Philosophy in video games
There was a time when video games use to look like a bunch of coloured pixels flying around on a screen. And in that frenzy of pixels, you the player, was given the control of a make-believe image of a boy or a spaceship and the end goal of the game was always to rack up your score as high as possible. There was no need to know the motives behind your actions. There was no grand narrative unfolding behind those pixels.
But today, after few years of rapid progress in graphics rendering, both on software and hardware fronts, video games have now acquired the storytelling prowess which previously belonged only to the mediums like literature and movies. In fact they add another element to the storytelling which the traditional mediums could never achieve and that is – “active participation of viewer.” Video games put the control and flow of the story in the hands of the player.
With such advancement, it was inevitable that video games would evolve to a point where they would start tackling life’s biggest questions in their stories. Today’s video games does not shy away from dealing with philosophical and psychological concepts like consciousness, morality, death, depression, suicide, violence, corruption and other such grave topics.
Though there are many video games which tackle the deep philosophical issues of our times but here we will be discussing four of my favourite video games which deal with philosophical concepts ranging from global to existential, and from personal to moral. Each of the games deals with several different concepts but here we will be analyzing one or two major concepts from each of the game.
Needless to say, there will be ‘spoilers’ ahead for these games.
Consider an underwater city, made by a visionary man, in which science, arts and industry are given free rein to experiment and expand, and every man is given the freedom to serve his own interests. Sounds like a utopia, isn’t it? What could possibly go wrong here? Well… everything.
If history has told us anything it is this – whenever any man has thought of creating a utopia on earth, by strictly adhering to a certain ideology, the result has always been devastating. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of Nazism in Germany comes to mind. And something similar happens in the game Bioshock when a man named Andrew Ryan puts together his resources to create an underwater city, named Rapture, hidden from the outside world and thus free from the oppressive rule of the world’s governments. He runs the city by keeping the market unregulated and letting individualistic self-interest (Ayn Rand’s Objectivism) be the guiding principle of living. A city where “every man for himself” becomes the gospel truth.
Result? Total destruction. The game lets the player witness the slow decay of this once marvellous city through the eyes of its protagonist named Jack. Throughout his traversal through the city he finds that although residents of Rapture did enjoy the swift advancement of their society at first, but soon the city fell into an anarchy because the owners of industry took all for themselves and left nothing for their workers. The self-interest and market-deregulation which was supposed to create a healthy competition ends up re-creating the same old problems of the outer world like inequality and corruption. Its residents, after getting disillusioned by the promised utopia take up arms against its leaders and also against each other to acquire whatever they can by force. After all, from its inception Rapture’s motto was – “Winner takes all.” And that’s what ends up happening in the form of chaos and internal war in the city.
It’s also interesting to note that what ends up happening in Rapture is exactly what Andrew Ryan was up against before building Rapture i.e. ill distribution of wealth, restrictions on creativity, and exploitation of the workers. In Rapture the unregulated experiments in science lead to discoveries like ‘plasmids‘ (a gene-altering serum which impart superhuman powers to its possessor) which leads to inequality among masses resulting in violent clashes between them. The Art arena is tyrannized by one crazy artist who subjugates every other artist so as to spread his own crazy ideals of art. In Industry, Andrew Ryan himself keeps an upper hand and everyone else is at best a slave, working under an illusion that they too would one day become rich.
Now, if we say that the collapse of Rapture happened because of its objectivist ideals then we will be missing the point. At first, any system or ideology of governance is created with good intentions or at least with efficiency in mind. But trouble starts when the responsibility of implementing that system falls in the hands of people plagued with human vices such as greed for materialistic possessions, love for dominance and an eagerness to exploit their power. Slowly but surely those human vices will corrode away the foundation of the system, no matter how pure the ideology behind that system be. So, any effort of creating a utopia with our ill minds will inevitably lead to failure. The best we can do is to mend our own ways first and then we might have a chance to create a world of our dreams.
Until then, um… maybe, play Bioshock?!
