A man walks into a store. He says to the clerk, “I would like to buy this magical item pulsating with eldritch power.” “Sure thing,” the clerk replies, “that’ll be 2,000 gold coins.” The man rummages through his pockets, only to realize he is short 200 coins. Pondering about what he should do, he remembers an old man he saw in the neighboring town who offered a generous reward to anyone willing to complete an easy task. So, our hero does what any reasonable person would in this situation: he pulls out his ax and brutally murders the poor shopkeeper. He pries his magical item from the clerk’s cold dead hands, walks out, and high-fives the town sheriff on his way out the gate. Wait, what?
If you have ever played a role-playing game, on a table top or with a video game system, I am ready to bet my Christmas presents you have encountered the above scene. I know I have, and yes, I admit, I have done it myself too. The point of role playing games should be to immerse yourself in a world you don’t know, take on the role of another person and attempt to act like that individual while following a greater narrative. However, the approaching Yuletide event forces me to ask one question: why do most of these assumed personalities end up on Santa’s special list of raging sociopaths?
After all, don’t we all want to be nice people deep down? RPGs provide their players an amazing opportunity to become someone else, to start with a clean slate and forget about all the mistakes we’ve made in our past lives. We can be more in every way; kinder, better, faster, stronger. No one wants to get labeled naughty, right?
Well, that’s just it. Everyone hates being labeled as such, but good grief do we love to get down and naughty if we can get away with it. Role-playing games give us a chance to become saviors of entire worlds, but just the same they allow us to revel in the most deranged atrocities we can come up with.
To those familiar with such terms, I should now point out that I’m not talking about power-gaming. Power-gaming means optimizing a character’s statistics and equipment to be as effective as possible in its chosen role, even if the player would have to steal equipment or exploit game mechanics to achieve it. While usually frowned upon by non-powergamers, there is a crucial distinction between power-gaming and what I’m talking about. Power-gaming exhibits a “means justify the end” kind of mentality. What I’m concerned with is acting like a d-bag simply because.
So why do players devolve into immoral, kleptomaniacal mass murderers? While I am no expert in human psychology, during my years of experience with role-playing games I have noticed three major features in games both physical and electronic that are (at least in my case) major contributors to the degradation of my usual morals.
Number one, in games there is a significant lack of consequence towards player characters. No matter what you steal, who you beat up or who’s babies you eat, you can always get away with it. In games, there usually is simply no law for the players. In a way that makes sense. There wouldn’t be much of a game if the player character was apprehended and locked away for the rest of her life after five minutes of play. Even if some kind of law-enforcement system is simulated (“Halt, you criminal scum!”), the worse the player is going to get is losing some money or equipment, something that can be retrieved within 15 minutes.
That makes me wonder, why not though? It’d be interesting to play a game where there actually was a working penal system. Steal something? Congratulations, you now have to do a twenty-quest community service side story. Murder someone? Game over, your character is locked up for good. That’d force you to stay on the straight and narrow, wouldn’t it? Such a system would be easier to implement in tabletop RPGs, where the DM could actively enforce the law and keep unruly players in check.
So why don’t games do that? Perhaps mostly because it simply wouldn’t be fun. This brings me to my point number two. Role-playing games are mostly about escapism and some level of power fantasy, be that in the form of an intricate story, immersion in the character, or simply enjoying a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. You have to abide by the law and be on your best behavior at all times in your normal life, you don’t want to do that in a game. At least I don’t. I want to be someone completely different for a few hours. If I feel like single-handedly pillaging and burninating the countryside as a fearsome half-god warrior, I want to do that. If I feel like creeping in the shadows as a dashing rogue and poisoning a few goblets of wine to loot the corpses, I want to do that. Not think “oh that’d be nice to try but I can’t.” That’s the whole point of role-playing games. And although I said it would be relatively easy to have a working law enforcement system in tabletop games, there is usually a valid reason why it doesn’t happen. The DM is usually more concerned with getting on with the story they’ve been creating over many hours, maybe even days. In these circumstances, the players will inevitably be given wiggle room in moral dilemmas.
My third and final point might seem like a minor one, but I believe it has a large influence in creating the slash-and-burn mentality that leads to Santa crying while writing your name on the naughty list. Some games actually reward the player for acting like a complete monster. For every innocent villager you kill you gain experience points, becoming stronger and stronger. From every corpse you can usually loot something you can sell, becoming richer and richer. This makes it all the more easier to expand the scale of your one-man genocide and pay off the times you get caught. Where’s the downside to that? Especially when (again especially video) games sometimes have such half-witted morality systems that whatever you do, people still cheer when you walk into town. Case in point, one of my Fallout characters is hailed throughout the land as the Savior of the Wasteland. At the same time, my karma roster has a wide variety of more and more depraved “honors,” among them such hilarious titles as Cannibal, Grave Robber, Slave Driver and more.
Yet, despite all of it, playing a lawful good character every once in a while can be a surprisingly refreshing experience. I recently created a new character in Skyrim and decided that this time I’ll do it all differently. I won’t murder. I won’t steal. I’ll walk if I can’t afford a horse (quick travel is for chumps). For pete’s sakes, I even decided to be a vegetarian so even the animals can be at peace. Basically, I made the game so much more, if not difficult, then at least laborious for myself.
At least, that’s what I thought. I fully expected to have to do a lot more work to reach the same levels when playing an “evil” character. Turns out, that’s not necessarily the case. Whereas I would usually get most of my experience and income from killing innocent villagers and guards, I now have more time to do actual quests. Instead of having to sneak around in the night, I can just walk into a store and buy stuff. It’s still not quite the same points-wise, though. I do lag behind a bit from where I usually am at a given time, but you know what? I actually like it. I have to constantly struggle to not slip back into my usual approaches to not having enough money or dealing with an NPC I don’t like. But that’s okay. Instead of just going through the motions to get on with the story, I have to work for my success. I actually feel that maybe I am the hero that these little fictional people deserve. And I gotta say, for all its worth, that feels good.
Geez, I’m gonna go find some orphans and donate all my money to them. But you better be watching, Santa. I don’t promise my next game character will be this nice.