When I was reading the IndieGames.com blog this evening, as I often do, I read a review for a game that tickled my fancy. This is not an uncommon occurrence. However, this time I was prompted immediately reach for my wallet.
The Castle Doctrine is a deceptively simple game in which you play as a man trying to protect his family and property in a lawless world. Your task is to make your home as robber-proof as possible. When you’ve rigged your dwelling with all the lethal booby traps as you can afford, you offer up your masterwork to other players who attempt to circumvent your precautions and rob you blind. While you’re waiting, you are encouraged to do the same thing to the other players in the game.
My initial attempts at securing my house were pathetic. It took me forever to get anything remotely resembling a passing understanding of the game mechanics. There’s a lot of strategy involved, combined with a fair amount of mechanical logic (properly wiring electricity, etc.). These are not my strongest areas. This put me at a pretty clear disadvantage and I lost my money almost immediately. Gradually, I got better. But not much.
But on to what interests me the most about this game now that I’ve spent a couple of hours playing it. In the game, you have a wife and two children to protect. It’s your job to design a house they can escape from when it’s invaded, as well as one that protects valuables. My house always failed at the latter, which made me a very easy target. I never did much to hide the family, as the burglars typically just walked in and went straight to my safe.
But then this guy comes in. He has equipped his character with a saw, which he uses to effortlessly break through the cheap wooden walls forming the little labyrinth I’ve built around my vault. The coast is clear for him to take me for all that I’ve got. What does he do? He steps away from the safe and clubs my wife to death. Upon returning to my house, I find the poor woman dead and my walls destroyed. To make matters worse, every break-in is captured on video for you to watch once you return home. So not only to you find your family slaughtered and property stolen, you get to watch the blow-by-blow as captured by your home security camera.
I was more affected by this than you might think. There was the initial letdown of having spent so much time on defenses that were so easily defeated, but the arbitrary killing of my virtual wife resonated with me. See, it wasn’t a computer who killed her. It was another player. The Castle Doctrine is a massively multiplayer online game; there is no simulated opponent. Every home you invade was built by someone, and, likewise, every home invader is another real person.
I’m not sure if this is a game or a sociological experiment. The obvious way to win (if winning is surviving) would be for all players to agree to simply not play. That, of course, would quickly make it a very boring game. As such, there is the illusion that you should do harm to others, because that is the point of gameplay. It’s like what you do when a city loses power. Like what you do when you find a wallet on the street.
What is most impressive about this game is that it very quickly turns otherwise ordinary people into killers and thieves. Just like Stanley Milgram’s infamous electroshock experiments, this game makes you break your own code of ethics and bring harm to other real human beings just because you think you’re supposed to.
And that’s a pretty impressive thing for a game to do.