How do you keep track of what page you’re on in a book?
The answer tells you everything you need to know about the moral lens through which you view the world. At least, that’s according to a chart that was widely circulated on Twitter last month (and originally shared on Tumblr). The axes of the nine-square grid—lawful, neutral, chaotic across the top; good, neutral, evil down the side—assign expansive significance to each choice. Using a book ribbon as a bookmark, the chart tells you, is “lawful good.” Scrap paper and receipts are still good, but also chaotic. Using a normal bookmark is “true neutral,” while leaving the book open and upside down is “neutral evil.”
This chart went viral mainly because it prompted debate and defensiveness. How is dog-earing a page more “evil” than marking it with random garbage? How can reading an ebook be considered a “neutral” choice? And that’s just bookmarks. Alignment charts have been used to sort politicians, versions of Windows, and seemingly everything else. They’re tossed around every major social platform, and have become a common cultural reference point. They pop up on Pinterest, in the Alignment Charts subreddit, and in lifestyle publications.
Truly, it is hard to find a category that the internet hasn't aligned. Alignment charts have covered face-washing techniques, middle-aged working actors, New York City transit options. Avril Lavigne’s white tank top is chaotic neutral. Signifying one’s acknowledgment or acceptance with okay is neutral good, while writing ok then is neutral evil. A moral significance apparently can be gleaned from the way people sit in a chair or cut an apple or drink their coffee or position their bed relative to their bedroom walls. The same goes for how they get rid of earwax, and how they respond to a meeting invitation.
The grid comes from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, but has been long divorced from that context. It is now used by people who have never sat around a table pretending to be druids and clerics, or possibly even heard of the game. Alignment charts are easy to customize, and they have a crisp legibility. They spread easily because they clash with other people’s instincts: I get viscerally angry looking at an absolutely wrong alignment chart of Gilmore Girls characters, which might prompt me to make my own.
Here’s a suit alignment chart pic.twitter.com/nQ44D5NugM— Emilia Petrarca (@EmiliaPetrarca) March 5, 2019
The pleasure of filling out an alignment chart is similar to that of playing a simple brainteaser, or completing an elementary-school worksheet: You’re making judgment calls, sorting, putting objects into little boxes—and you end up with something neat and composed. It has the allure of surety. If we could decide, once and for all, what is the exact best way to live, maybe everything would fall into place.
The two-axis moral-alignment chart appeared in a 1977 version of the Dungeons & Dragons handbook, three years after the game was first released. In the game, players select a moral alignment for their characters at the start, to guide the way that they will make decisions throughout. It’s meant to prevent people from behaving randomly, and gives the story some structure.
A “good” moral alignment means a character will lean toward altruism and personal sacrifice. Evil means harming and oppressing. A neutral person is one who wouldn’t kill somebody for no reason, but wouldn’t protect anybody for no reason either. Along the side axis, lawfulness, in the game’s third-edition handbook, “implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.” Chaos, meanwhile, “implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.”
The handbook recommends good and lawful alignments, because evil characters are distracting and disruptive, and neutral characters are untrustworthy (“they are honest but can be tempted into lying or deceiving others if it suits him/her”). Penalties are incurred for switching alignments in the midst of a game, or for acting egregiously out of character.
Kicking off the internet life of the alignment chart, a template was posted to the now-defunct Pinterest-progenitor Polyvore in 2012, allowing charts of game characters and memes to start circulating on websites such as Reddit, Tumblr, and 4chan. In 2014, people still referred to the template as “the D&D alignment chart” and sometimes acknowledged themselves as “ridiculously nerdy” for sharing it. But while most of the charts posted around that time covered subjects that came from fandoms or from meme culture, some branched out into more mainstream topics. See: a Shia LaBeouf alignment chart, which put his character from Even Stevens in the “neutral evil” spot. And another, which put Indiana Jones Shia in that spot instead.
As alignment charts grew in popularity, Dungeons & Dragons got its own boost thanks to ambient ’80s nostalgia and the mainstreaming of the high-fantasy genre with Game of Thrones, among other factors. But the chart’s cultural position is increasingly divorced from that of the game. Today, sharing an alignment meme has much less to do with nerdy hobbies than it does with the internet’s favorite petty debates, such as “Are you supposed to wash your legs?” and “How would dogs wear pants?” (Don’t even get me started on whether cheesecake is pie.) According to Google Search Trends, interest in alignment charts started increasing sharply in November 2016. The desire to align everything has gotten measurably more powerful in the years since the last presidential election, which have been marked by polarization and the use of Harry Potter metaphors to describe real-world events.
Alignment charts serve a clear purpose during a game that you sit down and play with your friends, but the way they work online is hazier. In his 2003 book, Designing Virtual Worlds, the game researcher Richard Bartle argues that moral alignment is useful for role-playing games because, in face-to-face gameplay, there’s a referee—the Dungeon Master—who is empowered to say when violations occur and to penalize players. Moral decisions occur along a clearly-outlined spectrum.
The internet is much less tidy. Bartle recommends against using an alignment chart in a virtual space or online game because, on the internet, “much of what is good or evil, lawful or chaotic, is intangible.” The internet creates so many unpredictable conflicts and confusing scenarios for human interaction, judgment becomes impossible. At the same time, judgment comes down constantly online. Social-media platforms frequently enforce binary responses: either award something a heart because you love it, or reply with something quick and crude when you hate it. The internet is a space of permutations and addled context, yet, as the Motherboard writer Roisin Kiberd argued in a 2019 essay collection about meme culture, “the internet is full of reductive moral judgment.”
The first time Dungeons & Dragons was popular, moms and media outlets spent a few years hand-wringing about its overtones of Satanism and witchcraft. But the game persisted by reimagining war and strategy games, then in vogue; it was more about developing characters and exploring moral choices than it was about mass destruction or colonialism. (In the 1989 edition, some of the demon stuff was removed.) Its vocabulary has remained common even outside of the game because it proposes that life might be made up of logical choices. Even outside of the charts themselves, the internet-fluent frequently describe things as “chaotic good” or “lawful evil.” The former is everyone’s favorite, a shorthand for saying that someone is kind and cool but disrespects authority—in a funny, sweet way.
Today, it’s fairly obvious why people would gravitate toward something a little bit witchy but morally clear-eyed. Americans’ trust in each other and in most institutions is declining. A little clarity is a treat. But while a nine-grid chart is more nuanced than “good” and “bad,” it’s unnaturally tidy all the same. There are infinite ways to conduct yourself in the world, and no rules that force you to be consistent.
I took three versions of a quiz that was supposed to tell me my personal moral alignment, and would have liked to be told that I am chaotic and good, but I got a different result every time—at one point, “lawful neutral,” which was traumatizing. What charts like these can’t address is the fact that what we want to be is often different than what we are. What quizzes really do—as anyone who ever had a Seventeen subscription knows—is force you to think of the responses you should give in order to get the result that you want. It would be nice, though, to just pick a way to be and stick to that box.