Paragons of Virtue
Stealing is OK as long as it's done well.
– Richard Garriott, Ultima VIII: Pagan
In Britannia, the Avatar is both the chief prophet and living example of virtue, constantly returning to dethrone evil and valiantly correct heretical moralities, all while modeling honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honor, spirituality and humility.
We all want to be that good guy, the hero. It's not enough to be the main character in our stories; we also have to be right. It's incredibly difficult to see ourselves as the bad guy. Even stories we tell about villains end up making us feel like maybe he wasn't so bad. So why is the Avatar such a rampant opportunist and thief? Why are we all?
The Avatar isn't alone. What character paused to consider the owner before opening a chest or smashing open a semi-hidden pot or out-of-the-way crate? Who among us has struggled with the ramifications of unearthing a rural family's life savings from behind their house? What virtual leader has considered the treatment and daily lives of their subjects before choosing a government type or moving a slider?
There are, of course, justifications. We need that potion, cash, weapon, or largely worthless keepsake to help save the world, after all. I'm sorry for ruining your garden, but there may have been something hiding under those vegetables you had planned on living off of this winter. Hey, at least this way winter will turn to spring instead of a wretched hellscape. You obviously don't appreciate all I'm doing for you.
Ezio runs through cities on a quest to avenge his family and rid Renaissance Italy of corrupt Templar officials, but is constantly dropping onto private balconies to rob unsuspecting citizens. Sure, guards are sometimes henchmen for the bad guys, but even when the town’s been cleared up, you’ll still end up cutting them for presuming to object to your rampant trespassing.
Democracy is simply inconvenient for my goal of attacking the Aztecs. When I sack their city and that small amount of money enters my treasury, I can’t be bothered to consider how we took that money from the inhabitants of the city, much less spare the existence of the buildings and hundreds of thousands of conquered citizens.
But really, how often do we finish ridding the world of evil without also being radiantly equipped and fabulously wealthy? Who then goes back over their accounting to reimburse all those NPCs? Who returns that crappy weapon to the private's footlocker? When we rescue slaves, do we think to let them loot the captors and reclaim their property? Who among us refuses to loot for reasons beyond utility or inconvenience?
So yes, there may be something in many of us that drives us to choose paragon paths, but we still dabble in black magic when it suits our purposes. So where does that leave us, only acting good when we know our actions are being observed and judged? Only doing the right thing when the consequences are clearly presented?
But there is a limit to how far we'll go. Many of us get uncomfortable playing torture games. We twinge at the thought of playing Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Cheating and "dishonorable" play are still discouraged.
Even Ben Franklin is criticized for sometimes settling for the mere appearance of virtue, and it’s hard for me to take sides against the man who said, “Games lubricate the body and the mind.” After all, whether we're talking about Ben's 13 virtues, the Avatar's 8 or Moses's 10, perfection is an awfully high target. But I'm not sure how often our characters really even try.
So what do we do with this cognitive dissonance? Do we limit morality to what’s been codified in the game’s design? How do we write off our virtual transgressions, and why is it different to ignore your child in Rohrer’s Gravitation than it is in Fable 3?
Do we dismiss these questions because fun is more important—and if so, why don’t we prefer games where we don’t have to worry so much about these questions? Why does BioWare bother? Why don’t we play games where enemies are abstracted beyond humanity, or where we shoot love pellets to subdue blue meanies? Why isn’t Care Bears the hottest IP in FPS games? Why do we instead buy and play games that stretch, warp and challenge our moral senses? Heck, why don’t we just stick to Madden or Go?