I apologize for my long absence. Once again I've gone months without posting here. Part of that is due to another busy summer, part of it is a measure of trepidation over trying to make sure the content here is actually what it should be and not random ramblings about whatever strikes my fancy. Throw in a good amount of busyness and you can see why I've not posted. But it's a new year, and once again I've decided to I need to be more diligent in my writing, so here I am once again.
Anyone who's been following me on twitter will recognize that I've been playing a lot of #world...I mean World of Warcraft. Some coworkers started playing, and I joined in after some convincing that the game had improved. It's vastly improved since I played years ago, but that's not what I wanted to talk about.
Perhaps because I never played through much content, I never imagined the World of Warcraft to be much more than a simple RPG set in a vast area. The draw of the game, as I understood it, was the fact that you could at any time interact with large groups of other players. But ultimately the game boiled down to 1) acquire quest 2) complete quest. It's a very binary system when the player is not required to know why they are killing 12 enemies of type B and 15 of type C. In fact, Blizzard makes this quite easy in that they allow the player accept quests without reading any of the associated text, and turn them in in the same fashion. All the player really cares about is leveling, and they know that repeating steps one and two above (for a very large amount of time) will get them to the max level. I spent much of my time in this leveling pattern, as my personal goal was to reach the level cap before the Cataclysm expansion was released. Without a firm release date, I was a bit frantic about scrambling up the rungs as quickly as I could.
There came a time, however, when I had not yet reached my goal, and realized that I had a couple months to get there. I was close enough that I decided to take some time, and actually read the text of some of these quests I was undertaking. The Warcraft lore has always been interesting to me, but I had largely ignored it in World of Warcraft up to that point. Once I started paying attention, I found myself becoming a bit uneasy.
There is a questline in Borean Tundra where the player captures an enemy combatant and returns him to a friendly base. This enemy character has information that is vital to your faction, but is not forthcoming. Because of the moral stance of his captors however, they are unable to coerce this information from him. Because the player character is only an ally, and not an official member of this group, they ask you to torture the information from him.
Now let me pause a moment and just make clear my stance on torture: I don't know enough about it to really have a stance. There are questions about its effectiveness, I know, as well as questions about the morality of it. Generally speaking, I think that the end justifies the means if the lives of loved ones are on the line. Example: John McClane had the right idea when shooting and blowing up those who would kill dozens of innocents, including his wife and himself. If Hans Gruber had broken into an unoccupied bank, taken no hostages, and threatened no one, going in guns blazing would have been the wrong thing to do. It's all entirely based on context and intent, in my mind, so I can't honestly side with anyone who says "torture is always wrong" any more than I could side with the "torture is always right" crowd.
So, back to WoW, and the quest to torture. Why was I uncomfortable? Because there was no consequence to my choice. If I tortured him, all I really was doing was completing the quest. If I didn't, all I was really doing was not completing the quest. It's not a key questline (I don't think, I could be wrong). It's not required to advance any kind of plot. No pixels would be harmed or saved by my action or inaction. It's not even particularly important to leveling - there are more than enough quests available to get the player to the level cap; you could skip entire sections of the world and still be okay in that regard. Neither Blizzard nor the game are going to judge a player for completing or dropping this quest.
Where did this discomfort come from? From myself, clearly. I had brought with me my own conception of my character's morality, and it matched my own. With nothing on the line in any way, why should I torture this guy?
As my dad used to say, our character is revealed when no one is watching. Essentially, if no one could say that something you did was good or bad because no one witnessed it, if you are your only judge, what would you do?
The trick is that, as Christians, we know that we are never truly alone. God sits in judgement of us at any given moment. We know that whatever we do will have eternal consequences. (I'm not saying choosing a snickers bar over a twix is going to impact the condition of our soul at the end of time, just the important stuff.) How can we as Christians act in a way that is true to our beliefs in digital worlds where moral choice is irrelevant?
Some games have a moral compass, and in those games I prefer to make the "good" choices - the ones that most commonly align with what we know to be right. Oftentimes though, I will play through a game a second time as a "bad" character to see what differences there are. I tend to think that such a decision is more driven by curiosity than by a desire to be evil. But does that kind of thing matter to God? Do video games even matter to God?
Character matters to God. How our character is revealed is up to us.
There is an underlying question to all of this. How am I judged by God? In both virtual worlds and the real one, we have to rely on Proverbs 16:2 and trust that God is just: "All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD."