Massively Overthinking: On slavery mechanics in MMOs
Polygon recently had an interview with Conan Exiles creative director Joel Bylos focused on the game’s slavery mechanics, a “feature” I had entirely forgotten about, probably because the game calls such NPCs – whom you are encouraged to capture and enslave – “thralls.” Bylos likens thralls to the ‘bots of Westworld: They serve multiple purposes, from dancing for entertainment to manning base defenses as “intelligent turrets.” Essentially, he argues, they’re a mechanic that allows a single human player to build out and staff a mini empire.
I thought it would be interesting to explore the subject of slavery in Massively Overthinking now that Conan is back in the headlines (and getting good reviews). Should slavery exist in MMOs and other online games? Does it get a pass because it’s NPCs, or does it make you uncomfortable to see your player potentially cast as a heroic slaveholder?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): My general perspective is that slavery is wrong, but it did have a historical function: assigning value to human life. When your culture is one that simply kills their enemies, things like “minorities” and “assimilation” don’t occur. (If anyone is getting some Negan vibes from that, you should!) If a game is going to include slavery, it should play with that idea: that slavery isn’t just about generational bondage, but a way to put different peoples together when they might have otherwise eliminated each other, where now their cultures might affect each other.
Let’s ground this in gaming. During early access, when I mentioned Conan Exile’s slavery system at a geek meet-up filled with mostly women of color, heads (understandably) turned. On the one hand, every one of us acknowledged that slavery is a big part of Conan’s world (Conan himself was a slave). But we also noted that Conan also is given chances to earn his freedom, and especially with slavery as a game mechanic, it feels distasteful, especially since NPCs don’t get the same treatment as our protagonist. They’re American-style slaves. They’re in this for life, like Pokemon for bloodsport, except we can’t do anything to comfort them (Pokemon’s come a long way!). I think that’s what really feels problematic to me. Even if it’s just a title thing, like a max-level slave becoming a citizen, it’d do a lot of good.
With that out of the way, let me also say that I’m pro-player slavery, as long as it follows the same idea. I don’t mean slavery like we’ve seen in other games, or even capturing people and forcing them to eat drugs. I mean something like Asheron’s Call’s monarchy system combined with PlanetSide2’s Squad Leader skills and Battlefront 2’s Battle Points. Once you’re captured, you’d basically be a forced member of a guild. You wouldn’t lose any experience, just pass up a certain percentage to your captor. Your captor would assign level/skill appropriate tasks for you (maybe stand by them for a minute to defend a battleground point, or cook two loaves of bread), and that would earn you points to earn your freedom. Once your freedom was earned, they’d be unable to recapture you, but offer you a chance to join them as a full member. Not only would it be a social-based system, but one that people could use to target newbies to help them learn the game.
I’ve done something similar in the past, where we’d “capture” players and “force” them to do tasks, but it was fun. They got to see content they normally wouldn’t at their level and even got to be front and center for roleplay scenarios. And this was on a PvP server, so we had someone try to break out the slaves, another purchasing their freedom, and others actually wanting to be captured so they could experience it. While it does seem to make light of a very serious topic, I think it also highlights how inhumane real-world generational slavery really was. As we took slaves, it meant we didn’t kill people as much as other PvP guilds did, and we had to treat people nicely because, well, we basically invited them into our “home” (our guild) where they could potentially do real damage to our community. By being able to play with something, we can better understand it. Making it a simple label and carrying over as a system with no downsides seems to only reinforce the victor’s point of view, and worse (in gaming terms), it’s boring.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have never liked the Conan IP, I’ll fully admit it. But what Funcom does with that source material is entirely on Funcom, and I don’t think it’s handled this particular element well. There are certainly ways to include slavery in a setting to make that setting feel brutal and oppressive, so that’s not the issue. Star Wars does it rather famously. The Elder Scrolls franchise uses it too. Just because it exists, doesn’t mean it’s being promoted in some way, right? But an IP has to work hard to make sure it’s using a serious idea for a serious storytelling purpose rather than for titillation – or worse, for unthinking gamification. Funcom erred in using it as a player-usable mechanic, even for NPCs. Plenty of games have hirelings, NPCs who actually want to work for you. Thralls weren’t the only way to create those mini-empires, after all. Funcom had other options for both lore and design. It very deliberately chose this path.
Obviously, creating and interacting with pretend NPC slaves isn’t a mark on anyone’s real-life character. We’re not actually in Westworld dealing with Westworld levels of AI and morality. And I presume you can just tinker the feature away in your own custom server anyway. But it’s still interesting to think about the message a studio is deliberately sending and the playerbase it’s trying to attract with that message.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): One of the things that always gets me about Funcom’s use of the Conan license is that they seem to have a view of the IP that’s more regressive than the actual stories. It’s possible that some lifelong Conan fan will pop up in the comments to disagree with my imperfect memories, but one of the big underlying points of the stories was that Conan himself was an uncivilized barbarian who was nevertheless more civilized than his various enemies. “If this dude looks more heroic than you do, what does that say about your society?” Conan himself was enslaved on at least a few occasions, and if memory serves, he was never actually an owner of slaves. Slavery was seen as a bad thing in the context of the stories.
