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Ethics and Virtual Reality

by Chuck Haeberle

The following essay is the result of a question asked once on chat. It deals with ethics and player behavior both within and without the game framework on Legend. It is posted here as a complement to the logs presented on the "Future of the Mud."

The question as phrased is: "What morality exists in the context of a game? Do we treat a game as a subset of ethics or should virtuality reflect our ethics in reality?"

Expansion of the question: "Ethics within a game, do you consider this 'a game', do you feel the lack of ethical standards implies that it can never be MORE than a game?"

To begin, I must redefine the question. As stated, the question provides only one option. By definition, a subset is a collection of items which is a part, although not necessarily a complete part, of a larger collection of items. For example, from the set

Carefully thinking about the ethics of multi-player gaming.

Alphabet {A, B, C, -//-, Z}

FirstFiveLetters cA, B, C, D, E! is a subset, but NumbersAndLetters c1, A! is not. Also, a reflection is not necessarily a complete duplicate. An image in a mirror has no depth, only the image of depth. Therefore, the first question, as stated, is really asking: Should game ethics be a limited collection of our r/l ethics or a limited collection of r/l ethics?

I will answer the question redefined as: "Should the moral values and ethics which we consider to be valid in real life be applied to the game, or should we look at the game as existing with a separate set of ethics, possibly, but unlikely, completely separate? What type of ethics should apply?"

The expansion of the question will be answered as it stands.

In "Finite and Infinite Games", by a modern philosopher who's name eludes meat the moment, a point is made that there are two types of games. The finite game has a rigid set of rules and a limited duration. The rules do not vary, the game does not extend beyond set boundaries, the players are limited, and affect the play of the game, but not how the game is played.

The infinite game, however, has flexible rules. The game can last, literally, forever. The boundaries are part of the game, not limits of the game. Any number of players participate, and they play *with the rules* rather than within the rules. They define how the game is played by how they play it. And, the game continues, players coming and going, without stopping.

A virtual game is more an infinite game than a finite game. The players can be defined as mortal and immortal, but are not limited to their roles. In fact, the virtual game is most accurately described as an infinite game which contains many finite games. (In fact, I believe this is part of the definition, but I've lost my text.)

By its very definition, life itself can be included in the realm of infinite games. Life continues after players who have taken it oh, so seriously, perish and are forgotten. Life is the ultimate game.

So, to look at the ethics of the game, one must consider how one values the playing of the game. There are those who live to play the game, be it life, or be it virtual, by playing with the boundaries, by appreciating the sheer joy of the game, playing to benefit the game, as well as themselves. They will typically dislike anything which decreases the pleasure of the game. There are those who enjoy the game, but do not see the potential of adopting the philosophy of the infinite player. They are players, for sure, but see a set of rules and exist by them, oblivious to the idea that they themselves decided which rules they would live by, or that their rules can be changed if they so desire. There are those who exist in the game, but are unsure of the rules, and are unable to adopt a solid structure. Sadly, these more timid of souls have the potential of the infinite player, as they also hold no bounds, but these meeker players seek to adopt a set of rules by which to exist within. They seek their own cage. While the finite player has adopted a set of rules for themselves, the meek player can not even accomplish this, being unable to choose. The last general classification would be that of one who closely parallels the infinite player, as he has realized that the rules are alterable, and that the boundaries can be decided upon, rather than lived by, but who seeks no pleasure from the true game. This type is the user. The user alters the rules, creates his own set of standards, simply to benefit themselves.

The different types of players will seek different definitions of morality. The infinite player will desire only what enhances the play of the game. The finite player will desire what reflects his personal standard of rules. The timid player will seek a firm set of guidelines, and will conform, generally without question. Finally, the user will seek no set of morals, wishing to fulfill his desires without reproach and regardless of effect on the game or the players.

Having given this set of personal beliefs, I will point out the rather obvious and state that I believe myself to be an infinite player. I believe that the game should be played for more than the sake of oneself. Not that one should sacrifice oneself, but that one should seek to benefit themselves while benefiting others. This is not an idealistic philosophy. The fact that it succeeds is in the images of the most successful of persons. Bill Gates has benefited others by creating a uniform architecture which is open for others to build on. In doing so, he has benefited himself.

