Saturday, February 28, 2009

Order, Control, and Gaming

Control. There are those people that like to have it, over themselves and the environment around them. There are others who could care less. This is one of the ways to look at the old Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 alignments of Lawful and Chaotic. One values order and control, the other sees them as unnecessary or even a hindrance.

And, in the story of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, it’s pretty obvious where the system administrators of the biggest MMO ever created fall. To quote, “What cannot be controlled must be deleted.” To be fair, it’s on some level an opinion shared by every single game designer and developer ever to make or run a game. Even the most basic games in real life have rules. Have a winner and a loser, and a set of regulations governing what can and cannot be done in the game.

Order and control are thus very important to games of any kind. It is the knowledge that the rules will be enforced that prevents a game from disintegrating. Who would play World of Warcraft if a high-level monster could just teleport into the low-level zones and wreak havoc, killing off all the low-level players that can’t fight back? It is the order present in the game world that allows it to function. That reassures players that low-level monsters are here, and higher-level ones won’t be found there.

And when that order, when that control, breaks down, it must be dealt with. If a player starts cheating to gain an advantage, they need to be removed; if a bug comes into the system, it needs to be fixed. This is a philosophy shared by both the administrators of “The World” in .hack// and the admins of World of Warcraft or any other MMO.

So then, it is clear that a Lawful alignment preserves the game and allows it to function freely and evenly for all players. But then, aren’t there some things that can’t or even shouldn’t be controlled? Surely it’s ridiculous to assume that everything can be brought under strict order, and even more so to think that that’s a good thing. Such is the Chaotic argument.

In today’s games, the systems and worlds are tightly controlled. There’s really not much chance of anything too odd happening. But in .hack//Legend of the Twilight, “The World” is a massive MMO, with far too many details to easily monitor… far too many details to keep control of. And maybe in a world like that one, it’s better to leave some things be.

An element that cannot be controlled is not automatically evil or unbalancing. It can be, but the default position need not be the above quote. Maybe it’s better to let the world change. If something isn’t harmful or dangerous, then why does a lack of control need to mean destruction?

It’s not just the massive world of .hack// that can’t be entirely controlled. In fact, there are elements of chaos in any game, even in our own tightly regulated games. There will be a lack of balance in any system we create. We aren’t good enough to create a perfectly balanced, perfectly fair game world; what’s more, we never will be. So we might as well recognize that some things need not be controlled.

The dichotomy, the divisions between Lawful and Chaotic opinions, can be seen in modern games. In the MMO EVE Online, there are rules to protect the newer players. Certain systems are under the protection of the law, and any act of aggression in those systems will merit a response from the police forces of the world. What’s more, surviving their attack is considered an exploit by the game’s designers. Again, we see that tight control over what can and cannot be done.

But. Unlike in some games, there are no restrictions on who can be attacked; many games with a Player vs. Player element give new players immunity to this warfare as protection. Nothing of the sort exists in EVE, only the police forces that, like in the real world, can’t respond immediately to a threat. And so, chaos works its way back in. EVE players can always be attacked, anywhere and at any time. There will be consequences for the attacker, but that may not save the victim any grief.

And in the systems where the law has no authority? That’s where the players come in. There are several major player-created alliances in EVE, and they’ve managed to fill in the hole that the designers left behind. The systems that the designers left chaotic and uncontrolled? The players have sovereignty over them now, and they can do whatever they like there.

The designers of EVE could have created a police state. They could have created a sprawling empire of powerful police forces that control every known system, lockouts on targeting systems that prevent the targeting of newer or weaker players, and a regimented system of growth and development that would have guided a player up the ranks. They could have controlled everything in sight, and removed any trace of chaos from the game.

But they would have destroyed the fun of the game in the process. By backing off, by creating a system that combines law and chaos, they created an incredibly compelling system. They control what needs to be controlled, to allow players some sense of security, and they leave the rest chaotic.

There’s a message in there somewhere. Control and order are important, to be sure. Without them, no one could live without being hindered by the random whims of others. And order is far more often than not designed for a good purpose. But also, not everything can be controlled. And sometimes, one needs to just let things run unchecked. At times, life needs to be kept on track through order and control. And at other times, life needs to be allowed to run free in a celebration of chaos.

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