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The Computer Game That Led to Enlightenment


After a fierce battle with an evil wizard and his skeleton minions, I found rest at an abbey. I had spent an excessive amount of time lost in the wilds of Britannia—a kingdom ruled by the benevolent monarch Lord British—trying to find the town of Yew, where I might be able to locate a relic known as the Rune of Justice. At the abbey, I visited the local healer, who patched me up, and the hope of completing my quest to excel in eight virtues—honesty, compassion, valor, justice, sacrifice, honor, spirituality, and humility—was restored. So, too, was my hope of “winning” the game by becoming the Avatar, an enlightened beacon for all of Britannia.

The healer, as well as the sorcerer and his legion of resurrected bones, were little more than four-color graphics, crudely animated against the simple playing screen of the computer game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is turning thirty-five this year. Compared with contemporary games, this two-dimensional adventure is an anachronism. From an aesthetic point of view, there is little to recommend it, save for the invigorating nostalgia that it induces in those old enough to remember the original. Nevertheless, the journey to fulfill my character’s spiritual destiny was starting to feel a little personal. Over video chat, the game’s developer, Richard Garriott, explained that this feeling was exactly what he wanted players to experience. “You yourself are the character—it is not an alter ego,” Garriott said. “It is your moral compass guiding their actions.”

Garriott’s first role-playing games were written when he was a teen-ager, in BASIC, on a teletype, which used paper tape spools, while connected to a mainframe computer. There were no graphics: asterisks were used for walls and letters for various monsters. Eventually, Garriott acquired an Apple II, one of the first home computers with color-graphic capabilities. In his bedroom, Garriott wrote a game called Akalabeth: World of Doom. His mother, an artist, helped him think about perspective and other visual elements. Garriott packed the computer disks for Akalabeth in a ziplock bag and sold them at a local computer store. They were discovered by a national game distributor, who offered to repackage the game and raise the price from twenty dollars to thirty-five dollars. In the summer before he left for college, Garriott—then nineteen—made a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, triple his father’s salary as a NASA astronaut.

Garriott was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons and a compulsive reader of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy; he wanted his next game to feel like a living world with its own mythos and history. To this end, he developed Ultima I and Ultima II, with user manuals written as if they were pieces of fiction, describing the world of Britannia and Lord British in intricate detail. Ultima II contained a delightful cloth map with the names of the kingdom’s cities spelled out in runes. A series of conflicts over money and management led Garriott to break with the national game distributor, so he and an older brother started a company called Origin Systems to publish Ultima III: Exodus. Ultima III was the crucible out of which Ultima IV would arise. By the mid-eighties, the phenomenon known as the Satanic Panic was reaching its peak, with many conservative and religious leaders viewing role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons as corrupting influences, turning young people toward witchcraft and violence. The mother of one Ultima player was so horrified by the image of a demon on the cover art for Ultima III—which Garriott told me is based on the devil Chernabog from the Walt Disney film “Fantasia”—that she sent a letter to Garriott, who was twenty-two, calling him “the Satanic perverter of America’s youth.”

It was the fan mail that set Garriott on a path toward reimagining what a computer role-playing game (C.R.P.G.) could do. In these letters, people described how they played the first three Ultimas, which were open-world games that did not require a linear path to complete, giving players the freedom to steal from shops or kill townsfolk. The letter writers explained, according to Garriott, that “the easiest way to gain power was not to play as a good guy.” He was despondent. “I inadvertently made games that drove the players to act dishonorably, as this was the path of least resistance.” What if, he wondered, there were a game in which your moral choices had consequences? He wanted the next installment of Ultima to reward honor and courage, and to penalize players for casual depravity. Garriott’s family and colleagues warned him that players might feel as if they were being punished for having admitted to enjoying robbing and murdering, but Garriott ignored them. “This was the art I was compelled to make,” he said.

Where would these moral ideas come from? Garriott studied Christian theology, Greek philosophy, and Arthurian codes of conduct, but none felt applicable enough for all people. He was attracted to Buddhist and Hindu thought, but these traditions didn’t seem to offer a framework for a game. The plan for Ultima IV coalesced for Garriott after repeatedly watching his favorite movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” Garriott had been ruminating on the essential ideals of truth, love, and courage and realized that the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, respectively, embodied these concepts. With these three ideals, Garriott created a schema of relational virtues through which a player would develop a hero.

Ultima IV begins with a small experiment in personal ethics. Your character enters a Renaissance fair where a fortune teller invites you into her covered wagon. There, using cards reminiscent of those from the tarot, she presents a series of questions. For example: You are told by your king to evict a poor serf from the land. Do you honorably uphold your duty to your liege, or do you show compassion by refusing the order, thereby suffering dishonor? When the fortune teller finishes the reading, a strange portal in a stone circle opens and you step through to Britannia. The game play in Ultima IV was similar to that of many of its competitors: visit cities and towns; talk with residents to find clues on various quests; buy and sell food, weapons, and armor; explore dungeons; solve puzzles; wield magic; and, of course, fight monsters. But, in Ultima IV, chasing and slaughtering a creature that is fleeing from battle would be considered cowardly. Giving your hard-won gold pieces to a starving beggar will help you along the path of compassion.

The mail for Ultima IV poured into the Origin Systems office. One woman wrote to Garriott that her daughter, who had begun shoplifting, played Ultima IV and mended her ways. Even more remarkable were the emotional letters from Christian gamers who claimed that trying to become the Avatar had helped them feel closer to God. One player wrote to say that Garriott taught him “almost everything I know about morality and ethics.” People felt deeply connected to a game in which winning was not just about the most kills but behavior. Garriott discovered that even though he couldn’t possibly program Ultima IV to respond to every action, people played as if the game could. “It didn’t matter if there was really a virtue test,” Garriott said. “It mattered if the player believed there was a test.”

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