Tolkien, Natural Law and Video Games

35epx4I wrote this paper as a talk for a symposium on Ethics and Games at DePauw University, organized by Harry Brown. I submitted to an academic journal (Ethics and Information Technology), but they rejected it. The reviewers said that an academic journal is not the place for a paper that cites Wikipedia and the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 rulebook. Well, you know, they're right. So I've just posted it on SSRN. And it's got 2 downloads! Yay!

As far as substance goes, here's the abstract, after the fold.

I review the moral systems that designers create inside their video games. There’s much similarity across games, despite wide differences in narratives, backgrounds, target demographics, and mechanics. Using the terms of Dungeons & Dragons morality, most games have three moral factions: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, and Chaotic Evil. Players usually get to choose between Lawful or Chaotic Good, while the AI plays Chaotic Evil. Now, why does this pattern appear so frequently? I’ll argue it has something to do with Natural Law. Natural Law derives moral judgment from the notion that any reasonably well‐formed human mind can discern what the purpose or end of an item is: What it’s for. It’s a common‐sense morality, which may or may not work well in advanced bioethics but suits the moral world of video games perfectly, where bad guys are really easy to identify but the players fight back and forth about whether to be a rule‐following hero of light or a renegade, rebellious, dark angel. That law/chaos tension is also an aspect of Natural Law. As for how Natural law got into games, the path seems to run through JRR Tolkien – devout Roman Catholic and therefore no stranger to the teachings of Aquinas. From Aquinas to Tolkien to D&D to modern video games, the LG/CG/CE triangle persists as a simple moral world, but one that, judging from player numbers, people very earnestly want to live in. Is this in itself a good thing? Since we’re talking Natural Law, let’s conclude by asking – what is the purpose of fantasy? Does this usage suit fantasy’s purpose?


Comments on Tolkien, Natural Law and Video Games:

Richard Bartle says:

I believe the law/chaos thing got into D&D through Moorcock, not Tolkien. The original D&D rules only had law/neutral/chaos, with no good/evil dimension.

Richard

Posted Sep 21, 2012 7:44:16 PM | link

Patrick says:

Interesting! I'm Catholic and a video game fan myself... On the one hand, I think it's good that video games don't buy into the moral relativism that pervades much of American popular culture. And that they're so unabashedly beautiful.

On the other hand, the danger is that they become a sort of simulation of virtue, and that the player identifies himself too closely with the hero, and believes that he's really done something great. They could, in the worst case, offer a sort of "Jesus trip" to people whose fantasy it is to be heroes, but who lack the courage to be one in real life. But even then, maybe games provide a sort of mental training for virtue in the real world?

In any case, thank you for providing much food for thought.

Posted Sep 21, 2012 9:05:19 PM | link

Rits says:

although, in the end of the day, in reality there will always be players acting in the pure-evil role even if they chose the lawful good faction... "/dance" on corpse <--- classic insult to injury

the purpose of fantasy is worth reminded indeed, but on the user's end, how many players are really drawn into the story? or do they naturally make their own factions, like "elite pvper", "elite pve-ers", "casual social players", "WoW veterans", "4-channers", etc. i'm afraid that the effort in creativity would be wasted if the tendency of players skipping dialogues doesn't change. some may say its the player's own lost if he/she chose to pay for the game and not enjoy the full of it, but i think there's something in naturally develop this A.D.H.D habit, and i'm one of the victims for a decade.

Posted Sep 22, 2012 4:26:50 AM | link

Nick Munn says:

That makes me sad. Ethics and Information Technology seemed like one of the better journals for embracing games, to me. (I have had something published there which cites, amongst other things, Facebook and Blizzard). There is also a current CFP for papers about computer games in particular, through Philosophy & Technology.

