The Computer Game That Led to Enlightenment

The computer game “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar” is turning thirty-five this year.

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.

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