Wednesday, May 2

Lord of the Rings Online: Equal Rights?

Massively-Multiplayer-Game The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar was recently released. There are many facets to the game worth discussing, but a particular issue has arisen this week that I would like to take a look at from a game design perspective. You may have heard. Male-Male and Female-Female couples are unable to marry in Shadows, and neither are certain race pairings (regardles of sex), such as dwarfs and hobbits. There has been much player resistance to this social limitation. Unfortunately, the game's developer, Turbine, has buckled under the pressure and removed marriage from the game altogether.

Obviously, the main concern that players have with marriage restrictions is that of equal rights. Shadows designer, Nik Davidson, had the following explanation for the disallowance:
Very rarely will you see an elf and a human hook up, but it does happen; the door is open. Dwarves don't intermarry with hobbits; that door is shut ... Did two male hobbits ever hook up in the shire and have little hobbit civil unions? No. The door is shut.
Davidson goes on to further explain why. The Lord of the Rings novels were written this was because Tolkien himself was a "conservative catholic." But do supposedly legitimate explanations justify a lack in equal rights?Let us look at the various perspectives shall we? On one end, as Brenda Brathwaite points out, and editor Kris Graft writes, "videogames inherently branch away from their source content and should allow gamers to make their own decisions about relationships." MMO's are social games. A big part of their draw are the in-game relationships players form with one another. Specific restrictions on the development and freedom of those relationships is by definition discriminatory. Freedom of choice is a vital aspect to MMO's, especially when role-playing is so heavily encouraged. However, in real life, the zeitgeist of equal-rights is not polarized towards either end of the spectrum. Restrictions on marriage are being imposed across the United States, state by state. Even so, there are many opponents to these legal barrings. Is Lord of the Rings Online a virtual reflection of real life society? Or, as Davidson has stated, are these marriage allowances and restrictions just an emulation of the game's source material, and not a statement of modern political issues? It's impossible to say which was the actual reasoning. However, as game designers, we can speculate as to which is better, and the pros and cons of developing a game favoring either.The primary supportive reason for Shadows' marital restrictions is exactly what Davidson said. I think there is something to be said for remaining true to the license. A recent comic at Penny Arcade hits this issue in quite a timely fashion, albeit in a different context and perhaps slightly exaggerated. Regerdless, authenticity can certainly be an advantage. Designing a licensed game cannot be easy, developers must decide early and reevaluate often just how closely they are going to stick to the source. Their is likely a precarious balance in weighing these things. The final cheer for this side of the argument is that players are living in virtual world. This virtual world, Middle Earth, has certain restrictions or cultural expectations of its inhabitants. Turbine had imposed these cultural norms by techincal rule. Just as Middle Earth inhabitants in the books had to follow the rules, so do players living in the same world.

The flip side is that its a game. Developers have the right to take certain liberties in their interpretation of a license. Furthermore, developers must determine which is more important: staying true to the source, or making a great game regardless of licensing restrictions? In the end, the game is a game, in this case an MMO. And in MMOs, player freedom is priority, which, as it has been established in MMOs past, includes allowing players to marry whomever they wish. And going back to the virtual world theme in the previous paragraph, MMOs are like little continents. If in real life political strife can arise over gay-rights, then by golly in an MMO the same strife will eventually emerge. Without developer imposed regulations.

Massively Multiplay

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1 comment:

  1. Good work, Finn,

    Your posts are always readable and relevant - and your attention to design elements is great.

    Well done.