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If only video games would dare, they could teach us more about philosophy than books.
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If only video games would dare, they could teach us more about philosophy than books.


I am currently in a fortunate stage of my journey as a parent. My son is now old enough to have a girlfriend who is clever enough to give thoughtful gifts to her boyfriend’s father during Christmas. This is how I received Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything) by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos. Giving books as gifts can be risky because they, like video games, require time and investment. You cannot simply toss them on your worn-out feet like a sock or rub them on your exhausted face like an aftershave. It all depends on the condition of your feet and the temperature of your face.

I personally find it ironic to read academic books about video games, as I previously hosted a BBC Radio 4 show in the 90s titled “Are Books Dead?” In the show, I argued that video games had made traditional written media obsolete. Looking back, this was a foolish question, but it was a time when making bold statements without substance was celebrated, making it an exciting era and making Liam Gallagher a hero.

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The initial chapter suggests that video games are the ideal platform for conducting philosophical thought experiments. Instead of simply talking about theoretical scenarios, like the concept of utilitarianism and its implications on the welfare of the majority versus the minority, while indulging in cheese and wine in a teacher’s lounge (which was the delightfully extravagant setting for my philosophy A-level classes), video games allow you to fully immerse yourself in these scenarios through engaging visuals and active participation.

This book is fantastic and has made me think about games in a different way. The fast pace of gameplay usually doesn’t allow for much contemplation, especially when being chased by aliens with a countdown timer.

The book discusses a scenario from Mass Effect 3 where one must choose between saving Admiral Koris or his five crew members from the Geth. This situation tests the principles of utilitarian philosophy, where the greater good must be prioritized over the needs of a few. However, this decision becomes even more complicated as saving the crew may result in the Admiral’s death, causing a chain reaction of panic among other officers and leading to more casualties than just the initial five.

However, the issue I have with using games as thought experiments is that this particular decision was not at all difficult for me. Being a gamer, I was aware that saving Koris would lead to a more favorable outcome compared to keeping his small crew alive. The crew’s lack of contribution in the future is due to their simple names, unlike Admiral Zaal’Koris vas Qwib-Qwib. It would be a challenge to find a souvenir with that name in a holiday gift shop.

Although it was the correct choice for a gamer, the game does not give us the opportunity to find out if any of the crew members went on to find a cure for cancer. However, do I really want to contemplate these complex issues when my main goal is to achieve the highest score and obtain a powerful weapon for my future playthrough? After all, games are meant to be enjoyable, right?

The authors suggest that the enjoyable nature of video games makes them a more accessible platform for philosophical ideas compared to books. In a society where philosophy is not considered important enough to be taught in schools, video games may be the only source for children to learn about the subject. This is disheartening and likely remains true in current times, despite the book being published in 2017.

Video games are also suitable for philosophical discussions because one does not have to understand complex theoretical scenarios. Instead, they can be experienced and observed. There is no need to debate with others who may argue that certain actions are impossible in reality, such as traveling back in time to kill Hitler as a baby, because in games, it is conceivable. (For example, in Wolfenstein IV: Hitler Hospital.) Every time we turn on a gaming console, we suspend our disbelief. Whether it’s a plumber growing after eating a mushroom or a fictional team winning the European Champions League in a virtual football manager game in 2024. In real life, we may never encounter a situation where we have to choose between saving one life or five (hopefully). However, in video games, we have the ability to do so.

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The Last of Us Part I on PlayStation 5 and PC.

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I hope there were more options available to players. The Last of Us posed a moral dilemma: should Joel choose to save the human race by sacrificing Ellie? However, as a player, you do not have the choice to make that decision – Ellie must survive. Similar to saving the five characters in Mass Effect 3, this solution was not perfect and led to further problems in the sequel. It would be interesting if Naughty Dog created a version where players could allow Ellie to die, exploring alternate universes in game sequels.

I desire those choices. Otherwise, when presented with decisions in games, I do not view them as thought-provoking methods for exploring philosophical ideas or morality. Instead, I choose what will earn me the highest score. I was raised on arcade games where the sole indicator of achievement was increasing a numerical value. However, my children’s generation is distinct. They were raised on games where you manipulate petals or immerse yourself in the perspective of a mountain, with no scoring system at all. They have been encouraged to contemplate, quite literally, everything.

Source: theguardian.com