Thursday 9 January 2014

On Choice

Dàchéng the mage in Azeroth was discussing morality yesterday. Today it is my turn. Me, her alter ego on Earth.

The boundaries of Dàchéng's world are set by Blizzard. Within those, she must make moral choices. But she can only make choices that are allowed by Blizzard. She can no more choose to attack King Varian Wrynn than I on Earth can choose to cast arcane barrage on a passing cyclist. The physics of these two worlds are different, and so are the moral choices available to the inhabitants of these two worlds. Like Saxsymage's rogue Saiphy, Dàchéng would like to help Vanessa Van Cleef. They cannot. The choice to do this is unavailable to them, just as the choice of taking Lordaeron back from the undead is not available to us, despite the efforts of many RP guilds on many realms. Though the adventurers of Azeroth wield unimaginable power, and can kill gods with the power of their thoughts, they cannot fix the gate in Lordaeron. They can't even chop a nearby tree down to fashion into a door. Those choices simply do not exist in Azeroth.

Sometimes we, the players on Earth, are reminded that some of the choices we can make on Earth are not available in Azeroth. That's when the game reminds us that we are just playing a game. That's one of the ways in which immersion breaks. The art of creating a great virtual world is to minimize these moments, by making it seem as if we have sufficient choice in Azeroth to direct our characters as our Earthly morals would dictate such a character would behave, or as we would behave if we were that character. And when we have the ability to make such choices, this is when we feel flow most, this is when we are most immersed.

Importantly, we bring our earthly morals into the make-believe world of the game, and (when we are fully immersed in the game) imbue the characters of the game with reality. We believe that these coloured dots on the computer screen are people. For of course it is not immoral to press F1 and make some coloured dots disappear. It's only when in the flow of the game that we can suffer moral quandaries by confusing these coloured dots with real people, and by confusing pressing F1 with ripping out their hearts.

A few years ago, Brenda Romero (Brenda Braithwaite as she was then) made a very interesting game called Train. In this game, you load yellow figurines into boxcars of a train, and then move your train along its course to its destination. Impeding your progress are a number of randomly drawn cards that can slow you down or derail you, free some of the figurines, and so on. When you reach your destination, its name is revealed as Auschwitz.

When described baldly like that, it may not evoke the same strong emotions in you as it did in the players. That's because they were immersed into the milieu by the board and its setup and by the gameplay, which were chosen to subconsciously evoke the Nazi era and put the players in the zone. You can read and watch an interview about it on the Wall Street Journal. What is fascinating to me is that, when players discovered what was going on in the game, they reacted as if those yellow figurines were real living, breathing people. They felt guilty about transporting the figurines to Auschwitz, and they tried to use the rules to free them. They were in the flow, immersed.

Of course, nobody dies. They are yellow figurines, not real people. But when you are immersed in the game, in any game, you treat it as real, and its rules as immutable like the laws of physics. Thus is is that people cry when their figurines reach the final destination, and are elated when they can use the rules to free the figurines or redirect the train. Yes. Even when they understand what's going on, they often still stick to the rules, trying to use them to subvert the final solution (rather than simply picking up the boxcars, emptying the figurines out, packing up the game and going home).

It is the same in Azeroth. We players are immersed in the game to the point of imbuing the citizens of Westfall with real lives, and of feeling evil when we kill the innocent. In fact, the point of the game is immersion in the virtual world of Azeroth, it certainly isn't for the exciting game-play.

But how do the inhabitants of this world feel? I know this is rather like asking if the yellow figurines are afraid or not. And yet it's a question that makes sense. If you were, in real life, in the situation that your toon is in, and you had her powers and abilities and history, what would you do? The answer to that is what pushes us to continue to play (rather than moving on to playing Tetris, for instance, whose moment-to-moment game-play is rather more intricate). We want to be immersed, but we can't help being Earthlings.

So when we are faced with a ludic choice that does not include the option we would like have (such as giving free candles to kobolds, and arranging to buy their ore), we players feel frustrated, and sometimes are brought out of our immersive state. But would our characters feel frustrated? Would they feel any more frustrated at not being able to help Vanessa  Van Cleef than we would at not being able to polymorph our neighbours? It just never occurred to me (before now) to want to polymorph my earthly neighbour. Perhaps in a world where the gods (Blizzard in the case of Azeroth) have not made some choices physically possible, our characters would be as unaware of the missing choice as we are about polymorph. That is to say, they might hypothetically amuse themselves imagining how great a world would be that allowed such a choice, but they know that in their world, it's all just fantasy.

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