Video games can teach us more about philosophy than books – if only they’d dare

I am at a fortunate stage of my parenting journey where I have a son old enough to have a girlfriend smart enough to give genuinely thoughtful gifts to her boyfriend’s dad at Christmas. This is how I came to unwrap Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything) by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos. Books are a risky thing to give as gifts because they, like video games, require an investment of time. You don’t throw them on calloused feet like a sock or slap them about your tired face like an aftershave. Or vice versa depending on the smell of your feet or coldness of your face.

I find academic books about video games personally ironic because in the 90s I wrote and presented a BBC Radio 4 show called Are Books Dead? where I argued that video games had made the written word redundant. This was obviously a stupid question, but this was the decade of making loud statements without requiring intelligence to back them up, just one of the reasons it was such a glorious time to be alive, and why Liam Gallagher was its hero.

Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything). Photograph: Jordan Erica Webber

The first chapter proposes that video games are the best medium to carry out philosophical thought experiments because rather than sitting in a teacher’s lounge eating cheese and drinking wine (which was the ridiculously wonderful location of my own philosophy A-level classes) and discussing whether the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few in a hypothetical word-flavoured utilitarian philosophy scenario, in a video game you get to live that thought experiment in gloriously immersive graphics as a totally engaged actor.

It’s a wonderful book which makes me consider games more. They are played at such whipcrack speed I don’t normally weigh up the decisions with any deep thought, because aliens are chasing me as an infernal timer counts down.

The book gives the example from Mass Effect 3 where you decide whether to save Admiral Koris or his five crew members from the Geth. It’s a question of utilitarian philosophy – “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – thrown into a curveball because if you do rescue his crew and let him die a load of officers lose their collective minds in panic and fly to their doom killing oodles more than the original five.

But the drawback with games as thought experiments for me is that this wasn’t a remotely challenging decision. As a gamer I knew saving Koris would result in a better outcome than keeping his tiny crew alive. The crew are not going to do anything to help me down the line because they don’t have long complicated names such as Admiral Zaal’Koris vas Qwib-Qwib. Try finding a badge with that on it in a holiday gift shop.

It was the right decision as a gamer, but the game does not allow us the scope to see if one of those crew members went on to cure cancer. But do I want to be grappling with these lofty issues when what I really want is to unlock the special ending by getting the most points and having that crazy big bastard gun for my next playthrough? Games are supposed to be fun, eh?

The writers argue that the “fun” aspect of video games is precisely what makes them a more user-friendly medium for philosophy than books and in a world where, as the book states “few governments take philosophy seriously enough to make it compulsory in schools”, games may be the only place kids can learn about the subject. This is depressing as all hell. And almost certainly still correct today. (The book was published in 2017).

Games are also suited to philosophical discourse because you don’t have to get your head around crazy theoretical situations. You play them. You see them. You don’t have to argue with people saying “but I can’t actually travel back in time to kill Hitler as a baby” because in games you conceivably could. (Imagine Wolfenstein IV: Hitler Hospital.) We suspend disbelief every time we switch on a console. Whether that’s a plumber growing after eating a mushroom or Arbroath winning the European Champions League in FM in 2024. In real life I am never going to be in a situation where I choose the life of one over five (hopefully). In video games, I can.

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The Last of Us Part I on PlayStation 5 and PC. Photograph: Naughty Dog/Sony

I just wish more of them gave you those choices. The Last of Us presented the ultimate test of utilitarian philosophy: does Joel sacrifice Ellie to save the human race? But as a player you don’t get a choice in that – Ellie must live – and, like saving those five red shirts in Mass Effect 3, it wasn’t the perfect solution after all: other calamities ensued, and the sequel was dealing with those. It would be fascinating if Naughty Dog made a version where you can let Ellie die. Alternate universe games sequels!

I would like those options, otherwise when I am faced with a choice in games, I don’t look at them as inspiring ways to test philosophical thought experiments or morality. I go with what will get me the most points. I was brought up on arcade games where the only measure of success was adding to a number. My kids’ generation are different. They grew up with games where you blew petals around or experienced life as a mountain, and there was no score at all. They have been allowed to consider, quite literally, everything.


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