Philosophy and Video Games

Another firm Kill Screen reject submitted by Theodore Miles – this time on Philosophy and Video Games:

As also not featured on Kill Screen ;-)

The task of philosophy – at least on paper – seems a comparatively unassuming, low key activity. Contrary to popular opinion, rather than ponder big or deep questions about life and existence, philosophy more simply asks what people mean by what they say, and offers a critique of the ideas contained in and implied by their words

There’s a sense that Video games don’t exactly need philosophy. That they’re perfectly content to carry on as they are – and think they are – bleeping merrily to themselves. At least, that’s what they seem to tell us. It’s often difficult to understand what they say, or exactly how they say it

To outsiders peering in with bemused, sometimes concerned looks, video games and the culture they express appear as a closed circuit of cryptic meanings and obscure intent, an endless internal circulation of puzzling symbols and bizarre ritual, largely indecipherable by those unable to speak the language – and speak it correctly

This flashy language of bright lights and fast moving code, is in part defined by the figure of the Player. And since both the player and their visual language of play appear to be undergoing rapid evolution into uncharted territory, both are often difficult to make sense of. What is more certain is that as an expression of 21st Century interactive art, video games are definitely big business, big fun; a serious personal pursuit for, and communication of Meaning for billions. (That is, billions of dollars – and players)

The true cultural significance and impact of Games however is uncertain, as the whole merry wheel is still in spin – especially when viewed as a significant, cultural impact in themselves. Consider play as something strange which smacks the brain with a vibrant, unexpected immediacy. Incredible forms leap in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Grand digital vistas appear as if by magic, so intense that players are swept away in raptures of boundless, imaginative reverie. Games today are like some frenzied, mutating cross between a self replicating spiritual street drug and a virtual psychedelic religion, all rolled into one vast electronic bliss-out

At least, that’s what players appear to be experiencing. The conceptual borders defining games and play are fuzzy and contested, often redrawn each time they appear (respawn) in player’s daily lives

However, this modern language of Play isn’t just some abstract, symbolic representation of the worlds of the player’s imagination, but an expression and manifestation of an entire Reality players already live in – and yet often seem largely unaware of. When games are everywhere, they become invisible, pervasive and habitual. Life forms. embedded in an ocean of data, are often oblivious to the deep waters they swim and play in

What philosophy can do in this odd situation is act like intelligent squid, skilfully injecting a little critical ink into the smooth surface labyrinth of Play. One is suddenly able to see the background against, and through which one exists as a player. Philosophy makes it easier to cognitively realize something about, and reflect on the artificial nature of this exotic game state termed “Reality”. Suddenly a quiet gap opens, providing critical space for thoughtful contemplation on a Global Fun Industry that increasingly sounds like bad near future science fiction

How people relate to one another and to their world, is being revolutionized in realtime as they play together. Then there’s also Indie Games and their outsider view to consider, often full of psychological nuance and alternative aesthetics. This new world of games is highly thought provoking, beautiful, often intimidating- and difficult to grasp as a whole

Some confusion exists over what might be considered a philosophical game. Not many games said to be philosophical might be. Consider philosophy a meditative approach – more an attentive state of mind than some thing easily shoe-horned into creative projects, sprinkled on like cerebral flavouring to add instant cultural weight and importance to otherwise standard consumer objects

In the same way it takes skill to make and play games, one needs a keen, philosophical eye to interpret their meanings and hidden potential – if any. While every game designer has endless ideas about games, the cultural notion that all games are, or contain meaningful and important expressions of our unique (and troubled) Human Condition needs careful, philosophical consideration

As a central icon of play, Pac-Man often appears philosophy important. The traditional game of Go is widely seen as philosophical. More recently, Jonathan Blow’s puzzle and island exploration game The Witness seems vaguely philosophical. Croteam’s The Talos Principle, and David O’Reilly’s Mountain might arguably express a little less philosophy than developers and reviewers believe exists

Neo, the hero from The Matrix movies, was trapped in illusion but eventually escaped. Or did he? Like Neo, maybe players also never left this hot neon grid of human cultural communication, meaning and symbolism called Games. They certainly don’t seem to want to leave any time soon, and in fact actively enjoy every moment spent in this vast artifice of Play. When it comes to ‘just playing around‘, humans really push the envelope. Just like modern science, games enjoy uninterrupted research, and almost daily cutting edge development and innovation. One only has to glance at emerging Virtual Reality tech to see this unprecedented driving force of Games As Culture at work

