In the Terranova backchannel, an ugly debate (I've been creating most of the ugliness) has erupted over the significance of avatar choice. I've advanced two controversial positions: that avatar choice is not a neutral thing from the standpoint of personal integrity, and that the Horde, in World of Warcraft, is evil. Nobody agrees, but it's been suggested that the community could chew on this a bit.
So here's my view: When a real person chooses an evil avatar, he or she should be conscious of the evil inherent in the role. There are good reasons for playing evil characters - to give others an opportunity to be good, to help tell a story, to explore the nature of evil. But when the avatar is a considered an expression of self, in a social environment, then deliberately choosing a wicked character is itself a (modestly) wicked act.
Then when we look at WoW, it seems to me obvious that the Horde races
are on the whole evil. One element of this is the fact that the words
'troll' and 'orc' and 'undead' have implied evil creatures for as long
as those words have been in use in the English language (since the 9th
century in the case of 'orc'). No one, not even mighty Blizzard, can un-do the meaning of a word in a matter of a few years. But more importantly, all you have to do is look at the values expressed by the cultures, and it should be apparent which sets of values are worthy of praise. The human race is the only one with children, and charitable giving, for example. Orcs, on the other hand, value warfare and power. In terms of public ethics, this is a no-brainer to me, really.
So it's been fascinating to me to see the counterarguments. For example, it was said that because Warcraft's orcs have some noble features, and humans some ugly features, the two races are ethically equivalent. And there were many other, similar arguments, which to me have had very little merit.
But what made me feel most isolated from this community of scholars was the general indifference to the entire issue. To choose orc, it was said, does not carry with it any particular moral or ethical baggage. It was a matter of playstyles, tastes, personal interests.
Goodness, I could not disagree more. My view is that in a social game, these choices are laden with all kinds of implications for personal integrity. Avatar choice is fraught with broader meaning.
Two concrete examples of where the choice matters:
1. I am a father. A guild of colleagues chose to play Horde. I rolled an Undead. My son (age 3) was afraid of my character. He was afraid of the Undercity. And that's just from the imagery - he would know nothing of what the Undead actually do in terms of kinapping, imprisonment, and torture. He's afraid, and he should be afraid, and as his father, my only defense in this frightening choice would have to be that I am just trying out evil, just getting to know it, just using evil instrumentally for some greater purpose. He abviously can't grasp that now, but even if he could, these are the only possible justifications for me to inhabit such a wicked being. And my point is that the inhabitation would indeed require justification. If my undead warlock were an extension of myself, something I was pursuing for mere enjoyment, then it ought to be a troubling question for me, sholdn't it? Why am I finding pleasure in expressing myself in a form that frightens 3-year-olds? My assertion is that this is a genuine and significant moral issue that everyone who chooses an avatar needs to think about. Morally compulsory.
2. I give talks and interviews. I'm often asked what avatar I play. People then draw conclusions about me from what they see. It's one thing if the conclusion is "when this guy plays Fable, he goes to the dark side." Fable is a single-player game. To go evil there is implicitly to explore some aspect of evil. It affects the well-being of no one but me. But if being evil involves the well-being of others, as it well might in a social game, then the conclusion might change. Questions might arise. "So when this guy plays World of Warcraft, he plays on the evil side, and he goes out and eats the flesh on the dead bodies that had been played by other people. Wonder why he does that?" For those of us versed in gameplay, maybe that's not a big deal. But imagine you had a completely fresh perspective about gaming and characters. The choice of undead warlock, or orc, or troll, would at the very least raise questions. A reporter might laugh and ask, "why are you playing on the evil side?" And what is my answer? It better be something about exploring what evil is like, etc., because if it's just self-expression, it's an open and public acceptance a patently evil society. Which would be wrong - it's wrong, when you are a public figure, to say that evil acts are OK. And hence the choice of Undead, by a scholar, as an act of self-expression (rather than study, exploration, serving as a foil, etc.), is questionable from the standpoint of personal integrity.
In advancing these positions, I am upending a number of apple carts. One is the ostensible objectivity of academic research. I know many people here feel they are fully in touch with the ambiguities of value in the academy, but it's amazing how little prepared people are, when it comes to the practical example of avatar choice, to accept that morals and values and Right and Wrong do play a role. As scholars, folks here are convinced they are not swayed by their passions. But what I sense is a passionate and arational commitment to denying the presence of ethics at all in the choice of how we play.
Another is the role of designer as god: if Blizzard says orcs are noble, then they are noble. I'm saying Blizzard does not have that power, that there are fundamental forces at work that prevent anyone from creating a thing, calling it 'orc', and then assigning to it a broad social goodness. Those forces are partly social, and to the extent that they are, they are exactly analogous to the forces that dictate prices. But I have faith that those forces are more than just social construction. Orcs are ancient representatives of a bad, bad thing, and one cannot undo the power of that association in the course of a single videogame, even one played by millions for a year. Orcs are still evil, even though Blizzard says they are not. If Blizzard wanted to make orcs un-evil, then they would have had to associate their culture more closely with commonly-accepted notions of what a good society is: orcs would have to have children, they would have to value love over war, would have to see little nobility in bloodshed, would have to reject alliance with undead beings, would have to be charitable. But they didn't do that; they endowed orcs with a savage culture and then said that there is some nobility in savagery. Well, just as my five bushels of apples are not sufficient to change the world's understanding of what an apple is and what it costs, Blizzard's game is not sufficient to change the moral loading of their orcs.
Third, I'm defending a point of view that I'm disappointed is not more widely-held among academics, which is that these worlds are not mere play-spaces, nor mere extensions of the real world. They are a place where we can hear a faint echo of things unconscious, even mystical. What happens in these places is deeply significant; their symbology carries genuine religious and spiritual meaning; they are (or ought to be held and protected as) different, fundamentally different and distinct, from life as usual. To treat these environments as mere platforms for fooling around or making money, is in my view bordering on sacrilege. These places are precious and vulnerable. That's my mindset when I make an avatar choice - that it is a very serious affair, and how I choose to be in the world reflects who I am very, very deeply.
I've argued that there's deep ethical significance to what Terra Novans do in-game, and that's met with universal rejection in the backchannel. I doubt it will fare any better out here. But Cory suggested the discussion was worth carrying over, so here it is.