Video Games That Ask Deep Philosophical Questions
“The un-examined game is not worth playing.” – Socrates (kind of)
Philosophy is the study of the “big” questions of life. Questions like, “What is the true nature of reality?”, “What is consciousness?”, or “What is the nature of good and evil?” are among some of the oldest questions, and they have been explored in various forms of human culture throughout history, be it literature, poetry, film, etc. It should come as no surprise, then, that philosophical questions have found their way into the medium of video games. In recent years, video games have advanced to the level of sophistication and depth of their close cousins in entertainment, literature and film. More and more, games are conveying complex narratives that are chock full of deep ideas and philosophical themes. Games are no longer just fun to play, but also fun to think about. A good game presents ideas that keep you engaged even when you turn the console off. Video games present worlds, situations, and ideas we have never encountered before, and they can provide us with a novel context in which to investigate philosophical issues. As a salute to the impressive philosophical depth of modern video games, here are 5 games that force us to consider the big questions in life.
Also – SPOILER ALERT- for most games on this list.
Bioshock Infinite: Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
Most articles on philosophy in video games take their cue from the first Bioshock, released in 2007. However, the third game in the series, Bioshock Infinite does a wonderful job serving as a stand alone title with its own story, while keeping in line with the same dystopian atmosphere and action packed gunplay that made the previous entries modern day masterpieces. Bioshock Infinite has you take on the role of Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent tasked with saving a woman held hostage in the steampunk-esque sky city of Columbia. Through the events of the game, you discover that the world you are in is just one of infinitely many parallel worlds, in each of which slightly alternate histories are obtained. At the end of the game, it is revealed that the main antagonist, the evangelical patriarch Zachary Comstock, is actually a version of Booker DeWitt from an alternate world, a world in which DeWitt turned to religion after his years in the military.
The narrative fiction of parallel universes draws inspiration from the real world Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics. Essentially, the MWI seeks to answer a conundrum in the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics that has puzzled philosophers and scientists since the inception of quantum mechanics. The main issue is, quantum mechanics cannot tell us whether a specific outcome will happen or not. All quantum mechanics can do is give us a probability that a certain outcome will obtain. Quantum mechanics cannot tell us why a specific outcome happened over any other outcome in any given case. The MWI answers this problem by stating that, in fact, all possible outcomes actually occur. For every given possible outcome, there is some branch of reality where that outcome actually happened. The reason we only see one particular outcome happening is because we are in the branch of reality where that outcome happened. The MWI interprets the mathematics of quantum mechanics as representing an infinitely-branching multi-faceted reality.
The influence that Bioshock Infinite draws from the real world MWI is apparent. Even the main character’s name Booker DeWitt is based on the name of the notable theoretical physicist-philosopher Bryce DeWitt, who was a major proponent and popularizer of the MWI. Bioshock Infinite uses the MWI to pose various questions about human existence: if every possible outcome actually happens, how can we say we are free to choose our own live? In what sense are we individuals if there are an infinite amount of ourselves in existence, each slightly different from the other? If the MWI is true, does that mean that everything is predetermined? If the MWI is true, and every possible outcome actually happens, why should one be motivated to act a certain way if it will happen no matter what? Is a person morally responsible for the deeds that alternate versions of them perform? Bioshock Infinite wraps up all these questions and more in a package that is exhilarating, deep, and delightfully twisted.
SOMA: Artificial Intelligence, Consciousness, and Self-Identity
Can a machine think? What does it mean to say that one is the same person that one was 5 years ago? Is a person just a collection of memories, personality traits, and beliefs, or is there something more to one’s identity? SOMA sees the player take on the role of Simon Jarett, a man who is contracted to be part of a revolutionary new neurological study, one that proceeds by making a one-to-one digital map of the brain for diagnostic and experimental purposes. After the procedure, Simon awakens in an abandoned underwater research facility called PATHOS-II. While exploring the abandoned facility, Simon meets many different machines that have eerily human characteristics. After some exploration, the player character discovers that they are actually a machine that has a digital copy of Simon’s mind uploaded into its body. This poses the interesting question: is the player character the original Simon, or someone else? Is the player character really a conscious being, or just an imitation of the real thing?