Thus, when I consider the question at hand, I believe that some of our values *must* be carried into the virtual game. A current case which I have pondered at some length is that of players who seek to kill others, without cause. I do not, for one instant, propose that player killing be made impossible, and I heartily agree with the general idea of clanning. But if player killing is going to be included as part of clans, than those players who are clanned should be expected to uphold and be measured against a strong set of standards. While I understand that the war of Kiera and the Order of the Scroll had solid foundations, and find that war to be an appropriate characterization, I believe that Augustus declaration of death to all clanned persons within his range of levels, regardless of cause, is akin to that of a serial killer, who deserves to be hunted and destroyed, if unwilling to accept a more plausible set of character guidelines. As a point, one should note that if Augustus behavior is akin to that of, say, the Unabomber, or alleged Timothy McVeigh, one should also note that most if not all groups which hold similar beliefs to either of the aforementioned individuals have decried the methods which have been used to reinforce their views. In shorter terms, Terrorism is not to be acknowledged as anything but vile filth to be destroyed.

I guess, one could consider my views in game ethics to be very similar to the ethics of r/l. I refer not to politics, or law of the land (whatever land you are in), but to the simple philosophy that people in general will work for a common benefit and will work to eliminate that which threatens them.

As to the role of the immortals and the players in this set of ethics. I believe that most situations should be left to the mortal players to resolve. Immortals should become involved only if a player shows extreme disruptive signs or has gained some unfair advantage, such as being able to run a quest more than once which is normally only allowed one time. Extreme disruption includes repeated tells and chats full of drivel, but *also* includes creating a real threat to other players without cause. Player killing, simply for the sake of player killing, and not for some cause, such as honor offended or a crime, or a declared clan war, to me borders on the extreme danger.

Finally, as to the application of ethics between reality and virtualism, I believe that when one plays in a virtual world, one should abide by the rules of that world. One may differ in opinion with the implementors, but one is also a guest in a world created by the implementor, and should defer to those decisions of the implementor. The implementor who is unreasonable will not have a popular world, and will abandon the project. The same goes for the implementor who is extreme. The implementor must be flexible and willing to listen to players, but the success of the game is measured, ultimately, not by the number of professional players who play, but, to my way of thinking, by the number of new players who find an encouraging environment to develop their skills in as characters and players.

If those rules are violated, perhaps by creating multiple links and running several characters together, or by improperly gaining access to the system and editing files, or by immortals assisting mortals (except when the mortal suffers link loss, loss of items by error, etc.), than the penalty should be swift and severe. The player who does not respect the concept of the game should not be accepted.

Now, to the final issue, which is whether the lack of ethical standards implies that the game can never be more than a game. First and foremost, it is impossible for a set of ethical standards to not exist when humans are involved. The implementors have standards, even if the standard is simply not to intervene. Also, the collective group of players will accept or reject certain activity as desirable. It is in human nature to choose its company selectively, and to believe that it is possible to exist without standards is simply foolhardy. It is comparable to anarchists who believe that we can live without a form of government. Perhaps without our government we can exist, but some power will always rise to control. We are humans, and we seek to dominate our environment, and we have beliefs as to how such environments should be run.

Can the virtual world become more than a game? Certainly. Regardless of ethics. It already is, as the virtual world is not limited to the world of Muds. But a more specific point is, when the activity of a virtual world affects the life of the person involved, it has become part of reality. Take the persons who have met in the nets and married in r/l subsequently. One can not believe that the virtual world is simply a game, when results like that can occur. Were it merely a game, or specifically, merely a finite game, there would be no interaction between players greater than the interaction of the players on opposite ends of a virtual chess board. We play in an infinite game, where human interaction eliminates the boundaries, and readjusts them. The infinite game is more than a game. There is only one infinite game, of which all other infinite games are an extension. The game is life, and we are all players in it.

Chuck Haeberle wrote this article for Legend mud where he is known as Traveling Jack, or Greebo.