While Massively has not been my MMO news outlet of choice for a while, today it has posed an interesting question. Do narcotics belong in MMOs? The article in question compares the inclusion or exclusion of narcotics to violence, gore, sex and thievery, but I think there is a more interesting question at the heart of this issue.
If not narcotics
As someone with a bit of a bent for so-called ‘Social Justice blogging’, I regularly call out things that I feel are problematic. This might be detailed analysis of the way a company handles being called out over a particular turn of phrase (a’la Blizzard and Geek Chic Cosmetics), or it might be a more textual analysis of gender roles within a game. So for me the parallel in this phrase comes from those sources. Whenever players like me cry out about the heteronormativity of things like the Goblin Starter Quest, or even when companies like Bioware start introducing Gay and Lesbian romance options; there is invariably someone ready to say ‘why do I have to deal with these real world issues in my game, I just want to have fun’.
I may have paraphrased with that, but essentially it’s another version of the ‘It’s fine as long as it’s not in my face.’ The SF&F world has long prided itself on being more progressive and open-minded than the mainstream. While shows like Star Trek look dated and sexist these days, back in the day they were somewhat revolutionary. Yet the all pervasiveness of the erasure fantasy is going strong. Not only drugs are supposedly erased from the MMO market, but so are addicts and the associated social problems. Representation of poverty is sanitised, made clean.
The Massively article makes mention of Spice in Star Wars Galaxies, and pipeweed in LOTRO. As I understand it, Eve: Online has an actual drugs trade as part of it massive economy, although I am not familiar with the in game mechanics (is it just a commodity, or can you actually take the drug?) In World of Warcraft players are able to buy alcohol, and will experience short lived ‘drunk effects’ – drunkenness is often played for a laugh in game. Blood Elves are known for their addiction to magic, and addiction to magic is a fairly common trope in the SFF world.
I’ll venture to say that ‘temporary drunk effects’ are probably the most a player will see of withdrawal symptoms, or what the presence of drug addiction can do to a person and their community. While there are great SFF books based around drug addicted protagonists (hello Sherlock), I’m not really certain how that could translate into a playable, fun game for users. I’ve talked about immersion and absorption as goals for world building before, is this one of those cases where things get too real?
However, that, for me, segues back into the discussion of NPCs with disabilities generally not being in games. You might hear of a character in a wheelchair (Oracle springs to mind) but for the most part physical disability is erased from the fantasy/sf world, except in cases where physical deformity is used as a manifestation of mental weakness (i.e. drug-induced madness.)
Presentation of poverty
I haven’t been able to do a lot of research for this post, so please excuse the brevity of the references. In Warcraft the only addicts we actually see represented are the Wretched. In many ways they are remarkably similar to the Broken, who are pretty classic post-apocalyse-survivor types. Their bodies are physical manifestations of their addiction, in the same way that we might associate looking pale, thin and sickly with drug addiction. One crucial point here is that the addiction is accompanied by madness. Representations of mental illness in SFF are generally beyond the pale, so I’m not going to focus on that in this post, but the characterisation of these addicts as being beyond help and something to eradicate is important to note. Sympathy for addicts and recovering addicts is often in short supply in the real world, so it’s not surprising that beings who succumb to their addiction are shunned almost without thought in fantasy. Blood Elf players are shown this attitude to addiction in their starting area.
In many ways this approach is also rife with classism, as it is in the real world. A rich addict can get support and help – in effect they can afford their addiction. A poor person, already marginalised by the education system, jobs, and other factors becomes an outcast even amongst their peers. In a world of limited resources, the only way to cope with someone in this position is to de-humanise them. In Blood Elf society, we know that Blood Thistle Addicts are looked down on as well, so this disdain for what is seen as weak behaviour is inherent even in an entire race of elves that continues to struggle on a racial level with issues of addiction.
Yes, I know I’m muttering about de-humanising an elf.
In contrast the consumption of alcohol is often played for laughs, or even celebrated because it is much more socially acceptable and not viewed in the same class as narcotics. This is probably due to the ability of millions to partake in moderation, where ‘moderate’ use of any kind of narcotic is pretty much invisible due to it’s illegal nature. Thus when poverty is presented in a game like Warcraft, which is very cartoony, it is often in the form of refugees and bandits (see the current version of Westfall in particular.)
One of the things that struck me about Star Wars: The Old Republic was it’s willingness to show the down side of life – a product both of Bioware being more aware of social issues and one of the original protagonists of the Star Wars movies being a smuggler. It’s hard to be all neutral and all about the contraband if the contraband and it’s consumers aren’t actually in the universe. I’ve not played SW:TOR for a few months so I cannot easily research exactly how this is presented, but I do seem to recall that drugs and smuggling were definitely something associated with the ‘underdog’ aliens that suffered other economic and social opressions.
Plus, you know, the dark side often seems very much about addiction to power when you first take a look at it. And a second look. And possibly a third look. The fate of Darth Vader is very much tied up in what addiction can do to a person, although poverty certainly doesn’t impact on his life.
Lore and world appropriate
The original Massively article makes a point about game makers sanitising narcotics for the sake of censors and other such things, which in some ways simply baits the reader for a response of ‘well they let all those violent naked chicks through, why does a little drugs hurt’? And in many ways I agree with them. It certainly isn’t appropriate to touch on heroin use in Hello Kitty Online, but seeing as addiction is actually referred to in many more adult MMOs perhaps it is time for developers to think a bit more about how drugs and alcohol are handled in game. A society’s attitudes to alcohol and narcotics is a large part of world building, as it will touch on everything from social traditions and ceremonies, to social entertainment. Attitudes towards substance abuse inform class-stratification, and add depth to the world you’re trying to create.
This is one of the reasons I’m hemming and hawwing about getting an a copy of The Secret World. As an ‘alternate universe’ game set in the real world, it’s approach to sexuality, gender, race, class and disability may well be thrown more into the spotlight than in a game like EvE: Online where you almost may as well not have a humanoid avatar at all. (I have taken to imagining all EvE players to be like the Pilot from Farscape.)