Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Morality of Games

The other week, when Nathan Russell dropped in to Brisbane for Go Play Brisbane, we had some extended chats about the nature of gaming and of games themselves. In amongst all this was a hefty discussion of my Game In Design (the game with the working title of Nobles) and I made a comment that I want to make again here.

Roleplaying games make moral and philosophical assertions through their mechanics.

Now, initially one might think that the word "mechanics" should be "story" but upon closer examination it is apparent that it's the mechanic that does this. A good game (according to various versions of game design theory) includes mechanics which reward players for a particular kind of behaviour. The story will always arise from the mechanics; if it didn't then we could - and would - tell the same variety of stories with only one ruleset. Dogs in the Vineyard stories told in GURPS, for example. I'll concede that it's possible, but it's not likely. DitV creates a particular kind of story because of its game mechanics, and the same is true of other game mechanics.

If a game system creates a particular kind of story, then the abstract concept of that kind of story is connected to the morality implied by that system. Here are some examples.

Dungeons and Dragons (and others of this kind) imply a moral statement something like this: defeat monsters and you will gain items that make you more powerful, better enabling you to fight monsters and gain more items; ergo, the central path to self-improvement is through the violent defeat of monsters. It's not simply that the PCs use violence to defend against The Darkness, but that through violence the PCs actually improve.

Don't Rest Your Head is particularly Nietzschean in that the characters are asked to dig deep within and become what they already are. Characters are driven to exhaustion in order to add more dice to the pool. Characters use their Madness talents to add more dice, and these talents are taken from the basic elements of the characters themselves. Through magnifying the character as it is, the character becomes a larger version of what they already are. And also note the flipside to this, becoming what they already are (that is, pushing exhaustion and madness beyond mortal limits) is a horror itself. To be quite technical, the horror of the DRYH overman is the self qua exaggerated-self, the horror is the same God that Nietzsche pronounced as dead.

To return to my point. Games imply a moral or philosophical truth, deep within the mechanics of that game. Most designers may not realise it at the time of design, and in that regard we have something of an insight into the designers themselves. The game is the absent-minded drawing, the unintentional revelation of the mind of the designer.
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