[MUD-Dev] RE: Some essays I've written lately
Fri May 8 11:50:34 New Zealand Standard Time 1998
What Rough Beast?
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Forgive me if the quote is inaccurate--it's from memory. It was
written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet, and people have been
quoting it ever since.
The latter line may hold some resonance for those players struggling
with the issues of harassment and playerkilling in the virtual
setting. It's a difficult problem, to say the least. "Where," players
might ask, "have the Virtues gone?" This is, after all, Ultima
By now most gamers have heard the story, of course. Richard Garriott,
after making Ultima III, felt that his games were lacking a moral
center. And so in Ultima IV, he made the central storyline of the game
be about a simple moral structure: eight qualities he found admirable
and which fit well within the fantasy setting.. The Virtues. And ever
since, Ultimas have been about ethics, which is a large part of what
makes the series a landmark in the history of computer gaming.
Yet UO does not directly support the Virtues, at the moment. Why is
For an answer, I thought I would dig up a design document I wrote back
on September 13th, 1995...
The setting statement implies that the regular course of the
Ultima games is the aberration in the normal course of events. Normal
worlds in the multiverse do not get set under the caretaking hands of
a Time Lord, therefore they do not manifest such recurring forces as
the Avatar and Lord British and the Guardian and all the other
characters who make up what we know in the regular Ultima sequence.
(The "setting" referred to is the fact that UO is an alternate shard
from the regular canon Ultima universe. Within the canon Ultima
universe, the Time Lord sends Avatars, of course, who serve as
examples of the Virtues. The other shards, as those who have read
Sherry the Mouse's book may know, are mere shadows that may or may not
someday reunite with the main universe. However, they are not
receiving that paternalistic intervention from outside...)
Instead, the normal world is composed of daily power struggles,
of ethical dilemmas without clearcut answers, and clearly have a lack
of guidance from outside. There is no ultimate authority like a Time
Lord sitting out there to tell the inhabitants of these other worlds
exactly what course of action is the best.
Granted, the instruction of the Time Lord till now has been
essentially that the "corrrect" course of action is often not the one
that comes immediately to mind; in that sense, the regular Ultima
series is a gradually developing course in ethics, beginning with
simplistic good and evil (Mondain, Minax, Exodus), to the notion of
'absolute' virtues in a rather Aquinas-like philosophy, and from there
towards the notion of ethical relativity that manifests in U6 and
later episodes. Thus the regular Ultimas develop the concept of
ethical behavior gradually.
The goal then for the setting and theme of Ultima Online is to
recapitulate this development on an individual basis, permitting
players free rein to behave as they prefer--but also to incorporate
the notion that has been implied in all the mainstream series: that
ethics and governance are essentially the same subject. That what is
proper ethical behavior on the part of the individual, i.e. the
governance of one's impulses and desires, is also proper behavior for
those who seek to govern others. Thus it is that Lord British becomes
the exemplar of behavior in Ultima Online, rather than the Avatar, for
in the normal course of human events, people do not develop into the
sorts of external forces that the Avatar is in the regular series.
In Ultima Online, the underlying game mechanics do not only
reward behavior that considers the good of the many, they demand it.
The game's basic principle is that of governance and conservancy. The
role of the player seeking to continue the thematic impulse of the
Ultima series is therefore that of governance--the process of
developing into someone in the game context who seeks to emulate Lord
British's goals of equitable governance. The system poses
irreconcilable ethical dilemmas just as any ecological system must,
and the player will simply have to navigate these as best he can.
Given these implications, the game mechanics of Ultima Online
must include a mechanism to reward players who successfully survive
and continue to succeed, by granting them greater powers to govern
others. Building castles, etc, is a possibility. Then again, the
truest simulation of this may in fact be to simply let those with
enough money build and gain power, and let their own natures or
roleplayed natures determine their fates (hated tyrants or benign
despots or enlighened rulers?). The design issue becomes whether this
is an overt enough statement of the thematic underpinnings of the
Fairly lofty stuff for a design document! And of course, it has that
assumed notion of players exercising power over one another. In its
crudest form, this manifests as playerkilling.
