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May 6th, 1998
Forgive me if the quote is inaccurate--it's from memory. It was written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet, and people have been quoting it ever since.
The latter line may hold some resonance for those players struggling with the issues of harassment and playerkilling in the virtual setting. It's a difficult problem, to say the least. "Where," players might ask, "have the Virtues gone?" This is, after all, Ultima Online.
By now most gamers have heard the story, of course. Richard Garriott, after making Ultima III, felt that his games were lacking a moral center. And so in Ultima IV, he made the central storyline of the game be about a simple moral structure: eight qualities he found admirable and which fit well within the fantasy setting.. The Virtues. And ever since, Ultimas have been about ethics, which is a large part of what makes the series a landmark in the history of computer gaming.
Yet UO does not directly support the Virtues, at the moment. Why is that?
For an answer, I thought I would dig up a design document I wrote back on September 13th, 1995...
The setting statement implies that the regular course of the Ultima games is the aberration in the normal course of events. Normal worlds in the multiverse do not get set under the caretaking hands of a Time Lord, therefore they do not manifest such recurring forces as the Avatar and Lord British and the Guardian and all the other characters who make up what we know in the regular Ultima sequence.
(The "setting" referred to is the fact that UO is an alternate shard from the regular canon Ultima universe. Within the canon Ultima universe, the Time Lord sends Avatars, of course, who serve as examples of the Virtues. The other shards, as those who have read Sherry the Mouse's book may know, are mere shadows that may or may not someday reunite with the main universe. However, they are not receiving that paternalistic intervention from outside...)
Instead, the normal world is composed of daily power struggles, of ethical dilemmas without clearcut answers, and clearly have a lack of guidance from outside. There is no ultimate authority like a Time Lord sitting out there to tell the inhabitants of these other worlds exactly what course of action is the best.
Granted, the instruction of the Time Lord till now has been essentially that the "corrrect" course of action is often not the one that comes immediately to mind; in that sense, the regular Ultima series is a gradually developing course in ethics, beginning with simplistic good and evil (Mondain, Minax, Exodus), to the notion of 'absolute' virtues in a rather Aquinas-like philosophy, and from there towards the notion of ethical relativity that manifests in U6 and later episodes. Thus the regular Ultimas develop the concept of ethical behavior gradually.
The goal then for the setting and theme of Ultima Online is to recapitulate this development on an individual basis, permitting players free rein to behave as they prefer--but also to incorporate the notion that has been implied in all the mainstream series: that ethics and governance are essentially the same subject. That what is proper ethical behavior on the part of the individual, i.e. the governance of one's impulses and desires, is also proper behavior for those who seek to govern others. Thus it is that Lord British becomes the exemplar of behavior in Ultima Online, rather than the Avatar, for in the normal course of human events, people do not develop into the sorts of external forces that the Avatar is in the regular series.
In Ultima Online, the underlying game mechanics do not only reward behavior that considers the good of the many, they demand it. The game's basic principle is that of governance and conservancy. The role of the player seeking to continue the thematic impulse of the Ultima series is therefore that of governance--the process of developing into someone in the game context who seeks to emulate Lord British's goals of equitable governance. The system poses irreconcilable ethical dilemmas just as any ecological system must, and the player will simply have to navigate these as best he can.
Given these implications, the game mechanics of Ultima Online must include a mechanism to reward players who successfully survive and continue to succeed, by granting them greater powers to govern others. Building castles, etc, is a possibility. Then again, the truest simulation of this may in fact be to simply let those with enough money build and gain power, and let their own natures or roleplayed natures determine their fates (hated tyrants or benign despots or enlighened rulers?). The design issue becomes whether this is an overt enough statement of the thematic underpinnings of the world.
Fairly lofty stuff for a design document! And of course, it has that assumed notion of players exercising power over one another. In its crudest form, this manifests as playerkilling.
For the last few decades, the academic world has been paying a lot of attention to the notion of the Other. That is to say, that poorly understood and perhaps incomprehensible being or beings that is not of our own tribe. There is a lot of turgid writing going on analyzing the work of writers who deal with issues of cultural conflict, such as Bharati Mukherjee, or Chinua Achebe. You might have heard of this latter fellow--you may have read his best-known book, Things Fall Apart, in high school.
Achebe's novel deals with the issues of what happens to an African tribe when its values begin to contact those of Western society, and what sorts of compromises must be made. It's a great read, in part because it crystallizes a sense of loss for the culture which is being overwhelmed and diluted. Yet at the same time that it is a novel about the Other (and in his novel, the Other is us, really--the Western, computer-literate Net-surfing UO-playin' types) it is also a novel that creates a stronger sense of identity for the lost culture than would have otherwise existed.
This is because, as any visual artist can tell you, if you want something light to stand out, you had better put it against a dark background. And in cultural terms, the Other is the perfect dark background. It is somewhat ironic that in order to convey to readers the African culture which he saw as vanishing, he selected a book title drawn from an Irish modernist poet.
Which brings us to the Dracul and Kazola's tavern, or the similar events that are occurring in Oasis with the reorganization of the player militia to denfend against organized attacks. (You knew I'd get to UO at some point, right?). What makes us fear the Other is the exercise of power, or the potential for it. Yet what we use as a yardstick for our own identity as a culture is very often our difference from the Other. From the enemy. From what we do not wish to exercise power over us. The last paragraph of the call to arms from the Sonoma Oasis Militia is particularly telling and eloquent in this regard:
It is the idealistic goal of most citizens of Oasis that one day the city will need few active guards, and the spotlight will rightfully fall on our tavernkeepers, smiths, tinkerers, seekers, innkeepers, chefs, tailors, beggars, alchemists, mages, bards, rogues, librarians, scholars, rangers, miners, assassins, diplomats, and tamers--ALL of whom currently exist in Oasis but are frequently overshadowed by conflicts with those who would attack us. To approach that state, however, we need to continue to surmount substantial challenges...
Oasis seeks to defend its culture from the Other, and what's more, it is coming together, and becoming a stronger entity because it faces those challenges. Kazola's tavern is famous in UO, not for being a roleplayer's tavern, but rather for being a flickering light of a roleplaying tavern that struggles against the forces of darkness.
So thank heavens for the Other, and thank heavens for the playerkillers. For without them these places would not have acquired the sense of cultural identity that they now have. Bonds have been formed by struggling against a common Other that would otherwise have been cheaper, and easily earned. Cultures define and refine themselves through conflict. What's more, you can measure the strength of a culture by people's willingness to fight for its survival.
So we come full circle to the Virtues. Oasis and Kazola's (and the Councils of Virtue, and Rivendell, and the City of Yew and...) are expressing the Virtues. They are just doing it without the training wheels. Unlike the standalone Ultimas, UO is not an open-book quiz.
The Ultima series was ready to make the leap from leading to allowing players to lead. To go from difficult ethical choices on paper to difficult ethical choices in reality. The question to ask is whether the players it attracted were ready.
You may each have your own answers for that, but I am optimistic. Right now the fledgling societies within UO are rambunctious, rough, occasionally cruel and callous, sometimes gloriously civilized. But they are indeed the sign of things being born, and of people following the Virtues on their own and not because the game makes them do so.
How did that poem go? "What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" I bet we'll find out together.
An aside: the response to yesterday's essay was immediate and gratifying. Many thanks to those players who shared similar stories on the web boards and in private email, and to those many fan sites who wrote asking for permission to reproduce the essay. Permission is of course granted.