Saturday, 21 July 2012

Video Games And Philosophy

This article was originally written for Forces of Geek and published on Thursday 12th July 2012, looks like my degree in philosophy paid off, huh?

Unlike any other pastime, hobby or pursuit, gamers are often required to justify and defend the medium. Angry mothers, teachers, politicians, at some point everyone's had a stab at the credibility and worth of video games. Well, with the help of the likes of Descartes, Baudrillard and several others, I intend to arm you with a few philosophical statements that can be applied to games.

Yep, this week's column is a selfish amalgamation of two of my favourite things - games and philosophy. I'm going to attempt to combine the two together and see what happens, much like a scientist. Go, science! But don't worry, this won't be a dense read or a boring lecture, philosophy is an incredibly self-indulgent subject which questions life, existence, morality, religious belief, the meaning of life and all the important subjects, like video games. Chances are, every game you've ever played has posed a few subtle philosophical questions.. granted, Mario Kart and FIFA are a stretch but the beauty of philosophy is you could probably argue they do.

T-shirt design can be found at 604 Republic
First, lets analyse one of the biggest hang-ups non-gamers have: "It's not real, you know?" I couldn't disagree more and to help prove our point, we must call upon Scottish philosopher, David Hume.
"For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other...I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception."
Am I Emma-Jane or applescruffs85?
Hume believed that humans are intrinsically made up of their experiences as perceived by them at that time, i.e. who's to say what's real and what isn't? 

All perceptions are just as valid as any other and if I believe strongly in the 'reality' of a gaming world, I automatically assign it plausible credibility through my experiences. The boundaries by which we define ourselves and the ways we refer to ourselves when playing games are fundamentally warped and vague. 

The "I" of the player and the "I" of the avatar we play as are difficult to separate without some kind of existential crisis... who am "I"?! Which "I" am I?! 

When we speak about a previous night of gaming with other people, we might say things like "I killed so many Tangos last night" we are speaking about ourselves of course yet we didn't actually kill anyone or anything. 

Linguistically, this is an interesting subject as we use the same words/things to describe our actual life and our virtual life - all the more confusing when you consider that last night I did actually play a game in my real life which did in fact allow me to kill for example, the covenant from Halo. Add to that, some of the enemies you killed are real people and you can see a moral dilemma forming. Of course it shouldn't surprise you that I don't kill people, yet in a game I have no qualms - in fact it's more than likely the objective of the game. 

Now we have a handle on what's real and what isn't, we have to contend with angry parents and the ill-informed who believe that games corrupt us. Time to quote crazy glass inhaling Dutchman, Baruch Spinoza. 
"He, who knows how to distinguish between true and false, must have an adequate idea of true and false"
In other words, I have the option and the ability to wreak havoc and mayhem in games such as GTA but just because I have the capability to commit larceny and murder doesn't necessarily mean that I would act out these criminal misdoings in real life (at least that's what my lawyers would have me say). The above statement suggests that internally, on a subconscious level I know that murder is inherently immoral, as such I don't have to experience killing someone/something to know that it's wrong. You can act in devious ways virtually and yet retain your sense of righteousness, enjoy the moral high ground and exercise dignity in real life.

What Grand Theft Auto is all about
Granted, this doesn't mean I won't explore the boundaries of the game and see how long I can goad the authorities, rack up civilian kills and survive the wrath of an entire police department and the military. 

This example of moral philosophy leads me on to moral choices and the perfect world for gamers to make countless key choices and decisions based on their ethical principles are found in RPGs. Take the Fallout franchise for example, you have the choice to be good, evil or sit on the fence in a numb state of neutrality. Your choices affect how the NPCs in the game react to you and one devious act can tar your reputation leading to a very different ending. From Saviour of the Damned to Demon Spawn, whatever you choose reflects heavily on our character in-game.

Still, the Karma system in Fallout rarely rewards you for being wholly evil, as far as I can tell you get slightly better weapons but ultimately the entire Wastelands wants to end your life so there's a consequence to every action and we knowingly play out these choices, in the words of Tenpenny's resident Ghoul, Michael Masters (Fallout 3);
"Karma's a real bitch, you'd be wise to remember that"
The idea that every choice you make yields various reactions and consequences is explored by French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. We always have a choice and even if we are given no choice, we still have free will and autonomy and can express ourselves in any way we see fit.
"Existence precedes essence"
Pac-Man Life Lessons - Lolsnaps
You might be thinking, 'That sounds pretty fancy Em, but uh, what the hell does that even mean?" Basically, this statement implies that our actions and choices define us. Therefore RPGs allow us the opportunity to explore humanity based on the choices we make, whether they are something familiar or something outlandishly twisted.

But these are all examples of games in which you are in control of an individual, a lone warrior or explorer. What about the nature of leadership and tactical engagements? For this, we require the moustache king, Nietzsche.
"Commanding is more difficult than obeying...the commander bears the burden of all who obey, and that this burden can easily crush him"
Yep, knew I could work a FIFA example in here. Whether you're commanding the Soviets or Allies in Command & Conquer, the Spanish national team in a football game or simply unleashing the destructive force of tiny caged animals... such as Pokemon, you are in command.

The glory is yours, the strategies are your own but the risk is not immediate. In essence, you exercise not only control but caution, responsibility and ingenuity unlike several other games out of a will to power rather than self-preservation.

So you see, the very nature of video games suggests I can live several lives within my own life. I play games in which I live out different lives - yet this is all happening in the real world... Is the game in our mind or is our mind in the game? What about AI and NPCs? Are they real? The blurring between reality and simulacra is a hazard.

With issues as complex as this, it's no wonder Nietzsche descended into madness and Descartes shut out the world in order to live in a solipsistic state. If he didn't think, he wouldn't exist...  After all, we are what we think... (I think). But he used to spend time thinking in a large oven.. so what does he know?

Maybe what these philosophers needed was a few video games? A little less self destructive analysis and a little more simulated escapism. Either way, consider yourself a little better armed should anyone come intellectually gunning for your 360 or PS3.

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