Philosophy and Videogames
Ian Bogost recently wrote a couple of posts regarding a ‘metaphysics videogame’ (part one, part two but also his interview by Paul Ennis) on his blog; the idea, deriving from some exchanges with Graham Harman (see here, here and Harman’s interview here), gained some popularity in the ‘speculative realism’ blogosphere, and I would like to weigh in and make some personal observations about this fascinating idea (I agree with Harman’s opinion that such a product would be ‘a potential game-changer for the discipline if done right’).
Let’s say the universe is, metaphorically, a brain, in that it consists in objects that are networked together and affect one another. And let’s say the “player” sets parameters that determine the structure of the network (genetic information, maybe, or information that determines something like an L-system rule). So the brain-universe grows and structures itself based on the parameters, and the “result” is a visualization of how it processes information. Are there parameters that would create an autistic universe? How would the universe process information if causation were asymmetrical?
While Bogost, a few comments below, writes:
Off the top of my head, the player could be the philosopher, and the main action could involve making judgements about the simulated world’s metaphysics. This would allow both the construction of worlds that would meet specific philosophical criteria, and the identification of the constitution of a specific world.
and, in his own second post on the topic, he elaborates that a possibility could be that
In the spirit of The Sims or other simulation games, a videogame could address the practice of being a professional philosopher, including the process of matriculation, job seeking, idea production, publication, public receptivity, advisement, debate, public personas, and all other aspects of the ordinary life of the metaphysician. Ontology Tycoon, so to speak.
Now, I take these two options as examples, respectively, of a philosophy videogame and of a videogame about philosophy. In other words, one thing is to offer a sandbox where the player has the freedom to define the metaphysical parameters for the evolution of his or her own created universe (worldbuilding, as Bogost calls it), another is a simulation of ‘philosphical practice’ where the player takes control of a virtual avatar which interfaces itself with various places and events.
It seems to me that the first of these two options is the most complex. Would the philosophical content be offered to the player via rules, knobs and values to tweak or would it be located in a metareflection around the metaphysical status of the virtual objects themselves? In other words, would it be a first-life or a second-life philosophy? The problem here is about the status of virtual reality: even a game which is oblivious to possible philosophical content can become metaphysically problematized, merely by virtue of its offering an artificial reality. The first example that comes in my mind is the object editor of a game such as Little Big Planet: from a speculative realist point of view, what kind of ontological status does a chair created in a game possess? How can we try to address this virtual chair in a non-correlationalist way, one not stuck on the centrality of the human experience of it? Is it possible given that all of its qualities actually reside in strings of code written by a human programmer? What kind of causal relation occurs between two (fictional?) objects when they interact in the context of a videogame world according to physical rules scripted in the game’s physics engine? (vicarious causation on a whole other level?). In this way, a simple ‘chair editor’ would already be a philosophy videogame. Indeed Paul Ennis, in his own blogpost about it, argues that
Of course videogames are totally Heideggerian. You get thrown into some world, you need to use equipment seamlessly, and it all takes place in some kind of mad networked electronic framework. Plus computer games are obsessed with objects. Collecting them. Bashing people with them. And hammers. Lots of games have hammers.
I agree: in a way, every videogame creates for you (or lets you create, little big difference) a world constituted by an equipmental totality. As a matter of fact I would go as far as claiming that the aim of any future videogame would be to recreate such an environment so precisely, that every object in it can be a tool (as of today, technical limitations do not allow for this to happen, and the range of possible interactions with the world is somewhat limited by the presence of ‘manipulable objects’ and ‘mere scenario objects’. In the average FPS or 3rd person adventure, for example, the level of immersiveness of the game is evaluated on the basis of how many of the objects that the player encounters are usable or destroyable). I cannot help but push this tool-analysis a step further: is a game console a tool that allows the production of, and indeed holds into being, other kind of objects which in a second-order reality become tools themselves?
