On Why I Will Never Play The Castle Doctrine

RPS: You should never hold a press event at your house. I don’t think many people would want to come.

Jason Rohrer: [Laughing] You guys are in England, you don’t understand what it’s like here in America. [from this interview]

Jason Rohrer’s newest game The Castle Doctrine is simple. You play as a man who has a home and a wife and kids. You have money in that home. There are other players with their own homes, wives, children, and money who will come into your home to attempt to steal your money. They can kill your wife and children. It is in their best interest to do so, in fact, because allowing the wife to live actually decreases the amount of money that they can steal from your home.

In order to prevent other players from invading your home and killing your family, you set up an elaborate but solvable series of traps designed to kill those invading players. The game has permadeath–if you die invading a home, you are forced to start over from scratch. The core loop of the game is this process high-risk burglary that feeds into defense of your own home. You invade others so that no one can touch your possessions; you have to do violence to others in order to make yourself impermeable.

Some obvious issues with this setup: women and children are property that are essentially resources in the male-on-male violence that makes up the game; this is yet another example of the “dadification” of games where you play a grizzled man who has to do what he has to do, which is invariably killing other people; this is one more example of the infinite apologism around the fetish of violence in games. All of these things are true and they’re wrong and they each deserve a bit of longform writing all on their own (and if there’s anything about these subjects RE this game, please forward it along to me.)

[Note: Rohrer actually posted some “clarifications” around some of these issues as I was writing this post. You can see them here.]

In any case: I am not going to play The Castle Doctrine, and I don’t think that you should either.

I think it is important to read some things from the designer of the game, Jason Rohrer, in order for the argument that I’m making to really hit home. While I’m going to be quoting from these interviews, you might want to read them in their entirety. The first is a two-part interview with Alec Meer at Rock, Paper, Shotgun [part 1, part 2] and the other is with John Brindle over at his website [here].

In an attempt to head off some reductive responses to my argument, it is important to note that Rohrer has very plainly stated that The Castle Doctrine, despite being a massively multiplayer online game, is a personal work on the level of his previous game Passage. The game’s design is explicitly simulating Rohrer’s feelings about home invasion and personal safety, and in response to a question about why the default character is necessarily a male head of a nuclear family, Rohrer responded

“Well yeah, but then it wouldn’t be my personal art. It would just be this pandering product. This is a game that’s from my perspective, just like in Passage the main character is me. “

This might be a little too Games Studies 101, but it is important here to note that Rohrer isn’t splitting hairs about the content and framing of the game: this is personal art, the game’s possibility space is strategically centered on personal sovereignty, and everyone who plays it will be thinking through this particular frame in order to succeed at the game.

On one level, I understand the desire to claim that the game is a valuable object in the world because it allows for us to think through the ideology of someone who believes that someone has given up their right to life by entering a home unannounced. Daniel Joseph, in a response to some preliminary stuff I said yesterday on twitter, basically makes this point. He (and I) as academics can find value in the game because it is showing us something about the violence of the world as it is, and by unpacking that, by laying it all bare on the table, we can learn something from it and maybe work to defang or at least acknowledge the systems that have structured the world in such a way that Rohrer can have this opinion. I’m partially in agreement, at least to the point that I do believe that we could probably learn something about inherent violence of white, patriarchal, American power and how it sets up the conditions for, commits, and justifies violence all at the same time.

There’s also a second level here that I can’t get past. Jason Rohrer made The Castle Doctrine because he began “living in a place where [h] didn’t feel safe for the first time in [his] life.” Part of that was, as I understand, a string of burglaries in the neighborhood, including the house next door being broken into twice within a single year. Additionally, his wife was attacked by a dog, which spurred him into carrying a riot-style baton and pepper spray.

In the interview with John Brindle, Rohrer explains the encounter with the dog:

To me, after facing the reality of these things, when your dog is attacking me and my pregnant wife, the dog has crossed the line, you’ve violated your contract with me. At that point all bets are off, that’s it: if I kill your dog to save my family, your dog doesn’t have any grievances with me, because your dog is already in violation of contract. Given a proper argument in favour of that point of view, most people would agree with that. The same is true about someone coming into your house. They didn’t have to break open my window!

In Rohrer’s model, you are justified in doing anything you want to someone who breaches your personal sovereignty, whether that is your house or your person. You can kill someone for breaking your window and coming into your home.

I think it is important to pull out the quotation that I used a little bit earlier. Rohrer was “living in a place where [he] didn’t feel safe for the first time in life.” In this model, Rohrer’s safety and the safety of his family trumps the right to life of another human being. Any perceived threat to him or his family is met with a swift judgment on the offending party–he can kill the dog, he can kill the invader. Despite the fact that human beings are capable of speech and therefore can yell things like “get out of my house” or “fuck you” in order to force a would-be burglar to leave, for Rohrer, none of that matters. In the interview with Alec Meer:

When you’re faced with it, when the rubber hits the road and you have to defend your family… I’ve had conversations with other game developers which are like ‘if a guy came into your house, and he had a gun, and you were standing in the kitchen would you pick up a knife and try and defend your family?’ And they said ‘no, I’d try to talk to him first.’ [Laughs in disbelief.] So someone’s coming into your house and threatening to kill your family, and you’re going to try to talk to him. For me, as soon as you stick your foot across my windowsill I just feel like that’s it. You’ve violated the contract, right. I’m not sticking my foot across your windowsill.

