On Honor In Warfare

(Reposted from The Planets Magazine; revised)

This short treatise was inspired by a public thread in an online game, Planets.Nu, and many of the terms are specific to that game. Nevertheless, the concepts are common ones, and I don’t think the game terms will be any bar to your understanding.


In the original thread, two Emperors, at least one likely prospective Emperor, and several current and former championship contestants participated in a lively discussion on the subject, but in the end I felt that as many questions were raised as were answered. Here, then, I have attempted to organize many of the thoughts expressed there and to set them down in an ordered fashion. I am not the ultimate arbiter of ethics, but it seems apparent that the lack of a common written code on the subject demands an effort be made.


We often see accusations in the Forums. They’re usually about how this person cheated, how that one behaved dishonorably, how those two connived against a third, how this one broke an agreement and that one kept to the letter of a treaty but violated the sense of it. Usually, the accused will respond with some sort of justification, that someone else had violated the border first, or that the situation was quite different when the trade was first agreed to. It’s as though there’s a general acceptance that there must exist, underlying all this talk, a general code of behavior to which we all try to adhere.

In a broad sense, so there is; there must be. We often see justifications and arguments, but only very rarely does someone say, “To Hell with your standard.”* But what is this unspoken code of right and wrong, ethical and unethical, honorable and base? For it is unspoken, and unwritten too: with players from most countries on Earth, it would be absurd folly to presume that we all were raised with the same holy books. Not all of us thrilled to tales of Arthur’s knights nor even the voyages of Sindbad, and yet if one were to view us all from the outside, one would be struck not by the differences but rather by the similarities in our individual and personal codes of conduct.

But of these several codes, or rather, of the single underlying and unified code that exists unwritten, what aspects are we required to observe? Prospective Emperors may well add this further question: Which moral and ethical rules should I follow in order to win, and win consistently? For it must not be forgotten that, for us, our overarching goal is to achieve victory.

The Rules: (taken from the Planets.Nu website, “How To Play” section)
– Be considerate of other players. Refrain from name calling, swearing and other abusive behavior.
– Do not, under any circumstances, join the same game with two accounts. You should only ever have one view of the game from one player position. Joining with two accounts is considered cheating.
– Do not use any technical means to fool, post to, or modify the system data.

These are what we know for certain. It is also implied that any documented game process is a feature unless otherwise stated, that any feature that is publicly (and on the official website) determined to be a bug by the Development Team becomes an exploit if used, that knowingly using exploits is cheating, and that cheating is not only against site rules but against our proposed code of ethics.

All other behavior is technically legal, regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary from a moral or ethical** standpoint. Those that would suggest that backstabbing or dealbreaking hardly qualify as “considerate” to other players would do well to consider that, all things being equal, having one’s ships engage in a program of destruction and conquest is hardly considerate either, but it does seem rather fundamental to the prosecution of a war. “Considerate”, therefore, must be taken to mean something rather different in-game than it does in normal conversation.

“Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.”***

Machiavelli published those words in an era when duties were simple: one owed service to one’s family, one’s church, and one’s feudal lord. If any man was fortunate enough to achieve a title and lands, he then owed protection to his vassals in exchange for their service — and a comparatively greater duty to his own lord. Any who failed in his duty lost his position (and likely his life) soon after.

No internet game is much like life. In this case, any loyalty we have to our computerized followers is virtual and largely imaginary. Our ethical questions are of honesty and faithfulness between neighbors and rivals. These generally fall beyond the range of the official rules; it would be a peculiarly odious betrayal that manages to qualify as “abusive” to another player.

It can be said, then, that any deal can be broken by act of will, that there is no rule or law compelling a player to abide by his stated word, and that deception is a recognized component of war. However, mere self-interest will inveigh against abuse of this principle, in that any player that gains a reputation for flagrant dishonesty and double-dealing will soon find himself unable to trade for the time of day. There are also more human and personal objections to such a course; they are manifold and various, but most can be boiled down to variations on “I don’t want to be (or be thought of as) the sort of person that would betray a friend.”

In order to maintain a reputation for reasonable trustworthiness, one must even surpass that which is agreed to. Not merely the letter but the spirit must be observed — though, indeed, respect must be paid to observing the minutest letter of every agreement. Moreover, courtesy and reason should be employed when declaring the end to any deal. Courtesy, in point of fact, is required under the rules. (For the more cynical among our readers, I’d also like to point out that it can also be a very useful tool.)

Of course, the degree of notice to be given when announcing the upcoming nullity of an agreement is relative to the situation and the individual. Despite the bad press, sneak attacks truly are a time-honored tradition in warfare; they would hardly be effective if one’s opponent were required to be notified in advance. And sometimes they are quite justified by any reasonable code of ethics, as when they are undertaken to preempt an opposing player’s betrayal, or when an evident and reasonable interest is being deliberately undermined by a nominal friend and ally — for example, when they violate the spirit of an agreement while maintaining its letter.

The key words here are “flagrant” and “courtesy”, reason being entirely subjective by nature****. We are required under the rules to avoid discourtesy; second to this, we ought to avoid flagrant abuses of the trust of others. But at which times can we legitimately break faith?

Here, one higher law must guide us:
It is the duty of each of us to play this game to win.

This is an unspoken law, but it is axiomatic; it is a fundamental obligation of any such game. It is the soul of the social contract into which we enter by the act of joining; it is a commitment to the other players that we will each participate to the best of our abilities for the duration of what could be a multi-year contest. The others that come to the table spend large amounts of time not merely moving ships and building bases but creating strategies, compiling logistic procedures and composing complex diplomacy. It is therefore incumbent on each of us by implied obligation to return to our fellow players that which they give to us: commitment, drive, ability, and a will to win. We owe one another no less.

