In part 1 of this series, I introduced the idea of a metaphysics videogame and described why such a thing might be a good idea for philosophy. That was the easy part.
In this post I’m going to explore what such a game might look like, in the abstract. The idea is not to suggest only the most viable approach, nor the one that seems most interesting to me, nor the most obvious, but to try to describe a range of different approaches, each with its own virtues and drawbacks.
There are several ways to approach this question, but I’ve chosen to split my thoughts into two categories of response: first, by purpose (how would such a game be used) and second, by design (how would such a game work). These are approaches; they are not (yet) designs, so keep that in mind. And as you’ll see if you make it to the end, a Part 3 in this series is planned.
Following trends in serious games and other communities that advocate the use of games in education, a metaphysics game could serve a pedagogical purpose. Such a purpose could take place in a variety of contexts. The one folks will think of first might be at an introductory secondary or collegiate level, whether for use in a course or on its own. But there are others, equally if not more interesting: as a more advanced tool for committed students of philosophy, as a product for use by the very young to introduce philosophy in the same way that one might introduce foreign language, or as an approachable program of study for adults of any profession interested in metaphysics as a side pursuit, in the same way that they might be interested in macrame, tagalog, kung fu, or soufflés.
A game could advance a philosophical argument, serving as a contribution to philosophical discourse and debate in the same way a lecture, article, or book currently does. This sort of game would be created for and used in “professional contexts,” which is to say that a philosopher who creates such a game would do so with the intention of advancing, critiqueing, revising, or otherwise addressing a specific set of philosophical positions. Likewise, other philosophers would play the game in the same way that they might read a book or listen to a lecture, which is to say, both for its own sake and as a means to understand and form opinions about a thinker’s philosophical positions.
A philosophical argument is a perfected, coherent, and presentable set of ideas, one suitable for publishing. But the road to such ideas, whether they take form as books, videogames, landscape architecture, or brioche, require considerable noodling before they take form. Everyone has their own methods for producing ideas, from dogearing pages of influential works to pondering thoughts on woodland trails, to making diagrams in holed-away moleskines. A videogame could serve as a kind of notebook for philosophical exploration.
Situated somewhere between notebook and argument, a videogame could serve as a kind of third-place for philosophers of a common persuasion or pursuing related work. Serving as coffee shop or pub, such a game would probably entail a facile means of communicating and sharing materials in a variety of forms, from traditional output like writing to tiny videogame arguments that could be hosted in this social platform. It might also be able to generate more complex ontology-machines from the components of its participants, Voltron-style.
This might seem a strange at first, but there are good examples of games about unusual activities and professions that act primarily as arguments for the viability of those practice themselves. One such example is the controversial US Army game America’s Army, which was used for recruiting and publicity (most discussions call it a recruiting game, but the Army actually understood the work to have a much broader purpose). Other examples are quite different: the UN World Food Programme’s game Food Force had a simple idea as its goal: communicate to young people that “humanitarian” is a career option. Certainly it wouldn’t hurt philosophy to advocate for “metaphysician” as a valid calling too.
Every game is a metaphysics game
This is the skeptic’s reply, and it’s one that both Jim Preston and Mike Treanor floated in response to part one of this topic. The argument goes something like this: since all videogames posit a theory of being just by constructing a reality of objects and entities cohered by rules, such a work is already a metaphysics. In response to Preston and Treanor’s suggestion, Michael Mateas called this attitude a cop-out, and I tend to agree.
That said, for a much more nuanced version of this sort of argument, take a look at Alex Galloway’s essay The Anti-Language of New Media [PDF], in which he argues:
Instead of facilitating the metaphysical arrangement, the computer does something quite different: it simulates the metaphysical arrangement. In short, the computer does not remediate other physical media, it remediates metaphysics itself (and hence should be more correctly labeled a metaphysical medium).
A game could simulate a set of dynamics that represent a metaphysics. In such a game, the ontology is in the mechanics: the way that the game models entities and relations would constitute the designer’s philosophical position on such matters. This is perhaps the most traditional approach, and it is one that corresponds well to my theory of procedural rhetoric.
