Tuesday, January 13, 2009


OK, this is going to start with semi-technical gaming stuff, but I promise I'll actually get to a spiritual point for the non-gamers out there if you'll just hang with me. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Mom & Liz.)

It's no surprise to anyone that I'm a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Tom Lehmann that takes the role selection mechanic (you get to choose a particular special action each turn that you & all the other players get to do) and uses it to create a fast-moving game of interstellar exploration & development that plays well with 2-5 players... and even has a very nifty solitaire variant. Between face-to-face & solitaire games, I've played it over 100 times.

So I was pretty excited when I read a thread title on Boardgamegeek yesterday announcing an online version of the game. Well, that excitement quickly faded when I asked whether or not the developers of the online version had permission from the designer (Tom Lehmann) or the publisher (Rio Grande Games).

Like I said, this is going to get technical for a minute. The law that governs the copying of games is, shall we say, "in flux." (Or, for the gamers in the audience, "in Fluxx." Thank you, good night - I'll be here all this week. Don't forget to tip your waitress!) The graphics of the game board, cards, and pieces are protected by copyright, as is the specific wording of the game's rules... but the mechanics are not. (Mechanics, in board game terms, are the ways that the game works - in Monopoly, the mechanics include rolling the dice & moving, purchasing or auctioning properties, collecting rents, improving properties, mortgaging, negotiating deals.)

So, if I choose to make a new version of, say, Uno (why, why, WHY would I do this?!), I might get away with it if I changed the card colors & design, called it "First & Goal" (which is what my unsuspecting players would be forced to yell when they got down to one card) and rewrote the rules. OTOH, if I kept their card design, called it "One" and essentially copied their rules, I'd be subject to some pretty swift legal attention.

So, the guys getting ready to unleash their homebrewed version of Race for the Galaxy online feel like since they're using new artwork (or at least trying to find new artwork) that they fall under the "fair use" doctrine of the copyright law.

Legally, they may be right. (Like I said earlier, there's a lot of grey areas in copyright law... and the advent of the Internet and the easy publication of almost anything has made for a lot more grey.) But is it morally or ethically right?

In this specific situation, the designer has asked the individuals not to continue (which they have refused to do) and is, along with the publisher, attempting to negotiate to license the game officially to someone else. Seems pretty clear-cut to me: these guys are taking Tom's work and benefiting from it without him.

But the specifics aren't really the issue here... the question that has intrigued me is the differentiation between
  • what is legal?
  • what is ethical?
  • what is moral?

I'm in real danger of oversimplification here as I begin this discussion - actually, there's no question I'll be doing just that. Bear with me.

Legal refers to what is lawful - do the written rules of the society permit or prohibit a particular action? Ethical refers to what is right - how should an individual or group conduct themselves as a responsible member of a society? Moral refers to what is good - what is the best behavior in light of truth & the reality of evil?

I don't want to go rabbit-chasing, but you need to know that the previous paragraph would make some academic types crazier than Carrot Top on a bad hair day. Not everyone agrees that there is any qualitative difference between morality & ethics... and don't even get started about the theories about where moral/ethical norms come from. Anyway, just wanted you to know that the preceding is my personal attempt to define the three terms.

OK, an example, courtesy of a poster on blurtit.com - until 1863, slavery was legal in the United States. It was the law of the land that one man could own another man... but that did not make it ethical (right) or moral (good).

Another example, this time from the Old Testament - when Shadrach, Meschach & Abednego are "prompted" to worship the huge idol or face being burned alive, they had the choice to do what was morally good (honoring God) and ethically right (being true to what they believed)... or they could simply do the legal thing and grovel on their knees.

Yes, I realize that pirating a game with an online version & the slave trade are not the same thing - not even close. (It's also not the same as worshipping a 70 ft. idol - I figured most of you would understand that.) But it is a clear example of the principle I'm trying to get across - just because something is legally permissible doesn't make it ethically right or morally good.

"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NIV)

So, what does all this mean for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus? Again, this is just me typing here, but I think the Biblical standards are:

  • "the good of others" (see the verse above)
  • the honor of God
  • just because I can do something doesn't mean I should do something

When we're faced with difficult decisions, our tendency is to rely on the letter of the law, whether that is a particular interpretation of the Bible or the Federal case law. As believers in Christ, that simply isn't enough - we must let go of the permissible and instead grab on with both hands to what is right & true, what is pure & good.

Our work as God's servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we're beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we're telling the truth, and when God's showing his power; when we're doing our best setting things right; when we're praised, and when we're blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all. (2 Corinthians 6:4-10, MSG)

1 comment:

ironcates said...

Excellent post Mark and I wholeheartedly agree.

I have a question about more of a line issue.

Let's say I have a collectible game that I've invested over 100 dollars in and I want to tweak it to play the full game for personal use. All the stats are published by the company and I want to use a proxies to fill in for the remainder of the units. I don't really know if the company approves of using proxies personal use (I know they don't in tournaments). To get the complete game, 5 of every unit, would require thousands of dollars. Is it moral to support the game as much as possible but draw the line somewhere to limit my investment?

It seems to me that a corralary with D&D can be drawn. You buy the rules and proxy your characters with a figure.