Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ethics in the virtual trenches

I've been playing a game lately called BattleNations on the iOS. It's one of those time-release games where the bulk of your time is spent managing your farm that takes 8 hours to yield anything, etc, but it's unique in that it's mixed in with a very interesting, well-written storyline (along with some good gameplay mechanics.)

At one point your characters find the enemy using chemical weapons on you. You start off doing some research about what this is and how to defend against it, which eventually culminates in producing samples of the chemical for testing purposes, and finally you're producing chemical weapons of your own - over the objections your high-minded civil engineer.

What I found interesting was that the protagonists' use of chemical weapons was portrayed as rather morally ambiguous - kind of a no-no nowadays, though the game is obscure enough that they can get away with it. In fact, the 'protagonists' are considerably unique in that respect: they're a bunch of Imperial soldiers who initially were where they were to occupy and colonize a territory with none-too-happy natives on it. They didn't all come to the realization that what they were doing was wrong either - they ended up playing the natives off each other, in fact, though they ended up solidifying some allies in the process. A very different perspective from the norm, and the last time I saw something like this was in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind*.

But back to BattleNations. Anyway, after you make use of the chemical weapons and drive off the enemy (who were using the weapons on you initially), the commander of the camp has a brief interaction with his civil engineer. It went roughly like this.

A: I've been thinking over the ethical implications of chemical weapons.
B: Oh? And did you discover anything interesting?
A: Yeah. It turns out, if someone is trying to kill me and everyone I know, I don't really care if they get poisoned.

Something about that just seemed apt. I understand why chemical weapons are condemned. I agree with the condemnation in large part, insofar as I've thought about it. But there's something admirable about a blunt statement like that all the same. I don't have to agree to think it's well put.

(* In that game, the Empire occupies the dark elves land, and very clearly is suppressing some of their religious beliefs and moral views. The twist is that one of the things the Empire won't tolerate - and which makes them very unpopular with the dark elves - is their outlawing of slavery and frowning on institutional racism. Now, they were also exploiting the populace in other ways, but really, it was interesting to see a flat out colonial setup where the occupiers weren't simply moustache-twirling villains with no moral upsides.)

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