This is a less skeptical version of the “every game does metaphysics” approach. Specific videogames or groups of videogames could be used as metaphors for particular philosophical principles or positions. Paul Ennis floated an observation along these lines, partly in jest, but the point stands:
Of course videogames are totally Heideggerian. You get thrown into some world, you need to use equipment seamlessly, and it all takes place in some kind of mad networked electronic framework. Plus computer games are obsessed with objects. Collecting them. Bashing people with them. And hammers. Lots of games have hammers.
We might call this the Žižek method, after that thinker’s tendency to invoke popular media and events, as a lens through which to explain abstract thought. (That said, Žižek’s approach tends more toward the reverse, applying abstract thought to popular media and events, despite his book titles.)
Normally the sorts of verbs we find in games are limited to acts like shoot, jump, move, steer, build, destroy, etc. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Michael Mateas, Nick Montfort, and I have argued individually and together, games tend to have a very narrow set of “operational logics,” to use Wardrip-Fruin’s term. The commonest logics are probably “graphical logics,” which typically amount to movement and collision detection. One of the problems in game design involves identifying, designing, and engineering alternative logics.
One such logic might amount to philosophy itself: choosing between different metaphysics and applying them to specific problems, challenges, or puzzles in order to accomplish progress. Such a design pattern might also involve the construction of fictional or even logically inconsistent ontologies from the raw materials of extant ones.
Videogames simulate ideas and experiences, but they also constitute worlds, often complex and realistic worlds with sophisticated histories, behaviors, occupants, and emergent dynamics. While the phrase “worldbuilding” is usually associated with fiction in general and science-fiction in particular, some approaches to the philosophy of technology have also invoked that term as a way to understand the relationship between action and effect.
A videogame could focus on the processes by which a world constitutes itself. Such a game would be primarily concerned with the way things change (following the broad trend of process philosophy), perhaps given parameters or actions or knob-tunings by the philosopher-player, or perhaps by setting up an initial condition and watching it play out. This approach bears some similarity to an idea Asher Kay suggested in a comment on Levi Bryant’s site.
In the spirit of The Sims or other simulation games, a videogame could address the practice of being a professional philosopher, including the process of matriculation, job seeking, idea production, publication, public receptivity, advisement, debate, public personas, and all other aspects of the ordinary life of the metaphysician. Ontology Tycoon, so to speak.
In such a game, perhaps one that uses simulation or construction as its primary design method, players might be asked to make judgments upon the world instead of (or in addition to) creating that world or manipulating entities within it. The player’s goal would be to form theories about the game world or its contents as things proceed, again whether by automated means or based on manipulations of artificial intelligences or other human players. This approach ressembles one that Levi Bryant suggested in response to Asher’s suggestion just mentioned above. In such a game, the player might be the philosopher, and the main action could involve making judgements about the simulated world’s metaphysics. This would allow both the construction of worlds that would meet specific philosophical criteria, and the identification of the constitution of a specific world
This is a somewhat specialized kind of approach, its name borrowed from a term used in software testing. As my ongoing thoughts on Harman’s phrase “object-oriented philosophy” suggest, I think there is a mild collision of implications between that term and “object-oriented programming.” I don’t want to revisit that particular conversation here, but rather to use it as an example of the fact that computer hardware and software could be said to have their own metaphysics. Object-oriented programming, for example, bears strong tinges of idealism. A videogame, whether new or extant, could be used to expose the workings of one or more computer systems in order to reveal or clarify their implicit ontologies.
The game involves the process of philosophy as a practice as it occurs in some moment in the history of thought, whether current or past, non-fictional or invented. Gameplay would involve the practice of philosophy and its implications. These practices would alter the world more subtly, underwriting a subsequent “generation” of philosophical responses to it, demonstrating the ways particular philosophical trends influence those that follow. This pattern is much like one that Graham Harman suggested on Bryant’s site.
In many cases, one can easily imagine hybrids of several of the above purposes and approaches. And these ideas surely do not exhaust the possibilities (I would be delighted to hear your suggestions).
Finally, as you can tell, none of these approaches describe specific designs, such that someone might simply flesh them out and get to work on them. They are merely approaches. A critic might correctly observe that many of these approaches are general enough to apply to all of philosophy, not just metaphysics—or perhaps even to all fields of abstract thought.
That in mind, in a future post, part 3 we’ll call it, I’ll explore a few more concrete design treatments based on the ideas above, and perhaps also others, with a particular focus on metaphysics in general and speculative realism in particular.