The future of play and games does in many ways feel wonderfully limitless. But to what exact ends, via what means – and from what legendary beginnings – appears difficult to summarize. What is more certain however: that games are a now 24-7, we-never-close public laboratory* for the direct manipulation of spacetime energy in the service of Play. A playful universe – a ‘playverse’, fully alive and even sentient with light and colour. A cosmic dance with no real winners or losers. Or maybe just unreal ones

Another odd sense emerging from all this busy cultural activity, is that somehow “Everything’s a game” – and, therefore nobody should take them (and-or life) seriously. For to do so, would ruin their special magic – or simply break the spell they cast. Yet while Everything may indeed be a playful game, the very idea of ‘everything being a game’ is ironically a serious cultural notion – more an indirect injunction or implied obligation, as much a playful invitation

Play all you want, games-as-culture tell us. But smile while doing it. Such precisely instructional posters already exist: “Keep calm and play video games.” It’s your duty, citizen

To view games as mere escapism or culturally prescribed fun however, forgets to question what precisely players escape from. Games are not just another mindless human retreat from the state called (or state of) Reality, but maybe also the active construction of better ones. Happier realities. This too seems the futuristic, semi-unconscious promise or implication of video games, as much a mass collective ideal as anything else

Games and players are becoming increasingly diverse and advanced. It’s easy to get lost in here among the sights and noise. Luckily, philosophical players exist to examine the claims of games to knowledge – about themselves and anything else; their endlessly playful, multiplayer dream utopias

* Yes, that does kinda sound like “public lavatory”

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Robert H. Dylan playfully roleplays an amateur postmodern philosopher / writer and conceptual artist at

Not nearly strange enough: Tangiers

On Indie Video Game “Tangiers” and it’s missing strangeness:

This feels like ‘surreal lite': despite appearances, Tangiers has little true familiarity and understanding of its subject matter – and in fact seems a mere simulation or accidental parody of a game called “Tangiers”

That is, it’s ‘Gamey‘ – “Having all the appearance of a game yet without its qualities”

If “Language is a Virus” then perhaps the work of William Burroughs is encouraging us to “Stop Making Sense”

A game about, involving – or evolving – language, must necessarily be symbolic

The following quotes about Tangiers were written by its designers:

Tangiers is a dark, surreal game

What’s dark and surreal is often how often the words ‘dark and surreal’ are used

What is incredibly surreal is the fact people actually once watched “Friends” or found “Seinfeld” the least bit funny

[..] a love letter to the avant-garde of the 20th century

Isn’t that arguably every piece of art produced in this century?

It’s set in a world built from the broken prose of Burroughs and the social dystopia brought about by Ballard’s architecture

Rather than ‘broken’ or ‘fragmentary’, perhaps the work of Burroughs is more usefully considered ‘nonlinear’

There’s little evidence so far of anything particularly ‘Ballardian’; hopefully there will be a distinct lack of drained swimming pools, deserted hotels or abandoned superhighways featuring rusty car wrecks filled with crash test dummies

It is inspired by the Dadaists’ play with the absurd and grotesque, by Throbbing Gristle’s way of teasing the edge of public decency with homemade video loops, by the dark, ambient textures of Oophoi and David Lynch, and the uncivilized, primitive dance of Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty

Perhaps ‘Inspired by’ isn’t good enough; maybe players don’t want to be inspired by Whatever-ism, but actually play in a world that is Dadist (and if not, then that would be absurd and grotesque and a waste of their time)

As for Artaud’s “Theatre Of Cruelty”, having the player go around snapping necks – despite being cruel – simply isn’t the same thing

It is a world of solitude, where contradiction and paradox are found and reflected in violent strokes of light and shadow

Players may read this as: “I feel lonely and alienated from this dull game space that barely responds to me”

As for ‘light and shadow'; everything looks pre-baked and tied down; there’s a distinct lack of player agency regarding the active use of light

Tangiers is in many ways an homage to and an emulation of these sources of inspiration

An homage is often for something long since dead and buried; and an emulation merely a bad parody of missing (game system) actualities

It is a way to take hold of and explore the ideas, concepts and emotions that drove these artists’ expressions through a new medium: the video game

Videogames often seem exactly the wrong way to explore other people’s ideas; and what are those ideas exactly?

