Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Becoming a Villain or Hero

(Photograph of Uva Oxide, courtesy of Mariner Trilling)
(Uva Oxide's Garden by Freyashawk)

Who or what would you be if you could be any one or anything you could imagine? What would you do if you could perform any act? Would you even choose to be human if you had infinite powers of transformation? Would you choose to be a selfless hero or would you choose to be a villain?

'Lord of the Rings' is my favourite book and Peter Jackson's trilogy has a high ranking among my favouite films. When EA Games released LoTR games, I was eager to play all of them. After they produced games for the trilogy, they created other games to satisfy the devotees of LoTR. The next game that I played was called, 'Lord of the Rings: The Third Age'.

The only reason I mention this game is because this was the first LoTR game that allowed players to take the side of Sauron, the Dark Lord. I know that this was a factor that made the game extremely popular with some fans, but I personally found that option horrifying.

Even playing 'Return of the King' on the tiny GameBoy Advance system, whenever the Eye of Sauron appeared in the upper corner of the screen, I actually sensed the presence of great evil. It was nothing more than a game, but from childhood, I knew that both evil and good existed in our universe and that evil could be as powerful a force as good.

To me, evil has little to do with laws, rules or regulations. My definition of evil is based on the desire or willingness to hurt or cause damage to others. According to my definition, there are 'necessary evils' in this world. For example, an act of self-defence can cause damage or even death to another. It is justified, however, in certain circumstances. Nor am I a pacifist by nature. I do believe that justice often requires the sacrifice of lives.

Lord of the Rings does not offer a simplistic view of good and evil. Characters who are intrinsically good can and are corrupted by evil. Frodo, despite his almost superhuman resistance to the lure of the Ring, ultimately succumbs to temptation. Nonetheless, Frodo emerges as a true hero. Despite the fact that, had Gollum not intervened at the last moment, Frodo's actions would have doomed the world of Middle Earth, Tolkien forces the reader not only to understand but to forgive him.

Sauron, however, is evil personified and the legions and allies of Sauron work only for destructive ends. I truly cannot comprehend how any human being could be willing to side with Sauron and work against the forces of good even in a game.

In the same way, I cannot understand individuals who go to the world of Second Life in order to hurt other people. Yet there are such people and they are known as 'griefers'. It is a colourful and apt description. 'Griefers' are individuals who cause 'grief' to others, either by attacking them, destroying their property or harrassing them and otherwise making their lives miserable.

I met my first real griefer last night in Second Life. I actually intended to write only about the writer I met at the same time but the incident prompted me to consider all the elements that define our being or our souls. Is a person who commits evil in an imaginary world responsible for his/her actions? Is it less 'evil' simply because its effects are based in another realm? People targeted by griefers in Second Life are real people after all. They can be hurt emotionally and even economically if not physically.

The writer I met is named Uva Oxide. Her avatar is an Ent and in this form, she is the guardian of a magical grotto of multi-coloured rocks. Each rock contains a poem or piece of prose. Uva is a writer herself, and one who readily confesses that she has received many rejection slips from publishers in her first life. In creating her garden, she allows writers and poets to achieve appreciation and renown in Second Life, whether or not they ever were able to publish anything in this world.

Uva is a gracious hostess and her garden truly represents a labour of love. It is a haven of peace. One can sit by a glorious waterfall, surrounded by incredibly beautiful glistening rocks that reflect every colour in the spectrum. The water itself is infused with rainbow hues. The presence of the Ent allows the visitor to slip effortlessly into the mythical realm of Middle Earth.

Quite suddenly last night, a stranger with a gun intruded into this idyllic environment. Uva greeted the stranger by name with her usual courtesy. Perhaps she had not seen the gun that was pointed at my head. At first therefore I wondered if the gun were a form of artistic expression, not to be taken seriously. I quickly was disabused of this notion by my companion, a writer himself named Mariner Trilling who said, 'Take him out, Freya!'

I always have been a swashbuckler at heart and Second Life has offered me a priceless opportunity to practice swordplay and magical spells. As of yesterday, however, I never had used any weapon seriously.

Lest any one unfamiliar with Second Life should think that it is permeated with incipient violence, this certainly is not the case. In fact, many regions prohibit 'push' weapons, which are weapons actually that can affect a target physically by pushing him/her out of the area.

In the heat of the moment, I did not look for the icon that would let me know whether or not 'push' weapons were allowed. In the circumstances, I felt that speed would be of the essence, so I simply drew my sword and lunged.

It had no effect whatsoever. Evidently, push weapons did not operate in the region. I then used one of my magic spells. Unfortunately, we were in a very small area, and I was unable to view the results of the spell myself. My Ring of Power informed me, however, that it had found the target and the attacker was set on fire. He did not hang about after that.

The attacker evidently was a newcomer to Second Life. Why on earth would some one go to Second Life in order to cause havoc and dismay in the peaceful refuge of a writer who devoted her own second life to the happiness of others? Perhaps he thought it would be amusing. Perhaps he never had experienced the thrill of using a firearm in this world and thought he could do so with impunity in another world. Perhaps he didn't think at all... Who knows?