In the second option above, of a game about philosophy (which I see closer to history of philosophy proper) the game could more simply begin with the selection of a particular character (it would be kind of a philosophy-geek dream to have a ‘choose your characther/philosopher’ screen à la Street Fighter), whose philosophical beliefs we’d have to ‘use’ in order to solve or analyze puzzles or simple virtual-life situations.Or also, according to the character you use, you would see the same scenario in different ways. Maybe even a cooperative mode, where 2 Gadamers could use a special move called the ‘fusion of horizons’… It is still a blurry idea, but I think a more approachable one, if we interpret it as less of a philosophy game and more of a game about philosophy, a sort of pedagogical tool, perhaps even aided by some sort of narrative structure.
Both options, it seems to me, have one common denominator, and–perhaps–limit: the simulation of a real world. This is probably why both of them are unsatisfactory: videogames are increasingly striving towards a precise, detailed and increasingly photo-realistic reproduction of the real world. Think about flight simulators, driving games, sport games, or even FPSs and adventure games. Which is why two of the most important elements in a game today are the models (today made up by an enormous number of polygons) on one side and the physics engines which will dictate the physical limits for the movements of those models. When I play my 18 holes at Tiger Woods ’09 I like my golfer to be realistic in shape and in movement, and my ball to respond realistically to the club, to the wind around it, to the terrain on which it lands. The development of a philosophy videogame should, in a way, jump some 20 years back in time, resuscitating that symbolic spirit which animated some of the first games. If in the past that was largely due to technological limits, today’s philosophy game could benefit from all the computational power of today’s machines, and yet necessarily avoid the mere electronic representation of a real world.
Of course, the degree of reproduction of a real world also depends on our own very definition of philosophy: does philosophy describe, explain or manufacture the world? The (normative) answer to this question will decide the extent of the commerce between the virtual and the real world. In other words, will the game be a phenomenological videogame? Will it be a idealistic videogame? Will it be a realist one?
The first question should be: given that the one element that qualifies a videogame as different from a book or a movie is its being interactive, what is the purpose of such a videogame? A pedagogical one? The creation of a ‘sandbox’ simulation of a universe, a SimEarth on a ‘whole-of-reality scale’? And if this second purpose is to be chosen, should the videogame be designed to be somewhat self-aware of the philosophical questions which its own simulated reality can produce, and that hence calls for the player’s direct critical engagement, or should it aim to break any 1:1 relation with the real world and aim at the representation of ‘metaphysical realities’? (and herein lies the rub, for videogames offer us really two kind of perceptual stimuli: images and sounds [and, to be precise, some tactile feedback from rumbling controllers]).
To answer such a question of purpose requires also clarification of the way in which we are considering this videogame as a ‘product’ of philosophy (i.e. of a philosopher). Will it be the electronic equivalent of a history of philosophy textbook or will it be the equivalent of a theoretical work? And also, will it be aimed at interpreting or acting upon the social world?
All of these seems to me to only scratch the surface of this exciting idea. What I would like to comment further on, in following posts, is two correlated issues: first, the possibility of cooperative gameplay (open process) and how the game design could be built around it; second, the possibility of creating a open source (philosophy) game, where users could be able to not only tweak the rules according to the limits imposed by the programmer, but to tweak the source code of the game itself (once again, if within some limits, LBP is a great example of an ‘open source’ game which benefits a whole community of players, all engaging in parallel, worldbuilding, or even the real-time example of Second Life). Both issues are approachable via an understanding of a videogame as a (closed or open-ended) text.
Note – The picture up there is a pun that maybe requires explanation: the image is the artwork cover of ICO, a 2001 game for Playstation 2 (in fact, one of the best titles ever released for the console; for a great essay about it, see here). The game director and designer, Fumito Ueda, declared that he had derived inspiration, among other sources, from painters like Giorgio De Chirico for its aethereal and lonely scenarios. De Chirico was the founder of the ‘metaphysical school’ of Italian painting. Does that make ICO a metaphysical videogame?
~ by Fabio Cunctator on August 15, 2009.