A brief history. Back in the late summer of 2006, a few months after the publication of Unit Operations, I exchanged a few emails with Graham Harman, whose book Tool-Being I had cited in the early pages of mine. We talked about a few things, including Leibniz, Badiou, Heidegger, Meillassoux, D.W. Griffith, and McLuhan.
Sometime in early 2007, over a conversation on McLuhan, the notion of a videogame about metaphysics came up. The idea was tentative, wistful even. Looking through my email archives, I find this one-liner from Graham:
Though I can’t even begin to envisage what a metaphysics game would be like, there has to be some way to do it, and inevitably it will happen, even if a century or more from now.
Suddenly, in the past few weeks, a flurry of interest has bubbled up, like the filling of a blueberry pie. I mentioned the idea again in a post about pragmatic speculative realism, and Levi Bryant picked it up, noting, “I think this is an absolutely brilliant idea and would definitely be on board to assist with ideas should someone take it up.” Paul Ennis then observed that “videogames are totally Heideggerian. You get thrown into some world, you need to use equipment seamlessly.” And Harman reiterated his belief that “a metaphysics videogame ought to be produced. And I donât mean as some sort of cheeky Baudrillardian anti-establishment gesture—I mean as a tool for genuine philosophical labor.” I find myself overwhelmed with the scent of this surprising new dessert, and excited to have met so many like-minded new colleagues so unexpectedly.
There are two things I want to cover on this topic. First, why might a videogame be a useful medium for philosophy? And second, what might such a game might look like? In this post I’ll address the first question.
This is a tricky question for me to answer concisely, since I wrote an entire book on the topic. There are lots of reasons to consider making a videogame about any given subject, not the least important of which is surely not “because I make videogames,” and the most important of which is surely not “because kids these days like videogames.” To keep things simple, let’s cover three important reasons.
(1) Videogames are procedural. They model the behavior of systems, and allow players to interact with those systems.
The main theoretical contribution in my book Persuasive Games is the introduction of a new form of rhetoric. In addition to oral, written, and visual rhetoric, I suggest that there is another, newer form, which I call procedural rhetoric. Where as oral and written rhetoric describe, and visual rhetoric depicts, procedural rhetoric models. Procedural systems are rhetorically powerful because they can simulate behaviors; they can make claims about the way things work.
From the book:
Procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively. Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes. Following the classical model, procedural rhetoric entails persuasionâto change opinion or action. Following the contemporary model, procedural rhetoric entails expression—to convey ideas effectively. Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. In computation, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of programming. (28-29)
Computers boast procedurality as their native mode of inscription. They model behaviors, and they allow users to interact with and manipulate those behaviors. Videogames, in turn, are among the most procedural of computer software. They don’t just move data from disk to screen to printer, they perform complex operations that simulate entire worlds.
Procedural rhetoric is most effectively mustered when the problems it seeks to express, clarify, reject, or expand are complex and deeply interrelated. There are many such problems these days, including the most difficult ones we face as a people (ecology, economics, poverty, education, etc.).
Philosophy is also such a domain, an arena in which we lay out systems of thought, systems that are complex and interrelated, both with our contemporaries and our predecessors, ancient and modern. Furthermore, they are systems of thought that describe systems of being, often abstract systems of being as in the case of metaphysics in general and ontology in particular.
In short, philosophy is deeply procedural, and as such it seems particularly suited to procedural inscription.
(2) Videogames produce a different sort of engagement than other media.
In a response to one of my recent posts about philosophers creating output other than writing, Graham Harman made the following observation:
We’re way beyond [this] notion in the arts, but in philosophy we still assume that written texts are the sole available medium. Why not a philosophy videogame? Notice that people can play videogames for countless hours at a stretch without losing interest. They can return to it for weeks or months, trying to master it. There must be some way to capitalize on the same sort of intense, adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm for philosophical purposes. If done correctly, it could be a revolutionary step.
It’s true, good videogames are deeply riveting. So riveting, in fact, that players will devote hours at a time, days even, to the pursuit of improvement and mastery in a game, sometimes to their own detriment. And not just a few people, but millions of people, spending billions of dollars to work and to fail before they succeed.
It’s hard to say the same about just about any academic discipline, let alone a discipline in the humanities. Can you imagine it? Millions of people worldwide paying $15/mo for access to the releases of the Heidegger Gesamtausgabe? Or queueing up at midnight for the latest installation of the Platonic Dialogues?
Why are games like this? There are many reasons, but one reason is the one literacy scholar James Paul Gee has advanced: good games model good learning principles. They train players, step by step, in how to master a skill, and then they test the player on his mastery of that skill in a natural, synthetic context. Then they ratchet up the challenge, demanding that basic skills recombine into more complex abilities, until eventually the player has mastered the system the game represents.
Another is that games literally don’t work unless we play them. Books, films, photographs, records, and other media take the same form whether or not we read, watch, look, or listen to them. They are fixed, even if our reception and interpretation of them is not. Games scholar Espen Aarseth has used the term ergodic to describe this feature of games: they require “non-trivial effort” to encounter. They must be operated, not merely experienced.
Videogames are an example of what Marshall McLuhan calls a cool medium; they require deep and meaningful participation. In my own theory of procedural rhetoric, games exhibit a version of the trope Aristotle called the enthymeme (the omission of one of the premises in a syllogism). Good games often use what I’ve called procedural enthymeme: the player literally fills in the missing portion of an argument by interacting with the game, through actions constrained by its rules.
(3) Videogames are the popular medium of the 21st century
This is a contentious point, but I believe it is true. If film was the medium of the 20th century, then videogames are the medium of the 21st. It is not the web, because the web is just a delivery channel, just a piece of plumbing for delivering bits. It’s what those bits do that matters. And despite the massive adoption of online communications, what the web mostly does is to remediate existing media. We read text. We look at photographs. We watch videos. In the terms of McLuhan’s tetrad, the web reverses into every legacy medium at its worst: top ten lists, sound bites, gossip, pornography, curiosity, schlock.
But videogames resist the trends of simplification and ease that characterize contemporary media. They are software instead of bundles of digitized books and pictures and films. They are hard to use rather than easy, and yet we praise them when they are difficult and disparage them when they are simple. They take earnest advantage of the microprocessors that are the “brains” of the machines you are using at this moment, rather than the dumb terminals that are its system of distribution.
The point is not that books or painting or film or anything else is dying; history shows that such things never die, even if they do change. The point is that the era of linear media is giving way to the era of random-access media; the era of viewed media is giving way to the era of operated media; and the era of declarative media is giving way to the era of procedural media. Anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of that change, at its source, is a fool or a coward.
All these points notwithstanding, there is a problem that plagues the field of educational and “serious games”: just because one makes something into a videogame doesn’t mean it will be any good. It doesn’t mean we get all the successful properties of good games for free. After all, these games are usually made by large teams of experts. The biggest ones cost tens of millions of dollars to create. This is not your father’s Kritik.
In Part 2 of this series I say more about what a metaphysics game might look like, offering a variety of different approaches for us to consider. Be forewarned: all of them will be hard, some almost impossible, to implement successfully.