Single-player narrative games frequently put you on the side of somebody actively fighting for justice: I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, for example, and that game has the all-too-familiar RPG plot of a chosen one saving the world. This means means that, of Jane Jacobs’ two moral syndromes from Systems of Survival, Guardian Moral Syndrome is the correct fit, with the following list of characteristics:

  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor

Going in order: “Shun trading” is actually not a great fit for RPGs, they have shopkeepers all over the plase. But the flip side is: Dragon Age is entirely typical in that item management / shopping is one of the least satisfying aspects of the game and that it’s entirely possible to do fine just grabbing the items you find as you travel and selling the ones that don’t have the biggest numbers.

“Exert prowess”: yes, you show off your powers as frequently and as capably as possible. “Be obedient and disciplined”: you’re in charge of a party, they simply do not have the choice to not do what you say, and you as the player have to color within the tight lines that the game designer gave you.

“Adhere to tradition” and “Respect hierarchy” also fall within that last vein: it’s always clear who is giving the orders, and the rigid class system of RPGs is a manifestation of the power and enforcement of traditions. Of course, in general, hierarchy goes up as well as down; but games work around that by putting the player’s avatar of being uniquely positioned to save the world, hence answerable to nobody in the hierarchy. And adherence to tradition shows up in games at a meta level as well: the way different games in a series remix the same elements over and over again.

“Be loyal” and “Take vengeance” are two sides of the same coin: they show up most strongly in BioWare companion quests, but in RPGs more broadly you know who is on your team and who isn’t, and you’ll do whatever your friends say, including righting wrongs that they’ve claimed against them. (Or in single player narrative games: I could just as easily use Tomb Raider as my example for Guardian Moral Syndrome.)

“Deceive for the sake of the task”: the hero is unconstrained by common rules. Not just the mass slaughter that you engage in, not just the subterfuge necessary to sneak into enemy fortresses, but the constant looting of noncombatants’ houses. You’re saving the world, what does it matter if you have to break a few rules along the way?

“Make rich use of leisure”, “Be ostentatious”: I suppose the former is the minigames and the sidequests that are purely for sport, while the latter is decorative armor, arranging your castle, spending money on items that have no in-game benefit? And “dispense largess” shows up every time you’re doing a fetch quest, or deciding who comes out on top in a plot choice.

“Be exclusive”: you are the chosen one, and only the most select of people are allowed to accompany you. “Show fortitude”: that’s all the trials the game throws at you. “Be fatalistic”: did I mention that you are the chosen one? And that this is all part of an inevitable grand sweep of history?

“Treasure honor”: that’s the ground assumption that underpins all of this. You are all that is good and honorable; anybody who disagrees with that is an enemy who must be stopped.


But, of course, we have another moral syndrome to consider, the Commercial Moral Syndrome:

  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Be efficient
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic

The natural place in games for this syndrome is in systems-based games, frequently multiplayer, frequently board games rather than video games. “Shun force”, “Come to voluntary agreements”, “Be honest”: we’re all playing by the same rules. “Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens” and “Respect contracts” show up in the temporary alliances that multiplayer games lend themselves to, while “Compete” reminds us that, yes, we’re trying to win the game.

“Use initiative and enterprise”, “Be open to inventiveness and novelty”: we’re constantly trying out different strategies. “Be efficient” (and perhaps “Promote comfort and convenience”): those strategies aren’t just for the sake of making us happy, they’re because they’re the best way to accomplish our goals, elegantly advancing our position in as many ways as possible.

“Dissent for the sake of the task”: this is the engine of the way a healthy meta is constantly shifting. “Invest for productive purposes” is every time you spend your in-game currency on improvements instead of armies. (Or, at a meta level, it’s every hour you spend going over other players’ games, practicing life-and-death problems, trying to get the different achievements in Hoplite not for the sake of an achievement or even for the sake of an unlocked power-up but for what it teaches you about the space of play.) “Be industrious”, “be thrifty”: every piece you place on the board has to be put to good use. And finally, “Be optimistic”: always throw yourself back into the game, treating losses as learning experiences that will help you in your future matches.


Two tweets from the last few months: @metasynthie talking about how gaters see themselves as the player character fighting NPCs, and @m_kopas talking about how games don’t teach you how to read systems, they teach you how to willingly participate in them. Guardian Moral Syndrome games in particular fall into this latter pit over and over again: they do an excellent job of teaching you how to be a good guardian while so rarely taking a step back and even asking whether what you’re fighting for is right, let alone whether the ends justify the means.

I’m writing this at the end of an awful year, a year most recently characterized by the New York Police Department saying that they are at war, at war with both the elected leadership of the city and with the people who live in that city. Maybe their discouragement of guardian moral reflection makes games the perfect medium to express this moment in time.

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