Philosophy in Video Games 2: What is a Game?

Hi there. So over a year ago, I had this idea about writing a regular blog about the connection between philosophy and video games. However, nobody seemed interested, so I stopped after my first attempt. Well, I'm back to give it another shot, so please let me know if you'd like to hear more on this topic. The format I'm trying to establish will deal with a philosophical question pertaining to video games and discuss this question by means of introducing the reader to one philosopher and his theories.

In my last blog post, I spoke about how morals and morality are portrayed in video games. Ethical deliberations of this kind are generally called 'practical' philosophy. Today I'd like to talk about a more theoretical side of philosophy, namely language theory, by discussing a question that has popped up recently: What is a game?

This doesn't look very fun

Mainly, this question is being asked in conjunction with indie games that are breaking away from known formulas, and, perhaps more importantly, are being developed with new intentions in mind. While I'd say that generally it's been the main goal of a team to make a product that both sells and entertains, newer titles like Cart Life and Papers, Please have seemingly abandoned these goals. They are not made to entertain or to relay a fun experience, but to raise moral questions. In traditional blockbuster games, the player is given an opportunity to live the life of a hero, a better, more exciting life, dealing with extraordinary situations. Now he is being invited to see the world through the eyes of people who struggle with everyday life, learning of their problems and getting to understand their reality. Then there are games like Proteus or Dear Esther, which present an abstract concept in the form of a game, to be interpreted by the player. When looking at these examples of highly unconventional pieces of interactive media, the question of whether or not one is 'playing a game' is sure to arise.

What we call a game has also famously been discussed in philosophy, namely by early- to mid- 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Often described as the most influential thinker of the past century, his works and ideas are generally divided into two categories: the early Wittgenstein, who described his theories in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the later period, during which he wrote the seminal Philosophical Investigations. For our question about games, the later works are the more relevant. Wittgenstein's general goal, in both of his main works, was to establish a language theory which would enable us to deal with all of philosophy's question. This idea lead to what is commonly referred to as the 'linguistic turn' in philosophy, a turn away frommetaphysics and towards the pragmatic discussion of how the use of language governs our lives.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, looking crazy

Anyway, the most notable analogy Wittgenstein uses in the Investigations to explain his language theory is the so-called language-game. Like a game, language is governed by both implicit and explicit rules, and like in games, the rules are not exhaustive; there are situations not governed by them. For example, there's no rule in chess about which hand the players have to use to move their pieces. So this means that there is a certain openness to language. Now on a meta-level, the question of what we can call a game, is analogous to the question of what language is. Closely related to this is the question of how words get their meaning. While traditional theories of language assume that an object gets to be called something by sharing a common property with other objects (a chair has to fulfill the property of presenting a seating opportunity), Wittgenstein flat out rejects this view when it comes to games and language.

Instead, he uses the concept of family resemblance to explain how we use terms like game and language. This concept assumes that there is no single feature that all practices we call games share. For example, not all games are played together (Patience is played alone) or have goals (children's games like Ring a Ring o' Roses). So, without a unifying property, Wittgenstein uses the idea of “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing” to explain how we use the terms game and language. Simply put, two activities we call a game can have a common property, but don't have to. To count as a game, an activity just has to resemble at least one other activity we call a game. With this idea, Wittgenstein puts a heavy emphasis on the development of language as a social practice, while abandoning the traditional view of being able to give definitions by using sufficient and necessary conditions. In the end, we are left with the conclusion that there are no exact boundaries telling us what a game is and what isn't.

Dear Esther felt like reading a short story, but who's to say that games can't be short stories?

We can now use this concept of family resemblance to give a possible answer to the original question: What is a video game? In my opinion, there is a family resemblance to be recognized between games like Cart Life, Proteus and, say, a Gears of War. Sure, the similarities might be small, inconsequential or even non-existent. But since there are a myriad of games that differ ever so slightly, it is doubtful that there could be one not sharing any resemblance with another. According to our presumed concept, we simply would not call such a thing a game.

In conclusion, what are the lessons to be drawn from this theoretical exercise? Well, first of all, the question of whether or not a thing is a game seems somewhat flawed to me now. Without exact boundaries governing our use of words, maybe it doesn't matter if something we experience is closer to a movie than to a game, uses ideas usually found in other art forms or challenges our very conception of what a game should be. In fact, this is one of video games greatest strengths: By not having to adhere to certain limitations of a definition, games can change, evolve and bring us new experiences.

In the end, the question that should matter is not whether or not you are playing a game, but whether or not you are getting something out of that experience. This turn towards the pragmatic is also essentially what Wittgenstein envisaged when writing the Investigations: After having shown how senseless some of our own theoretical questions are, we can turn to the more important practical side of things.

Thank you for reading. Please leave a comment telling me what you think of this topic.


Philosophy in Video Games

A few months ago, a user on this site made a post about discussing philosophy in video games. He was planning on writing a regular blog about this topic, which I found to be quite an interesting idea. Unfortunately, I never read anything from him again and the topic died pretty soon. So now that I'm a bit further along in my studies (I'm a philosophy major in Germany) and since I currently have some time on my hands due to spring break, I decided to pick up this topic and write my own blog.

