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The Difference Between Battlefield Honour and Honourable Play
by Ryan Kenny

No matter how many hours the game designer spends making his game cheat-proof, there is always an honour system among players. You must trust the host/player not to give himself an advantage, you must trust players not to ‘hack’ the game, and all alliances you make depend at least a little bit on trust. If you plan on exchanging ships with another player, trust is a large factor.

Tim Wisseman advertises now that over 40,000 people have registered VGA Planets. If this is the case, our ‘honour system’ includes 40,000 members. This is akin to trying to administrate Akron, Ohio on an ‘honour system’. But at least in Akron most people speak the same language. VGAP players span several countries.

I believe this subject is important because I have been recently accused of breaching this honour system. What I did probably was outside the realm of many definitions of ‘honourable play’. Now I would like to share with you everything I learned from this experience.

First and foremost, I must separate the terms ‘battlefield honour’ and ‘honourable play’. Historically, battlefield honour referred to facing your opponent, and only attacking combatant targets. An honourable knight would not attack an opponent with his back turned, nor attack unarmed men, women, and children.

The industrial age changed honour completely. While non-combatants are still protected, deceit became a potent weapon. False transmissions were sent in World War II quite frequently. The U.S. intercepted a Japanese transmission with the travel plans of their fleet admiral; a flight of fighters intercepted his personal commuter plane and killed him. More recently, the United States infected all of Iraq’s computer networks with viruses 3 days before massive bombing runs, crippling their radar. Is this an honourable tactic?

Given the morphism of battlefield honour, I think back to an opponent who taunted me to ‘fight him by honourable means’ (he was the Lizards, not Fascists). This was the same person who used cloaking ships to attack defenceless freighters and then run away. I do not fault him for the tactic, but I wonder what he thought honourable combat included. More importantly, what constituted ‘dishonourable’ means?

In the context of VGA Planets, there is nothing you can do to violate rules of ‘battlefield honour’. In addition to the fact that this concept is culturally relative (and we are each warring cultures), there is no friendly code for ‘torture all captured crew members,’ or ‘poison the planet’s water supply’. As with most computer wargames, anything that is possible is acceptable.

There are many possible breaches of honour and trust in this game, but they all fall under the category of ‘honourable play’. This code of honour has nothing to do with battle, but with competition. And the definitions of honourable play are as morphic as battlefield honour. Most of us would agree that tampering with TRN files is cheating. I knew one player who would inform his opponent four turns in advance when he would attack - how many of you are that honourable?

Most of us lie somewhere in between. Some claim there is an unspoken agreement not to swap homeworlds in an invasion game. This makes perfect sense. But how is a newbie to know this? If it is so obviously wrong, then why do the game mechanics even allow it?

The answer is that no game is perfect, and there will always be loopholes in the scoring system or game mechanics. No matter how often these loopholes are plugged with more sophisticated programming, someone will find another loophole. Gamer’s are a very clever bunch. Is the guy who finds the loophole ‘dishonourable’ or just too smart for his own good (or both)?

Alliances are another category entirely. You will never find two gamer’s with exactly the same definition of ‘alliance’. Some people will terminate an alliance with an e-mail, while others think taking your ally’s Homeworld is a much clearer message. While we all get angry at another player from time to time, most people accept the ‘caveat emptor’ approach. Alliances are investments - high risk, high payoff.

What I did was give away my Cyborg HomeWorld to an ally. I took the precaution of polling alt.vga-planets first. I got some definite mixed opinions on whether or not I should do it. But my opponent was of a very definite opinion - he thought I had sunk lower than Brutus, Iago, and Benedict Arnold. He thought I had endangered my soul by violating the ‘unwritten rule’ about HomeWorld swapping. This was my first registered game of VGA Planets. I thought VGA Planets was ‘just a game’ until this guy harassed me with e-mail after e-mail about my crime of ignorance.

Rather than ruminate on the honour of that action (if only for the sake of my volcanic opponent, I admitted I was wrong - I probably was), I brainstormed how to avoid such situations in the future. I came up with a few simple questions for my host in future games. Although you think you are pretty easy-going and think players can do whatever they want, there is probably someone in your game that is pretty uptight. Do this for their sake.

Ask the host if he is planning on being the authority in any rules disputes. If everyone agrees to this up front, there will probably not be any problems. This may be difficult if the host is playing. I would recommend that the host moderate rules interpretations even if he is playing, but many are uneasy about this.

Also important is knowing the victory conditions in advance. Make sure everyone agrees with the victory conditions as stated. There is probably nothing worse for a game than an argument about victory conditions after turn 50.

No problems should arise if all of the players actually play for recreation and are having fun. Tournament play and player ranking can be fun, but can also push people to get greedy. If only for this reason, do not underestimate the importance of ‘honourable play’ agreements among the players in your game. If problems arise, they often occur too late to fix.

This article was submitted by the Editor of the, now defunct, E-Zine Planeteer Resurrection.
Other articles, fiction & humour from the Planeteer Resurrection have been submitted to the "UK Atheist & Science E-Zine"

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