The Cabbage Thief, or Role playing as Psychopathic Escapism

04Sep13

Cabbage

The Hunter welcomes me to her campsite, offering me warmth and shelter and the use of her cooking fire. She makes friendly chit-chat as I prepare a bowl of cabbage stew. I politely ignore her. Then she mentions that she doesn’t think that the King will mind her poaching, since she takes so little from the forest.

“Poaching? Oh, hell NO.”

I whip out my long bow and shoot her in the face.

This is why I shouldn’t play games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They turn me into a psychopath.

My character, a larcenous Khajiit (cat-person) named J. Smiley, is an alcoholic kleptomaniac who belongs to a organized crime family AND a clandestine circle of death-worshiping assassins. J. Smiley is a bad person. She steals every cabbage she sees. She breaks into people’s homes while they’re asleep and dirties their pots and pans with furious bouts of late-night cooking. She murders anyone who looks at her funny. And she justifies her actions with the belief that everyone would do exactly the same to her, if she didn’t strike first. The world of Tamriel is a cat-eat-dog place, and J. Smiley isn’t about to end up on anyone’s dinner plate.

Oddly enough, J. Smiley isn’t amoral. She maintains a complicated and sometimes contradictory code of conduct. She gives charity to beggars, because she remembers what it’s like to be hungry and homeless. She loves children and pets. She hates oppression and abhors authority, and so she is genuinely confused when ordinary citizens attack her when she brawls with guards and bounty-hunters and other willing tools of a fascist imperial regime. She despises torturers and autocrats and those who prey on the weak. But J. Smiley will kill you stone-dead if you insult her pride, and she’s the kind of cat-person that takes offense at everything.

I shouldn’t play games like Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas. In fantasy worlds of pure potential, I can be as evil as I want to be.

evil_shepard

“Evil? Me? No, I’m not evil. Why do you ask?”

What’s most disturbing is how easy it is to fall into a psychopathic pattern of behavior when you as the player are separated from the immediate consequences of your character’s anti-social actions. At least in games like Mass Effect or Bioshock, there’s a fairly cookie-cutter morality system. It’s easy to follow the Paragon path, because being a nice guy or gal is likely to net you some eventual reward. Taking the ethical high road in Mass Effect never came back to bite me in the ass. No one took unfair advantage of my kindness, compassion, and generosity. In The Elder Scrolls, though, gray is the only color in the moral landscape. Every NPC is a potential cheat, snitch, and / or traitor. So when you murder them and take all their cabbages, you can assuage your conscience with the belief that it’s okay, they deserved it, they were scumbags anyway and they got what was coming to them.

Real evil isn’t glamorous or sexy. All too often evil is merely shallow and lazy and banal, a combination of a failure to empathize with a desire to rationalize away one’s own bad behavior:  “It’s not wrong when I do it. Society owes me a Snickers bar. Or a cabbage.”

This is why I don’t allow evil characters at my D & D table. Role playing games can easily devolve into simplistic power fantasies. Anything that you can imagine, you can do, and that includes raping and pillaging and sticking pointy objects into the kidneys belonging to the characters of your fellow players.

But there’s a key difference between playing an evil psychopath in a single-player video game and playing one at the D & D table: social interaction. When you shoot a bandit or a super-mutant in Fallout and rifle through their pockets for cigarettes and spare change, that super-mutant / bandit isn’t being controlled by another human being. When it’s just a single player and a computer-generated environment interacting, it’s not possible to ruin someone else’s evening by being a lowdown, horse-rustling, cabbage-stealing, NPC-griefing, PC-killing nogoodnik. And let’s face it, that’s what evil characters do. They can’t help it. Like the proverbial scorpion in the proverbial story with the proverbial frog, it’s their proverbial nature.

While evil characters don’t have any choice but to behave as an evil character would, players have the power not to play an evil character. They can choose not to bring that sort of disruptive influence to the table. If having an enjoyable evening and maintaining group cohesive and not making other people uncomfortable is the primary goal, a good player knows when to leave Darth Vader at home.

Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that gal.

Leave your fellow players’ cabbages alone.

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