I should preface this by saying that this is my first blog. I usually don't post on these forums and mainly come here for the video content, but this community seems nice enough. Also, as you may have guessed, English isn't my first language, so I apologize in advance for any grammar and vocabulary mistakes. Being German, I also lack any sense of humor, so if you read something in the text that you don't understand, it's probably a failed attempt at a joke. Feel free to give some criticism, I'm going to need it at the beginning. I'm mainly doing this for fun and to brush up on my english, since many philosophical texts today are written in English. I'm also just starting out with my studies, so this should be a good way for me to train my writing skills.

So much for openers, now let's get to the philosophizing!

The Categorical Imperative and 'being the good guy' in video games

Okay, let me tell you about a guy named Immanuel Kant. You may have heard of him. He probably was the most influential philosopher in German history, and on a world-wide scale was only rivaled by an over-rated Brit called David Hume. He even has a street named after him in the town I live in. I was there once, when an English tourist asked me which street we were on. I told her:“Kant“ and for some reason she slapped me and walked away furiously.

Man, what a Kant

Yeah, so his name is pronounced like the worst insult to a female, but that doesn't mean he should be ignored. He had it tough enough in middle school. Anyway, this guy came up with the idea of a 'supreme principle of morality', which is a guideline to judge the morality of one's actions. I'll spare you the details, but in the end he concluded, that if there is something like good will in the world, then there must be a rule which tells us if our actions are right or wrong. This rule is called the Categorical Imperative. It comes in three different formulations, each relying on a certain principle. In this text, I want to focus on the second one, which tells us that only an action that honors humanity can be a good action.

Now, let's start talking about video games in that context. Think about how heroism is usually portrayed in them and how that reflects our modern definition of 'good'. I'm not talking about any of those Indie-gems with a message like Braid, Limbo, or recently Journey. I want to speak about the games that have wide audiences, mass appeal, and large development studios. Specifically, let's take a closer look at the modern shooter. In most of them, you play the sole hero that can save the world, ensure the survival of humankind, and is a bad enough dude to save the president. While doing so, you casually slaughter hundreds of people, aliens or monsters to fulfill your noble goal. In video games, the end practically always justifies the means.

lovable, funny, witty, mass-murdering

This brings us back to our wise philosopher with the funny name. The second formulation of the Categorical Imperative states, according to Wikipedia's translation: „Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.“ To clarify, when Kant talks about a 'person' he is referring to rational beings in general. In his time that included humans and angels, but in the context of games like Mass Effect, that description perfectly fits extra-terrestrial beings. Humanity also confusingly does not refer to an attribute found only in humans, but rather stands for the feature that enables a sentient being to act morally good.

Considering this formula and the way 'enemies' are treated in most video games, it's clear that even if the goal is a good one, the act of achieving this goal is morally wrong, at least according to Kant. I don't want to sound patronizing. I enjoyed blasting away the Locust in Gears of War and shot my fair share of henchmen in Uncharted, but if you think about it, what video games often portray as the right thing to do is pretty messed up. Purposely or not, video games shift morality by focusing on the value of the goal, and not on the morally questionable actions the player undertakes to achieve said goal. One could even argue that the part of a game that is actively played is exclusively the morally ambiguous part, while the achieving of the goal, like the rescue of someone or something, is often only depicted in cut-scenes in which the player does not actively partake.

No matter what choices you made, your Shepard probably killed a bunch of people

Of course, Kant does not neglect the importance of setting oneself a goal. In fact, he believed that every action we take is pre-planed by us setting ourselves an end. But, in conjunction with the second formula of the CI, he defines an objective end. This objective end, or 'Zweck-an-sich', is an end that every rational being is compelled to acknowledge and to honor. Surprisingly enough, this end is humanity itself. His argument is that if there is something like a supreme principle of morality, then there must be an end which all morally good actions have. This end must be objective, and thus cannot be dependent on circumstance. It has to be something everyone can deem as objectively good. As Kant believed that the only objectively good thing in the world is good will, and since humanity is the attribute which enables us to act with a good will, the conclusion that humanity must be the objective end that everyone should strive for, is only logical.

In most video games, even in the ones that portray the player character as the good guy, this concept of what is right or wrong is blatantly disregarded. Killing sprees are justified by what Kant would call a random, empirical and subjective goal, all while the most valuable thing for him, human dignity, is repeatedly stepped on.

In the end, this all probably sounds a bit more serious than it really should be taken. We all know that video games are just that, and usually don't even try to emulate reality. I don't believe that just enjoying shooting fictional people makes someone a bad person. However, as video games progress and are more and more becoming a viable medium of telling a story, we also need to start observing what kind of values they communicate.

Wow, this whole thing took a pretty serious turn at the end. Didn't really plan on that... Next time I'll try to find a lighter topic. By the way, if you made it this far, congratulations! You can now tell people that you know something about the 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals'. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? That's the 80-something page book in which Kant explains the Categorical Imperative, so if you're further interested in this topic, I'm sure there's a good translation to be found somewhere. Also, if you enjoyed this blog, please let me know. If you didn't, I'd be interested in knowing what I should improve on.