If I’m brutally honest I am no big fan of academic research into the finer points of video gaming because, mostly, there aren’t any. It’s all fine and dandy to ascribe philosophical or sociological thinking to games but that ignores the one basic fact that what we make is product, toys, entertainment for a market, directed by business. It's funny to read theses and essays claiming a certain game designer is following, say, McLuhan's principles when in all fairness, unless he was a character in Final Fantasy 7, few game designers know who McLuhan is. Actually, no, be fair, most game developers are actually quite smart and well-educated, but that doesn't detract from the fact that most decisions are ultimately made by people with money, regardless of their insights or skills or lack thereof. One might as well contemplate the philosophical reasoning behind Disney World. But all that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to investigate these games with a philosophical eye, mostly because it is fairly inappropriate.
Tetris vs. Camus
In Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus he proposes the absurd and futile struggle is what gives meaning to life. This we see mirrored in Tetris, a task of organizing without meaning or reward. The moment a line is complete it disappears leaving us to rebuild ad infinitum. The only things that remain are the incomplete and the mistakes. And Tetris of course has no end, no goal. The winner is the person who can postpone losing the longest. As Camus writes "what counts is not the best living but the most living.”
Portal vs. Nietzsche
In Die fröhliche Wissenschaft Nietzsche writes his most famous quote “God is dead” and contrasts religion’s promise of a good afterlife with the naturalistic and life-affirming idea that one’s own existence should be the sole consideration when contemplating action and morals. It is scary how well Portal follows this concept, witness:
You start off in servitude while a disembodied voice commands you and promises rewards that are unlikely to ever materialize. Your actions are guided and decided, forcing you through dangers and avoidable harm. When your life is in peril the only option is to revolt, which leads you on a path of discovery and enlightenment. Your God is a man-made construct designed to keep you under control and subservient, and to truly be free you must destroy it. It’s only when you’ve killed your God that you see the true daylight.
Quake vs. Hobbes
In Leviathan Hobbes examines the nature of man outside a society as being brutish and full of undirected aggression and ponders the question whether directed warfare is a necessary part of organized society. Quake mirrors this in the murderous rampages of a single person devoid of a society to call his own, letting his egocentric self-preservation rule his aggression. Had the nameless soldier not been alone but part of an organized society under a strict sovereignty the Quake series may have ended up as a Civilization clone.
Habbo Hotel vs. Nystrom
In the absence of forceful views to take over from the religion and philosophy many people have abandoned in the industrial age a “philosophy of futility” governs our aimless lives where we have narrow interests manifest in fashionable consumption. The main focus of games like Habbo Hotel is to revel in superficial adornments, a perfect example of futile fashionable life, especially in the absence of a more meaningful goal. Buy posters! Buy sofas! Buy wallpaper! Kill yourself!
Super Mario Bros. vs. Marx
The communistic overtones of the adventures of Mario, a working-class plumber, being exploited by the bourgeoisie, a bone-idle princess, who is under constant attack from the lumpenproletariat, need little explanation. The fact Nintendo visualized the metaphorical specter haunting Europe in the shape of a Boo is merely the icing on the decadent cake.
If this post proves anything, other than my tenuous grasp on the finer details of philosophy, it is that our products are so flimsy and open-ended that any academic interpretation can find ground, if one really tries. Academic research into the birthing of video games seems, at this point in time, more an exercise in sophistry than anything else, though the social effects of the product after its release is definitely worth examining. But don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see more thoughtful video games out there, games that stretch beyond the “here’s a gun, go kick some alien arse” themes. And to be fair, there are a few titles out there that are trying to be different, but those are, to date, few and far between.