Posted Sep 23, 2012 8:33:20 PM | link

Hallie says:

Great article

Posted Sep 24, 2012 1:03:54 AM | link

Mark Terrano says:

Interesting article - though I'll contend that Online/Social worlds (we can stick with WOW) are far more influenced by game-enforced morality that is designed to keep players from being frustrated by others far more than any latent influence of Tolkien or the fantasy authors that were the basis for the worlds of Gygax and Arneson. If I am alliance, the world morality is that I may not kill alliance. But if I go to a 'neutral' or Horde town I can callously kill innocent shopkeepers. Loot rules enforce the morality of treasure division, and the man made rules (kick from the party) are used to penalize anti-social but allowable behaviors like speed-looting/ninja-looting.
The Natural laws are written into the game mechanics and are generally designed to reduce player frustration and support calls...with occasional nods to game fiction.


Posted Sep 25, 2012 12:40:05 AM | link

Chris Bateman says:

Richard is correct - the Law and Chaos structure came to D&D via Moorcock, although it originates in Poul Anderson's novel "Three Hearts and Three Lions". See my essay "Chaotic Good in the Balance" in the forthcoming "Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy" collection, which is itself a riposte to Jon Cogburn's essay on the topic. There's a lot connecting moral philosophy and alignment systems in this collection, actually, although I haven't had time to read it all.

As for "an academic journal is not the place for a paper that cites Wikipedia and the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 rulebook" - bah, another epic fail in peer review. The question is not *what* you cite but *why* you cite it - and there are clearly reasons why either source would be of scholarly interest.

*waves*

Posted Sep 26, 2012 8:17:16 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

I guess I'm thinking more of Tolkien's ghostly presence in all fantasy culture. Arneson and Gygax watched Conan and read Moorcock and put those things into D&D. But Tolkien is The Father, you know? Conan and Moorcock made manifest themes that Tolkien laid out.

Posted Sep 26, 2012 10:24:01 AM | link

JohnK says:

The original Conan stories were written by Howard and published between 1932 and 1936. The Hobbit wasn't published until 1937 as a children's story. The Lord of the Rings wasn't published until 1954. I think you've got your influence there backwards. Moorcock is cited as being influenced by Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs (was even an editor of a Tarzan fan magazine).

I'm going to get into a lot of trouble, but I think J.R.R's writing is dreadful. Slogging through LotR is an utter chore. I do it because the story itself is brilliant and that's what popularized the swords and sorcery genre (sub-genre?). Calling him the Father is like saying Justin Bieber invented Pop music.

Posted Sep 27, 2012 9:23:22 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

I was notified this morning that, with a whopping 69 downloads, this paper has made top ten lists in numerous parts of SSRN. It just makes me wonder about the state of the academic world. Seriously? With just 69 downloads? And you're into the top ten of some intellectual subject area?

Posted Oct 4, 2012 9:29:13 AM | link

Jeremy Harton says:

@JohnK If you can trust Wikipedia for simple data, then the Hobbit would have been in progress concurrently. I doubt that pulp fiction written in the US would have been heard of by an academic in the UK. Forgive me if I misunderstand, but it sounded like you were proposing that Tolkien was influenced by Howard.

Last I heard, the Lord of The Rings was intended in large part as a sort of mythology. In that light the only part of describing it as "epic high fantasy" that is fair is "epic". It's not really fantastical, and the "magic" is very sparse by comparison to everything else.

I do wish I understood why you would call his writing "dreadful", perhaps you expected something different than the author himself intended?

Posted Oct 14, 2012 9:51:40 PM | link

David Galiel says:

"he LG/CG/CE triangle persists as a simple moral world, but one that, judging from player numbers, people very earnestly want to live in."

That would be a valid conclusion only if a reasonable quantity of games of otherwise similar design quality featured alternative moral systems, and the player market had overwhelmingly chosen this simplistic model. Without doing a detailed survey, it would appear to be more the case that players choose from a limited variety of available options - that they seem satisfied with this model only because more emotionally complex, thoughtful alternatives are unavailable to them.

Time and again, I see game designers assuming something is "what players want" regardless of whether they have a choice, which becomes a positive feedback loop that limits innovation and progress in our field.

Posted Nov 30, 2012 1:55:35 PM | link