Perils of the Prime Directive

I’ve been pondering the new MMO-in-development, Star Trek Online, and it occurred to me that there’s a serious obstacle in designing content for that game.  It’s familiar to all Trekkers (and Trekkies) as the most fundamental rule of Starfleet, also known as the Prime Directive.

The basic idea behind the Prime Directive is that societies should not be interfered with; Starfleet explicitly orders its members that there must be “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.”

Naturally the Prime Directive was broken again and again in The Original Series (TOS), though subsequent series have tried a bit harder to maintain what is after all the first and most important rule of Starfleet (else it wouldn’t be “Prime”).  Kirk, Spock, and Bones beamed down again and again to new, unexplored planets, and typically identified themselves as Starfleet officers, often, in the course of an episode, mentioning that their ship was in orbit.  When they beamed out, often to avoid danger, they almost always had witnesses who if nothing else knew that some sort of disappearance or teleportation technology was used.  That alone would be expected to alter a society.

In terms of a Star Trek MMO, the Prime Directive seems a serious barrier to interaction with new cultures.  If e.g. the crew appear alien to the residents of a planet, how are they to explain their presence, and what should they claim is their origin?  Even attempting to lie can have unforeseen consequences – say the crew claim to be visitors from another civilization on the planet.  The culture that witnessed the Starfleet members might well be inclined to seek out their imaginary neighbours, which again could easily change the culture.

A Star Trek MMO would be expected to rely heavily on the themes of the franchise, most especially exploration and diplomacy.  Exploration without interaction would be dull indeed; point your tricorder at an object, scan it, rinse and repeat… or better yet, just do it with the ship’s sensors from orbit.  Yawn.  Without interacting with natives, players could learn relatively little about a planet’s culture, meaning exploration would be limited to biology and geography.  So it seems interaction must occur to keep the game interesting.

How then can this be dealt with?  There are two simple solutions that come to mind, but neither one is precisely canon, which is I admit a sticking point.  First, and most obviously, a technology similar to the Neuralyzer from the Men in Black franchise could wipe the memory of those who had witnessed the wonders they were not meant to see.  Second, and with greater difficulty, a disguise technology could allow Starfleet members to pose as residents.  This latter option is complicated by Starfleet’s desire to gather information about new worlds, information that residents would presumably already have – thus asking questions to which answers are generally known could easily blow one’s cover.

Diplomacy has the advantage of dealing primarily with cultures that have already been exposed to Starfleet, and thus the Prime Directive is less restrictive, though the doctrine of noninterference in a planet’s societies would still be a thorny problem for players. One could imagine that part of the challenge of diplomacy in a Star Trek MMO would be deciding what actions are allowed under the Prime Directive, and which would lead to censure by Starfleet.  Designers could continually tempt players with easy solutions that violate the Prime Directive, and this could lead to some difficult, and thus interesting, choices.

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3 comments so far

  1. Tesh on

    It is an interesting dilemma indeed. I suspect that it will be completely ignored, however. Philosophizing about these things doesn’t make for the sort of gameplay that the unwashed MMO hordes are looking for, and if they want financial success after spending millions in development, they need to pull in as many players as possible. A niche title could explore the psychology and philosophy of the Prime Directive, but I just don’t see it being something that this sort of game is going to want to touch. I reserve the right to be pleasantly surprised.

  2. foolsage on

    Well, it’s an issue whether it’s explicitly mentioned or not. If it’s explicitly mentioned then it’s a limitation to exploration, and if it’s not explicitly mentioned then it’s a violation of canon.

  3. Tesh on

    True enough. Considering the newest movie and the train wreck that was Enterprise, though, I don’t think that canon is high in the priority tree for the Trek universe any more. Unfortunately.

    The dichotomy that you mention makes me think that they will sacrifice canon for gameplay. Some venues just aren’t meant for the MMO treatment.


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