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.

By Purpose


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.

By Design

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.)

Wielding Philosophy

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.

What Next?

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.

published July 28, 2009


  1. Mark J. Nelson

    One use that occurs to me is as a version of the traditional thought experiment. That’s argumentation in a sense, but thought experiments are often initially self-directed, iteratively revised and thought through to better understand a problem or position, before being polished and turned to their outward persuasive/explanatory purposes.

    To pick a traditional sci-fi thought experiment, games that involve time travel ask “what if time/causality/etc. worked this way?” Most such thought experiments can be done without games, of course, but it seems plausible that there are cases where a game might provide better or different insight.

  2. Mark J. Nelson

    (Following up my own comment, since I can’t edit.) Ah, come to think of it, you sort of covered that via “notebook”. I suppose conceptually it’s easier for me to think of games as embodying thought experiments than as serving as notebooks, but maybe that’s just terms. I tend to think of the notebook (and walks in the woods) as supporting free-form experimentation with loose collections of ideas that need not be organized or coherent at any given time, versus the thought experiment as more tightly focused, embodying a narrower but coherent piece of a larger set of ideas. The latter seems easier to break off into a game, though perhaps a proficient programmer could use games for the former in some way.

  3. anxiousmodernman

    I would avoid involving the actual History of Western Philosophy in the game beyond the presentation of concepts like ‘idealism,’ ‘materialism,’ ‘realism,’ etc. Getting the actual names involved gets us into the messy territory of determining ‘What Kant was really saying when he said x.’ Those arguments are better suited to books and papers. The game should be about experimentation.

    I guess I lean toward the ‘construction’ design, with the player in a godlike position of constructing the metaphysical logic of the Universe, yeah, probably with knobs, switches, or some other controller. I’m hung up, however, on what kind of visual/audio Representation will ‘represent’ the Universe, and how it will change as the player-god-philosopher tweaks it.

    If nothing serious ever comes to fruition (perish that thought), someone please just make a Doom total conversion where we get to blow up Kant with a rocket launcher.

  4. Ian Bogost


    A lot of games run thought experiments about physics. And there are a number of games that also posit something like “possible worlds.” As I was writing this I wrestled with how to characterize a game like Braid, which I’d like to suggest is more about metaphysics than it is about physics.


    I’m not sure I understand why philosophical schools of thought involves engaging with the intentional fallacy? Isn’t it the influence of such beliefs that is interesting to track?

    About Kant: a Doom conversion would surely be perversely satisfying, but I wonder if a better Kant game would be one in which the player would follow Kant’s daily routine in Königsberg. That sounds like the sort of game I’d be tempted to make 🙂

  5. Mike Treanor

    Simulation is the way to go! Also, I don’t think alternative operational logics are necessary. I wouldn’t give up on graphical logic yet. There are many people who would claim that they have figured out to communicate philosophy with conga drums. Not enough people have even tried to do anything interesting with what we already have. That being said, I won’t be terribly shocked when I change my mind after I see/make a few more attempts…

  6. Asher Kay

    Thanks for the posts – they’re helping to organize my thoughts.

    The “judgement” category reminded me of Dawkins’ Biomorph program, in which there are constraints on the players activity, but no defined “goal state” (in terms of purposes, Biomorphs is obviously about pedagogy, but I’ve seen people play it in order to “try and make a cat’s face” or some such thing).

    I’m still caught up with the whole idea of goals and subversion that I was blogging about. It seems to me that in this respect, there are three sorts of games:

    1. Games where you know all the rules in advance, and play to advance your skill or master the implications of the rules.

    2. Games where the rules (or at least some of them) are not explicit, and you must “discover” how the world works.

    3. Games where your purposes affect how the world works.

    The third category is what’s intriguing me in terms of a metaphysics game. It seems to me to be a way of allowing parameters to remain undetermined (or at least less constrained) by the programmer.

    Here’s a weird example. On my blog, I was talking about a friend who “subverted” the goals of Choplifter. He would play, seemingly, in order to kill as many hostages as possible in as spectacular a manner as possible. If Choplifter were in the third category, the hostages might start avoiding the helicopter, or start avoiding being part of a large group.

  7. Ian Bogost

    Asher, I think you’re homing in on different styles of play as much as or more than different kinds of games. Many of these can even exist in the same game. Grand Theft Auto is the typical example, which allows the player to pursue the goals set out for him, to explore and discover how the world dynamics facilitate different possibilities, and to subvert that world for alternative and creative outcomes.

