Philosophy Through Video Games: A Review

While video game criticism has yet to reach the cultural status of its film counterparts, academic writing about and research into video games, their popularity, and cultural influence is certainly getting closer, particularly with the likes of Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox’s Philosophy Through Video Games.  Check out my review after the jump.Philosophy Through Video Games is not for the casual gamer.  Only hard-core, inquisitive gamers will take the time and energy necessary to work through this rather dense text.  Getting through a couple of these chapters is like completing Uncharted 2 on the most difficult setting.  Cogburn and Silcox tackle a range of topics from personal identity, artificial intelligence, the omnipotence of God, the reality of digital presence, metaphysics of gameplay, and, while they’re at it, the meaning of life.  In defense of their decision to take video games so seriously, they write, “[…It] is unlikely to be a complete coincidence that the ancient Greeks invented philosophy around the same time that they first began to indulge in ritualized game playing.  Likewise, existentialism only attained broad cultural cachet during the early 1960s, the point at which New Deal economic policies and the industrial revolution had spread material affluence and leisure to all social classes in the West for the first time in human history” (154-155).  Video games just happen to be the latest, most popular form of play in popular culture today.

In the first chapter, Cogburn and Silcox discuss notions of the self by dissecting assertions that gamers make when participating in multi-player role-playing games, either in person or online.  For example, what does the player mean when she says, “I killed a dozen vampires?”  Of course, this person did not literally kill a dozen vampires.  However, Cogburn and Silcox take this statement, and others like it, and enter into an absolutely fascinating discussion of the nature of the self, employing the work of philosophers like Descartes, Hume, Andy Clark and David Chalmers.  They ultimately conclude that our avatars, be they a character in World of Warcraft or our pages on Facebook, are extensions of our real selves.  They argue that it is best to think of our selves as jigsaw puzzles with these extensions represent pieces of that puzzle.  They write, “[…Through] video games and online communities, we are now developing ways to spatio-temporally extend ourselves that until recently would have seemed implausible in a science fiction novel” (16).

What can participation in RPGs like "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" teach us about not only the self, but the meaning of life?

In Chapter 2, the authors take the surprising popularity and success of the Nintendo Wii, which outperformed its Microsoft and Sony competitors, to discuss our relationship with our surroundings.  That the Wii, with its less sophisticated graphics, outperformed the XBox 360 and Playstation 3’s, whose graphics are far more photorealistic, leads Cogburn and Wilcox into a discussion of how we as human beings perceive and interact with our surrounding environment.  In fact, they question if what we perceive, or even our perceptions, are actually real.  Here, they re-hash the philosophical debate between phenomenalism and enactivism and argue that the latter provides a “compelling explanation of what Wii game-play is more realistic” (21).

Chapter 3 revives the endless debate concerning violence in video games with the authors asking whether or not violent games make violent gamers.  Here, they engage the competing arguments that video games to indeed result in violent gamers versus the notion that they serve a cathartic function, exercising violent tendencies that players might ordinarily enact “in the real world.”  While Cogburn and Silcox do see value in the psychological studies of the effects of video game violence on gamers, they are highly skeptical of the ways in which these studies are concocted.  Far more interesting than the specific acts of violence within games, Cogburn and Silcox point to the larger, perhaps more dangerous themes that violent video games often engage, particularly notions of xenophobia, xenophilia, and what they refer to as “normalizing the outrageous” (68-69).

To simply obsess over violence in video games is to miss a host of other problems with those games.

The authors’ discussion of world-builder and tycoon games like Civilization, Age of Empires, SimCity, etc. in Chapter 4 is perhaps one of the more interesting, and certainly the most theologically compelling, chapters in the book.  Here, they argue that such games allow players to reflect on both ethical systems, the nature of God, and theodicy, to name a few.  They use an analysis of these games to “(1) discern the connection (if any) between God and morality, (2) to derive meaningful criteria to differentiate right from wrong, and (3) to describe how video games, properly informed by the answers to (1) and (2), might be designed” (73).  These games, by giving players god-like control over nature and civilizations allow them to reflect on notions of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence.  Cogburn and Silcox argue that this is a two-way street:  these games can help us think theologically, while thinking theologically might help creators better design future iterations of these games.

Chapters 5 & 6 are perhaps the most dense of the lot.  Here Cogburn and Silcox discuss the metaphysics of interactive art and artificial intelligence.  They discusses the low level of artificial intelligence in video games and suggest that a more sophisticated artificial intelligence is certainly beyond technological capabilities now and perhaps for the near future.  In these chapters Cogburn and Silcox evidence a deep knowledge of the inner workings of game engines and the limitations that a coded narrative places on the gamer and the occasional ability of gamers to “solve” games in ways for which their designers did not account.

Games like "Black & White" can be avenues for theological reflection and discussion.

Cogburn and Silcox conclude their book by reflecting on the ways in which video games might help us think about the ever-present philosophical question, “What is the meaning of life?”  Here, they are particularly interested in the recurrent themes in RPGs, themes that also re-occur in fantasy literature and mythology.  They note striking similarities between our attraction to role-playing games and the everyday role-playing that takes place in our home, professional, and religious lives.  They argue, “The fantasies that we indulge in about ourselves when we pretend to be characters in a fictional world teach us about our place within the ‘real’ world, and this is precisely the sort of self-knowledge (one must surely assume) that will aid in the pursuit of true autonomy within our lives” (143).

Though Cogburn and Silcox arrive at some fascinating “conclusions” in each of their chapters, they leave readers with far more questions than answers.  Though only Chapter 4 deals with theology explicitly, one could easily tease out significant theological implications from each chapter.  Though popular video game criticism is more concerned with whether or not purchases of games will be money well spent, thankfully texts like Philosophy Through Video Games not only elevates the literature on video games, but will hopefully serve to uplift the medium itself along the way.

If you’re interested, you can also keep up with Cogburn and Silcox’s ongoing work with and reflections on video games here.