In my previous post I began exploring ways that World of Warcraft (WoW) starting zones could serve as sites for teaching and learning philosophy. First I presented Yvyy’s narrative about her experiences in the first part of the Worgen zone; then I discussed issues in the philosophy of mind that her experiences suggested. Here, after Yvyy completes her starting-zone narrative, I begin thinking more about the logistics of using any WoW starting zone in a philosophy class and focus on applying ethical theories to an avatar’s experiences.
With the triple whammy of feral worgen attacks, continual earthquakes, and the Forsaken invasion, Gilnean leaders had to muster all the help they could get – even me, a half-human worgen who would turn on them if the serum wore off. They were willing to take the risk, and I didn’t disappoint.
For instance, after I assassinated two Forsaken ship captains, Lord Godfrey told me, “You might be a bloody beast, but you’re our beast.” I smiled – not at the implied, somewhat backhanded praise, but at the irony of the situation: when I reported to him I was still in cat form; but the “beast” he referred to was my worgenness, not the druid cat form he and all Gilneans readily accept. Besides, to assassinate others surely requires calling up the beast within, worgen or not.
In any case, I was glad that opportunities arose to help others in humanitarian ways. For example, I saved troops washed into the sea by one of the quakes, quakes that would soon destroy Gilneas. To prepare for the evacuation, I brought frightened children back to their mother, rounded up horses and supplies, and, in general, aided others when I could. I did get a little annoyed with one old granny who wouldn’t leave unless I found her favorite book and cat, which took way too long, and retrieved her laundry from the clothesline.
I found several missions quite distasteful. For example, to feed refugees from the inundated coastal areas, I had to slay stately stags so tame you could pet them. People of course have to eat. I get that. But I was selective: I killed only stags separated from the herd and left undisturbed those protecting fawns. The most distasteful task involved killing an Abomination who had killed a villager’s wife. Her husband hungered for revenge and asked me to carry it out. I bristled at the idea of engaging in a cold-blooded vengeance killing, but when I found the Abomination – cobbled together from corpses, its guts hanging out, its stench unspeakably vile – I held my breath and did the deed.
During one mission I learned that others like me, an enclave of Gilnean worgen, had taken refuge deep in the forest. They were aided by night elves, who told me that their ancestors were responsible for the worgen curse: Hundreds of years ago a sect of druid night elves, in order to save themselves from demonic forces, abandoned their oath to maintain Nature’s way and succumbed to the ferocity of wolves; eventually the curse became epidemic among the Gilnean. To assuage their sense of ancestral guilt, the night elves found a way to permanently restore a worgen’s human mind. I underwent the ritual – successfully!
Lord Crowley – who, like me, got the curse during the worgen attack on the cathedral – was leader of the worgen enclave. Under his leadership, we worgen fought alongside our human compatriots to defeat the Forsaken. After a long, bloody battle, we readied the elven ships for evacuation to Teldrassil. The night elves, once again taking responsibility for unleashing the curse, generously offered the Gilnean worgen sanctuary in their capital, Darnassus, where we are now. To show my gratitude, after a few days’ rest I will travel to Darkshore to aid them in any way I can.
DISCUSSION: LOGISTICS & APPLICATION OF ETHICAL THEORIES
With Yvyy’s narrative completed, I’m wondering about the wisdom of using WoW starting zones as teaching and learning tools: Is the philosophical payoff worth the time and effort it would take students to work through a zone? What kinds of assignments would make it worthwhile? Could students use their chosen zone for multiple issues we address during a semester? Although playing WoW may be an attractive activity for some students, I continue to think that options aimed at the same objectives should be available. In any case, my exploration goes on. And now I turn to possible ways to engage students in applying ethical theories to starting-zone content.
Let’s suppose an introductory class is surveying three traditional ethical theories: utilitarianism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics.1 I could pose questions specific to selected starting zones. Students would have a choice of zones and questions on which to reflect and write. Before answering a question, they would need to write their own first-person narratives of the situation to provide context and empathize with the avatar. Then, for each of the three ethical positions, they would explain the ethical reasoning underlying their avatars’ actions.
