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Every time I hear/read a designer talk about “abdicating authorship” to players, a little part of me dies inside.

So Lord of the Rings: Shadows of Angmar doesn’t allow gay or certain interspecies marriage. Brenda Brathwaite argues against this design choice:

“Players are still creating their own experience. In a video game, it’s about abdicating authorship and letting a player explore a world.”

What?! The decision to include gay dwarf marriage (dwarven gay marriage?) is just as much an authorial choice as the decision to not include it. How about we try to understand what authorship means in our medium before we abdicate it?

(Not to mention, don’t dwarven women have beards? Who the hell can tell if they’re not gay male dwarves?)

So let’s imagine a hypothetical MMO team that did decide to put gay marriage in their game. What if instead of the time they spent making sure they implemented gay dwarf marriage properly, they could have, alternately, implemented a hundred player skills and crafts and whatever other MMO conventions you like. Wow, that’s potentially a lot more player choice than just being able to choose to marry a gay dwarf. So would the team really have decreased player choice by not allowing gay marriage?

As designers are we controlling the second to second experience of the player? Of course not. Are we controlling the moment to moment choices they make? Sure (with varying definitions of “moment”). As designers we have to pluck from the amazingly infinite space of the human imagination one tiny little piece to present to players, that they can then roam around to their hearts content. Tiny. Even the biggest of big games, Spore, will leave a lot out of it’s game compared to what’s imaginable. Maybe they’ll even leave out gay marriage (or marriage at all).

Saying you’re going to abdicate authorship to the player doesn’t in fact change any of your responsibilities as a designer – you’re still making choices about what the player will experience in the game, only you’re doing it blind, because you’re not consciously aware of those choices (you could say you’ve consciously rejected the desire to be consciously aware of them). As we can see, anything you choose to leave out of the game has just as much impact as the things you put in. So if you’re not making your authorial decisions with any sort of conscious thought, are you really likely to say of value with your game?

And to be honest, it’s just sort of lame that Turbine’s design philosophy is what’s criticised – putting, admittedly their interpretation of, Tolkien’s intent over promoting a socio-political viewpoint. If you don’t like it, criticise the game (or the books, which also don’t include it, as the Turbine designer points out). I mean, regardless of my own opinion on the topic of gay marriage, Turbine has right to make the game they want to make. Do I support gay marriage? Sure. Would Tolkien spin in his grave if he knew that was a part of his world? Probably. Would I put it in a game of my own? Probably – barring actual historical context, like say a game set in the modern day US. But as authors should we not respect Turbine’s right to choose to make the game they want? And then criticise the result as we would any other medium? Does Stephen Spielberg get quoted in interviews saying Peter Jackson should have done this or that in his Lord of the Ring’s films? Not that I’m aware of, anyway.

5 Responses to Abdicate what?!

  • Klaude says:

    It’s the difference between a typewriter and a book. Some people want to make typewriters (Second Life) others want to make books (LotR: SoA). The latter are authors, the former are engineers. An author is not only entitled, but required to make exclusive decisions over content.

    But of a licensed multi-authored product, isn’t it fair to question reflexive decisions that may have no merit to them? In LotR one is required to have halflings, but surely one is not required to make them straight?

    Tolkien might not have considered homosexuality (although I’m sure he must have encountered it at Oxford), yet he was a thoughtful man: I think if one could have had that conversation with him, he will have admitted the possibility of a gay dwarf.

    Certainly the exclusion smacks of a moral, and not artistic (authorial), decision.


  • Patrick says:

    Whats most telling is that Christian team members who oppose gay marrige wanted it in the game for design reasons, and the lead, who supports gay marrige, didn’t want it for authorial reasons. That Second Life allows everything from Furry orgies to textual prostitution is an authorial choice of its engineering (bridging Klaude’s paradox here) and LOTRO’s omission is similarly an authorial decision. I think they could have made a better one though: allow marrige (as this is essential to the Tolkien universe) and punish gay marrige with the in-game laws, because thats how it’d be handled in Tolkien’s universe. No shit, thats what would have been most authorially astute design decision. I think that would have lead to a more meaningful experience (and PR) than a simple ommision.

  • borut says:

    The perspective of those conservative team members is fascinating. I mean, they wanted to make an authorial statement as well, but one that involved the objectivity of the simulation (as in, simulations are meant to be objective and therefore the game should allow as many possible permutations). Even though they don’t want to allow them in real life. I just want to ask those folks, wouldn’t that be encouraging LGBT players to want to get married in real life if they were able to do so in game? And then I wonder what their brains do with all that extra energy created by that cognitive dissonance. If only it could be harnessed, like solar power…

    Now, removing any marriage completely is sort of a cop out design-wise. Because it does break the stated goal/constraint of remaining true to Tolkien’s intent, while not solving any other goal/constraint.

    Actually having it in game and punishable would be the most interesting option – potentially even making an argument for gay marriage by pointing out the ridiculousness of the limitation. (Although I don’t know if that’s really how it would have gone down in Middle Earth though – maybe there really is no such thing as gay hobbits and dwarves. It is fantasy after all). :)

  • borut says:

    Klaude – that’s my point, any decision such as this one is an authorial decision. As the authors of that work, they are deciding what to prioritize in their creation of said work. The folks at Linden Labs are faced with very similar choices as Turbine, and they select differently based on their artistic priorities as authors (their artistic priority being the ability of their players to express themselves).

    So it’s not about making typewriters vs. books – in this case they’re really the same type of work, a virtual world (perhaps a non-fiction book and a fiction book would be a closer, but not exact example – a nonfiction author still has to decide what the interesting parts are on the topic to include in a book). Players may actually have the same number of choices available to them in each game – it’s just that the choices in LOTR are much more focused on Middle-earth canon, naturally, while the choices in second life are about being able to import create whatever crazy model, textures, etc. you want.

    It is made more complex by the nature of authorship in this case. Since Turbine is the author of this work, but they are trying to represent what they feel are the interests of the original author, how much leeway should they take, and how much leeway will their fanbase allow? Not to mention, also, authorship in science fiction and fantasy is often taken over a little by the fanbase via fan fiction and such.

    I don’t know if I’d call it a reflexive decision though, it’s sounds like the folks at Turbine have thought quite a bit about it. So if they’ve taken the time to think about it, why are we criticizing that creative process (ie them) instead of the answer we disagree with (ie the game)? The former gets really murky and pointless pretty fast, the latter is nice and concrete.

  • Klaude says:

    The feeling I get from Second Life is that it’s about enabling players to experience their own ideas, whereas LotR:SoA must reasonably be seen as enabling players to experience Tolkien’s ideas. I’m disappointed they dropped the feature; I doubt an argument can be carried showing marriage to be unimportant to Middle-Earth.

    Imagining they had retained it, how does one define marriage between a female dwarf and a male dwarf, both played by men? Gay, or not gay?