I am not claiming, of course, that a narrative ethic gives a full understanding of the ethics of wargaming. It does feel, to me, at least, a bit too empirical, and a little too woolly. The problem here is, of course, that it seems to be somewhat subjective. We can, or at least, most of us can, agree that however much we might like wargaming with SS Panzer units in France in 1944, they were not the clean living Teutonic warriors that myth has made them out to be. The graves of those shot by them bear silent witness against that.
So the question to ask is whether narrative ethics gives us any sort of traction on the whole question of the ethics of wargaming. One of the hallmarks of a decent theory is, of course, that it is more widely applicable than might be at first thought, and so the next step in developing the idea is to see if it applies outside the domain for which it was invented. In this case that domain was historical miniature figure gaming. The aim now is to widen the question into another area, allied by not exactly the same.
There are a number of possibilities here. We could discuss board wargames, or computer wargames, of science fiction wargames of the Warhammer variety, all of which would be entirely reasonable candidates for such an analysis. The problem is that I do not know very much (if anything) about them. I do, however, have distant and foggy memories of a variety of role playing games, both fantasy and other, so I think I might be able to comment coherently on them. We shall see.
The first, and obvious thing about role playing games is that the player is playing a role. In a miniature wargame, this is also the case but is not quite so obvious, in that the wargamer in a miniature games plays at a variety of different levels. A miniature wargamer is a general, but also a unit commander, often a sub-unit commander, and so on. Even in a skirmish game, the player would have a variety of roles. In a role playing game, as I recall, a maximum of three or so player characters could be run by a single player, but it was better the fewer there were.
This, then, counts towards the application of a narrative ethic in roleplaying games. The player identifies with the character, and thus what happens to that player-character is part of the life story of the player.
The second point about at least most fantasy role playing games at least is that there is, in many of them, a decisive moral landscape. In Runequest there was chaos and the Lunar Empire. The barbarians of Prax were, more or less, the good guys, while the Lunars were at best ambiguous. Even more marked in Call of Cthulhu was the division between good and evil. The aim of the game was to cling on to those shreds of civilisation and sanity that was threatened by cultists and ancient horrors.
In other words, in these sorts of games, there is actually little room for moral ambiguity. The lines of good and evil are more or less drawn in black and white. ‘We’, as the player party, are the good guys; ‘they’ are the bad guys. There may be some people who are neither us nor bad, from whom we can get help and information, and there may be others who are simply not involved. However, the politics of most fantasy worlds seem to be drawn in fairly stark terms. We know that we are good.
I recall, years ago, being given an unmistakably evil character for a campaign, and my task was to capture a city, poison the wells, and slaughter the people and so on. Even as a callow youth I recall being slightly uncomfortable with this, although I confess, under the strong persuasion of the game master, as a group we were successful. The second part of the campaign was with our ‘normal’, “good” characters, sent along to right the wrongs, restore normality, heal the wounds of the land and so on. I still recall the sense of relief from the group as we picked up the good side again.
So was that campaign merely tasteless, the imagination of a callow youth, or was it an exploration of the dark side of ourselves, a bit like Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat did to enter the mind of a master criminal?
Of course, more sophisticated role playing games bring increasing moral ambiguity. Even in Runequest questions could be asked: was there a ‘good Lunar’? Was stealing money to buy food a good thing to do? If nothing else, this does remind us that the real world is morally ambiguous, but the question we are asking is about our player-character’s actions in some other world. Can we make those speech-acts in our world which reflect evil actions in the role playing world?
I think that the way these sorts of role playing games are set up the answer is ‘no’. There would be little fun in playing a mad cultist in Call of Cthulhu, for example. There would, essentially, be no game at all. So, overall, I suggest that the way these sorts of games are set up is a support for the idea of narrative ethics in wargaming.
Of course, not all roleplaying games are set up in this way. Paranoia, for example, has no real evil or good, as do, so I believe, the Warhammer family of games. But whether these games enter into our ethic, or whether the ‘pure escapism’ defence is sufficient will have to wait for another post and, possibly, someone else entirely to write it.