Thursday, 24 June 2010

(4/4) Roleplaying tradition

This is the fourth part in a series of four. The previous posts have been on accepting tradition in cognitionidentity, and ethics.

Traditionally, designing roleplaying games have been based on writing simulations of a fantasy world. The setting is written in an effort to construct a complete and cohesive fantasy world, and the rules are written to arbitrate what the most probable (and thus realistic) course of events would be in a given case. For instance, the rules tell me whether my character succeeds or fails any given endeavour. They tell me if my character hurts hirself, and if so, how badly. (And that's basically it, really)

Just as there is a tendency to accept the norms of society, the norms of roleplaying design have for long gone unquestioned. This is enhanced by the striving towards realism in roleplaying games: Since the rules are based on reality, the design and focus of these rules can very easily be considered given by nature and thus right.

The last five or so years, this has changed. There are indie games with setting based on storytelling rather than world simulation, with rules to guide said story telling rather than provide realism. The design traditions of roleplaying games as a whole is changing, accomodating new perspectives.

Just as we need to scrutinize the traditions of our society and ask us what the effects of these traditions are, what it means to use these rules, even if they are justified by realism.

These are some of the traditions I'm thinking of:
- Failing a roll blocks your creative input.
- The game master and players' nfluence on the story is discussed from the perspective of authority and force, and not from the perspective of trust. This teaches the game master and players techniques that run counter to creativity.
- The game master is expected to pre-plan the scenario and lead the players through it, putting all the work on the GM and none of the creativity on the players. Players building little dice towers out of boredom, and forced combat encounters where not uncommon in my youth, simply because the story didn't feel relevant to the players and their characters.
- Communication between players and GMs are not adressed, players are supposed to accept what happens in the fiction, even if it isn't enjoyable fiction for them. Either that, or force the story their way through their characters.
- In short, there is no way of synchronizing the expectations of players.

Many of these, I've adressed in my posts an interplay model of roleplaying and creative roleplaying.

These problems do not need simple fixes, they are the symptoms of something fundamental missing in roleplaying design. What they need us as game designers to finally and fully do is to adress roleplaying as a creative interplay process, not only as a simulation.

Players has learnt to cope with these problems by their own intuition, but they need to be brought into design, tested and analyzed methodically. Tradition is not enough.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

(3/4) Follow the rules or follow your conscience?

Third part in a series. First part here, second part here.

Alright, for this post I'd like to switch gears a little, go into a mode of contemplation.

I've written one post on why we do not wish to challenge our basic assumptions, and one on how norms and identity foreclosure can be harmful to your personal development. Now, I'd like to share some thoughts on the morality and ethics of deviation or rejection of authority.

I'd like to point out that this series of posts aren't leading to some specific conclusion, I would rather say I'm examining the bricks and laying a foundation to use the building analogy.

When to follow the rules, and when to follow your conscience?
First, an anecdote. During secondary school/high school, our class did a discussion exercise, which started with us being told the following story:

A duke was leaving his castle for a trip. Since he suspected his wife to be unfaithful, he ordered his guard to kill her if she tried to get into or out of the castle while he was gone, and he let her know this. He then left.
The duchess did indeed sneak out to meet her lover, paying a ferryman to whisk her across the moat. She spent the night at her best friend's place and then went to meet her lover. After the encounter, she would leave to sneak back into to the castle, but had no more money to pay the ferryman. The lover and her best friend refused to help her, and the ferryman refused to ship her over without payment. She pleaded with the guard to let her in, but he refused, and warned her he would have to kill her if she attempted to enter the castle. Out of desperation, she tried to enter the castle anyway, and was killed.
Who's fault is it that the duchess died? The duke's, the guard's, her friend's, her lover's, the ferryman or herself's?

My opinion was that it was the guard's fault, which was met with protests from my classmates, and the rationale "He was just doing his job!"

After a few years of reflection, and encountering the Milgram experiment (Which I have linked to before), it is my belief that "Just following orders" is not a moral argument.*

Terrible actions are made possible by people just following orders. Rather than a moral actions (By moral action, I do not mean an action for good, but rather an action that is evaluated morally, that can be moral or immoral) blind obedience is the rejection of morality. It is a rejection of yourself as an agent, as a human with the capacity for reflection and morality. Blind obedience makes you simply an extension of the morality and reasoning of the person making the decisions, an idea the wikipedia article on the Milgram experiment labels "agentic state theory".

