Book Review: Philosophy Through Video Games

Philosophy Through Video Games, by Jon Cocburn and Mark Silcox

Much of philosophy depends on where you begin, and so it is here. Fans of video games of a somewhat cerebral type will appreciate this book’s forthright defense of the legitimacy of video games and role playing in general, against the general tide of philosophers whose view of playacting has been nearly uniformly harsh and negative, and the authors have some thoughtful words to say about the dilemmas faced by those who play world-building games where the player acts like some form of deity, and the Wii makes a worthwhile contribution to the debate between enactivism and phenomenalism, which appears to be settling towards enactivism by showing that greater realism in terms of muscle memory can trump the greater visual realism of other gaming platforms. Likewise, this book also has much to contribute to a discussion of why many games feature such poor imitations of human interaction because of the limitation of computers operating under the sort of principles discussed decades ago by people like Alan Turing [1]. That said, much of what this book says depends for its validity on one’s perspective, on how one comes to the book, and what the authors say depends on their own perspectives, which in some cases are as naive as what they criticize in others.

In terms of its contents, this book consists of six chapters and then an epilogue that demonstrate how video games address and deal with some of the most important questions in philosophy. First, the authors tackle MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and virtual communities like Second Life to ask questions of identity between the avatar and the person behind the character on the screen, which turns out to be full of intriguing questions. Then the author examines the question of how it is that people deal with reality through the case study of the Nintendo Wii, looking at muscle memory and the fact that our view of the world depends on more than just our sense data. The third chapter takes on the question of whether violent games make violent games, with the determination that with few exceptions, violent games have tended to reduce actual violence by providing a vent for hostility but that the lack of historical knowledge about game settings and who are good and bad guys is potentially problematic. The fourth chapter examines the origin of ethics and views of God’s goodness and power by looking at world-builder and tycoon games like Civilization and Total War. The fifth chapter examines the metaphysics of interactive art, showing that changing the order of areas played in a game like Myst gives a player a much different perspective on how the game operates, and that the way that a player approaches a game often determines the sort of game he plays. The sixth chapter looks at role playing games to deal with the subject of artificial and human intelligence and wrestles with the limitations of computers because of the undetermined nature of so much human communication, which computers seem unable to deal with. The book closes with an epilogue looking at video games and the meaning of life, and the fact that in many ways our human lives can resemble the quests of role playing games, making such games useful for learning how to live better [2].

It is clear, though, from reading this book with a different worldview than the authors, that the authors think they are far wiser than they really are, which in a book like this presents a major failure. The authors are quick to speak negatively about Christian philosophers who presuppose various biblical truths and textual interpretations, but the authors do a lot of presupposing of their own when it comes to their evolutionary perspective. Moreover, their approach is self-contradictory in the same way that they both denigrate others for what they do themselves, and that they take aim at relativism on the one hand, but demonstrate no consistent source for ethics themselves that differs in any meaningful way from relativism. At best they can agree that ethics are complicated, that there are many things that philosophers do not understand and disagree about, but they end up being no better, and in fact, sometimes a great deal worse, than the views they enjoy criticizing. In the end, this is a book that demonstrates the intellectual seriousness of video game design and playing, and defends the legitimacy of video games from a worldly, intellectual perspective, but it offers little worthwhile guidance on the most serious questions of life, largely on account of the defectiveness of the worldview of the authors themselves. This book is therefore a partial success, but one that ought to be appreciated by those who enjoy video games and wish to do so without any pangs of guilt that, so long as they play in moderation and not to excess, they are missing out on the important aspects of our existence.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Philosophy Through Video Games

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