Roleplaying and The Righteous Mind

For those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that besides gaming, the topic of this blog, I’m a political animal. That is of course, why The MESSAGE is coming into existence. But the feedback can, of course, go the other way. What we learn in politics – in anything – is always good fodder for games. GMs and game designers alike should never forget that the whole world is our source book, and everything is a potential mechanic.

In 2008, psychologist Jonathan Haidt did a series of studies to try and identify the moral framework of the human mind. That is, to identify ingrained ethical principles we acquire either genetically at birth or are imprinted with in our very early childhood, and are found universally across all cultures and societies. He reports on these in his book, The Righteous Mind, and summarizes his conclusions in this TED talk. Haidt’s focus is on the growing differences – the seemingly intractable gulf between the left/liberal and right/conservative voices in America, and how these might arise and be analysed from the basis of our universal moral framework.

His research identified five key principles of morality we acquire at a genetic level.  These are:

  • Fairness. A very familiar one. Every child knows when someone gets more than them, and also that the duck at the back hasn’t had any bread crumbs yet.
  • Care. Those who are weaker and smaller need to be cared for and defended by those who are stronger.
  • Purity. There are things which are pure and things which are impure, there are things which are fundamentally right and wrong, and the wrong has a taint to it that is powerful and dangerous.
  • Authority. There are powers or principalities or investitures which deserve respect because they have widsom and keep us safe.
  • Loyalty. The tribe is important, and we should cleave towards it.

What’s important about the list is that although we all have our sense of these moral lines, we value each of them differently, and we use each of them differently. Specifically, Haidt found that those who identify as strongly Liberal, put a lot of value on Fairness and Care, and very little value on Purity and Authority. Whereas those who identify as Conservative do the opposite, and this explains the great gulf mentioned: liberal arguments typically focus on asking conservatives to value things they do not, and to ignore things they value greatly. The liberal knows only that the man was starving (fairness, care), the conservative only that he stole the loaf of bread (authority, purity), and never the twain shall meet.

So what does it all have to do with gaming? I’m sure you’re well ahead of me on this one: this is absolutely perfect for a morality system in an RPG (or even a simulation board game). You can pretty easily see some parallels already in the D&D moral poles – Law and Chaos being Authority/Loyalty, and Good and Evil being Care and Purity. There’s also something like Exalted’s Four Solar Virtues – Compassion (Care), Temperance (Purity), Conviction (Loyalty/Authority), Valor (bit of a mix).  The poles I used in my old Firefly RPG were similar too – I had Self vs Others and Code  vs Chaos, but also some social dividers because of the nature of the setting – I had Core and Border as well.

The point is not so much to use the original five, although you certainly can, but by seeing those five and the moral rules of your RPG of choice (or of design), get a sense of how the world’s morality curve differs from our own. It is not uncommon for example, in D&D, to use a very medieval principle where, as I said, Care and Purity are strongly linked, philosophically,  symbolically and temporally. That tells you a lot about how the world is perceived, and when these moral views have absolutely real magical correspondences, how the world actually works.  The question then is, what would a world look like if that wasn’t true? If Purity was associated with a negation of Care? Or if Goodness (Fairness and Care, say) were strongly associated with a lack of Purity, or a lack of Authority? Indeed, D&Ds monks arise from linking Purity (of Body as it were) with a lack of interest in Care (Monks cannot be Good or Evil).

It doesn’t just stop at religious philosophy of course. You can flick these switches to design entire cultures, races and alien creatures. There are, it is believed, strong evolutionary reasons for us to have the Big Five encoded so deeply. As social creatures, we need Fairness to maintain our numbers. Care keeps us alive in a different way to herd animals, who are usually better at leaving the weak to die, because as  tool users, we know strength is not the only virtue. Purity tells us not to eat the yellow snow or the smelly corpse, and Authority tells us that the elders know what they mean when they teach us those things. And Loyalty is vital for a species who can maintain social groups of enormous size that transcend any family or biological links.

But change those conditions and you change the moral landscape. If a species gave birth like turtles, for example – leaving their young alone to hatch and reach the sea on purely their own strength – they would probably have no use at all for Authority. Or would see all Authority coming only from the self, and centred around survival. They might despise Fairness and have no notion of Care, but have a great sense of Loyalty to those who shared their struggle and lived. On the other hand, in a herd species, there could be Loyalty above all, even without a sense of Authority (something we have little experience with – as humans we are more used to following individuals, although we certainly know mob mentality). Voracious species that need to eat everything and must risk constant experimentation to find edible food might have no concept of purity. So they won’t be freaked out by your gay elf, because amongst the locustmen, everything is permitted – except, of course, going against Fairness. The swarm eats as one or dies as one. But the delicate butterflykin whose fragile biology can be killed by so many things, have a complex series of rituals and rites they will follow unto death…but care nothing for Fairness or Care. Each Pappilorn performs the rites correctly, or he dies and is not wept for.

Five dials, two or three positions each (value, despise, don’t care) is potentially 243 different societies or races to create, explore and compare. Go and move some sliders around, and see what happens. And never forget: the world is your sourcebook. Use it.


2 thoughts on “Roleplaying and The Righteous Mind

  1. “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” – E. M. Forster

    For extra credit, of course it is worth pointing out that these things aren’t just On or Off. Particularly when it comes to Purity, but also Authority and Loyalty. One things we humans do is draw clear lines about what kind of purities, authorities and loyalties we respect, and which ones we ignore (and often seek to destroy as a result). For example, there are some who are extremely in favour of things like public nudity and pornography, but are opposed to something like gay marriage, and that’s partly because they venerate the total Authority of a free press and free expression (which is also a sense of Fairness) but also because their particular sense of Purity is tripped by one thing but not another. Likewise, I’ve met some advocates for gay rights who are extremely prudish about any kind of nudity or pornography. Many gays and lesbians also react negatively towards bisexuality and transgender orientations, because that kind of mixing seems ImPure (and a rejection of tribal Loyalty). Purity is a big deal and very instinctual but also very personal and arbitrary; it is one area where you can have a lot of fun playing around with to create very different cultural associations and comfort spaces. For example, when I developed Halflings for Warhammer I decided they had no taboos about personal space or ownership: in Halfling society, houses very often have one bedroom with one bed, and everyone piles in together, and everyone uses everyone else’s stuff. Among humans, however, this gets them labelled as sexual deviants and thieves, because we have a strong sense of Purity about sleep arrangements and a strong sense of Authority – and even Purity – about possessions (don’t share coffee cups, you’ll get germs!).

    And as for Loyalty, many thousands of stories have been written about how we choose which Loyalty to cleave to – god or state, self or others, law or honour, family or truth, etc etc etc. But those are very human stories, because we’re so goddamn tribal. An extremely individualist species, like the Pappilorn, might not even comprehend such tales, and provide an interesting foil to such human experiences. And so on and so forth.

  2. Pingback: Five Things Gamers Can Learn From Overwatch | D-Constructions

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