What makes us human? Does our consciousness or our ability to think makes us human? If so, then can a machine carrying a copy of that consciousness be also considered as human? But what exactly is consciousness?
Soma is a game that tackles such big questions of life. Storywise soma is a game which lets the player play as a man named Simon. At the start of the game he wakes up in an underwater facility with no recollection of how he ended up there. He quickly learns that the facility is an advanced research lab and it is the only place on earth which has survived after a comet strike wiped away all the humans on the surface of earth. The facility is now carrying out an experiment in which they are creating ‘Neurographs‘ of the surviving inhabitants of the facility. Neurographs are basically digital brain scans of people which act like exact copies of their consciousness i.e. their personality and memories. It is through preserving these brain scans in a simulation that they intend to keep humanity alive. Throughout the game Simon makes discoveries which makes the player think hard about the essence of a human life.
The biggest question SOMA asks the players is this – “What is it that makes us human?” In his journey Simon comes across robots who think they are real humans because they are carrying a brain scan(Neurograph) of a person in them. Though their outer shell is of metal but since the program running them is an actual personality of a person it creates a situation where in we as players are posed with a choice whether to consider them as people or machines. The idea behind it is that our brain knows about the outer world through our five senses alone, which in themselves are just a mechanism to sending signals to our brain. So does it really matter if our brain lives in a human body or in a machine because a machine too can pick up signals from outside world and send it to its operating program, which in this case is a human’s digital brain.
To go even further, if we take digital copies of several brains and put them in a simulated reality, can we call that reality a real world consisting of several people? A world where many brain scans are living and experiencing as if they are real people. Then there is another question of immortality. If we make a copy of someone’s memories and after their death we insert those memories in a virtual avatar in a simulation, can we say that we have effectively made them immortal because they can now live in a simulation forever?
Though the game does not give concrete answers to any of the questions posed above it does let you make decisions related to the fate of the machines and humans and it also shows you the consequences of your actions in an impartial way.
I personally believe that we as humans are more than our flesh and brain. Our consciousness is not just a bunch of memories, desires and impulses. Only from a materialistic viewpoint we can classify consciousness as mere sensations floating through brain. But from a more universal, dare I say spiritual viewpoint, consciousness is that intangible self-aware entity which lives on even after the body is dead.
SOMA is a great exercise in asking existential questions. It is like that Zen teacher who instead of answering your question will respond to you with a question of his own. It will not provide you with any concrete answers but after you play the game, you will find yourself pondering over the existential concepts it presented for days afterwards.
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a game about depression, loss and guilt, and it shows us how repressing those emotions can turn them into horrors which will haunt you for the rest of your life. Regarded as one of the best horror games ever made, this game is not just about spooking you out but it delves into the deep recesses of the subconscious mind. The part of the mind in which lies your most intimate desires and motivations which you will dare not reveal to others.
In this game you play as a man named James Sunderland who comes to a mysterious town of Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife Mary in which she tells him that she is waiting for him in Silent Hill. So obviously James makes a visit to that town. Once there, James meet many unhinged persons who are all dealing with their own traumas just like James. Throughout the game James also comes across a lot of disfigured grotesque monsters which, unbeknownst to him, are physical manifestations of his own repressed sexual desires. It’s also been revealed that James was the one who murdered his wife shortly after she was diagnosed with a terminal disease which left her bedridden. He did it partly out of mercy to his wife and partly for his selfish motive to move on in his life. The town serves as a purgatory where he has to suffer and face his guilt and repressed desires head-on to give himself a chance for repentance and hence a sense of closure.
This game is a testament to the fact that how deeply games can probe when it comes to psychological issues of abuse, trauma and depression. The game is laden with symbolism and psychological concepts which the game makers derived from the research done in the past by eminent psychologists like Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.
