Flourishing Toons: Notes for an Ethics of Games, Part 1

“Thursday, that’s not possible!”

“Anything is possible right now. We’re in the middle of an isolated high-coincidental localized entropic field decreasement.”

“We’re in what?”

“We’re in a pseudoscientific technobabble.”

“Ah!” replied Wilbur, having witnessed quite a few at Mycrotech Developments. “One of those.”

                ~Jason Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

Thursday’s terms are more fun and Carl Jung’s synchronicity more elegant, but in my case James Joyce’s epiphany comes closer to the mark. We’ve all had moments like this, when events or ideas that seem unrelated come together in an unexpected, meaningful, sometimes fortuitous way. Such happened to me a few days ago while I was preparing for a guest gig in a colleague’s Social Aspects of Sport course: ideas from a variety of sources merged into the recognition that at the core of an ethics of games should be the goal of flourishing, whether applied to ball games, board games, or multiplayer online games.

Deepholm image (WoW)

Deepholm image (WoW)

No doubt many others have thought and written about a flourishing ethics of games, but it’s a new idea for me, one I’d like to explore in relation to MMORPGs, particularly World of Warcraft (WoW). In this post I look at the concept of happiness as key to such an ethic and in a future post will weave in game-related concepts like “unnecessary obstacles,” “magic circle,” and “flow and fiero.” Perhaps I’ll argue that toons can be tools for developing a flourishing attitude toward one’s life (though “tool” sounds rather frosty when discussing something as personal as one’s toon). Perhaps I’ll attempt to find a “soul” within the toon itself and argue that the toon, as well as the player, has moral agency (though I probably won’t). In other words, I’m not sure where this line of thinking is going. I’m exploring.

Sri-la Village, Jade Forest, Pandaria (Wow)

Sri-La Village, Jade Forest, Pandaria (Wow)

Flourishing as real happiness.  Aristotle (my first love in philosophy) develops what has been called a “flourishing ethic” in two books, the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. In the Ethics he examines the concept of happiness, the Greek word for which is eudaimonia, meaning “good indwelling spirit” in the sense of human flourishing. He comes to define happiness as an activity of the psyche in accordance with human excellence. Happiness, he argues, is what people seek above all else – and few of us would disagree. However, by “happiness” Aristotle does not mean a feeling that comes and goes, as is commonly the case in our everyday language. Rather, it’s something gained through the ongoing development and maintenance of a good character, of continually striving to be the best human being that we can be. In the Ethics he says, “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”

Jade Temple Grounds, Jade Forest, Pandaria (WoW)

Jade Temple Grounds, Jade Forest, Pandaria (WoW)

Virtuous toons are happy toons. Human excellence (G. arete, often translated “virtue”) is learned behavior, Aristotle argues, that becomes habitual through repeated practice. For example, we learn courage by acting bravely (overcoming fear), benevolence through kind actions (giving of ourselves to others), temperance by doing things in moderation (lifestyle balance), and so on. Likewise, toon excellence is acquired through practice. Toons develop their skills and increase their powers through a series of challenges – quests, dungeons, arenas, duels, battlegrounds – appropriate to their class, specialization, gear, and level. Regarding moral excellence, by acting bravely toons gain confidence, by helping other toons they increase in benevolence, and by resting in inns for extended periods of time toons show temperance and thus allow their players to pursue a wide variety of non-digital goals and maintain a healthy life balance.

Imperial Vizier Zor’lok downed, Heart of Fear Raid, Pandaria (WoW)

Imperial Vizier Zor’lok downed by guild raiding team, Heart of Fear, Pandaria (WoW)

The Golden Mean.  Central to Aristotle’s notion of human excellence is the Golden Mean. Each virtue can admit of extremes: excess and deficiency. For example, too much courage leads to rashness and can get one in trouble; too little courage, called cowardice, is caused by fear and keeps one from acting. The middle between two extremes of any virtue is the ideal, the target, but it’s not the same for everyone. We find our own mean by knowing our tendencies, observing and reflecting on our actions, and making adjustments as needed. Consider the cowardly toon who has a fear of dungeon runs with pick-up groups (pugs) and so avoids them (I’m talking about myself). In contrast to the rash toon who rushes to join a pug even when inappropriately geared or skilled, the cowardly toon has to push her mean toward rashness (like a notch or so past the middle, if you think of a likert scale) in order to jump into a pug. If the cowardly toon makes the effort often enough and has good experiences on the whole, she’ll grow in courage and become a more flourishing toon.

Inevitable Betrayal guild meeting at a tavern in Dalaran, Northrend (WoW)

Inevitable Betrayal guild meeting at a tavern in Dalaran, Northrend (WoW)

Guilds as flourishing communities.  In the Politics, Aristotle claims, “Man is by nature a political animal.” Our lives cannot be happy, he argues, unless we actively work to establish and maintain a flourishing society. Thus the well-being of individuals and of the society in which they live are inextricably bound. Friendship, cooperation, collaboration, and civic engagement are key to a flourishing life, along with a host of other traits and activities, including leisure activities like music and games. In WoW many toons join guilds and, if they’re as lucky as I have been, become active members of a flourishing community of friends who help each other become the best toons that they can be in their class and professions. Unaffiliated players can, for sure, have fun in WoW, but I wonder how well they flourish. Members of a flourishing guild strive together for toon and guild excellence; such toons learn and play together in a supportive, cordial atmosphere. I imagine Aristotle arguing that a toon who flourishes is a toon who participates in a flourishing guild. And I imagine that he would remind us that flourishing for toon and guild alike in an ongoing activity, a continual challenge, a lifetime quest, however long that lifetime may be.

Until next time. Enjoy! 


About Lotus Greene

I started the blog called "Educating Lotus" in 2011, shortly after I began exploring the virtual world Second Life. With friends I met there, I migrated my virtual life to World of Warcraft (WoW) and joined an educators' guild. Lotus Greene is my gamer name, one I kept when I started another blog in 2015 called "Not Quite Ignored," which originally focused on the lighter side of news and now also includes political news and opinions.
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