Slavery is bad. This shouldn’t be up for debate. The people with the slaves are the bad guys. It always baffles me when that is somehow missed. Slavery is addressed in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and shock of shocks, having slaves is a bad thing. One of the first actions that a Sith Warrior can undertake is to free someone given to you as a slave, and not doing so is a Dark Side action, because that is evil. There’s no, “Well, maybe it’s not the bad sort of slavery.” This is seriously one of the most fundamental lessons of human morality. Slavery is bad. Full stop, hit the lights.
Do I think there’s a problem with addressing it in games? Of course not. Games address lots of things that are pretty obviously bad, like all art. My issue with Conan Exiles isn’t that slavery is a part of the game’s mechanics; it’s that it’s completely divorced from any sort of morality or any alternative features, and it makes “owning slaves” a lazy game mechanic in which slavery is totally fine.
That’s where it gets gross. As the question outright states, it creates a scenario where you have heroic slave owners, three words that go together like peanut butter, toothpaste, and motor oil. Having slaves should be a moral event horizon, and if the game doesn’t reinforce that, it’s being lazy. Imagine, for a moment, if the game also let you hire on NPCs; you could have people choosing to work for you, or you could decide that you were going to enslave them in exchange for stiffer penalties if they ever got free. Heck, maybe it outright makes your employee satisfaction all around worse; once you own slaves, more people dislike you, and you reach a point where you have to either free your slaves or just have nothing but slaves to compensate.
It’s a mechanic I thought up in four seconds that may or may not be a bear to implement in the game, but it creates a situation where this is actually a choice and one that has moral repercussions either way. And that, to me, is a lot closer to actually addressing the issue rather than just saying “well, there are slaves in some Conan stories.” Missing the context is not a good look for anyone, and aggressively misunderstanding it is right down to being pretty vile.
Anyway, have some Key & Peele.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): My initial gut instinct says, “Ehhh, maybe give that topic a pass in your game.” It’s a loaded subject in some cultures, particularly in the U.S., and it’s not like you want to invite negative publicity to your game. But I think it’s a lot more complicated than that.
What’s really going on here is a question of terminology and environment. From the description of what Conan Exiles is doing, it’s pretty much functional as any game — particularly real-time strategy titles — that gives you command over computer-controlled units. If we call them peons or peasants or troops, it doesn’t change what they do and functionally are, just how we view them and perhaps use them. I don’t think a lot of players see themselves in the role of slave owners, and however cool Conan Exiles may make it seem, it could put the community in an uncomfortable position to either embrace it, ignore it, or reject it.
Personally I don’t think we should draw up taboo lines for entertainment because who gets to define what those are and where does that effort end? The creator can choose what to include, and the consumer can choose whether to partake or not.
But I sincerely believe that loaded issues should be handled seriously and appropriately. You can put slavery in a book, movie, or video game, but it shouldn’t be done frivolously or without careful design. It’s hard to say whether this is the case in Conan Exiles or not. It is, after all, a fictional barbaric world, and it makes sense that slavery, as with other unsavory practices, would be a part of that world.
Another consideration is that in video games, you’re asking the player to actively participate in this practice. That’s different, to me, than if I’m passively reading or viewing it. Does it make the player complicit in this fictional degrading act? Is it presenting a muddled and perhaps perverse message to younger players that are certainly part of Conan Exiles’ population?
One last question: Does the player have a choice to be a slaveholder or not? That’s important to me. If the player is at a severe disadvantage from not partaking in such a system or cannot proceed in the game, then I find myself balking at the design that imposes such an immoral action as a mandatory part of the gameplay. If there is a choice, then that could actually be an important part of character development and player agency.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I’m going to weigh in here because I am actually a big fan of Conan Exiles, and this particular aspect of the game does make me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d like to mention upfront that it’s not the fact that it’s in the game that makes me uncomfortable. It’s how that particular mechanic plays into the greater game.
I don’t think that it’s terrible to have slavery in a game geared for adults. It’s an unfortunate fact that slavery has played a huge and disgusting role in human history, and there is nothing in the Conan Exile’s game that says you are some kind of benevolent heroic figure. From a game mechanics and story standpoint, you are a murderer and a criminal. You were left in the desert to die. I think it’s safe to say up front that you are not a good guy. Slavery exists in the Conan universe. Conan himself was a slave at one point. So I think it’s all right for that to be in the game in all its brutality.
The creators of the game might be attempting to lessen the blow by calling the human unpaid servants thralls, but it actually makes it worse. Thralls by definition are mindless, obedient servants who do as the master says because their will has been broken. And in the case of Conan Exiles, these thralls have been broken on a device called the Wheel of Pain. (If you’ve seen the old Conan the Barbarian movie, it’s the device that Arnold Schwarzenegger pushes around and around near the beginning of the movie.)
However, my issue is that there is no other option. It’s built into the game mechanics that you have to capture enemies, tie them to the Wheel of Pain, and turn them into thralls for your house. The least of the issues is that you lose out on achievements if you don’t capture slaves and turn them into thralls. But most importantly, if you don’t capture slaves, then you miss out on crafting schematics, faster production, and increased leveling speed. The game has made it a mandatory part of your character’s journey, and that is what disgusts me the most.
The game is brutal, bloody, and barbaric, but for the most part, your character doesn’t have to participate in the most heinous of activities if you don’t want him or her to. But unfortunately, you have to capture thralls in order to really participate in the game. I would prefer to see an alternative, like perhaps giving players the ability to hire hands or design machines that give the same bonuses as thralls if the player wanted to take a more passive journey through the game.