I love weapons myself, but I never would use one deliberately in any world to disrupt the lives of innocent people. Perhaps it is important to teach individuals like griefers the lesson that acts have consequences, even in Second Life.

In the same way that the gun-wielding attacker chose to become a griefer, there are individuals in Second Life who devote their time and energy to the defence of the innocent. There are people who actually have taken upon themselves the duty of thwarting griefers whenever they encounter them. They are the heroes of Second Life. I do not believe that, simply because it is 'virtual reality', it is less real in terms of its emotional and spiritual impact on those who participate in it.

Any one who becomes a griefer has joined the forces of evil, whether or not he/she perceives it as a fact. Any one who protects the innocent is fighting for the forces of good, even if they are doing so in their Second Life. Those who believe in the concept of karma declare that a person is responsible for all his/her actions, whether those actions are in the past, present or future. In the same way, I believe that we must accept responsibility for the acts we commit in our fantasies.


MarcLord said...

To be sure, Jesus and the Essenes said we must be responsible for our desires and fantasies, that they are a type of action. For the sake of argument, however, I wonder if for some people their virtual karmas can be inversely related to their real karmas. In other words, maybe griefers are acting out destructive fantasies in SL as a safety for FL (First Life). At least it could function that way, particularly if the person didn't connect to the SL environment as "real," but more as a traditional game.

Social maladaptation and alienation were predicted in the virtual world long before something as rich as SL happened. And in real life, police have long known that anonymity, mobility, social dislocation, and disguise are all highly correlated with criminal action. So many griefers are certainly psychological virtulogues of FL existence. The question is whether some people are deriving benefit by blowing off steam in a safe environment, at least temporarily, or not.

This goes back to the argument of whether "video games" cause crime, or reduce it. Maybe the argument should be framed more in terms of how they change it.

Freyashawk said...

If SL were a traditional game, the griefer would be interacting with a computer and therefore his/her actions would not be affecting any other individual. In such a case, one might argue that expressions of rage, frustration or even criminal acts within the format of the game could provide a cathartic release to prevent 'real' damage towards 'real people' from occurring. On the other hand, I do feel that one must choose sides even in fantasy, and there is something intrinsically dangerous about fantasies that embrace evil wholeheartedly. (I am no fan of games like Grand Theft Auto.)

'Fantasy' in the mind is quite different from 'fantasy' when played out. Every one has fantasies that he/she never would explore in reality. Who on this earth never has imagined committing murder in a moment of rage? Most of us never would act upon those fantasies, however and would not even take them seriously.
I do not believe that we should be punished for our fantasies, unless those fantasies result in actions that harm others.

SL, however, involves interactions with real people, even if those people are operating behind avatars. Griefers are using real people with real emotions as their targets. To commit evil acts while hiding behind a disguise is no less evil than doing so openly.

As far as cause and effect are concerned, I really do subscribe to the theory that objects cannot be held responsible for the actions committed by individuals who use them for good or ill. I therefore believe it is an error to declare that 'gun control' would decrease the number of murders committed... Games like Grand Theft Auto do not create gangsters.

That having been said, I do believe that video games, like any medium, can be an influence either for good or for evil. 'Influence' is not tantamount to 'brainwashing', however. An individual with natural compassion and empathy for others will not become a killer simply because he/she plays a game that involves violence. I have been known to massacre orcs from time to time myself, and have found it to be a very satisfying task indeed. I do have to admit that the fact that they were orcs generated by a computer probably had much to do with my willingness to slaughter them...

When it comes to 'real' creatures, I am a little more soft-hearted. Even Tolkien showed some sympathy for the detestable orcs in his writings, and I daresay I might feel the same if I actually met an orc and knew how they came into being.

MarcLord said...

How do orcs come into being you ask? I think they make them in hollow oil wells in Wyoming and Texas.

The urge to mayhem, the urge to kill aren't far beneath the surface in FL. The restraints and penalties are well-established and high. Whereas SL places the participant at a remove which grants, even encourages, shifting anonymity. Bad tradition and low penalty.

Bearing in mind I agree with you, and am playing with this concept for fun. But still...joining the forces of evil just seems to be easier online, and it isn't all that hard to find yourself on that side in FL. It can happen before you know it.

Freyashawk said...

There is no doubt that: 'Facilis descensus Averni'. The road to Hell is an easy descent, and far easier for some one who can claim, 'It isn't really me.' Even in this world, there are a number of serial killers and other criminals who use that defence in court... 'It wasn't me. It was my alter ego. It was demonic possession.' How much easier is it to distance oneself from an avatar in a computer game!

People tend to distance themselves from their 'baser instincts' in any case. When some one loses his/her temper, one often hears the excuse: 'I was driven to it.' 'You MADE me lose my temper!'

Human beings are very skilled in the art of conjuring the illusion of 'diminished responsibility' in every reality.