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2:19 AM on 01.04.2010

MAG, community, and school

To celebrate the start of the MAG Public beta (starts today, go get it for free off the PS Store now!) AND the simultaneous start of a new quarter of university education for me, I'm throwing up a somewhat lengthy paper I wrote on MAG and how it relates to Plato and Aristotle. MAG is my most anticipated game in recent memory and the only game I've preordered in years, so you can imagine how great it is for the beta to be starting on the same day as school here. :P

Below is a paper I wrote for a class that deals with the idea of community. I've always felt that online and digital communities get overlooked in academic environments, so apart from the fact that video games are a major consumer of my time, this paper is also a small attempt at getting online and virtual communities a little more attention. Video games plus education! woo! Plus, it also documents decently the actual MAG world, so if you want to see how it works and such, this is a (pretty long) way of reading about MAG itself.

I have the paper divided into different sections based on different parts of Plato/Aristotle's philosophies that I feel apply to the community in MAG most: common interest, division of labor, education, and justice. If anyone manages to read this or even part of it, please do let me know your thoughts. Most importantly, though: are you going to be playing MAG? :D


While fellow students may have been poring over Marx or languishing with Hobbes, I was playing video games. MAG – standing for Massive Action Game – is an online based first-person shooter based in a near-future military setting. What does this have to do with this class? Well, as it appears, nothing… but upon reflecting on my moonlit gaming binges, I have come to find that as my fellows were getting to know their readings, so I was also – lingering with Plato and Aristotle.

For the uninitiated, a first-person shooter is a type of commonly found video game where the player takes the role of a character, set in the first person perspective on-screen, who is armed with equipment such as guns, hence the shooter moniker. These types of games are most usually set in military settings, and MAG is no different. Some common mechanics in the online play of first-person shooters (FPS from here on) are concepts such as the ‘deathmatch’, where players fight against one another for ‘kills’ against each other, which count towards an overall score that determines who wins.

While MAG tracks the number of ‘kills’ and ‘deaths’ that each player accumulates over each round, this is not the end purpose of playing the game. (It is important to note that in most FPS and MAG, when the player’s character ‘dies’, he ‘re-spawns’ back in the base and is able to move to rejoin the battle again) Instead, MAG is dependent on large squads, platoons, and factions of players playing together in order to attack or defend common targets. Specifically, each squad has eight players with one Squad Leader, each platoon is led by one Platoon Leader and has 32 players split within four squads, and each faction consists of four platoons and is led by one Officer In Command. This results in one faction going up against another faction, 128 versus 128, vying to defend or attack assets in attempts to win the game for their own faction. Therefore, while MAG may be a video game – something not often looked upon seriously in academic environments – it is a game that is based on real-world ideals of cooperation, teamwork, and ultimately, community.

Common interest

Plato and Aristotle both state that every individual must be part of a community. Aristotle even goes as far as saying that only ‘beasts or gods’ can live outside of a community. In MAG, acting as one with your squad is of utmost importance. The squad leader sets objectives, and good squad members follow them. In this small community of a squad, straying too far away from the rest of the squad means you lose their support and they yours – whether it is firepower or communication. In this sense, there is a common good to be found in the associations formed in a squad. By working together and staying together as one group – a community – the entire squad is stronger. A lone player could consistently range out on his own in his own individual interest, ignoring the requests and commands of other players on the same team, worried about nothing other than his own enjoyment, and he is likely to suffer for it: his squad is not there to make him a better player. In the same way, his squad suffers for it as well: he is not with them when they should require his assistance.

So, by being a cooperative part of the community, the squad, each squad member is working together toward a common interest. This common good being whatever the squad leader has deemed their objective, whether it is to hold or attack a point, etc. Those that do not place themselves in a position to work towards this common good are not part of the community, and because they are not doing so, they could be argued to not be playing the game correctly and as such are not part of the community of players that do play the game in the way it should be played.

Aristotle described his state as being one that consisted of many different households. MAG could be described in the same way, with squads being households, platoons being the larger communities, and the entire faction itself being the state. From there, it is simple to see that the interest of each faction is to win battles in this military game. Therefore, being but smaller parts of the larger state, each platoon and its squads share the same common interest.

Division of roles

We have talked of a common good that coerces players in MAG to work together. This common good is one that comes from the cooperation of different players, working toward a similar goal. A squad consists of eight members, this we know. But would it be wise for the squad to consist of eight players that do the exact same thing? In MAG, in addition to being equipped with firearms to suppress enemy advances, there are also tactical assets such as attack vehicles, artillery, and anti-air arrays that each team possesses and can make use of. So there are mechanics who can repair and maintain such tactical assets during battle. Soldiers can get injured or ‘downed’, in which case there are people who can choose to equip medical kits to heal and revive teammates. While each individual role is important, it is at the same impractical for a squad of eight players to all be mechanics – who will cover the mechanics, who will heal the injured? Similarly, if a squad consists of two gun-slinging soldiers and six medics, it will be severely limited in firepower and would be quickly overwhelmed by a better balanced enemy. Thus, we can see that a proper division of roles is essential in an effective squad in MAG.

Plato speaks extensively of division of labor and roles in the community. He says that, in order for there to be true harmony in the community, there needs to be harmony between the different roles that people take. This is what was touched upon above: a squad cannot work in harmony with its objectives if the skillsets and roles that its component members possess are not themselves in harmony with each other.