When any of us fails in that regard, it is tantamount to an implied violation of any treaty or agreement that person has made.

Don’t misunderstand me here; the game is not the acme of existence. Every one of us should place Real Life — jobs, relationships, health and happiness — far in front of these games in terms of priority. It would be unreasonable to expect anything else and foolish to try for such a goal oneself. Equally, though, each of us has made the commitment to continue playing — and playing well — through all of life’s hurdles for an indefinite period. When these two priorities conflict, it is the game that ought to suffer, but it is also true that when the game falls short, we are letting down those therein that rely on us; our very adversaries deserve better of us.

But the right course remains; we must live our lives first and play our games second. This is more than wisdom; it is fundametal, and to my mind, the statement isn’t even subject to debate. In some cases Vacation settings and multi-turn movement plans are sufficient; in others, I have known players to have friends take turns for them during holidays or enforced absences. In more extreme instances the honorable course is to resign and request help from a relief player (despite what this will do to one’s tenacity rating).

But that’s personal. What’s more, it’s Real Life, which (strictly speaking) is outside the scope of this article.

In-game, you’ve just created an opportunity, a zone of weakness, an avenue for legitimate personal advantage. And your ally ignores it at his peril; in point of fact, it is often his duty to betray you completely and as near to instantly as is practicable, lest the forces of darkness and evil (your other neighbor) seize upon your undefended assets and use them to catapult them to victory — and your faithful friends to ruin. And this is not limited to vacations or abandonment; even incompetence can be justification enough.****

“This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years!”
Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch, 11 Nov 1918, referring to the Treaty of Versailles

The opportunity often exists to compose a bargain with another player, to permit him to own, say, these planets without contest so you may own those. Border treaties are often drawn up and sometimes even long-term peace is agreed to, in order that each party may have a border free from conflict. It is a proverb that a two-front war is a recipe for defeat, so at least one trusted neighbor is essential.

These bargains should be undertaken honestly and kept whenever practicable, but it must be noted that any agreement which later, through changed circumstance, prevents either party from winning contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. One cannot expect another to agree to his own demise and then march to it willingly; there are limits, and we should not ask others to exceed them — or be at all surprised when they fail us. Indeed, this is in a very real sense no true betrayal at all, because every deal contains the unspoken caveat: If you betray me, I will not honor this.

Nevertheless, we should try to keep our word when we can.

For there is another aspect to consider: ethics is a thing apart from humanity, and without heart, any code of ethics is meaningless, a dry wind whispering across a barren plain. We who play these games are real people; we are flesh and blood, soul and wit and heart. If we triumph in a game, we are rightly pleased with ourselves in real life; if we fail, we are downhearted — though not too much, as there are ten losers to each winner. And if we betray — if we lie, cheat, kill and steal — then does not the real person, the man behind the screen, does that man not bear the real burden for his virtual acts? And are our opponents not wounded by the breach of their faith?

For that is, after all, the ultimate truth: that on the other side of the computer screen are ten other living breathing thinking feeling human beings, each one living a life that is (approximately) as rich as our own. I myself would not care to be a person that is unworthy of trust; I would not want to be the sort of man who would casually betray another for some mere fleeting advantage. But neither would I want to be the man who failed in his duty to his other players, that one duty which is our chief obligation: We must play to win. And sometimes, in order to meet this obligation, we must act in a fashion that, personally, we might find distasteful or even odious.

This is not an easy thing to consider; in point of fact, it is counted by some philosophers as the major paradox of human existence (simplified a bit). All we can do here is consider the two conflicting truths: We must each be the person that we want to be; and, We must play to win. It is incumbent on each of us to weigh our options, judge them fully and then act – confidently, deliberately, perhaps even ruthlessly, but always in the full knowledge of our actions. To do otherwise is make ourselves unworthy of the power of choice, and that power is the crux of intelligence and the apogee of free will.

Now, go play your game.



*Much of these first two paragraphs was strongly influenced by the introduction to “Mere Christianity”, by C.S. Lewis, and this bit is a direct quotation. It is curious how well basic philosophy can be applied to the art of war.

**For the sake of this discussion, we shall consider that morals and ethics differ in that morals are cultural beliefs concerning how people should behave both in society and in personal relationships whereas ethics refers to a logical system of principles and the philosophy or theory underlying them. Neither is considered any more or less valid than the other; however, morality depends largely on cultural mores whereas ethics can be systematically defined across cultural and societal boundaries.

***This quotation is from the Marriott translation of “The Prince”, by Nicolo Machiavelli.

**** This point cannot be made too strongly: that reason is entirely subjective. Anyone unfamiliar with the Merlin-sacrifice PBP dominance tactic would consider the necessary opening builds of such to be dangerously incompetent and perhaps only marginally sane. Likewise, a skilled Fascist player would always eye askance the moves of an advanced Colonies player, and neither would go far trying to understand the Borg on first glance. And these are just the obvious examples; I could go on for hours. (But I won’t.)

tl;dr: Don’t cheat; be polite. You can sometimes break a deal in self-defense or when your partner is too weak to keep it. Otherwise, keep your word or it’s possible nobody will ever trust you again.


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This article is copyright 2013 by the writer, J. Millard Simpson. Permission is granted to Planets Magazine and its editors to publish this and to reprint excerpts for purposes of publicity without compensation. Ownership and all other rights are reserved.


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