I see humans in an existential light. It is our capacity to make meaningful choices that make us human, and even surrendering this power, or not doing anything at all, is a choice. Doing your job, following normality or following orders is not an excuse to act against your ethics... But, as the Milgram experiment clearly shows, we want someone to tell us what to do. We do not wish to take the full responsibility, or challenge the stability and security of societies structures. (Man, I guess really should read Sartre.)

But to what extent can you stay true to your own morality in society? I've just finished the course on ethics and law in psychology, which raised this question especially.

Psychologist ethics
As a psychologist, you are in a position of power in your relation to your clients. You must handle your relationship and your intimate knowledge of your client in an ethic way. You must treat your client, and the system sie is a part of (such as hir family), with respect. As a psychologist you generally work alone, and you alone must weigh together all these considerations, somehow integrating your morality, the law, the professional ethic of psychologists, and of course pragmatic reality.

What if it is against my morality not to treat this client, but we just do not have enough resources to treat everyone we would like at this clinic? In this case, it is impossible for me to do the fully moral thing, and I must somehow accept this. I must somehow become neither despaired or jaded when I'm forced to go against my empathic impulses.

Likewise, ability takes a part in ethic conduct, to treat someone with respect is a question of ability just as much as morality. In an interpersonal profession such as mine, doing the right thing requires reasoning, as well as emotion and empathy, as well as ability. A psychologist needs to have wisdom, and not only to be a moral psychologist, but to be a succesful psychologist at all.

I would even question if i obeying the law is inherently moral. The law tells us what we must and must not do, but it doesn't tell us what we should do. As a psychologist, there are many things I can do in my work which are not illegal, but definitely not ethical either.

I sometimes feel people are justifying their actions with solely the fact that they had the right to take them, not at all adressing that they were, in facts, assholes just now.
Just as a person can hide their moral responsibility behind an authority, they can hide their own tendencies to greed and small-mindedness behind the fact that they have the right to do so.
But of course, there is a big difference between having a right, and doing right. The laws are only concerned with the former, and that's a good thing too. The state has no business in determining who is and who has the right to be an asshole.

Furthermore, there are even moments when I can feel the law is inhumane, and to follow my ethics would require me to go against the law, for instance when the law declare immigrants illegal.
This is a difficult situation. If I do not wish to go against my belief of what is good and right, I should break the law. At the same time, I wouldn't wish other professionals to break the law when treating or handling me - The laws protect me when I'm in a vulnerable position and at the mercy of policemen, social workers, doctors and psychologists.

So what do I do? Follow my consciousness? Obey the law? Or I could follow my conscience and break the law, but also follow the law and accept my punishment, as the law must be upheld for society to function.

So let's be pragmatic. Some things can only be achieved with orders and hierarchy. Without routines and standard procedures, lives would be lost everyday. Perhaps the act of submission to authority can be a moral action? I'd like to point to the movie Hero, in which the protaganist sacrifices himself to the authority in the end, because he reaches the conclusion that in this case, the authority is the good cause.

And if I enter a group, such as a community, a workplace or an organisation, have I not implicitly accepted the rules of this group? If I start work at a hospital only to work according to my personal conviction rather than standard routines, I sabotage everyone's work, doing more harm than good.

Finally, I believe that some aspects of society wouldn't function without the possiblity to "escape responsibility". The decision makers does not have to carry out their own decisions, and the executors does not have to make a decision. It is possible for both parties to scoot over the responsibility to the other.
Again, the example of illigal emmigrants: The police escorting them from their homes are just "doing their job", they do not have to justify their actions to their conscience or to the family being sent away. The decision makers do not have to confront those they send away, or their own feelings empathy for these people. And The Job gets Done.

When it comes to illegal immigrants, I do not believe in sending people back to something they've run away from, whether they are officially refugees or not, but we still need a cold, objective and just standard of procedures for many of society's functions. Individuals can be prejudiced against other people, or swayed into making exceptions for charismatic people. The official standard can not.

But we must remember that laws, rules, standard procedures and authority are in the end the formalized reasoning of ordinary hum,ans. They are not given by God or nature. They can be changed. They should be subject to critical scrutiny and revision.

