Sunday, October 23, 2011

RPGs and skepticism (Sunday fun post)

If you really aren't interested in video games at all, you....probably won't bother reading this post. But if you're somewhat interested in them but don't know much about them, you might not know that this weekend has been BlizzCon, the annual convention held in Anaheim, California by Blizzard Entertainment. Blizzard's most famous and far-reaching games are Diablo, Starcraft, and most importantly for this topic, World of Warcraft.

A role-playing game, or RPG, is any game in which you're expected to adopt the role of a specific character and control him or her throughout, advancing him or her in ability by leveling-- accumulating experience points which make that character stronger, smarter, faster, wiser, etc. and therefore able to accomplish more difficult tasks and battle stronger adversaries. Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous table-top RPG, and World of Warcraft, I think it's safe to say, is the most famous video game RPG.World of Warcraft is also an MMO (massive multiplayer online game), which means that your character is always interacting with those of other people in real time. In that sense the character represents you-- the faction, race, gender, class, and appearance you choose are all used as information about you. Having made all of those choices, you can decide whether to role-play (always speak and act in game as if you are actually your character) or whether to talk about your character with some degree of remove.  Most people opt for this, whether by speaking explicitly in third person ("He/she," "my character/toon," or "(character's name)") or by speaking in first person but using game terms and clearly speaking as a player rather than a character. It's common to see the two combined, as with a person saying something like "Is it more important for my rogue to have attack power or a better critical hit chance? I'm trying to decide which pair of boots will get me a better bonus."

So obviously the degree of immersion varies a great deal. And it's not a new topic for RPG gamers at all-- it has been discussed to death, including for the purposes of armchair psychoanalysis: do people who play a character of a different gender secretly want to be that gender? Do they play a race that is more attractive (by human standards) because they want to be accepted, or an uglier one because they like being non-conformists? If they pick a plain ol' human to play rather than something like an orc, does it mean they lack imagination, or are people who play orcs afraid to be themselves? And of course-- are people who play races like human, elf, dwarf, or gnome (the Alliance faction in WoW) good, and people who play orcs, trolls, undead, and goblins (the Horde faction in WoW) bad?

"Class" is the term for the means by which your character defends him/herself and others against the world. Do your powers come mainly from armor and big scary weapons? From your ability to melt into the darkness and evade attacks against you?  Or perhaps from your ability to manipulate magic? Magic generally comes from two distinct sources-- arcane (from energy existing in the universe which can be focused and manipulated) or divine (from, quite simply, the gods). Again, people like to psychoanalyze this choice-- are you a rogue because you enjoy stabbing people in the back? A warrior because you're a control freak? A mage because you're physically weak and like the thought of summoning power from something else?

The magic aspect is what makes the Twitter exchange at the beginning of this post interesting. As you may be aware, PZ Myers and JT Eberhard are both atheists activists-- very outspoken ones. Given that atheists joke all of the time about being evil to mock the public perception they are, it could be expected that they would be drawn to play the underdogs, the misunderstood, the commonly perceived as evil Horde. And given the rejection of supernatural powers of any kind, they could be expected to have no attraction at all to a class like Priest, who uses divine energy to heal other players but also to attack enemies. In Dungeons and Dragons when you play a priest-- a cleric, as they are called there-- you choose a god or goddess to serve, and those of us who have played remember fondly the book of Deities and Demigods which not only described and visualized countless gods both from existing mythologies and created especially for the game, but gave them in-game attributes and abilities. So, for example, you could decide to serve the Egyptian god Ptah, creator of the universe (alignment: lawful neutral), or perhaps the Norse goddess Freya, representing love and fertility (alignment: neutral good). I'm sure I'm not the only one whose interest in mythology as a kid was encouraged by this book.

In WoW, by contrast, the powers of a priest fall under the general category of Holy, and their description is as follows:
Priests are devoted to the spiritual, and express their unwavering faith by serving the people. For millennia they have left behind the confines of their temples and the comfort of their shrines so they can support their allies in war-torn lands. In the midst of terrible conflict, no hero questions the value of the priestly orders.
So in one RPG we have the existence of gods asserted, and their attributes described quite explicitly, whereas in the other it's...well, a little more esoteric. WoW does have its own very complex assortment of demigods as well as some authentic deities, including Elune, goddess of the night elves. The races in WoW have their own cultural mythologies, but becoming a human priest (for example) does not require you to sign up for allegiance to anyone in particular. Nor does becoming a paladin (holy warrior), druid, shaman, or-- in the next expansion-- a monk. Mages and warlocks are also magic users, of course, but their powers come from either their own abilities specifically or harnessing the (often unwilling) assistance of demons. In this world, it's more like a messy confluence of hierarchies of non-physical power....for basically everybody except warriors and rogues, and hunters for the most part, who rely either on either their own brute strength and agility or that of their pets.

So strictly speaking, ought not a skeptic who is determined to remain a skeptic in-game be suspicious of most of these classes?  Priests and paladins are the ones who connect their abilities most directly to divine power (because in the WoW universe, "healing" = "holy"), but almost everybody's drawing on the supernatural in some way or another. The skeptic would, and should, ask: how do they know?

Well, it's a game. A fictional universe-- its terms are its own, and this game has gods, god dammit.

That's one answer. Another answer is that in this universe, the power of spells has been repeatedly tested and applied, and found to exist, in one form or another. A skeptic, upon observing this happen or (ideally) performing the rituals and observing the results for him/herself, would be compelled to believe in the existence of....something. And of course, that "something" is the tricky part. How much would a scientifically-minded denizen of Azeroth be able to confirm, assuming he/she had the luxury to think on the matter intently in between fighting off incursions from the Horde or the Alliance (depending), as well as the multiple itinerant tribes, beasts, demons, elementals, and constructs roaming the land? His/her main concern, of course, is going to be for what works-- what produces results. Most spells are performed to either damage an enemy or provide a buff (protection, fortification) to oneself or others. If the only way to achieve that effect is by using reagents and/or incantations in specific way, that can be tested and confirmed. Right?

But it can't be confirmed as the result of divine power, and that's the rub. Even in a world where mysteriously powerful beings exist, the infiniteness of their abilities still can't be confirmed by finite beings. Which might be why, one could surmise, RPG designers (regardless of platform) don't spend a lot of time or space proclaiming the "omni-ness" of the gods involved in them.


  1. Interestingly, for the longest time that's why gnomes couldn't be priests--they had no connection to the 'Light'. That is, they were more interested in science and technology than the 'religion' of the world.

    From the article on gnomes from wowpedia:

    "Unlike humans, dwarves and draenei, gnomes are not able to follow the Light devoutly enough to become paladins. They may still wield holy powers as priests, but seem to consider its healing abilities more like medicine than magic"

    So the gnomes are the skeptics of wow. Just to through that out there. is a much better, and more up to date article than the wowwiki article you post. Just to help.

  2. There is nothing wrong with a skeptic enjoying a role as a Priest in an rpg game, and I don't understand why a skeptic would choose not to play one. Fantasy is great.

    The problem is priests (and there followers) who think the supernatural is real.

    "Which might be why, one could surmise, RPG designers (regardless of platform) don't spend a lot of time or space proclaiming the "omni-ness" of the gods involved in them. "

    The polytheistic religions always had more appeal to me - imperfect specialized gods are a lot more forgiveable and believable, somehow. Drunk softball player prays to softball god, but doesn't get the hit. No reason to take it personally, the softball god was drunk too.


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