Philosophically, or psychologically to be precise, it reminds us that how fragile our human psyche is. If we do not consciously work to get rid of our traumatic experiences, or avoid handling our depression, or repress our deep desires then eventually those unhandled emotions will surround us in a darkness just like how the town of Silent Hill surrounded James with its nightmares. It would not be wrong to assume that each one of us carries a dark hidden place in our mind in which we have concealed our deepest traumas and desires in the hope that we may never have to face them again. But, if kept for too long under cover those repressed emotions will gradually fester and they will end up corrupting the whole psyche of their repressor.
Playing Silent Hill 2 is the opposite of taking a therapy session because firstly instead of soothing your nerves it wrecks them and secondly it actually works. It’s an experience in which you will live, although vicariously, through one man’s struggle of coming to terms with his trauma. And who knows maybe in the end it will help you with handling your own emotions in a better way.
Spec Ops : The Line
This game’s protagonist Martin Walker is a walking contradiction. He is a part of 3 men team which is tasked to find survivors in Dubai after a powerful sandstorm destroys the city. The team comes across the members of an earlier evacuation team (33rd Battalion) which were sent before them but failed in their mission of evacuating survivors. The members of 33rd themselves got stranded and their leader Colonel Konrad then established martial law in the city appointing himself as the ruler.
Gradually, Walker discovers how Konrad after gaining power terrorized the residents of the city although claiming to work for their welfare. Walker’s team then turns against Konrad’s men but their mutual war brings more destruction to city’s resources and hundreds of civilians and soldiers lose their lives. By the end of the game the line between good and evil disappears and it becomes harder and harder to discern between the perpetrators and saviors. Eventually the player (Walker) comes face to face with the futility of fighting an enemy and the heavy cost one has to pay for fighting, not only in terms of casualties but also in terms of post traumatic stress that it leaves upon the minds of the fighters.
This game was influenced by Joseph Conrad’s novel – “Heart of darkness” which expounds upon man’s propensity to evil even when he has a choice. In other words, man’s misuse of power and dominance. The game asks us that whether the actions that we commit under the name of self-defense or patriotism are any less evil than the actions of our enemies. Whether you shoot a gun in self-defense or to kill enemies, the result remains the same – someone will die.
Another theme which is touched upon in the game is that, sometimes, what we consider our good intentions can lead to catastrophic results. In the game when Colonel Konrad realizes that there is no way any of them or the civilians will be able to leave the city he imposes martial law and turns into a dictator. His actions lead to suppression of civilians and eventually to their killings in the name of punishment for disobedience. So the savior himself become the suppressor. It is a nod to the age old saying – “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The tendency to exploit our power is an inherent weakness in human character. Time and again we have seen that how the people, who lead the revolt against exploitation, after coming to power themselves became the exploiters. And then, this vice of ours is further exacerbated by a flaw in our conscience through which we fail to see any fallacies in our own decisions and consider any opposition as a threat to our authority and thus become hell-bent on crushing those threats completely, no matter what the cost may be.
War can then be regarded as just a fight between two prejudiced opponents in which the most powerful will win. Neither side can claim to have a moral high ground because both the parties involved know that the end result of the war will always be destruction and death and yet they participate in this mutually assured destruction anyway.
‘Spec ops : The line’ is not just another military shooter game. It’s a thesis which exposes the unreliability of our conscience in the context of dominance and violence. It may or may not change our attitude towards violence but it does gives us a glimpse of the costs we have to pay for it.
In the 1970’s when video games first became mainstream no one would have guessed that one day this naive medium of killing time would evolve to become such a mature platform to philosophize on life’s biggest questions. And it managed to do so without compromising on its quintessential charm of fun and entertainment.
And now, with the advent of realistic simulator games and advancement in VR (virtual reality) technology, it’s only a matter of time that video games will further evolve from being a ‘thought-provoking-medium‘ to a ‘reality-enabling-mechanism.’ In future, video games will not only be presenting philosophical ideas but they may even let us live in a simulated world where those ideas have been realized and thus provide us with a choice to adapt or to avoid those ideas in the real world.
So until then, keep philosophizing and keep playing.