Behind the Curtain: Moral & Ethical choices

I've been thinking about Morality in MMOs. In World of Warcraft, I am almost certainly personally responsible for the murder of several thousand men and women. Once or twice, when I've considered rolling an RP character, I've given thought to the families of the soldiers I've killed in-game, even if it was mostly self-defence. How many of those Sunhawk Agents snooping around the Exodar had children waiting at home for their mother or father to return with a fresh mana crystal? How many Sentinel Spies scouting the Ghostlands had wives waiting in Teldrassil, or husbands sleeping in the Emerald Dream, unaware that I had just widowed them? At the end of the day though, in a game like WoW, it rarely makes any difference one way or the other who or how many people you killed in the race to 60 or 70.

But what if a game came along that allowed you to play a character whose race held a moral viewpoint or code of ethics that may not exactly violate your own, but certainly run contrary to them. That's one of the reasons I've been watching Star Trek Online closely. I'm a bit of a Trekker you see. Not hugely, as Roddenberry's universe is just a little too 'nicey-nicey' for my tastes – The grim darkness of the far future holds a greater attraction for me. Still, I'm watching STO with undisguised geek-lust.
I've been wondering how they're going to handle the alien races in the game. In most games that I'm aware of, playing another race simply means a different skin on your avatar and maybe a mediocre racial ability or two. But what if playing another race meant that the game handled your interactions with players and NPCs differently? A Klingon, following a creed of 'might makes right', may not see anything wrong with simply taking an item he wants from a shopkeeper and simply beating him into submission, while the shopkeeper may be a Bat'leth master with something to say about that. A Ferengi, character may find nothing objectionable about deliberately undercutting a rival's profits to drive him out of business, simply to turn round and ramp up prices once he has a stranglehold on the market. A Romulan character, reflecting his species' devious nature may choose to undermine a rival's support mechanisms, perhaps spreading false rumours about her in an attempt to sully their name to the point where they are unable to do business.

Moving away from STO specifically, a game where some of the races have a 'chequered' history with one another might lead to some difficult choices for a player. You might need a certain item from a town, city or world which your race invaded and occupied in the past – the people there might have a deep-running mistrust or hatred towards you simply because of who you are. I'm not talking about town guards charging you the second you get in their line of sight, that's too easy an answer. I'd much rather a situation where everything you do and every interaction you have with NPCs and players is made more difficult simply because of who you are and where you are.

That sounds an awful lot like racism, and I suppose it is in a way. Racism towards players, from other players, is absolutely not to be tolerated. For that matter, racism in real life is not to be tolerated either. The sad fact of life is that it does exist however, but that's really beyond the scope of this article. Handled intelligently, a game using a system like this could well be justified in including some racist attitudes from NPCs towards the players. Continuing the STO example, Romulans hate Vulcans because of their unique history and Bajorans have a serious issue with Cardassians given that they annexed and violently occupied the Bajoran home world for a good long while. While it's certainly a noble goal to rise above one's hatred and see people as the individuals they are, sadly many people find it easier just to give in to hate.

While you can of course attempt to meta-game ideas like this; playing them out through judicious use of Roleplay, or by simply delighting in ganking players left, right and centre, what might be interesting is a game where you are not only given opportunity to play out these mechanics, but are rewarded by the game for playing in a manner that is morally true to your character? It's a system that would, no doubt, be difficult to implement. The games engine might leave you free to act as your character's moral compass allows/denotes, but different worlds would still have different legal systems in place – a Ferengi's dubious business practices would likely not be allowed on a Federation planet, for example, the Romulan could well be charged with slander, and the Klingon would probably find himself on the business end of a phaser before he could say "Qapla'" if he started beating up shopkeepers.

I'm probably just daydreaming, as a game using a reputation and interaction system like this would be nigh-impossible to balance, but it would certainly make you feel that you had actually made a real choice by picking a specific race, instead of just choosing whichever one looks best dancing naked on top of a mailbox for tips.