    One way to think about the problem you’re posing is to acknowledge that there are factors beyond purpose and design, including play styles, which affect all games.

  8. Asher Kay

    Ian – True. I guess what I was trying to get at was that there are game designs that specifically facilitate an openness of purpose. An agent model whose very parameters are determined by the player’s purposes (as manifested in their interactions with the game) would, along my line of reasoning, cross the line into the metaphysical.

  9. Ian Bogost

    Asher: this is a thorny issue. In the popular press, we often read about games that have “open” designs, but games resist that openness at some point. I want to say more about this, but before I go off in what might be a mistaken direction, I wonder if you could clarify what you are thinking of with an example?

  10. Asher Kay

    I can give it a shot…

    Let’s say that the game was you playing IPD with a game-generated opponent whose strategy is an algorithm produced by a genetic algorithm. The “openness” might be that your interaction would cause a lamarckian mutation in the opponent’s offspring.

    As you say (and as I bemoaned on my blog), the game resists. Even though the game lets you affect the parameters, and even though the outcome of that change in parameters is very difficult to predict, the fact is that the possible outcomes are constrained by the genetic algorithm. The game designer could go farther by allowing the genetic algorithm itself to be modified, but that entails code that determines what the genetic algorithm is — and that code has parameters which put constraints on the sorts of genetic algorithms that are possible, and *those* parameters are not open.

    Ad infinitum, or until Wittgenstein says it’s just a philosophical puzzle.

  11. Ian Bogost

    Oh, yes, of course. No game can be wholly open for the reasons you mention. I’m not sure if it’s a metaphysical puzzle or just a metaphor for one.

  12. Asher Kay

    I’ll go with metaphor… this particular sort of infinite egress seems to me to be a natural feature of formal systems, which are, at a basic level, metaphorical.

  13. manny karkowsky

    Is the perfect game one in which the player doesn’t know the goal (assuming there is a goal) and must discover it and its sub-goals as part of gameplay, or is the perfect game one in which the player gets to create their own goals entirely (consciously or unconsciously (as in goals made for them)?

    You might just as well make a game for each academic discipline (math, biology, history, English, etc…) and then have “higher” levels with abstract linkages. That seems more philosophical than perhaps anything…

  14. JR

    Dear Mike, what do you please mean by “I wouldn’t give up on graphical logic yet.” Can you please be a little more specific as to what you mean by graphical logic?

    Thank you


  15. N Coppedge

    One approach is based on the qualities of textures and surfaces such as “reflective” (as a link to Zen versus Heideggar for example) versus “dense / mysterious” (as a link to existentialism versus Kant for example) versus “pointillism / object-truth / crystalization” (Cabbalah numerology versus Wittgenstein versus New Age technico-magicalism)

    Then the world can be scaled on a sliding bar for each of those material qualiites. The question then is how to go beyond world simulation, perhaps by interacting with literature in some form of dynamic generation, e.g. “cafe appeal” which brings me to cafe-based technologies as a way of not reaching into VR: “applications interfacers” small meta-tag based devices, could be used to make life more philosophical for philosophers, based on the existence of cafes with public displays, or electronic wall panels, using electrode caps.

    Some philosophical games could be based on creative application extensions for interpreting the electrical signals of the mind, similar to a more advanced form of the mindball game

    E.g. does the mind follow certain arguments accurately, then therefore how does the environment change; E.g. a “wizard” game could change weather depending not only on mood, but on philosophical dispositions.

    That is the most exciting end-product I can think of; perhaps it proves that philosophy is mostly will-power, or original determination, motive-energy.

    If I take that as a foreground, games could be based on a complex interaction of willpower and determinism, in some empirically verifiable way; here the risk is to interpret the mind such that brutality or problematic thinking are “resolved networks” and that therefore they have profound things to say.

    Another view is that the computer should do everything, and make it excessible to the reader or participant. But unless it can predict future philosophy, the appeal is somewhat limited.

    Suddenly it looks like a game out of the Little Shop of Horrors, that is too spooky to play long-term, or that seems to cause rifts in reality.

    Do we want a spooky game, or just a standard agora? One approach is to make the agora linguistically authentic to some degree (which is what is spookily collapsing around the world now, at least somewhat) Maybe someone has discovered a LSH game —

    Another approach is the collection of magical-seeming artifacts like perpetual motion, as examples of philosophical activity in the real material world. For example, see:

    If such artifacts can’t be found, perhaps there is no way to make a game that is truly metaphysical