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.

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Posted by Kaibar

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.