Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Literature Review: Philosophy Through Video Games

I don't know what it says about me that one of my favorite books of the past year is a textbook. Maybe living in Cambridge is finally making me smart by osmosis?

Still, Jon Cogburn & Mark Silcox's Philosophy Through Video Games is right up there with Extra Lives in my top few best reads. (Sadly, the Mass Effect novels didn't make the cut.)

Make no mistake: PTVG is a philosophy text. Although the authors explore a number of relevant issues in the video game world with much more thoughtfulness, detail, and historical context than your average industry blog, its primary function is to teach philosophical concepts - not to critique games. And the book delivers what it promises, but in a far more engaging style than one might suspect.

I should pause here to note that the marketing blurb on the back flap is maybe a little misleading. Contrary to the quoted testimonial, I'm not sure "the book is accessible to everyone with minimum philosophical background." Depends how minimal we're getting here. I happened to geek out on the few philosophy courses I took in college, and my (limited) familiarity with Kant, Descartes, Hume, et al. went a long way toward my enjoyment of PTVG. If you haven't taken Intro to Logic, you may want to hit up that prereq before jumping into this book.

Once you do jump in, you can look forward to thorough discussions of some of the richest topics in the industry - grounded in relevant philosophical contexts, of course. And that grounding is pretty intricate at times. Cogburn and Silcox manage to link NPC behavior in Oblivion with Noam Chomsky's generative linguistics; Wii Sports with enactive theory of perception; the role of a settler in the Civilization series with predestination; and the identification of the player with his World of Warcraft avatar with Descartes' understanding of the self. These massive leaps are handled with impressive adroitness, especially since they're using games about smashing orcs in the face with your Noxious Mace of Destiny +2 to introduce you to thousands of years of Western philosophical tradition.

And like any good philosophy text, PTVG asks us to consider big questions in new and interesting ways. A few heady examples:
  • Is it possible to establish some kind of "objective" criteria for determining a game's quality?
  • Can violent games serve as a form of Aristotelian catharsis, or should we beware Plato's warning that people will emulate what they see represented in art?
  • What does it mean to say "I" when referring to the player-character? What does how we see "ourselves" in games teach us about the nature of the self?
The most surprising takeaway I had from the book, though, was also probably the most rewarding: a strange, unexpected, but thoroughly welcome sense of pride in being a gamer.

It's become so cliché I hate to even acknowledge it, but yeah, the stigma thing still burns a lot of us. So what if the videogames biz is a $20 billion industry that generates more revenue than radio? You're still a nerd if you play games. Conversely, you're apparently "normal" if you voluntarily subject yourself to eight hours of the same fourteen to eighteen Auto-Tuned pop songs every workday.

I'll cut short the nerd rage here, but suffice it to say we're still, as a subculture, pretty sensitive about our hobby. Some of us evangelize while others keep it quiet; regardless, there's a lingering sense of self-doubt in what we're doing, as if some part of us knows this is all a foolish waste of time. Maybe we'll never quite grow out of this. I know some people who still say the same about movies and TV.

But very seldom do we consider the ways in which videogames draw on and can illuminate the kind of big questions the ancients pondered. When we do, we may discover there's a lot more to think about than we'd expect. This immersive, interactive medium is uniquely suited to raising those questions in a way that passive entertainment isn't. And I, for one, am glad to cast my lot with the nerds.

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