SOMA deals with primarily two major philosophical questions: (1) Can a machine truly be conscious? and (2) What does it mean to stay the same person over time? With respect to (1), the possibility of a genuine artificial intelligence has implications for our understanding of consciousness. Is being conscious really just the result of brain processes happening, and can we simulate that phenomena in a computer? The philosopher Rene Descartes famously argued that humans are not identical to their physical bodies; he argued that a person is primarily an immaterial mind. The possibility of a conscious machine seems to be evidence against this position though. Does that imply the soul does not exist? Moreover, if we successfully created a conscious machine, what kind of moral obligations would we have to it? Would we be obligated to treat it with dignity and respect, just like another human? Would it be ethical to make such a machine do work for us? Given the state of current AI research, these sorts of issues are no longer speculative. They are almost tangible realities that need to be seriously addressed sooner than later.
With respect to (2), the possibility of copying one’s mind seems to imply that an individual person is nothing more than a set of brain processes occurring. If we can recreate the same brain processes, then would we recreate one and the same person? This view seems to lead to some odd conclusions though. It implies that if someone made a copy of their mind and uploaded it to a machine, there would actually be two of the original person. How is that possible? Perhaps the possibility of copying one’s mind implies that actually, there is no unified self that persists over time. Maybe all there is to a person is a transient collection of thoughts, and the persistence of an underlying self is an illusion. SOMA has the guts to ask the hard questions, and it does not hesitate to confront head on what may seem to be unsettling truths about the nature of consciousness and the self.
MGSV: The Phantom Pain: Language, Culture, and Imperialism
Obviously, a Metal Gear game was going to appear on this list. The enigmatic auteur Hideo Kojima is not afraid to engage in extremely complex thematic analysis (and lengthy cut scenes) in his critically acclaimed Metal Gear series. Spanning over 60 years in an alternate history post WWII earth, the Metal Gear series has raised issues relating to the nature and effects of war and conflict, the ideal political arrangement of society, and the moral dimensions of government control and human liberty. MGSV: The Phantom Pain investigates the contemporary and relevant topic of the effects of historical colonialism, imperialism, and racism. MGSV: The Phantom Pain follows the exploits of the mercenary group Diamond Dogs, founded by the legendary soldier Big Boss a.k.a Venom Snake, and their fight against the terrorist organization Cipher. Central to the narrative is the role that language plays in propagating and maintaining oppressive power structures in society. A major plot element of the game involves a Native American biologist working for Cipher, nicknamed “Codetalker”, who genetically engineers a powerful bioweapon parasite that infects and kills speakers of a particular language. Codetalker is motivated in his research primarily by his hatred of the English language, and the role that the English language played in the extermination of his people and culture, the Navajo.
The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote, “The choice of language and the use to which it is put are central to a people’s definition of itself in relation to its natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe” (1985). In other words, language provides a mechanism by which a culture bestows an identity upon itself. Language is a medium in which culture survives, and one way to exterminate a culture is to exterminate its language. This was precisely the strategy taken by many governmental policies in North America during the 19th and 20th century. Native peoples were often taken from their families as children, sent to European boarding schools, and forbidden to have ties with their own culture or speak their own language. These policies resulted in the essential annihilation of large parts of Native American cultures, in virtue of exterminating the languages and practices integral to those cultures’ identities.
MGSV: The Phantom Pain is in many ways an uncomfortable game. It forces players to confront the very real and pressing effects that colonialism and imperialism have had on the modern state of the world. The fact of the matter is that large parts of modern society are built upon historical injustices, and how we respond to and address those issues moving forward is an inherently philosophical and ethical question. What kinds of steps must be taken to right wrongs from the past? What obligations do we in the modern world have to groups that have historically been oppressed? MGSV: The Phantom Pain is a thoughtful entry in the Metal Gear series which poses these important political and moral questions that are directly relevant to the modern world.
Mass Effect and other RPGs: Moral Dilemmas and Moral Choice
Modern RPGs love to give players choice. We can choose our name, our look, our character stats, even their backstory and personality traits. Many modern RPGs also give you a choice in how the story unfolds. Choice based story-mechanics are now almost standard in the RPG genre, with games like Dragon Age, The Witcher, Life is Strange, and Undertale, giving the player a number of choices that affect how the story progresses. Very often, these choices have an important moral dimension as well. The Mass Effect series is notable for being one of the first series to make extensive use of an dynamic morality mechanic. Frequently, the player is confronted with moral dilemmas: should they save the intergalactic council, or put human priorities first? Which crew member must stay behind to arm the explosive, facing certain death? Should they side with the displaced Quarians, who wish for the return of their home planet, or the Geth, who only wish for their right to exist to be recognized?
