Objectivist Roundup

 Posted by on 4 May 2012 at 12:00 pm  Objectivist Roundup
May 042012

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  • Jennifer Snow

    Hey, Diana, I don’t know how much you’re into video games and how much firsthand knowledge you’d be likely to have about that whole karma meter thing, but I thought I’d throw my two cents in as someone who might qualify as close to an expert.

    Karma (or good/evil, lightside/darkside, what-have-you) meters exist in games primarily because they’re a way to reduce an enormously variable combination of circumstances to a single mechanical number that a computer can track across the entire game and have later events in some way “react” to earlier actions. A lot of people who play these sorts of games really enjoy having the game track and react to their actions somehow–it’s a major selling point for the entire genre. Games where you can do whatever you want and nothing notices or cares are not nearly as popular. This desire for the game to “remember” things, however, creates massive technical difficulties. Imagine the kind of programming problems that would arise if you had to create and track a variable for every. single. thing. the player does over the course of the game. Imagine the kind of BUGS you could (and would, inevitably) get if just one of those variables gets mis-applied. Regardless of the specific content of those meters, there is a very real reason why they are fairly ubiquitous.

    • Jennifer Snow

      OMG Disqus cannot handle comments of any significant length without bugging the heck out. Guess I’m breaking this up into multiple posts, then.

  • Jennifer Snow

    Continuing: Even so, karma meters are not a universal feature–the Dragon Age series created by Bioware, for instance, dispenses with this mechanic, and they’re absolutely plagued with problems as a result. Granted, they have the room to create a world where things are more open to interpretation, but they have all the technical problems I mentioned AND the fans STILL complain that the game doesn’t notice or react to nearly enough things in nearly enough contexts. So, that’s the general background on why these karma meter things even exist. The next issue is that some (actually, MANY) people don’t much like the content of those meters. They don’t like which actions are deemed “good” and which “evil”. This is an issue that actually precedes computer games and dates back to the early days of tabletop roleplaying and the Dungeons and Dragons “alignment” system, which actually was created for much the same reasons that the karma meters were created in computer games–it is useful shorthand in a system where the player’s actions should have some kind of impact. This very issue has been discussed and debated ad infinitum ad nauseum in the gaming community for as long as I’ve been alive and no very useful progress has been made, because, ultimately, it is IMPOSSIBLE to create a shorthand, symbolic simplification of an enormously complex issue without losing a ton of information in the process. Heck, trying to represent hand-to-hand combat as a group of numbers and die rolls simple enough for a human to remember is the same kind of problem, and it’s why the “rules” for tabletop role-playing games can run to the thousands or tens of thousands of pages and be far from “complete”.

  • Jennifer Snow

    Aaaaand continuing:

    And, no, that “tens of thousands” figure is NOT AN EXAGGERATION IN THE SLIGHTEST. And people wonder why this hobby can come to dominate people’s lives.

    Anyway, enough with the background, onto the salient question: How does one go about designing a system that would better reflect a rational morality.

    Well, ultimately, there’s two ways to do it. You can use the karma meter method, in which case all you wind up doing is using a different methodology for deciding which actions qualify as “good” and which as “evil” (or however you want to label your axes, however many of them you want to have–Dungeons and Dragons alignment, for instance, had two, the Good/Evil axis and the Law/Chaos axis.) This is fundamentally no different than anything that’s already been done, and nobody’s really going to be able to advise you specifically how to divide things up without knowing what specific scenarios you intend to put in your game. Really, all you can do is that when the time comes to decide where to put your label pins, you ask “What Would John Galt/anti-John Galt Do?” instead of “What would Jesus/Satan Do?” Then, you base your downstream reactions off “what would John Galt/anti John Galt want?” as opposed to “What would Jesus/Satan want?”

  • Jennifer Snow

    Aaaand some more:

    Or, you can do the much more difficult method of having specific actions result in specific long-term consequences. (This entire system is designed around the problem of long-term consequences, immediate consequences can be portrayed directly–you beat someone up, they scream a lot, beg you to stop, etc.) There’s a lot to recommend this method–the sky’s the limit creativity-wise and you don’t have to worry about pinning quasi-arbitrary labels on things. However, you can’t escape the technical problems, either.

    If you want a rational morality in your game, though, there is still an issue you seriously need to think about, and that’s this: People play games to have fun, and thus, as a game designer, it’s a major faux pas to put ANYTHING in the game that is, in general, Not Fun. This is where non-rational moralities actually have a HUGE advantage over rational ones: in realistic terms, if you make irrational, evil choices, for the most part, bad, *unenjoyable* stuff *should* result. People won’t trust you, so they won’t give you quests or sell to you or even talk to you. Your valuables should get destroyed, you get thrown in jail, your stats get fubared, your wife leaves you, your dog bites you and runs away, etc. etc. etc. If you make a game that works this way, you don’t actually have a game with two (or several) optional choice paths. You have a game with an “optimal” choice path, and one (or several) that leads inevitably to various flavors of disaster.

  • Jennifer Snow

    I’m really honestly going to wrap this up soon:

    This sort of scenario is a HUGE contrast to one roughly based off, say, some version of Judeo-Christian morality, where if you do Evil stuff, you get to do fun (for some people) things like grind the faces of the poor and rule the kingdoms of the earth with an iron fist, and if you do Good stuff, you get to do fun (for some people) stuff like live in Happy Sunshine Flower Hippie Land where everyone dances in Peace and Harmony la te dah te dah te dah. THIS is the issue that you REALLY need to think about, BIGTIME. It is the MAJOR and UNAVOIDABLE stumbling block to implementing some kind of rational morality “system” in a game without the game designer simply appearing to be a nasty jerk who goes around slapping people down for Breaking the Rules. That is not a fun game. It is a snide, preachy morality play.

    One option is that you can go the Dragon Age route, where for the most part instead of deciding between Good and Evil actions, you’re generally deciding between two different FACTIONS, none of which are wholly good or wholly bad. Or, you can shunt all the long-term consequences to a post-game wrapup so nobody actually has to PLAY their character being a dissolute bum hated by all, but they do get to enjoy some actually fun short-term consequences like having the Drunk statistic modifications all the time, or hearing the hilarious high-pitched squeal when they slap their wife around. Or, you can just not worry about trying to shoehorn some Philosophical Ideal and focus instead on having lots of fun and interesting and complex Conflict. If you’ve done your thinking about life and reason and morality, the rational morality *will* come out in the kinds of conflicts and resolutions that you find interesting enough to develop, and the karma meter issue will cease to be important except as a technical advantage/disadvantage.

    • Jennifer Snow

      Sorry about the essay, there. I should probably have done that as an email or, heck, a post on my own blog, but I wasn’t sure either of those would actually reach anybody. Still, I’ll do that the next time instead of spamming the comments.

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