For the last few decades, the academic world has been paying a lot of
attention to the notion of the Other. That is to say, that poorly
understood and perhaps incomprehensible being or beings that is not of
our own tribe. There is a lot of turgid writing going on analyzing the
work of writers who deal with issues of cultural conflict, such as
Bharati Mukherjee, or Chinua Achebe. You might have heard of this
latter fellow--you may have read his best-known book, Things Fall
Apart, in high school.
Achebe's novel deals with the issues of what happens to an African
tribe when its values begin to contact those of Western society, and
what sorts of compromises must be made. It's a great read, in part
because it crystallizes a sense of loss for the culture which is being
overwhelmed and diluted. Yet at the same time that it is a novel about
the Other (and in his novel, the Other is us, really--the Western,
computer-literate Net-surfing UO-playin' types) it is also a novel
that creates a stronger sense of identity for the lost culture than
would have otherwise existed.
This is because, as any visual artist can tell you, if you want
something light to stand out, you had better put it against a dark
background. And in cultural terms, the Other is the perfect dark
background. It is somewhat ironic that in order to convey to readers
the African culture which he saw as vanishing, he selected a book
title drawn from an Irish modernist poet.
Which brings us to the Dracul and Kazola's tavern, or the similar
events that are occurring in Oasis with the reorganization of the
player militia to denfend against organized attacks. (You knew I'd get
to UO at some point, right?). What makes us fear the Other is the
exercise of power, or the potential for it. Yet what we use as a
yardstick for our own identity as a culture is very often our
difference from the Other. From the enemy. From what we do not wish to
exercise power over us. The last paragraph of the call to arms from
the Sonoma Oasis Militia is particularly telling and eloquent in this
It is the idealistic goal of most citizens of Oasis that one day the
city will need few active guards, and the spotlight will rightfully
fall on our tavernkeepers, smiths, tinkerers, seekers, innkeepers,
chefs, tailors, beggars, alchemists, mages, bards, rogues, librarians,
scholars, rangers, miners, assassins, diplomats, and tamers--ALL of
whom currently exist in Oasis but are frequently overshadowed by
conflicts with those who would attack us. To approach that state,
however, we need to continue to surmount substantial challenges...
Oasis seeks to defend its culture from the Other, and what's more,
it is coming together, and becoming a stronger entity because it faces
those challenges. Kazola's tavern is famous in UO, not for being a
roleplayer's tavern, but rather for being a flickering light of a
roleplaying tavern that struggles against the forces of darkness.
So thank heavens for the Other, and thank heavens for the
playerkillers. For without them these places would not have acquired
the sense of cultural identity that they now have. Bonds have been
formed by struggling against a common Other that would otherwise have
been cheaper, and easily earned. Cultures define and refine themselves
through conflict. What's more, you can measure the strength of a
culture by people's willingness to fight for its survival.
So we come full circle to the Virtues. Oasis and Kazola's (and the
Councils of Virtue, and Rivendell, and the City of Yew and...) are
expressing the Virtues. They are just doing it without the training
wheels. Unlike the standalone Ultimas, UO is not an open-book quiz.
The Ultima series was ready to make the leap from leading to allowing
players to lead. To go from difficult ethical choices on paper to
difficult ethical choices in reality. The question to ask is whether
the players it attracted were ready.
You may each have your own answers for that, but I am optimistic.
Right now the fledgling societies within UO are rambunctious, rough,
occasionally cruel and callous, sometimes gloriously civilized. But
they are indeed the sign of things being born, and of people following
the Virtues on their own and not because the game makes them do so.
How did that poem go? "What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to
be born?" I bet we'll find out together.
An aside: the response to yesterday's essay was immediate and
gratifying. Many thanks to those players who shared similar stories on
the web boards and in private email, and to those many fan sites who
wrote asking for permission to reproduce the essay. Permission is of
MUD-Dev: Advancing an unrealised future.
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