I suppose my conclusion would have to be that, as usual, there are no simple answers. Just as you can not completely surrender yourself to laws, you cannot completely entrust yourself in a simple moral principle. Doing the right thing requires ever vigilance, care and thoughtfulness.

* We can consider my process of finding arguments for my cause in the light of my first post in this series. Here I examined the idea that humans often make emotional decision and then intellectually justify them rather than vice versa.

As a high schooler, had I already then grasped the problem that blind obedience meant, and later Milgram and the third reich simply provided me with the articulation of this into concrete examples?
Or where thes examples rather a way for me to intellectually justifiy a gut feeling against blind obedience?

Monday, 14 June 2010

(2/4) Norms and identity

Second part in a series. First part here: Accepting and justifying traditions.

So humans have a tendency not to question established norms and tradition, not to become overloaded through them. In this post I will discuss when this becomes a problem. Accepting normativity can lead to opression or foreclosed identity. First, let's look at opression.

Norms and opression
First of all, structures can confer power to some people, and we then might consider this power natural and not something to question. Patriarchalism and gender roles for instance; There are heavy expectations on gender roles, especially the female role. These gender roles disempower women, but we consider this role something naturally feminine, and thus it needs not change.

Secondly, people may be refused their way of life if it deviates from the norm. People become very, very provoced when other people prove to them that another way of doing things is possible, and thus cognitive dissonance prompts them to stop the deviants. Same sex marriage and adoption for instance - What if you don't need a man and a woman to make a family? Then what is our traditions and norms good for? What if they are pointless?

Humans must have clear borders to live within, our the anxiety over what to do will become too much. Some people will fear these borders and measures of how to live will shake and crumble when we challenge them. Even the opressed people may promote these norms to avoid the cognitive dissonance of realizing they're accepting abuse from other people.

Identity and mental health
Finding your own answers and forming your own identity is preferable to accepting normativity.

Again, let's go back to my model of mental health. In this model, I have put health above normality. (As did Lucien A. Buck) I stated that it is better to find your own answers to who you are, what is moral and how to do things than to uncritically accept these from society, parents or other authorities. The process of "finding oneself" is described by James Marcia (epigon of Erik H. Erikson), who outlines four states of identity. Once again, I'm quoting Wikipedia.

A) Identity Diffusion, is the status of individuals who have not yet experienced a crisis or made any commitments. Not only are they undecided about occupational and ideological choices, they are also likely to show little interest in such matters.
B) Identity Foreclosure, is the status of individuals who have made a commitment but not experienced a crisis. This occurs most often when parents hand down commitments to their adolescents, usually in an authoritarian way, before adolescents have had a chance to explore different approaches, ideologies, and vocations on their own.
C) Identity Moratorium, is the status of individuals who are in the midst of a crisis but whose commitments are either absent or are only vaguely defined.
D) Identity Achievement, is the status of individuals who have undergone a crisis and made a commitment.

So, what is the problem with foreclosure? Well, the first is that by not challenging and scrutinizing societies' norms and answers, you might allow yourself or others to be oppressed, as outlined above. Secondly, withouth properly thinking through who you are and how you wish to live, experimenting and searching during a moratorium, your sense of self won't be as stable. I'll elaborate:

When searching yourself for answers, you get to know yourself. You feel more at ease with yourself. By working your answers through, you reach a deeper understanding of them than the hollow granted-at-surface of foreclosure - You can present rationals for the choices you've made, rather than justifications.

Furthermore, as you walk the metaphorical landscape of your inner world to find your place, you learn your way around these landscape. You know them, and thus you can change your position if need be. You can adapt. These are the reasons I've put Health at a greater sense of security than Normality.

In contrast, if you have just decided on a position and stuck with it, rather than exploring it, your understanding of it is more shallow. You cannot backtrack and adapt so to speak, so instead you must defend this position. 

A note on normality
Normality and normativity is something powerful. We fear and condemn the abnormal. To be called unnormal is to be denied you humanity and fellowship with other humans, and it stirs up powerful emotions. The "abnormal" and isolated people, such as schizophreniacs and autists who are unable or unwilling to participate in human society, reject their labels and diagnosises. But do they reject them to maintain their sense of belonging with other people, or do they (in the case of severe symtoms) reject them simply because they've do not care what other people think of them, and thus the concept of insanity holds no meaning to them?

Saturday, 12 June 2010

(1/4) Accepting and justifying traditions

Hello internets! My full-time practical training is over and vacation is here. Let's write!

