There has been some discussion recently about the morality (or ethics) of role playing games, particularly, perhaps, fantasy RPGs. The morality of some of these games can be regarded as dubious, at least from modern points of view. In brief, some RPGs have a set of goodies and a set of baddies, and they fight.
The first thing to consider is why the games are set up this way. I suspect that the answer is both moral simplicity and also as a plot or narrative driver. The two tend to interact.
Back in my days as a Runequest player, the irruption of chaos (the ultimate evil) somewhere in the world was enough to trigger a massed campaign to eradicate it. There was no real need for any more of a narrative than that. Chaos was chaos, evil and must be combatted by the forces of good, which were us. Thus we can see the thread of absolute good and evil, us and them, and the simple plot driver; as good we must oppose evil.
Of course, as the games became more sophisticated, the moral questions became more difficult. In Runequest there was the Lunar Empire, which was not unequivocally opposed to chaos, and also there were some ‘illuminants’ who, Buddha like did not recognize the difference between good and evil (I’m not saying that this is Buddhism, by the way, but in the artwork they usually looked like Buddists). The main players and the cults, however, were severely opposed to chaos and its evil cults. There was no compromise.
I believe (although I have never played it) that Dungeons and Dragons was sort of similar, while being different. Characters could be good, neutral or evil. The good fought the evil. The neutral joined in if they thought it was a good idea or the evil threatened one of their interests. Some things (Ruaridh mentioned goblins) were simply evil, and were to be killed and parted from their treasure as quickly as possible.
Role playing games, at least the ones I have mentioned so far, were the children of the 1970’s. I wonder if we can see a bit of Cold War paranoia creeping in here. After all, Ronald Regan described the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’. The forces of chaos were, quite possibly, identified as Communist. The neutrals or the Lunar empire could be identified with the nonaligned nations, ready to join in with something they identified with, oppose something they did not like, often to the frustration of Western politicians.
Of course, other RPGs are available. My own favorite, Flashing Blades, is securely set in seventeenth century France, that of the Dumas Three Musketeers novels. There is, within it, some simplistic morality – in the novels, as in the game, the King is usually the right; thus the Musketeers get into action based around this and the perceptions of who the King’s enemies might be. Often, the enemy is the Cardinal, but the Cardinal himself is a bit of a morally ambiguous character, although not often shown as such in games.
Again, in Traveler, there is no real defined evil. This, in fact, depends on the universe which we create for our games, and Traveler shows this rather well. There are criminal gangs. Interstellar companies with dubious practices and so on. There might even be a few pirates. But on the whole there is no real unmotivated evil as there are in the simpler FRGPs described above.
My other favorite game was Toon, which perhaps says more about me than about morality. I was, in fact, banned from playing Toon because I was too good at it (the secret was never to get boggled, I discovered). As with most cartoons (for example, Tom and Jerry) the violence was always present but never serious; characters could and did come back to life again. Again, morals did not really manifest themselves. The vampire I remember in the scenarios was, in fact, just waiting for someone to offer him a Hollywood contract.
However, there is a question running through the simpler games, or even those of more complexity, the darker games such as Paranoia and Call of Cthulhu. Is evil just evil as defined? In most games evil just is. Cult followers in CoC are to be wiped out (or to have their object of worship destroyed) in just the same way as goblins in D&D (it is just harder to do it in CoC). Paranoia could be characterized as the ultimate in cold War games, of course, the Computer being the Communist Party hierarchy, and so on down the line to the player characters who were expendable (perhaps like the Soviet soldiers in WW2?).
These musing might well transfer to wargaming. After all, we all know that the Nazis were evil. It does not stop them being represented on the wargame table, however. Perhaps, though, because we know that the evil was defeated, we can wargame on, because we know that even if they are successful on the table, evil was ultimately defeated. In that same way, we know that the nameless horrors of CoC do not exist, or even, perhaps, that D&D’s goblins will always be defeated.
Perhaps underlying this is a view of progress, of things going from bad to better. Good wins out in the end, evil is defeated. Perhaps this is an optimistic US view of the world; Europeans might not agree, their experiences of evil are different and less precise.
As to Ruaridh’s problem with simply going and slaughtering goblins because they are evil as defined, then it does point to both the narrative driver and a problem in the game and its view of morality. We know now, after a bit of experience in the world, that morality is rarely so black and white. There is the possibility of goblins who are not intrinsically evil, who might have a right to life, or to a family, or even to hang on to their possessions. In the world of D&D and Runequest, however, this cannot happen, and so we have to decide that, morally, the games are deficient, and fix them the best we can.