Contemporary ethics is normally seen as divided into two main camps, Utilitarianism and Deontology. Utilitarianism, given its most influential formulation by the Enlightenment philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is the view that the morally correct action is the one that generates the most happiness for the most amount of people. For utilitarians, whether an action is morally good depends upon the consequences of the action. This view implies that which action is the morally correct action depends heavily upon the situation. In contrast, deontology is the view that moral decisions should be based upon universal moral rules and principles. Deontology is most famously associated with the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to a deontological framework an action is right only if it is dictated by a universal moral law. Such laws include things like “One should not steal” or “One should not treat another person solely as a means to an end.” This view implies that whether or not an action is morally correct does not depend upon the situation; some actions are wrong to do no matter what and some actions are morally required in all circumstances.
RPGs with moral choice mechanics, such as Mass Effect, require one to take their time while playing, and weigh their options carefully when making decisions. The decisions we have our characters make is indicative of our own moral values, and games with moral choice mechanics inevitably require us to reflect upon our own moral beliefs and commitments. We ask ourselves questions like: Do the ends justify the means? What obligations do we have to other humans? In doing so, we may sometimes find a contradiction or tension in our moral beliefs that must be resolved. Video games can function as ethical thought experiments, like the famous Trolley Problem thought experiment. They pose a scenario to you, ask you to make a choice, and reflection upon the scenario brings to light your own intuitions about right and wrong.
Ocarina of Time: Time Travel and Causal Paradoxes
Aside from being one of the most mechanically perfect games of all time, Ocarina of Time was also a breakthrough in storytelling for the Zelda series. New technology, more resources, and a larger budget meant that the series could focus more on storytelling and narrative, as well as tight, controlled gameplay. Time plays an important role in the story of Ocarina of Time. The game requires the player the change between Young Link and Adult Link by using the Master Sword to travel between the past and future. Sometimes, actions/choices made in the past affect the state of the world in the future. Other times, the direction is reversed. The first time the player learns the Song of Storms, they are taught the song as Adult Link by a windmill caretaker. The caretaker proclaims how he learned the song seven years ago when some young child came into the windmill, played the song, and caused a massive storm. The player must then go back in time seven years, and play the song at the same windmill in the past in order to set up further events in the games story. Of course, the end result of this plot element is that the windmill caretaker learns the song from Child Link in the past, who learns the song as Adult Link from the windmill caretaker in the future, who learns the song from Child Link in the past, who learns the song as Adult Link from the windmill caretaker in the future… We run into a paradoxical loop that seems to have no end. If so, then where did the song originally come from? At each step, we account for the existence of the song because they learn it from someone else, ad infinitum.
These kind of temporal and causal paradoxes have been seriously considered by philosophers and scientists. The philosopher David Lewis was famous for his writings on the logical issues associated with time travel. What does it mean to “travel” through time? How can one affect the past, if the past no longer exists? Are genuine causal paradoxes possible? Consider the famous grandfather paradox: Could you go back in time and kill your own grandfather? In one sense, it seems possible; you are willing, you have the knowledge to do so, and the appropriate time. Of course, if your grandfather were killed in the past, then how could you exist to go back and kill him in the first place? A paradox arises. Although such scenarios sound impossible, modern science suggests that it is indeed possible for something to affect itself in the past. According to General Relativity, the dominant theory on the nature of space-time, it is possible for a space-time to exist in which an object’s world-line eventually terminates at its own starting point. In other words, it is possible that an object moving through space-time could curve around and end up at the exact same point in space-time that it started at. Such an object could theoretically interact with itself in the past, thus producing a causal loop.
Time is a fundamental constituent of human experience. Games like Ocarina of Time provide a framework to conceptualize time in a way that is at different than our experience of time. They allow us to ask questions like: Do the past and the future exist, or does only the present exist? Why does time seem to go in one direction, past to future? Is the flow of the present actually an illusion? Is time infinite, or did it have a beginning? Ocarina of Time and other games that deal heavily with notions of time, such as Chrono Trigger, play with our experience of time and give us a means to represent other ways time could be.
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