A Scholarly Paper on Lord British’s Ethics

Andrew Black has written — in The Computer Games Journal, “a worldwide, peer-reviewed publication providing knowledgeable, well-written articles from academics and practitioners that are relevant to the games industry” — a scholarly analysis of the Eight Virtues of Ultima. The full piece is titled Lord British’s Ethics—Interrogating Virtue in the Ultima: Age of Enlightenment Series, and the abstract explains it thusly:

The Ultima: Age of Enlightenment series is a rich entry into the fantasy genre. In addition to serving as an innovative model for early computer role-playing games (CRPGs), the series practically invents a genre of what can be called “ethical gaming,” as it insists on a commitment to virtuous activity in order to complete and master the games. Compared to more linear hack-and-slash or CRPG of the period, the Ultima series not only offers an unusually involved and difficult experience, but also makes explicit and even mandatory ethical and moral dimensions that many saw earlier role-playing games as lacking. However, rather than merely encourage the player to conform to the moral expectations of the game by following procedural rules, the series brings into question the political and spiritual affiliations of virtue. This paper attends to the development of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy—Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin, 1985), Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin, 1988), and Ultima VI: The False Prophet (Origin, 1990)—as a series of games that both encourage ethical behavior and later offer a critical examination of the ethical basis that the earliest entry in the trilogy advocates. At the heart of the Age of Enlightenment series is a distinction between absolutist ethics and virtue ethics. In the vein of its most eloquent advocate Immanuel Kant, absolutist theories of ethics begin with principles, duties, and rules that are fundamental and transcendent, and which the moral actor must follow. It is a normative and regulatory system, and exists prior to experience. Virtue ethics challenge the emphasis on duties and rules, instead stressing the importance on motive and character. In this paradigm, “sensitivity, experience, and judgment would seem to make general theories unnecessary and unhelpful” (Slote, in: Skorupski (ed) The Routledge companion to ethics, Routledge, London, 2010, p. 479). Or, as Welchman (The practice of virtue: classic and contemporary readings in virtue ethics, Hackett, Indianapolis, 2006) succinctly phrases it, for virtue ethicists, “the question of how to act is more important than what we should act for” (p. ix) She adds, in a phrase cannily suggestive for those who have played Ultima, “moral judgment is not essentially the application of a moral ‘technical manual’ to life” (p. xvi). In the intriguing narrative developments over the course of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy, that “moral technical manual” can be invented and exploited by those who rely on its ability to maintain an unchallenged hierarchy that depends on the principles it contains. And when those rules are applied unilaterally or cross-culturally, they are revealed to be inflexible and even inapplicable, a realization embodied in the narrative and rhetorical transitions I will show occurring between Ultima IV to Ultima VI. More than just a highminded game, I argue that Ultima makes an argument about virtue through what Bogost (Persuasive games: the expressive power of videogames, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2010) calls its procedural rhetoric. To play the Age of Enlightenment series is to grapple with the question of whether morality has relative or transcendent foundations, and the game introduces compelling arguments only to later challenge them.

Unfortunately, the full paper — which evidently comprises 20 pages — will cost you $39.95 USD to gain access to; that’s the price charged for a PDF download via SpringerLink.