Students could choose to do the activity solo or in teams of two or three. My preference would be teams so they could experience the power of cooperation and collaboration (after all, worgen and humans defeated the Forsaken by working together). I suspect that teamwork would result in wider and deeper reflections – and it’d be more fun. Of course some form of individual accountability is necessary: Each team member could take the lead on addressing and writing the team responses to a question, with duos addressing at least two questions and trios three. Also, whether solo or in teams, students would write self-assessments on their efforts and learning.
Responses to the questions should include the following: a narrative from the avatar’s perspective; an explanation of the ethical reasoning the avatar could use to justify acting like a utilitarian, deontologist, and virtue ethicist; and details that show how basing actions on one theory rather than another changes (or not) the avatar’s actions – perhaps even the avatar’s willingness to complete a quest. Below are examples of ethical questions that students could receive before choosing among available races and zones. These are drawn from Yvyy’s narrative.
1. Should people who embrace the opportunity to help others be considered morally good?
2. Is assassinating another person ever the right thing to do?
3. Do we have a moral responsibility to preserve the lives of non-human animals that are not a threat to our existence?
4. Is avenging the death of a loved one ever morally justified?
5. If in the distant past a race’s ancestors harmed members of another race or ethnic group so deeply that the repercussions remain dire to this day, should the descendents of the offending race be held morally accountable and make reparations?
To conclude, I take each of the three ethical theories and sketch out possible responses to the first question above.
Utilitarianism: If Yvyy were a methodical utilitarian, for each opportunity to help others, she would consider whether or not her action was likely to contribute to the greater good for the greater number of Gilneans. She would believe that helping others prepare to evacuate is the moral thing to do; however, she might not help granny gather her things because doing so could mean that other people, including entire families, wouldn’t get the word before the waters rushed over them. In short, when the good of the community conflicts with the good of the individual, the utilitarian’s moral nod goes to the community. But what to do about granny? Should she be left to drown? Yvyy has no way of knowing how great her contributions to the community’s survival may be later on. For this reason and others, the utilitarian perspective seems inadequate in this situation.
Deontological Ethics. Yvyy implies that she takes pleasure in helping others. As a Kantian deontologist, she would see her efforts in evacuating citizens as praiseworthy but not necessarily moral. She might, however, see her willingness to help granny gather her things the moral thing to do, despite the tasks’ triviality. So how could agreeing to find frightened children not be considered moral and yet locating granny’s favorite book as moral? The answer lies in one’s motivations for acting. Yvyy the Kantian does the socially right thing in the children’s case because she wants to. In granny’s case, she doesn’t want to; but when she applies the moral law, what Kant calls the categorical imperative, she might see that it’s her duty to find granny’s things. One version of the moral law goes like this: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” If Yvyy’s maxim were to do for others as she would have them do for her, then she would help granny gather the things important to her. On the other hand, if her maxim were to help as many people as possible regardless of the pain of denying an individual her aid, she might refuse to do it. Thus we see that if we give the moral nod to people’s motivations for acting rather than to the consequences of an action, it’s not so easy to judge if an act is moral or not.
Virtue Ethics. As a virtue ethicist in the Aristotelian vein, Yvyy would have the personal mission of developing her character by forming habits that help her become the best person she can be. Her decisions would be contextual, based on trying to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, for the right reasons. There’s no specific moral law – except to act as a virtuous person would, which includes knowing one’s character weaknesses and how to correct them. For example, Yvyy seems too willing to acquiesce to others’ demands, no matter how trivial they may be. Let’s say she knows this about herself. So what is she to do about granny’s refusal to leave without her book, cat, and laundry – when time is of the essence? Yvyy wants to save granny, so she has to come up with a strategy to budge her. Perhaps a compromise offered in a take-charge tone would work, like telling granny she’ll find the cat and then they’re going, period. Practical reasoning is crucial to virtue ethics; thus it seems more nuanced than the other two theories.
Of course, hardly anyone relies on only one type of moral reasoning. Although we’re rarely aware of it, one or more of these ethical positions are probably at play during our moral decision making.
Yvyy’s current home is an inn on the Darkshore coast. I’ve grown to like her quite a lot and hope to visit her again one of these days. Meanwhile, I’ll soon be moving on to another WoW starting zone.
1 The idea for using three ethical theories to reflect on game content comes, in part, from Ren Reynolds, “Playing a ‘Good’ Game: A Philosophical Approach to Understanding the Morality of Games,” International Game Developers Association, 2002.