Anachronisms, Part II: Good Government
by Michael Karlin
"Freedom of conscience entails more dangers than authority and despotism." Michel Foucault, philosopher.
There was a time when being a king or queen, or Pharaoh for that matter, really meant something. You could have had someone beheaded at your whim, or raise taxes one morning and lower them the next. Times have changed somewhat, and now things are a little different.
The world that a game designer creates is placed within the psychological limitations of his or her players; that is, people can rarely separate themselves from their socio-political environment. Most, if not all of us, have been born and raised in a society that is defined, in formal terms, as liberal democratic. This would include some form of representative democracy, preservation of the rule of law, and certain political freedoms that are permitted to be exercised within the context of a constitution. It is difficult for players to truly grasp what life is like in a different system, one where political freedoms are nil, a rigid social hierarchy exists and the government is ruled, quite inflexibly, by an autocrat. It doesn't matter if said autocrat is the product of a military junta, or is a hereditary monarch from a long line of rulers. We find ourselves taking for granted the system that we enjoy. And it is the success of liberal democracy as a form of government that renders all others less desirable, in our perspective. However, most RPG environments don't take place in a world ruled by representative democracy. Most have lords or dictators, generals or in my case, a Pharaoh. If creating a game world that has a government at all, it is important to know a bit about the one you finally decide upon.
The Rules of the Game (World)
The first rule when selecting your government-of-choice is that players' ethics (not characters' per se) will interfere to some extent with what you are trying to accomplish if it is anything different from what they know. Players can't often help this, as they are simply used to living in the liberal democratic political space. There is only a certain degree to which you can enforce your government structure without being despotic yourself, thereby deterring players. You cannot fight political socialisation, or the process of society constructing your value system, within the context of a computer game. Therefore, what you do is try and resocialise the player through the character. WHAT?! I'll explain, stop fretting. You can socialise the characters by establishing a value system in your NPCs. If your NPCs lie down in the midst of Pharaoh, PCs will follow along as they learn the rules of the world. Once they are accustomed to this, they can enforce these values when other PCs come along. Your non-player characters are your instruments of enforcing your desired political landscape. Use them wisely!
The second rule is that if you are planning to create a complex government, you should include it within the greater plot or theme of the game rather than having it for convenience's sake. Castle Marrach adopts a complex social structure based on intrinsic and positional hierarchy, and enforces that system. Any deviance from it and you can land up in prison. However, this is not there for decoration; it is a fundamental device of the game world. Government is a powerful concept, and often relates to the vision of society that you are creating. However, it would make little sense to have a complex bureaucracy in a game concept like Og, which took place during the pre-historical period.
The third rule, and I stress this, is to scale the size of your government to the size of your population. A massive government for a relatively small population will mean that jobs that should be coveted are rendered meaningless. I suggest introducing positions of government as you introduce various character development opportunities. As well, positions of administration in an online RPG tend to become a little mundane, so ensure that your e-bureaucrats are well rewarded. In Glory of the Nile, this reward will be luxuries and social reward, whereas in Marrach it is the currency of favour.
The fourth rule is not never make your government so despotic as to severely limit opportunities for character development. Yes, this can create interesting environments, but at the expense of a large and profitable player base. If your game does take place in a tyrannical, totalitarian regime such as communist Romania, ensure that you provide ample development support to your dissidents. In short, for every increase in oppression there should be a consequential increase in the effectiveness of the counter-culture movement.
The Socialised Masses
I'm going to come back to the liberal players/autocratic gaming world issue. Socialised people will be the ones playing your games, but this does not mean that you should bend your desired system of government to include the ideals found within liberalism. I do suggest showing patience to newer players as it will take some time to acclimatise them to a new social atmosphere. Glory of the Nile will take place in a theocracy, or a government wherein the leader is viewed as a religious leader as well as a political one. This extends farther than in the "divine right of kings" ethic where monarchs are sanctioned by God to rule, but that the leaders themselves are, supposedly, gods or supernatural beings themselves. Theoretically speaking, GN should be like living in a system so religious and oppressive as to make the Taliban cringe. But pursuant to my Balance between authenticity and playability, and the fact that this would probably not appeal to many players, it isn't going to be. Yes, Pharaoh is an aspect of the god Horus, but your character won't be forced to pray three times daily at a temple of their patron god or goddess. You can pray if you want to, a concept existent in liberalism (freedom of religion), but not theocracy. Players introducing liberal ideals ("I have the right not to be whipped in a public square!") are introducing anachronistic values. Regularly remind your player base that such does not conform to the time period of the game. If every game followed liberal ideals, they wouldn't be very interesting. You can do this explicitly via public boards and official statements, or implicitly by imbuing your NPCs with your desired value system.
This does not mean that if your character challenges the system openly, they should not receive oppression. There are limits that are more strenuous than liberalism. If you were to outwardly challenge the democratic process in lieu of another system in most Western countries, you would be oppressed as well. In certain time periods, such as revolutionary France, this challenge would be more interesting. In ancient Egypt it is rather moot, as absolutism was the only known style of governance.
Make sure that first and foremost, your government is conducting its business in a smooth and effective manner, and make it an attractive and rewarding opportunity base. Once you have a political system in mind, it becomes a matter of conformity. On one hand, your players will have learn to shed some of their liberal ideals if they have to, but at the same time the game designer must understand that their concept of governance will only go as far as players are willing to take it. If PCs cannot function in your environment, it is time to go back to the drawing board.