Philosophy in the World: Video Games and Life

Video games are a unique and interesting form of entertainment. What differentiates them from other common forms of entertainment, such as books, movies, etc., is the added element of player interaction. The story within a book or movie will continue forward whether or not the ‘viewer’ is present, but the story within a video game will remain incomplete without the ‘player’. You could perhaps make a simple comparison to a ball sport, as it is not the ball or the stadium that make the match or sport you love, but rather the men and women who play. In this sense, the player is the final piece for a game, completing the mural portraying an epic tale of various genres for many to enjoy.

Philosophy to me is the act of understanding life, not on a scientifically physical level, but on a fundamental human level. What I mean by this is the pursuit of an answer concerning for what reason do we live life at all, and why do we live life the way we do? Answering such questions allow a person to have a greater understanding and appreciation of life itself.

A variation of the question above that we must first ask though is one of Albert Camus’, “judging whether life is or is not worth living” (“The Myth of Sisyphus” 3). Camus illustrates this question using the ‘Myth of Sisyphus’, where Sisyphus is essentially trapped in a never ending cycle of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to ultimately return back to its starting point. The story illustrates the ‘absurdity’ of our lives (3), as in the presence of a contradiction between what we wish for and what the world actually provides; we are in a continuous search for an ultimate purpose, but as far as we know there is none.

Camus argues that regardless of whether or not life has meaning, life is nonetheless still worth living (“The Myth of Sisyphus” 4-5). He argues that we should be happy like Sisyphus, that “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” (3). This sentiment is similar to the words of Robert Nozick when he speaks about the ‘Experience Machine’, where “[p]erhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.)…” (“Anarchy, State, and Utopia” 45). What both Camus and Nozick highlight here is not merely the experience of doing something, but the actual act of it. Camus proposes (and to an extent, also Nozick) that we must acknowledge this absurdity and work towards finding something beyond it (even if it’s not there, the struggle is key not the result). In other words, we should find life itself to be the reason for our existence and our associated actions.

So how does this connect with video games? Well in my opinion, video games can be seen as a philosophical activity that can actually help illustrate both Camus’ and Nozick’s point of views, while also provoking us to wonder about the 2nd part of our fundamental question, ‘why do we do things the way we do?’. This may seem contradictory at first glance, as video games can be seen as something similar to Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’, simply a form of escape from reality, but bear with me.

A majority of games have an overarching goal for the player to achieve, some story to conclude that pushes the player along. What happens as a result is that the universe has shrunk from the constantly expanding void we deal with to something tangible and comfortingly limited to the screen before you, providing a small but albeit significant sense of comfort, no matter how temporary. It provides the player a temporary higher purpose, that there is some end to their struggles. You immerse yourself into a role within this smaller setting, that you are the ‘Hero’, the so called ‘Chosen One’ who has an ultimate destiny only you can fulfil. I’ve started numerous games on a similar note, and the feelings of excitement alongside purpose always return to me. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the game does not move forward without the player’s actions. In these ways, it temporarily alleviates the feelings of absurdity (although others may fall deeper into denial, it is a rather thin line of distinction). To be more precise, it deals with two different versions of absurdity. The first being the ‘absurdity of life’, where the game engages you and temporarily takes you away from the daily responsibilities and struggles of reality; the second being the concept of ‘absurdity’ itself, where due to the game having a final goal of some kind, there is no ‘gap’ between what we want and what the universe (the game) can provide. In this way, video games can be seen as an escape from reality, but that is not all that happens.

The moment we put the controller down and watch the credits roll onscreen, the resulting tide of melancholy makes us realize something. That it was the journey that brought us the most joy. The ending of a game may have provided some sort of satisfaction or relief, but the joy and wonder was had during the game, not after it. Most of us do not play games to reach the ending as quickly as possible, but instead we play in a way that creates the most amount of joy and memories. This idea parallels both Camus’ view, where the player can be seen as Sisyphus, where we are alright with the boulder returning to its starting point, because it means another run through the journey that we can enjoy, and Nozick’s view, as we play the game not just to get to the ending, but because we are enjoying the reality of going through it.

With this realization in mind, we can draw a parallel to our real lives. Just as we continue in a game with an overarching goal in mind, the part we nonetheless concentrate on is the gameplay. It is the same in life, we continue forward in our lives with goals created almost daily, but it is almost always the journey that rewards us with the most vivid of memories and emotions. For example, close friendships. The ultimate goal of creating such a bond is a person who you can depend on in any situation in life. However, as much as we enjoy the benefits of such a thing, it is actually getting to know that person and the events associated with that journey that stay with us; and even after we’ve established such a rapport, a majority of the joy comes from the moments we share together rather than the mere knowledge of knowing that such a person exists. Hence, why we usually make friends with those that interest us and not merely with people who benefit us (I am speaking of ‘true’ friendship in this case, as in the bond shared is something authentic). The parallel provokes us to really contemplate our history and actions, and this is why I argue video games are a philosophical activity according to my definition of philosophy, because it can make us assess whether it is for the journey itself or the goal we wish to reach that we continue living.

Actively contemplating for what reasons we act the way we do is not something most do on a daily basis; but in the moments where people do ponder, it can put life in an interesting perspective. This is something I personally do on a weekly basis, and it is enlightening. To begin with, a question I occasionally ask myself after a session of gaming with my friends was did I have a good time because I was interacting with people or because I won more rounds than the others? I then ask similar questions about majority of the things I did during the week, schoolwork, sports, so on and so forth. Did I enjoy and learn something meaningful during the journey or was I only fixated on the goal? Just as life constantly changes, so do my answers, and it is always fascinating to see how I rationalize my existence with my chosen actions, especially whenever I mature or learn something new that may change my perspective. Thus, I continue to ponder away.

By Jeremy Hidjaja