh, someone else is killing that,” the response is the more socially valuable “Rampaging monster! I can join in and help save the farm!”
While there are quest chains, they are primarily personal: you had a dream involving doing this thing, and so, while you may have other people helping you fulfill your goals, there is the illusion that they are yours alone. You are pursuing rumors that your sister may still be alive. You were the only one of your squad who made it through the enemy lines to the confrontation with the big bad. Because the personal quests go through instances (private mini-dungeons) that intimate material remains personal and private, and even though one knows that a huge chunk of the playerbase is at some point going through the same illusory process, it’s still conducted as something that you accomplish as an individual.
Further, while it is possible to do PVP type gaming if you’re into that sort of thing, it isn’t possible to go charging into the home villages of some other species, kill off their mentors, and mow down the low-level characters. Within the default game world, everyone – including species formerly at war – is more or less united against a shared threat, and so there isn’t even a mechanic for slaughtering “the other side’s” farmers. Even if there were such a mechanic, it would be a lot more complicated than it is in WoW, because when you enter a low-level zone, your level is adjusted to match it – so instead of a high-level character being basically immune to the mosquito stings of lowbies, people wind up on about the same level (though a high-level character still has all the skills and powers that they’ve learned, and will thus be more versatile and effective). Among other things, this creates an illusion of comparative equality: like in the real world, as you gain skills and knowledge you don’t suddenly become hugely more resilient, harder to hit, and competent at all other things than folks who haven’t had as much life experience. There isn’t a vast transformation from “level 1” to “level 30” or “level 80” or whatever else in which you become godlike to others. People are still people wherever you go. If you go to help out your younger friends, you don’t overwhelm their petty little problems with your amazing competence and brush aside all opposition with a casual wave – regardless of whether those are people you know in meatspace or in this particular pixel universe.
There isn’t a lot of “questing” in the sense of “go there and do this thing”, and certainly not “killing five yetis” material. In various areas, there are people with various concerns. This farm has problems with bandits, runaway chickens, grubs in the fields, and getting the crops harvested; this spirit shrine needs the graffiti cleaned off it, the young animals fed, the potential enemies flushed out and stomped on; this outpost needs the heraldry and boundary markings freshened up and someone to come through and take out some zombies; the spy outside the enemy camp would love someone to sneak in, free some prisoners, sabotage their defenses, suborn their guard dogs, and demoralise their fighters. If you do things that help them out with their problems, they start to like you more. If you do enough, they decide you’re good folks, they become willing to trade with you, and you get a credit towards completing everything on the local map.
You don’t have to just kill bandits at the farm, though. You can dig up grubs with shovels and then smack them, you can find the runaway chickens, you can bring in the harvest. You don’t have to talk to the farmer first. If you find a chicken hiding in a bush, you can walk up to the nearest farmhouse and say, “Is this your chicken?” I was puttering around on one character recently and found – emerging from the dirt on the side of the road – a hand. I said, “The heck?”, pulled on the hand – because what else would one do? – and it turned into a zombie. I killed the zombie, and someone I’d never met liked me a bit more, because they had a zombie problem. Random acts of investigation and follow-up good deeds (by local standards, at least) are actually effective and rewarded. I didn’t have to stick around and kill twenty zombies in order to get the next quest – I could wander off to the next area and come back to there and kill zombies and stomp on invasive poisonous mushrooms to make friends later.
In and among these fixed-point places with their ongoing problems, there are also special events. Someone is trying to make pie and needs people to bring her apples (be careful, there are giant spiders in the orchard). That pack of rampaging wolverines is tearing through town. The local criminals are trying to poison the well. Termites are attacking a sacred tree. The local spirit is having a riddle-answering contest. A caravan is looking for guards to escort it to its destination. The centaurs are trying to take a particular fortification (or we’re trying to take it back from the centaurs). People can participate, or not, and they get credit based on how much they helped. (I have several times gotten minor credit for helping with events that I was simply near, because I did something marginally useful like kill a centaur that never made it to the grand melee because he was distracted by finding me in the field.)
As far as I can tell, the collecting resources from around the world is also made personal. I’ve seen people go to mine copper lumps at spots where I just got “all” the copper available, so it’s apparent that whether or not something has resources available on it is a personal thing. So people don’t feel a need to lurk around hard-to-find materials and jump on them when they pop before someone takes it away: it is an abundant universe, and there is enough to go around. Similarly, I’m given to understand (I have not gotten this far in my poking about) that when one completes a dungeon, one gets a token for completing it, and can trade that token in for gear of one’s choosing, rather than depending on random luck to get the drop (and competing with others to get it, and having to repeat this for every single piece of desired gear).
Perhaps most interesting, though, is the reviving mechanic. Basically, everyone is competent to perform basic first aid, crack out the smelling salts, or pop on a magic healing poultice. If someone is down, there is nothing to prevent you from waking ’em up other than the pack of rabid wolverines. (WoW has different resurrection mechanics for “in combat” and “out of combat”.) In fact, waking them up is to everyone’s benefit – because rather than increasing competition for kills, that’s someone else who is contributing to being able to actually solve the problem, and the mechanics are optimised for solving the problem rather than committing the most mayhem.
A friend who was in a previous beta weekend commented that at one point she went down under a pack of rabid wolverines, and the local chat conversations turned to, “We have to save her!” and people drove back the wolverines so people could come in and revive her and get her back into the fight. This was not an organised group of people she knew or was hanging out with, it was just the emergent dynamic of a crowd that gets rewarded for the capacity to help others. When people benefit from helping others more than from leaving them behind, more people get helped.
The fact that there are also effects dependent on interactions between characters – like “someone casts a wall of fire, and if you shoot arrows through it they become flaming arrows” – encourages additional layers of teamwork, just like in the real world different sets of skills can combine to produce more powerful results. But that’s almost minor, in its encouragement of eusocial cartoon mayhem.
It is a silly comparison, for sure: a universe in which there are hostile bands of centaurs, swarms of zombies on the prowl, and flashy magic is not the one we live in. But the way people in a given universe are likely to behave is defined by what is possible in that universe, first of all, and then heavily influenced by what behaviour is rewarded. (If WoW changed its code so that killing cross-faction NPCs gave no experience and no loot, it would be a less popular hobby, even though the behaviour was still possible.) If you can’t do something that you’d like to do – if you’re playing the wrong character class to resurrect the guy you just saw go down under the pack of rabid wolverines – you obviously won’t do it. (It was reasonably common in WoW for people who could do ‘buff spells’ that enhance the capacity of others to just randomly cast them on people they went by, after all; people tend to like to help each other out.)
Not all the rules out there in meatspace are ones laid down by the laws of physics. Some of them are laws created by governments. Some of them are social standards and institutions. It’s worth thinking about what we’re rewarding with things we build, because that’s what we’ll wind up seeing more often.