Monday, July 23, 2012

Some Rambling on Morality

So this podcast with Vincent Baker prompted this post on G+ by Zak Smith which prompted this post by Patrick Stuart which prompted this post by noisms.

Go ahead and check those out if you have time; the posts are short, but the podcast is somewhere in the forty-minute neighborhood (although you can probably manage without listening to the whole thing if you're pressed for time).

Anyway, the dialogue boils down to morality in games — namely, is morality a value that should concern us in gaming?  If we do bad things in games, are we bad people?

There's an article by Stephen King that's been floating around for a while, and it's called "Why We Crave Horror Movies."  The central thesis is that we watch horror movies as a form of catharsis (which is hardly surprising), but that the cathartic experience is the release of our darker emotions.  At the beginning of the ninth paragraph, he writes, "The potential lyncher is in almost all of us [...] and every now and then, he has to be let loose to scream and roll around in the grass."  He goes on to say that we are all conditioned to conform to the expectations of society, "But anticivilization emotions don’t go away, and they demand periodic exercise."  He continues, saying, "If we share a brotherhood of man, then we also share an insanity of man. None of which is intended as a defense of either the sick joke or insanity but merely as an explanation of why the best horror films, like the best fairy tales, manage to be reactionary, anarchistic, and revolutionary all at the same time."

He ends by summarizing this activit as something we do to "keep the gators fed."

So what does this have to do with role-playing?

I'd be hard-pressed to recall which World of Darkness book mentioned it (probably The Book of Madness, although I cannot precisely recall), but one of them referenced the whole "keeping the gators fed" idea, particularly in regard to playing villains.

I accept this behavior.  To throw more quotes at you, Mr. Rogers tells us, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children play is serious learning.  Play is really the work of childhood."  Among organisms that play, most do so as a dry-run of adulthood — baby animals play to practice evading predators or catching prey, while humans practice running a household or engaging in basic mercantile behavior.  This is largely conjecture on my part, but I doubt we ever really escape this behavior.  We're always preparing for possibilities and eventualities, and in this vein, we continue to undergo that catharsis.

In my role as GM, I don't set any limits on the PCs' behavior (obviously, every world has a status quo, and my NPCs will gladly impose morality upon you).  In the confines of the game, the players are presumably friends and the environment is presumably "safe."  If you want to be moral paragons, or typically amoral murderhobos, or the most vile rapists and thieves imaginable, I don't really have a preference.  As long as everyone is comfortable, I don't have a problem with it.

That's the rub.  Everyone, as a player, should feel safe gaming in my group.  The world might be deadly, and you might not be able to trust the other characters as some of the must cutthroat bastards imaginable, but as long as everyone's having fun, there is nothing wrong.  If you want to play Black Spiral Dancers or Nephandi or Sith or Carcosan sorcerers, make sure everyone is on board and make the most of the downward slide.

Strangely, though, this is never an issue.  I never really lead the players one way or another with regard to morality, and most groups have an emergent tone that appears as gameplay progresses.  Torturing the bad guys would be relatively out of the question in The Imperial City (with a couple of notable character exceptions — E. M. Lamb's Kasi, who developed into a Tantric Thuggee devotee, might be able to get away with it) and would be totally inappropriate in False in Some Sense or The Truth Shall Set You Free, but has happened in Crux of Eternity and The Darkness of the Womb, and would be totally appropriate for the villagers of Remnant from Nasty, Brutish, and Short.

Basically, if the players want to have a relatively light round of fun, want to explore heavy moral themes, or just want to "keep the gators fed," that's all fine by me.  The moral line that cannot be crossed is a function of the group, not any particular viewpoint.

Note that this is not the same as being devoid of morality, however.  As an individual outside of my GM role, I'll usually comment on the group's morality if the mood strikes me (typically, I'll usually only comment on a shift in tone within the player group).  My world always reacts to it, too — my first Sabbat game ended with most of the characters being hunted down by the police and Camarilla agents because of their murderous rampage.  Charles Odderstol, the big villain of The Imperial City, typically tried to convince the PCs that he had the moral high-ground because they were antagonizing him.  (As an evil, insane cultist, they were perfectly justified, but it was still an interesting pattern I'd noticed.)

To summarize: in the Google+ post, Zak Smith says, "Is an underlying idea here that morality in the game has something to do with morality in real life?  Like: it doesn't.  Like not at all."  I understand different points of view — in noisms' post, he writes, "I was brought up by Christian parents (a Christian mother, more accurately - my Dad mostly humoured her), and my mother always tried to instil in me the notion that things that we watch, read, or listen to do actually affect our 'souls'; when you watch a violent film it is actually bad for you in some sense.  It is corrupting." — but I agree with Zak.  Fictional morality doesn't really have much (if any) bearing on real-life morality, and one can view any fictional acts that may be considered "immoral" or "transgressive" as simply keeping the gators fed.

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