A Philosophy of Video Games

This is a hidden essay in Something’s In The Air Redux, that I took out of the game and made readable as a full essay with links and sources where available.

In the short time of human history where immersive video games have been available, video games have proven to be extremely useful to humanity.

Psychologists are studying the effects of video games on stress relief and finding all kinds of positive benefits on the mental health of players.

People that suffer from debilitating mental issues like PTSD find relief playing hard core fighting games like Dark Souls [video source], while people with ADHD and Autism find relief in games like The Sims, [news source] and people suffering from anxiety often find comfort in fighting and first person shooting games [article source].

The benefits of video gaming are so numerous [scientific source], it is hard to conceive what we did before video games to get similar benefits. If we understood that better, maybe we could understand how video games work on our mental health.

Obviously board games and sports existed before video games, and are still popular today, but that only partially explains where benefits come from. The real pre-video game stress relief comes from storytelling.

All video games with any kind of plot are in effect tragedies in the classic sense [source], where the player experiences death or loss over and over due to mistakes, ignorance, their own hubris, or the lack of the right equipment or skill until finally discovering a path to success.

The joy we experience in playing games, is the same as the joy experienced with hearing tragic stories or watching tragic plays. This is a well known idea called the “paradox of tragedy”, and it goes back to ancient Greece [source].

The power of tragedy was of so much concern that Plato’s dialog of Laws advised government censorship of tragic plays, just as some call for censorship of video games today [source].

In Aristotle’s Poetics, Aristotle defends the purgative power of tragedy and, in direct contradiction to Plato, saying that moral ambiguity is the essence of tragedy.

The tragic hero must be neither a villain nor a virtuous man but a “character between these two extremes, a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice, but by some error or frailty.

The effect on the audience will be similarly ambiguous. A perfect tragedy, he says, should imitate actions that excite “pity and fear.” Aristotle was the first to identify the inherent paradox of tragedy.

“So the article is equating today’s video game plots with tragic Greek plays like Oedipus and Agamemnon?”

“Essentially, Aristotle’s perfect tragic hero describes every player character of every video game, from Mario, to Lara Croft, to Nathan Drake, to Cyberpunk’s V.”

“And the “misfortune” of this tragic hero is almost never the hero’s fault. Either it’s an odd circumstance they find themselves in, or it is a “just quest they are sent on.”

There is always hope in completing the quest, but there are obstacles to overcome first. “Tragedy”, says Aristotle, “is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis of these emotions.” [Poetics book VI]

Tragic plays bring joy to the watcher, because the watcher realizes they are not the ones suffering. This is a perfect parallel to the game player getting joy from tragic plots of video games, and is why gaming makes us happy.

“So we play video games because we like to think about being in the plot of a game. But our joy comes from NOT actually being in the plot of the game?”

Modern philosophers in regard to gaming, like Jesper Juul, discuss a similar paradox called “The paradox of failure” [source]. Although we generally avoid failure in our lives, the act of playing games introduces new opportunities of failure.

The pains of failure in games are outweighed by the pleasures on offer from games. The greater the difficulty and more painful the failures, the more fantastic the triumph we feel when we do pull it off.

But what happens when it doesn’t and we don’t get the promised reward because we failed without vindication? We deflate the failure and claim it was “just a game”. We can say that it didn’t matter anyways, because games are artificial constructs with no bearing on the regular world. [Nguyen pp 74-80]

The paradox of failure is that when we succeed, we treat games as normal contexts in which success matters, but when we fail we deflate the context of the failure.

“Video game victories provide an ego boost, and failures provide a recentering of value. No wonder games are popular.”

In other words we pivot from treating the value of success and failure as unimportant in the context of a game, to treating the value as global and generally reflective of our capacities and intelligences.

This is something of a mental trick we play on ourselves where we retrospectively determine that something didn’t matter after all, thus we maintain a “plausible deniability of failure” in games.

“We feel better about the world, whether in victory or failure when it comes to games. Theoretically then, that is why we feel less depressed while playing video games. It gives us hope in the world.”

