Before we dive into anything else, it’s best to look at our violent tendencies and ask ourselves where they come from. The idea of solving problems with fist, sword, and pistol didn’t just spring from nowhere. It’s true that we have refined our bloodlust over time, sharpening it into a killing tool. I think the raw materials for that weapon of violence, though, came from something other than our desire to hack our way through the baddies.
In a Land of Fantasy…
It’s impossible to hide the fact that tabletop role-playing games originated from a fantasy-based setting. Nowadays, we’ve got vampires and werewolves, spaceships and aliens, ordinary citizens and malignant elder deities – pretty much anything you can imagine. Even so, I think that there are still elements from the genesis of role-playing games that come directly from that focus on fantasy. Maybe that’s not entirely correct. Rather, it’s more appropriate to call it ‘exaggerated fantasy’.
A lot of the trappings of fantasy come from our romanticized version of the Middle Ages, a.k.a the Medieval Period. Or at least from works set in or based off of that era. We’re talking observations two or three times removed at a minimum. It’s where we get many of our ideas about lords and ladies, kind or wicked kings, pitched battles, and valiant knights. King Arthur, anyone?
Along with that, though, there are a few assumptions about society, some extra baggage. In many cases, we associate this period with rule of the strong, where the king with the largest army makes the rules. Trial by combat determines guilt or innocent. Exalt the image of the Man, he shall be strong and victorious! Mock my honor and prepare to answer with your blood!
Blech. Sure, I might come across as overly critical of our fantasy views on Medieval society. However, we can find similar examples in Feudal Japan and many other early precursors to modern civilization. Even Renaissance-era Italy seems extremely barbaric by our current standards, and we count that as cultured! In those times of turmoil, occasionally violence was a perfectly suitable tool to get what you wanted, especially if you wanted it fast. However, our vision of life ‘back then’ is nothing like boring reality. That’s because fantasy comes in and turns it up to eleven.
In a make-believe world of knights, kings, and dragons, might makes right. Evil goblinoids? Slaughter them. Bandit attack? Authorized to use lethal force. Corrupt noble? Time for an assassination job – no witnesses! The heroes are the strongest people around because they’re the protagonists. Anyone who threatens their supremacy has a short life ahead of them. Is it really any surprise when violence is the answer to those friendly town guards investigating a barroom tussle? After all, if you aren’t caught then you can’t be guilty.
I think that same mentality still makes it into other games even when ‘fantasy’ isn’t part of the picture. You can dress it up in different ways but you can’t deny the origin.
I’m Good and You’re Not
It’s an age old question: “What is ‘good’? What is ‘evil’?” We commonly use games as a vehicle to explore morality. This probably stems from the fact that media in general often portrays the struggle of good against evil, light vs dark. Having a faction that is clearly and unambiguously ‘good’ fight one that represents everything ‘bad’ in the world is a straight-forward plot. There’s a reason you see it everywhere.
In the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it was more of a question of law vs. chaos but the principle remains the same. It was only later that the focus shifted to the classic good against evil. Whatever you think about the guy, Monte Cook has a few good quotes. There’s a really memorable one about alignment in D&D 3E. Since the exact source doesn’t seem to exist any longer, here’s the general idea:
When designing 3E, we tried to solve some of the problems by making it clear that good and evil were tangible things. Rather than downplaying alignment, we played it up so that you could kill the orc with impunity and a clear conscience. Evil is evil and should be destroyed.
In short, that says that the conflict goes beyond morality and into the very building blocks of the D&D universe, at least in 3rd Edition. That is one heck of a slippery slope! This can quickly lead to demonizing any opposition. If you have players that operate under the assumption that their characters are by definition ‘good’ then this argument could validate even questionable actions. The other part of that quote, that evil is evil and should be destroyed, means no half measures. Once you’ve identified your target, the only acceptable outcome is complete annihilation. No prisoners, no mercy – just killing.
The black-and-white, us vs. them mindset is easy to understand and maybe that’s not a bad thing, depending on the game. However, it can result in players ill-equipped to deal with situations requiring slightly more tact and less outright bloodshed. It’s definitely not a “one size fit all” kind of solution.
Don’t Blame the Player, Blame the Game!
You’ll notice that I specifically avoided any mention of how the rules interact with our penchant for violence in games. I think that the points listed above do a lot to get us started on our journey of violence, but they’re just the first step. More than anything else, the system dictates our response to possible conflict. The next post discusses how games reward our more brutal actions, encouraging us to continue down the path of war.