Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Transgression: Thou Shalt Not Steal

January 25, 2010

The rain it raineth on the just and on the unjust fella. But chiefly on the just, because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella. --Lord Bowen

It was fifteen or so years ago, and my roommates, Ginger and Jason, and I were talking about role playing games.  We’d recently discussed the recent announcement that someone was making a graphical MUD based on the Ultima licesne and I confessed to never having played Ultima.  “They’re all great,” Ginger told me. “Except for 4.  Don’t play that one.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was doubtful I’d play it. I had some Martian one that had good cache amongst my friends, and it had come with Ultima 7.

Jason laughed, and took a drag on his ever-present cigarette.  “It’s the quest for the Avatar,” he said. “You have to be moral.”

Ginger nodded, “If you steal anything you lose.  And there’s all that stuff to pick up, everywhere. Don’t put it there if I can’t pick it up!”

‘“It’s there to make sure there’s a choice,” Jason said, contradicting her. He was her fiance so he could do that.

We were still a few years out before we had Thief to play, but were already thinking about morality in games, and about stealing.  On the one hand, we have the idea that everything in chests is there for us to take, as the player. After all, we’re the most important person (or group) in the whole world. Everything in it exists for us, so if we can take it, it is ours.  In one sense, it was always ours, as it wouldn’t have existed without us.

Some of the chests in Dragon Age: Origins still feel that way. I mean, here you are in this refugee-laden city, people don’t have what they need: food, water, money. But it’s right here, in these chests.  The ones no one opened until you got there.  The game fiction makes no sense unless you assume it’s there for you to take.  That sort of thing doesn’t really feel like stealing. I mean, it’s a chest, and your a PC, you evolved together in righteous selection.

Some games, though, exert non-player ownership over some items. Oblivion changes your cursor to red, when you hover over a chest that belongs to someone else.  You know right away when you’re stealing.  You can even see what you stole when you look at it in your inventory.  Right next to the cabbage you picked out of someone’s garden (not stolen!) is the one with the red hand on it, the one you got out of the chest in the armor store.  A regular merchant will buy one lettuce and not the other, since even they can tell a stolen lettuce from one that wasn’t. And the guards will confiscate it if they catch you.

Detailed like that it approaches silliness — and pushing anything to it’s edges can be like that.  But here we begin to see what enforces the liminal space — it’s the approbation within the game itself that defines the act as stealing.  In a lot of ways it is more fun to steal from a chest than just to loot it.  It’s more fun to wander about knowing you can get caught.  There are several ways to launder your stolen items: use them (lettuces can be used to make potions) or, sell them to a fence, and buy it back.  It’s an extra step, but if you get caught breaking the law then the items are forfeit.  The more items you have the bigger the risk.

And thus stealing implies some sort of stealth gameplay.  You need to sneak during your stealing, you need to be at risk of being caught.  Otherwise you’re just in a random dungeon picking up loot — only it’s someone’s house.  Getting caught in a game means possibly getting killed, which is why the titular character from the Thief games is such a bad fighter.  The punishment for getting caught is a harder problem of fighting a battle — one you’re probably going to lose.

The risk, of course, is good, as it sets you outside the boundaries in the game world — letting it stand in for our society.  Your character, the thief, then steps into his own circle, where he is competent and an outsider.  There are still rules which bound his existence — in Thief the harder levels of difficulty won’t allow you to kill someone, establishing Garret as a thief, and not an assassin.  And here you are, as the player, two levels in, and hugging shadow, pulled into the liminal space where you can steal with impunity, and not feel the guilt — nor do harm to your fellow man or risk jail or censure for doing so.

I think there’s an interesting question of why we would want to do that sort of thing — it’s obvious to me that many people do want it.  What need, I wonder, does it fulfill in us to steal from others, or commit the other sins I’ll be discussing this week? I feel there is an answer, even if I’m not sure of it now. Perhaps you can help me decipher it.

Please feel free to comment here on your ideas (or write your own blog posts, and link to these.)  If thievery doesn’t get to you, though, I can with near certainty promise that you’ve committed tomorrow’s sin in a game.