To achieve harmony, according to Plato, each individual must know their role in the community. But to know their role, Plato says, each individual must first undergo education of sorts. Without getting into the exact specifics of Plato’s requirements for education in a harmonious community, it can be said that the same applies for the virtual world of MAG. Different types of players may naturally gravitate towards different roles. Players that don’t possess such fast reflexes or dexterity in their hands might not be suitable for the fast pace action of playing as a front-line soldier, but they could find a home in playing support as a mechanic or medic. Even amongst soldiers there could be variations, with the option to equip weapons such as an assault rifle, a shotgun for close ranges, or sniper rifle for long range.

However, one character cannot possibly ‘learn’ all these skills and possess them at once on the battlefield. In MAG, there is an experience system where one character can use their earned experience and acquire certain skills along different branches of the skill tree. So, someone that plays a few rounds and realizes they are not very good at shooting might invest experience into gaining the medic skills, while someone who excels at rapid assault on the front lines would invest those same experience points into earning an upgrade to the rifle. In this way, players naturally ‘flow’ into their roles and then, by way of investing experience points, ‘educate’ themselves in that role by acquiring more advanced skills until they have the full ability to play that role.

Justice and Goodness

Plato says that the ideal community is based on the principle of justice. He defines justice in two parts. One, in the community itself: a just community is one where Plato’s ‘guardians’ rule over the ‘soldiers’ and ‘workers.’ Two, in the individuals themselves: a just individual is one whose reason rules over spirit and appetite.

In MAG, being a military-style game with full squad and platoon integration and leadership, it is obvious that there should be leaders – i.e. guardians – and followers – i.e. soldiers and workers. What is yet more fitting, though, is the revelation that any individual who does not allow reason to rule over them is one who is allowing their individual good overrule the common good. For example, in a spectacular show of spirit, players could courageously charge into an enemy turret encampment on their own. Or, having been shot at and injured by an unseen enemy, the player could give in to his appetite for revenge and separate himself from his squad in an attempt to track down his assailant. In the first case, this player would most likely die a very quick death as it is nigh on impossible for a one-man team to take any entrenched enemy force, and thus his death would have been in vain and detracting from the ultimate good of the squad. In the second case, running off alone to seek revenge could be running into a trap or falling for an enemy distraction. In both these cases, reason is the force that would prevent a player from falling victim to these mistakes. Therefore, a just player is one who exhibits temperance; a just player is one who uses reason to do what is best for their squad – or community.

Aristotle says that the ideal city is one ‘which is happy and does well’ – its felicity is the same as that of the individual. That is to say, the goodness of the individual and community are intertwined and reciprocate in a way that the greatest goodness of the individual will reflect onto the community vice versa.

In MAG, this could not be more obvious. A player that, having established his role and is able to play it effectively, follows his own reason and the reason of his leaders in striving with his fellow players toward the ultimate good is a player that ultimately contributes to the goodness of his community. As a game, MAG offers bonus incentives to squads and players that play well for their faction and win rounds by awarding bonus experience points and on-field bonuses. Play poorly – thus not contributing to the ultimate good – and your faction receives no on-field bonuses and your character receives no bonus experience points. What is important to recognize here is that many of these bonuses only kick in when a player’s faction performs well, not when the player him/herself performs well, although a faction with many high-performance players will likely perform better.

The Big Picture

I assume that basic military thought shares much with the concepts driving MAG’s gameplay because of the premises that MAG rests on, but as I have no firsthand experience with the military itself, MAG is my example. MAG is a virtual world, a virtual representation of concepts and ideas. But it is a virtual world driven by people and by human ideals. In my discussion questions with Plato and Aristotle, I asked multiple times whether their ideals were plausible or possible in any form. By examining the virtual, online, yet distinctly human environment in the video game MAG, I have come to realize that at least some of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideals are certainly possible.

Indeed, MAG’s central principles seem to fit intriguingly well with our two venerable Greek philosophers’ ideals. As a game, this statement could be easily written off as not noteworthy, but once one looks past the nature of MAG as a game and instead views it as a community, then perceptive may begin to change. MAG is very much a community based game. Its gameplay, as I have hopefully described, is entirely driven by the players. Therefore, given that it as a game has clear objectives to determine victory, there is thus a common interest for players to work toward. And when there is a common interest, or a goal, then there are certain ways to go about achieve those goals, so the education and temperance players allows them to learn their roles and use reason to guide their actions. Ultimately, each player that understands these principles is one more that contributes to their respective squads, platoons, and factions and thus allows these forms of community to prosper, which in turn enriches the players.

By spending outrageous amounts of time playing video games while I most certainly should have been studying, I had fortuitously but unknowingly engaged with Plato and Aristotle – more specifically, I had been engaging with their central ideals of what community and common interest should be like. While actually reading Plato and Aristotle, I had questions of whether their ideals were anything more than just musings of idealist old men: whether it was the question of division of roles, or Plato’s idea of education, or common interest, or Aristotle’s idea that every individual must be part of community. While playing the video game MAG, I found my answers: a virtual electronic manifestation of what is a very human community shows that these ideals can clearly be reality.   read

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