As for ‘new mediums’ these require new approaches which take into account their directly interactive nature

Our means is the method they share: of looking at a medium sideways (and upside-down, and inside-out), in order to challenge what’s expected of it and see what can be twisted, shifted, cut-up, broken, and reassembled to reveal the potential which lurks on its edges and in its darkened corners

This seems a good idea for most video game developers; but with Tangiers does not yet seem to have been seriously considered

But our perspective is not the coldness of post-modern rationality

Again, this seems to betray a lack of understanding of what makes an artwork ‘cold’, postmodernism – and ‘rationality’

We will remain conscious of and true to the heart of our medium: gameplay, and we will hold tight to that center throughout the process of creating the world of Tangiers

As has been noted before, ‘Gameplay’ is a largely meaningless term used by marketeers; gamers are supposed to read ‘interactive mechanics’ and ‘game rules’ into that word but its merely often used as a catch all term to mean ‘fun’

Tangiers is a stealth game at its core, following and building upon many of the mechanics set up by the Thief series of games

This points to the too-often arbitrary nature of game design; why is Tangiers a ‘stealth’ game? Why can’t players discover how it may be played instead?

If one considers William S. Burroughs as a video game character, in what ways could he be made more unique / subtle / strange than Garrett from Thief or Agent 47 from Hitman? Imagine a tall, thin man (El Hombre Invisible as Slenderman?) who is not who or what he appears to be – who is ‘hidden in plain sight’

Now *this* could be the real trailer for a truly ‘Tangerian’ gamespace system:

The promises continue to pile on:

You stalk through the shadowy fragments of an oppressive city, scattered across a dying, emotionally burnt landscape, avoiding the light and planning your infiltrations and assassinations by observing your foes’ public and private lives

That sounds OK; but again in terms of the ‘Burroughsian’, why must you avoid the light? Is that because this is a ‘dark’ game?

The world you’ve arrived in is falling apart, its reality is fracturing and shifting in strange ways

On the contrary, the world of the Dadists was all too built, concrete and totalizing; it was they who needed to break it down andor through it

The words of its inhabitants materialize physically: a guard’s frustrations at being unable to find you can be gathered up and thrown down the street, sending him astray

Yes, but one senses they will only ever materialize according to a script, rather than dynamically through player interaction

The overheard words of an intimate, illicit conversation can be collected and used to unveil hidden pathways and otherwise unseen aspects of the world

What if sections of conversations could be ‘cut out’ and collected by a player and used as temporary skills or powerups?

This fragile reality presents itself as an adversary to you, for you are an outsider, a pathogen, and your interactions with it cause it to crumble further

Apart from the occasional glitch, most realities (even video game realities) are pretty robust; perhaps Tangiers would benefit from a reality that the player constructs through interaction with their own imagination / the rules of the game system – a constructionist, rather than antagonistic ‘agent of change’

Your play ‘cuts up’ the world, which rebuilds itself in response to your impact, attempting to fix the error of your existence

Unfortunately this only hints at a game world which meaningfully responds to your actions; besides, “cut ups” in literature seem more to do with poking holes in linear time to reveal hidden depths and potentials for expanded meaning

As you travel through the sandbox-style environments of Tangiers, your inevitable mistakes will become embedded in future areas, creating a game that, subtly or not so subtly, is unique to you

Unfortunately one reading of this could be: “As you travel through our all-too predictable Skinner Box, your arbitrary and minimal interactions result in one or two negative pre-scripted consequences”

In short, Tangiers isn’t nearly strange enough to be interesting and needs to go back to the drawing board:

  • Make its ideas and game design assumptions made freely available and debatable by gamers
  • Idea: Incorporate a ‘dimmer switch’ that can affect the lighting of the entire world at once (consider the light and dark of Betrayer)
  • Rather than some abstract shape which does not automatically mean ‘surreal’, consider the man character as a simple man in a Trilby hat with a uniquely limited skills on a complicated mission; an ‘existential detective’ – and part time ‘exterminator’
  • “Don’t show – play” (??)

In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed”
– William S. Burroughs

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