We have seen that video games are the modern version of tragic stories, and our enjoyment of them have parallels to the “paradox of tragedy”. One of the biggest thinkers on this topic was Friedrich Nietzsche [Birth of Tragedy].

To Nietzsche, there are two kinds of tragedy, the common Christian valued tragedy that ends in death, or classic Greek tragedy that offered hope in life by overcoming all obstacles. [video source]

Western society was seen by Nietzsche as fundamentally sick – culturally and psychologically deteriorating, and it’s hopeless tragedy was just one manifestation of that sickness. Nietzsche believes that the hope found in Greek tragedy is why ancient Greece was generally a more pleasant society.

“We are still talking Ancient Greek Tragedy as a stand in for video games, since video games didn’t exist in 19th century Germany.”

“Yes, Ancient Greek tragic plays involved plots we often see in video games today. Playing video games often involve failure after failure until you finally succeed and the struggle is rewarded.” [Note: I would add a classic example of Homer’s “The Odyssey” which tells the tale of Odysseus’s long journey back home to Athens from Troy. He undergoes 10 “quests”, including a deadly visit to Hades where he has to use clever means to get around each trial before returning home where all he has learned for a triumphal boss fight involving slaying all the potential suitors of his wife. Sounds like a video game plot to me.]

The true worth of Greek tragedy had been devalued, Nietzsche believed, in part because our understanding of it had become corrupted by a certain type of worldview, a moralistic worldview, which in Europe had taken the form of Christianity – with its elements of sin, guilt, and evil.

Everything, including art, came to be judged according to these moral criteria, and the most significant aesthetic achievements of Greek tragedy were thereby obscured. What’s worse, these moral standards were ultimately unattainable as such, and thus devalued not just tragic drama, but life itself.

“So by that logic, video games are outside of traditional Christian values?”

“Yes, the overall value of video games is to emphasize the value of life and give us hope in life, according to the article anyways.”

Video game plots not only share direct commonalities with tragic stories, but they are also set in worlds with different morals. Often more violent worlds, or worlds where magic exists, or more sexually liberated worlds, or worlds where mushrooms push people off ledges.

The alternate unrealistic morality of these worlds are part of their appeal. Most are worlds we would never want to live in ourselves, but they allow us to consider alternate moralities, both good and bad, which is considered a path to iniquity in most major religions.

“More deep thoughts. But so far this has all been from a supposed parallel between the plots of ancient Greek plays and video game plots. Where’s the modern evidence that video games change society in this way?”

C. Thi Nguyen in his book Games: Agency As Art specified that games aren’t all about alternate moralities as alternate agencies, different rules to play by, thus the “art of gaming” is in exploring different rule sets, rather than different moralities.

To quote Nguyen: “We can submerge ourselves in a wide variety of agencies as detailed by different games… combined with the medium of agency, makes it possible to transmit agencies. We can step outside our enduring selves, and not just see the world from a different perspective — as we might from reading a novel — but to act for ourselves, from a different agential perspective.” [Nguyen pp 82]

Another perspective on the value of gaming comes from author Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world which has the thesis that all games, especially video games, are designed to make us happy by fulfilling universal desires.

She cites four universal desires: 1. demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts, 2. optimism about our chances for success in our endeavors, 3. social connections, sharing experiences and building bonds with others, 4. meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves. [source]

These are all desires that can be fulfilled by playing games. Every game fulfills at least one of these desires. MMORPGs with their capability of grouping with other players to fulfil common goals can fulfill all four desires.

“Nice idea, but these desires are only fulfilled virtually within the context of the gaming world. Does this translate to fulfilling real world desires?”

“Interesting question, but unfortunately outside the scope of the article.”

“From my perspective, society is defined by the stories we tell. As we move away from religious based stories about divine intervention that dominate western civilization, to stories of heroic accomplishment overcoming obstacles that dominate video game storytelling, it will no doubt have an effect on society. Hopefully a positive one.”