For Rohrer, the person who could break into your home and steal your things is the worst kind of media villain that we’ve been trained to be afraid of. This person is coming into your home to take everything that you love, and more than that, he is going to murder your entire family and hide them in the attic. This doesn’t seem to be upheld by actual crime statistics, however, especially here in Atlanta, which is the sixth most dangerous city in America as of 2012. Apparently, in 2011 there were 7,499 burglaries in Atlanta–that’s the classic model of home invasion that Rohrer is fantasizing about, which is where a person comes into your home, steals your Xbox, and runs away while you’re out at WalMart or whatever. Against that, in the same year there were 88 murders.

I’m not bringing up numbers to argue with Rohrer’s perception of the violence that could happen to his family, and I acknowledge the that data itself is purely anecdotal and only specific to me. I am sure that he believed, and believes, that his family was in danger. I do think that the numbers show the push of the likelihood that I would be burgled and murdered and how absolutely unlikely it is in most places in the United States, but the point I want to illustrate is that ideology doesn’t care about the numbers. Rohrer’s beliefs about the intentions of the perpetrator who will put their foot over his windowsill is absolutely immune to any kind of reason. There are people out there and they could get him, which puts him both in a position of feeling like he is justified in killing that intruder with a knife and feeling like he needs to justify his murder of that intruder.

That’s why I won’t be playing The Castle Doctrine. The very act of playing, of buying into the core conceit and then living that world with other players, is one of either justifying or utterly eradicating an acknowledgment of the system that is implicitly justifies. Castle doctrines, as they exist here in the state of Georgia and elsewhere, are based on upholding fundamental exclusions that undergird American society. When Rohrer explains that the justification for killing another human being is based on their violation of a social contract, he’s absolutely ignoring that the social contract doesn’t extend to huge parts the American population.

At the core, The Castle Doctrine focuses on the legitimacy of violence of white men in the United States against those who are seen as interlopers against those white men–it is all based on the fact that for the first time in his life, Rohrer felt unsafe. We should take this seriously–no one should be forced to feel unsafe–but also take seriously that there is a balance here in our ethical commitments in games.

Playing through a simulation of Rohrer’s safety and unsafety elides over the fact that there are so many subject positions in the United States whose baseline states of safety are far below Roher’s baseline safety level. Rohrer won’t be murdered for holding hands with his partner in public. Rohrer won’t be fingered for a crime he didn’t commit because a witness can’t come up with anything other than a caricature as a description. Rohrer will never be profiled into a county lockup.

And Rohrer’s self defense? He’ll reap the benefit of castle laws. They’re designed with him in mind. The Marissa Alexanders of the world will continue to be imprisoned. The CeCe McDonalds will too.

This isn’t at the feet of Rohrer, but it is at the feet of the ideology he’s explicitly embracing and working through. I don’t want to play it. I don’t want to have any part of it. After I post this, I’m going to do my best to never talk about it again. That’s my stance here, and I sort of believe that it is the only ethical one. I want to educate people, I want to talk to them about the variable axes of oppression that have rendered terms like “social contract” null since before Enlightenment thinkers conceived of them, and I think a key step in that process is outlining why we should be so highly critical of The Castle Doctrine that we pretend like it doesn’t exist.

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5 Responses to On Why I Will Never Play The Castle Doctrine

  1. Erica says:

    As a woman, I had to laugh about Rohrer feeling unsafe “for the first time in his life.” Wow, that must have been nice. The game wasn’t really on my radar anyway but I enjoyed the article all the same.

  2. Scu says:

    So, you have probably already seen this, but this quotation from bell hooks (written, you know, a long ass time ago) has been going around about the Trayvon Martin murder, but seems just as appropriate, if not more so, to Castle Doctrine: The GAME!

    The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety. With guards at the gate, individuals still have bars and elaborate internal security systems. Americans spend more than thirty billion dollars a year on security. When I have stayed with friends in these communities and inquired as to whether all the security is in response to an actual danger I am told “not really,” that it is the fear of threat rather than a real threat that is the catalyst for an obsession with safety that borders on madness.

    Culturally we bear witness to this madness every day. We can all tell endless stories of how it makes itself known in everyday life. For example, an adult white male answers the door when a young Asian male rings the bell. We live in a culture where without responding to any gesture of aggression or hostility on the part of the stranger, who is simply lost and trying to find the correct address, the white male shoots him, believing he is protecting his life and his property. This is an everyday example of madness. The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.

    White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. ” This is what the worship of death looks like.
    —bell hooks, All About Love, p. 194-195

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