Tractatus Lascivio-Philosophicus

They rode upon a rocking horse / And called it Pegasus.
- Keats

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.


  1. Philosophy of games, perhaps not, however Stephen Poole's semiotic deconstruction of Pacman is an excellent read.

    There must be aspects of social and cognitive psychology applicable to game design.

  2. If you think there aren't relevant philosophical and sociological critiques of the business, culture and design of Disney's theme parks, you've got another thing coming.

  3. Just when we think you're only here for gripes and quips, you show us your deep side. Well-played, Mr. Barnett.

  4. I always hated interpretations.
    I gag when I see people trying to see a meaning in something and even believe the author has put their interpretation in there deliberately.
    Should it fit into the theme of the work, OK, but when they begin to use references to classic literature like in this case, they should just go back to their poem interpretations.

    Psychology behind gameplay, as what is fun and what motivates a player, is something completely different.

  5. Well said, Tadashi. The psychology is far more interesting.I just get so tired of a certain kind of person trying to validate video games (which isn't neccesary if you ask me) by forcing links to established arts and ideas that usually have very little to do with each other.
    Sometimes it *is* valid, mind you, but usually not.

    doesnotequal, reports of my supposed "deep side" have been vastly exaggerated.

  6. Gad, from the comments left under your post, one would think your article wasn't hilarious. Be assured, it is entirely hilarious.

    Yes, video games are the pornography for much academic masturbation these days. I take it as a sidelong compliment and forget about it.

  7. Well, it looks like it's up to me to stick up for us wacky over-interpreters! :-)

    I am both a creator and a patron of the arts (I'm including video games in this category) and I realize the whole "what does this painting/song/game mean? " approach can be tiresome and fraught with silliness at times...but one could say the same for all forms of criticism in all media.

    I believe "reading into" games--trying to understand them in a way that has meaning to us--is an inevitable and positive pursuit. I work and teach in the theater for my "real job" and I find that people see all kinds of things that I may or may not have intended in my plays.

    When something stimulates us emotionally or intellectually (as some games do for me) we're bound to respond through whatever lenses we see the world through, and that inevitably affects what we think a game means or says, if anything.

    When you, the creator or developer or whatever, put it out there, it's basically out of your hands, and that's a good thing. The worst response, I think, is "well that was nice." Better to provoke something meaningful, even if it has no relationship to what you were thinking as the creator. We make meaning from our experiences. That's what humans do, and we each do it in our own ways. This too is a good thing.

    Scholars like James Paul Gee (whom I respect) have written about the "meaning" of Tetris. That takes things farther than I can make any sense of. It all sounds like so much mental masturbation to me.

    But is it possible to scrutinize the paradox of Kojima's pacifism expressed in gloriously violent games? I think it is, and to me it's a worthy endeavor because those games have a rhetorical and political dimension. They can also be damn fun to play, but that doesn't negate their other qualities.

    Well, that's my 2 cents. Probably worth less. Thanks for your consideration. ;-) Now back to my post-colonial Marxist deconstruction of PaRappa the Rapper.

  8. Bah, you're no fun when you're all serious and making good points...
    I am reminded of a remark by Umberto Eco, my favourite boffin, who stated that "ideally, after a novel is finished, the author should die" so as not to exert any more influence over it.
    That wouldn't be possible in our industry, though, with the already problematic employee situation, but it's certainly a tactic I've considered for certain planners and producers.

  9. You've provoked me to write a post on this issue of interpreting video games, JC. I wish you would leave me alone and stop making me think!

    Please return to designing your little games, so I can later tell you what they mean, would ya? ;-0

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