Recently I’ve been playing Mass Effect, a role-playing game (RPG) set in outer space. (Feel free to insert your favorite Star Trek related nerd joke here.) As with many of the sophisticated RPG options in the market today, the game is designed around a series of tasks, or quests, which get more difficult as the game progresses. For me though, the actual game play – star ships, swordplay or sorcery – is not as interesting as the character development, the role part of the game. Some of the RPG games I’ve played let you choose the moral disposition of your character, whether you want to be a good guy or a bad guy. So from the beginning of the game your choices are determined by your role as the hero or the villain. Accordingly your actions and personality are based on your predetermined nature. However, some of the more sophisticated games, including Mass Effect, make your character’s nature a matter of nurture – meaning you become either moral or immoral based on the choices you make during the game. In Mass Effect you develop either as a paragon or as a renegade. But here is where the game and I started to have problems.
From the beginning I assumed each quest could be solved either “positively” (helping me develop as a paragon) or “negatively” (earning me points as a renegade). So as the options were presented I made what I believed to be the “right” choice. In some cases the “positive” and “negative” choices were clear. But for some of the tasks there was only one choice to make and in almost every instance that choice was “negative” and earned me renegade points. This not only frustrated me, it also made me question whether there was any point in trying to do “the right thing.” I also thought it was unfair because in real life we always have more than one choice. But do we really? Are there times when “breaking the rules” is the only option? The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that the game was playing fair – that there are times when the only way forward is to become a renegade.
But here be dragons my friends. This is a slippery slope that can lead to all kinds of problems, not the least of which being chaos, anarchy and unemployment! So the question seems to be, when is breaking the rules acceptable, even necessary, and when should it be avoided? In his book The Way We Are, Allen Wheelis wrestles with this problem and suggests a way forward of sorts.
Does not all creativity originate in boundary violations, in breaking through to realms outside the old limits? The completely moral life – that is, the meticulous observance of all of the rules – leads, for both the individual and the group, to a rigidity that falls increasingly at odds with a changing world. Yet boundary violations, if reckless – reckless measurable, usually, only after the act and its consequences – destroy the individual and destroy the social order. The individual becomes an outlaw, the group becomes a mob.
Creative change in a society issues from violations great enough to alter the social structure, but not so great as to bring it down altogether. One wants a society of law that allows some laws to be ignored. It is those violations we let stand that organize the ongoing transformation of social structure. The observance of rules, with a wise measure of slippage, coupled with the violation of rules, with an ironic measure of prudence, creates flexibility, strengthens the group, and thereby creates the possibility of nonviolent change in the social order.
So the questions we need to consider then are first, whether the breaking of a rule is reckless, that is, does the risk – the potential consequences of our choice – outweigh the hoped for reward; and second, whether our violation of the rules also serves the interest of progress, meaning the way forward can only be achieved if the rules are broken? I understand this is perhaps an overly simplified way to think about this problem and I’m not suggesting that the ends justify the means. Yet I do think that there are times when progress is utterly blocked by “the rules” – the business processes we’ve had in place “since the company was founded”; our multi-layered bureaucracies with their endless forms and approval chains; the “blockers” in the organization whose raison d’être is to obstruct, obfuscate, and aggravate. In these instances I believe the judicious breaking of the rules is most definitely in order. Understanding that the point is not to bring down the system (or your career), but to move the business forward – the end result being a stronger, more flexible organization.
Acknowledging that we may need to play the renegade from time to time is not easy, especially for those of us who, by nature, are designed to play by the rules: We want to do the right thing for the right reasons. We want to work for companies that value and respect their workers and treat them fairly. And we want to believe that everyone else in the organization wants the same. But if we are honest, we know things are not always this way; and if we can learn to make choices based on what we know, then we can also learn to accept that we may have to break the rules so that the world in which we live and work can evolve beyond what it is, to what we want it to be. Building a bridge to span this gap is only possible when individuals, who are paragons by nature, can also learn to wisely nurture their inner renegade.