essay, video games

Why is everyone writing about role-playing games?

Something I’v noticed recently — because I follow a large number of video game related blogs and end up spending more time reading than writing — is that many people I have grown to respect and heed over the past several months all seem to be writing about role-playing games. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like RPGs. They used to be my exclusive genre of choice back in high school and even before that in middle school. I can remember spending so much time in front of some games that my face, arm or even leg would fall asleep from lack of movement. As I’ve gotten to the end of my college education though, I’ve developed a little bit of Old Man Syndrome and find myself ignoring games that take more than a few hours to play.

Yet, while blogs like Go Make Me a Sandwich (you should absolutely read her latest post), While !Finished, Gaming the System and Alternative Ending talk about Dragon Age, Dragon Age 2, and various indie games, I can’t seem to find the time for numerous long-term commitments that are needed to digest those or any critically well-received role-playing game — I’ve been playing Planescape: Torment for over a month and have only put in about eight hours total. I can enjoy their posts yet find myself constantly behind the zeitgeist curve of having played the latest RPGs.

In the latest addition of blogs I follow, I came across You Must Register and, after reading the entire backlog of posts, came across a great link: Critical Ethical Reasoning and Role-Play in the last paragraph of the first post. (Aside: another person writing about Planescape: Torment! Yes!) It is that paper and what it says about how important role-playing games are to understanding video games as a greater whole that made me understand why all the blogs I seem to follow talk about RPGs: ethical decisions. It is within a game that offers the player the ability to take on a role that the most choices will be presented, not just any game that allows the player to take part in “kick-ass action” sequences.

While I will probably be using this paper as a primary source in a number of my upcoming posts, I wanted to draw attention to the criteria that David W. Simkins and Constance Steinkuehler came up with in determining if an opportunity in a game is an ethical decision or not. This same list could and probably should be used to determine if people will be talking about the game for years. The more points of the criteria that a game fulfills, the more likely it will be used as example over and over again in future projects (e.g. Oblivion, Mass Effect and now Dragon Age).

An opportunity in a game can be considered an ethical decision if:

  • “Player choices [have] the potential to effect change in the world in which they are a part.”
  • “Players… have the emotional valence of their choices mirrored back to them in some way.”
  • “[Players have] a sufficiently rich in-game social context to render their actions significant beyond the individual level alone.”
  • “[Players have] the opportunity to make significant decision within their game that allow them to inhabit their characters with their own game-related intentions, desires, and goals.”

It was after reading this study that I began to put together why I should have used this same criteria in the discussion of death and video games. The reason why Kate Cox “let [her] fear of harming others send [her] into a kind of paralysis, during which [she] had to pause the game and pace around the room instead” was because of her connection to her character (Shepard’s death was in a way her death too), true, but it was also because of the “emotional valence” of her potential choice being mirrored — “the response from the game world that helps the role-player understand who they are and what effect their actions are having on others” — in the virtual world. The other characters were going to comment on their missing comrade. The death of any single character, especially during that last “Suicide Mission” part of Mass Effect 2, would have a tremendous effect on the world and the player. Kate Cox’s paralysis was because her decision was an ethical one. She had to decide who was to die.

This is why many bloggers continue to talk about role-playing games, even those outside the mainstream like Persona 4. The ethical choices that drive all of the narratives serve as a platform for many to talk about their virtual lives and the choices they made within each space. The uniqueness of the medium of video games is presented in microcosm any time a player can discuss a narrative that is derived from their experiences with a game that is different from that of another player. Any genre that allows for the greatest degree of choice, currently role-playing games, should be expected then to be talked about, discussed and analysed because of the wider range of interpretations possible. The greater the ability of a player to invest in everything from the appearance to the actions of the character, development of “game-related intentions, desires, and goals”, the more time is spent in the virtual worlds and thus, ultimately, the more it is written about.

Something that interested me, and as a way to close off this post, was how the study opened with a discussion of the worry that video games might desensitize players, over time, to acts of graphic violence — Rabbi Steven Fink’s 1982 quote of players who “don’t view people as human beings, but rather view them as other blips to be destroyed” — yet seemed to spend more time, later in the study, on categorizing decisions. The taking of a life, even in a virtual world, should be the most challenging ethical decision that a person can take. Therefore, examining the ethical decisions and justifications of players, they must have decided, should present a good way to develop a framework of deciding if a decision is an ethical one or not.

While decisions like whether or not to kill someone in a quest are mentioned, the fact that all of the games used in the study — “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion; Final Fantasy (VI and VII); Jade Empires; Knights of the Old Republic (1 and 2); Vampires: Bloodlines; and World of Warcraft” — are all about killing one thing or another is overlooked. Is it just because that taking some lives, as an example Bandits in Oblivion, is not considered a evil action while killing someone in a town is? What is far more interesting, at least to me, is not if a decision is an ethical one but how players come to understand the “rich in-game social context” that allows them to the come to the necessary understanding to make the delineation between an ethical decision and a mechanic decision, killing a villager is bad but killing hundreds of bandits is fine.

This has always seemed to me to be the central paradox of all role-playing games, one character’s death during a cut-scene matters more than the thousands slain during battles to get to that point (i.e. Final Fantasy VII). How players come to understand this distinction is vitally important to their ability to empathize with the character. When the protagonist cannot speak, in the case of first-person games like Half-Life 2 and Rage, the character becomes nothing more than a gun for the player, basically the player-character is a “mute killer”. However, many RPGs give the player the ability to speak on behalf of the character, especially in cases of the games mentioned, yet most players still seem fine with the decision to start killing things once given the chance. Perhaps this is just a part of the variety of choices that RPGs give players and why people continue to write about them?