I've got a series of posts lined up for you about norms, authority and traditions.

In this first post I'll discuss why we are unwilling to challenge the traditions we follow, and in the following posts I'll go into when this becomes a problem with norms, ethics and even game design.

People have a tendency to accept the norms, traditions and power structures around us as natural. Rather than asking ourselves "Why do we do it this way?" or "What does these traditions we follow lead to in practice?" we instead say "It's always been this way" or "It's just the natural way to it" to find justification for our way of life.

There is nothing strange about this. As you might remember from my model of mental health, we need some parts of our lives to be automatized, we need some rules that doesn't change. We just don't have the cognitive capacity to consider every action and decision in full. As a matter of fact, we want to avoid scrutinizing our assumptions and traditions... Because, what if we discover that we've been wrong all the time?

Cognitive dissonance
The sense that what we are doing is counter to our ideals, or that we act on different principles in different situations is nigh on unbearable to us, and we go to some lenghts to reduce this feeling. In social psychology, this feeling is called cognitive dissonance. Wikipedia has an excellent article on it, check it out! I quote Wikipedia:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them.
So let's say I beat up my kids every day to foster them into obeying my moral rules.
- One day a person comes along and tells me that moral humans are raised with a sense of trust, not with punishment.
- Holy shit! So I've been hurting my children with no good reason all this time? But I love my children! And loving and hurting someone does not match up!
- To avoid this sense of cognitive dissonance, I animatedly describe what an idiot this person is and how totally wrong sie is. By rejecting this idea and declaring it false, I can maintain my moral consistensy.

In fact, people spend a lot of time justifying their own behaviour. We like to believe that we always make decisions based on reason and ideals, and then execute these in action. In actuality, more often than you'd think we act first and afterwards justify what we just did with explanations, rationalizing our actions or feelings.

Instinct first, then reasoning
I bet all of you have been in a discussion when someone brings forward an argument for a cause, and when proven that this person is wrong in hir argument, sie changes the argument. Take a look at this, for instance:

Person A: "We need a death penalty as a deterrant for crimes like homicide"
Person B: "Actually, countries with a death penalty has a higher frequency of homicide than states without."
Person A: "Well, it's insane to spend money to bunch murderers up together in prison, they'll be out again soon, and worse than they were before!"

See what happened there? If person B is right, and person A truely believe that we should lower the amount of homicides, sie should rationally change hir position on death penalty, not change hir argument.

Rather than reaching his position through rational consideration of for and against arguments, Person A first of all feel strongly that murderers should be put to death, and then justifies hir feelings with intellectual arguments.

This is not necessarily wrong, we need our feelings to guide us and inform us of a situation. The most skilled practicioners leave room for intuition and gut feeling in a decision making process.

Generalizing and building ideologies
Also, by turning what we experience personally into something general, or law of nature, we can justify our feelings. "You ALWAYS leave your dirty socks on the floor! Can't you pick them up after yourself like a normal person?" justifies my frustration more than "I don't like it when you leave your dirty socks out". Feelings turn into arguments.

And this goes for ideologies as well! Let's compare conservatives and liberals:

On a neural level, conservatives react stronger and faster to scary stimulus. The ideology of conservatism is basically a body of intellectual arguments justifying why we should remove these scary stimulus. In the same way, the ideology of liberalism can be understood as a way to justify curiosity, sensation-seeking and egocentrism. Personally, I experienced a sense of not always being taken seriously as a child, and my own ideology can be understood as a justification of my longing for acceptance and approval.

This can be disheartening, but I feel there is something beautiful in how humans can create meaning. In the end, we live in a cold and objective world of chemistry and physics, but we have the ability to turn a meaningless nature into meaningful ideology, art and society, to build a rich world of the mind atop the world of materia.

Brain damage
People who have lost the part connecting the two brain hemispheres together, have in effect two brains working independently. During these conditions, the process of justification becomes extremely clear.

Show the message "Take out your red coat" to the persons left eye, and the right brain hemisphere will register and process this message, and have the persons left arm reach for the coat.

Then, ask the person why sie reached for the coat. Language is located in the left hemisphere, but the left hemisphere doesn't know about the written message, and the person will reply "Oh, I felt like taking a walk" or something to that extent, that is make up a reason on the fly for the action just taken!

First part in series. Next part: Accepting normativity.