Sisyphean volunteers

March 23rd, 2005 — Wordman

Imagine you rule hell. Long, long ago, you were asked (by, perhaps, another pantheon) to severely punish this Greek punk that betrayed the gods and captured the god of death. Since this punk, Sisyphus, was so industrious, you put him to work pushing a boulder up a steep hill. But just when the boulder approaches to the top, it rolls all the way back down the hill. You compel Sisyphus to always want to get the boulder to the top, making him labor for eternity.

While initially quite pleased with this punishment, eventually the novelty wears off and you spot some problems with it. For one thing, planting the compulsion to push the rock leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It seems… artificial somehow. For another, after a while you notice that Sisyphus seems to accept his fate. He makes peace with the fact he’s going to push the boulder forever and, to your shame, takes some comfort in that knowledge.

You forget about this until thousands of years later, when a more insidious punishment stikes you. It would still have the endless toil aspect (of which you are so fond), but with the following differences:

  • You would trick people into actually volunteering for the punishment by making it sound pleasant. Ideally, they would pay for the privilege.
  • The volunteers would seem to accomplish goals but, in fact, their actions would have no real consequence and, in most cases, would reset to be “accomplished” by the next volunteer. This prevents them from coming to grips with their punishments for much longer.
  • The illusion of accomplishment would be strengthened by allowing the volunteers to brag and “help” each other, but even en masse, volunteers would have no actual ability to change anything.
  • Failure (often accompanied by hideous, painful death) would be punished solely by the offer of resurrection, tricking the recently dead to volunteer again for the task, over and over if need be. Volunteers would not find this odd.
  • At some arbitrary point, cut off their advancement so that they no longer have the crutch of getting better when they “accomplish” something, but allow them to either continue anyway (perhaps by meddling with other volunteers), or start all over again in some other form.

The end result punishes the wicked in a far more insidious way. They register that they are being punished on only a subconscious level. Their ignorance brings them a certain amount of bliss but, deep down, realize that they are just as useless as Sisyphus. They are toys for your amusement.

They are, in short, characters in World of Warcraft.

What other explanation would your tauren shaman have for sleeping for days at a time, only to wake up to be killed over and over, then sleep again? How else can your troll warlock rationalize the centaur invasion that he just singlehandedly repelled coming back twenty minutes later like it never happened? Why else would the meager vein of tin your gnome picked bare disappear, only to reappear hours later? They’re all in hell, they just don’t know it.

This could be said of most video game characters, but the addictive nature of MMORPGs and the flimsy rationalizations of their players suggest a hell that has expanded to punish the living.

In any case, a MMORPG that actually embraced the idea that its characters are running the gerbil wheel of an afterlife, rather than just resurrect them continually without explanation, could be fascinating. You might even base it somewhat on the old Sierra game Afterlife, with its virtues and sins. Or perhaps theme it around a war between heaven and hell, where the players can be angels or demons. Maybe they can be (or, perhaps, must be) mortals until the first time they die, and their actions as mortals dictate on what side of the war they find themselves and how much power they start with.