For Christmas, among a selection of philosophy-related books, I received Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us (About Life, Philosophy and Everything), by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos. This book, published only last year (2017), aims to "use video games to explain philosophy, and hence to improve your life" (Webber and Griliopoulos 2017, xviii), and to argue that "video games can be philosophically complex, ethically rich and morally instructive" (xviii). It does so through ten chapters exploring a variety of aspects of philosophy, from epistemology and philosophy of mind right through to ethics and political thought, in conjunction with an extremely wide selection of video games (the game bibliography which constitutes Appendix II runs to five and a half pages).
While none of the areas of philosophy discussed in Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us are precisely my area of expertise, I'm at least basically familiar with all of them. I'm also pretty au fait with a lot of the games the book covers - I've played several, such as Dishonored, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Skyrim, Stardew Valley, Bioshock and Bloodborne, to give an incomplete list, and am familiar with others through either watching playthroughs (Soma, Fallout 4) or reading articles about them. I'd consider myself a gamer and a philosopher, and so the basic notion behind this book appeals to me absolutely. I'm fascinated by the ways in which video games could function as unique ways to explore or express philosophical ideas, and I love reading theoretical articles about games and game design.
Even though this book could have been targeted directly toward my confluence of interests, however, I came away dissatisfied. Some of this wasn't the authors' fault: the book's targeted, I think, at beginners to philosophy, with a lot less basic philosophical background knowledge than I have. Much of the time, I simply wanted more in-depth or nuanced philosophical discussion than is probably feasible for the kind of text Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us is. In other respects, however, I think that Ten Things is also flawed at being the kind of book it's trying to be, and it's those problems I want to explore in the rest of this review.
Before I get into its defects, I do want to note that I genuinely enjoyed the book: I was never bored while reading it, and it was a pleasure to re-engage with aspects of philosophy that my own research rarely touches on.
My main criticism concerns the way in which Ten Things combines "video games" on the one hand and "philosophy" on the other. What I'd like to see, and what it does sometimes do, is an exploration of what could make video games a unique way of engaging in philosophy. How can games, as opposed to other media, do philosophy? Ten Things starts off very promisingly on this score with Chapter One: "Video Games As Thought Experiments". This chapter spends some time considering the specific features of games which makes them suitable vehicles for philosophical thought experiments (such as the famous Trolley Problem), and I hoped that the rest of the book would follow a similar pattern. However, Ten Things more often lapses into a far less interesting genre of popular philosophy book: the kind which outlines certain philosophical concepts (such as Cartesian dualism) and then points to where those concepts can be seen instantiated in its chosen film, TV series, or other such medium. This is at its most frustrating when the book gets close to exploring the specific nature of games in relation to philosophy and then shies away from the issue.
For instance, Webber and Griliopoulos discuss the multiplayer survival game Rust in connection to ideas about the state of nature. They write "... a player in Rust has less incentive to kill new players and more to co-operate, to build structures and for mutual benefit. But you can still kill your compatriots for at will, if you're running low on resources." (Webber and Griliopoulos 2017, 272). This could have developed into a fascinating discussion of how multiplayer video games might function as a way of testing state-of-nature narratives and hypotheses, and whether they would be a legitimate way of doing so. Instead, however, the writers fall back on "Similarly, in Hobbes' mooted state of nature, societies need something to tie them together, to prevent conflict. ... In wider society, Hobbes argued that what the people would set up is a 'social contract'..." (273). Juxtaposing historical philosophers like Hobbes with video game scenarios is certainly interesting, but was done throughout the book without due attention either to the uniqueness of video games or to the role of historical texts in our understanding of philosophy.
And that actually leads me on to my second criticism - in some ways more minor, but in other ways more of a problem for me as I read the book. I repeatedly ran up against sneering, dismissive comments about historical thinkers and philosophers which failed to acknowledge their significance or achievements - or even just to give them their due respect as fellow thinkers. The most glaring example of this comes in Chapter Six: "On free will: the uniqueness of games", in which the authors are discussing how both Freud and Plato had tripartite theories of the mind - Freud positing a super-ego, ego and an id, and Plato dividing the mind into "the appetitive, the spirited and the logical" (170). Webber and Griliopoulous go on to comment:
It's worth noting that none of these theories has any basis in empirical evidence - they're just narratives drawn from our subjective experience of how our minds work. While that might be good enough for pseudoscience like Freudian psychoanalysis or the rhetorical sections of The Republic, most philosophers prefer to work to a higher standard. (170)
Now, I'm hardly a fan of Freud's work, but to dismiss psychoanalysis without a second thought as "pseudoscience", or to dismiss The Republic as not being of a high enough standard for proper philosophy, doesn't do justice to either Freud or Plato. Furthermore, the authors are making assumptions about the nature of philosophy which require considerable justification - in particular that philosophy is a discipline, like science, which requires a basis in empirical evidence. It seems to me that a narrative drawn from our subjective experience is far from a wrong way of doing philosophy, or intrinsically of a lower standard: a philosophical inquiry into the nature of the self need not be of the same sort as a scientific inquiry (and, after all, if it was, one of them would be superfluous).
In the same chapter, there's a reference to Kant which also rubbed me the wrong way. Webber and Griliopoulos write that Kant "was so keen to retain the concept [free will] that he even posited that the physical world wasn't the real world, but there was a separate 'noumenal' world inaccessible to human perception, just to house free will" (176). In a footnote, they go on to comment:
Typically, when a philosopher employs an argument that involves inventing a whole new sphere of existence just to justify their own prejudices ... it's not a very convincing argument. (176)
I don't know nearly enough about Kant and his arguments regarding free will or the noumenal world to judge how Webber and Griliopoulos have interpreted him. I would, however, be astounded if the situation really was as simple as inventing things to justify his own prejudices (please, comment if I'm wrong on this!)
I'm certainly not saying that the historical greats of philosophy shouldn't be criticised in books of popular philosophy - of course they can and should be engaged with critically. However, the impression given by Webber and Griliopoulos of the history of philosophy is sometimes that of a series of writers making stupid mistakes about things they should have known better about and which we, sensible thinkers today, do know better about. It rather raises the question of why, if Freud, Plato, Kant and others can be so easily set aside, they're being drawn on so heavily for this book in the first place. Furthermore, it's indicative of an attitude that I don't like to see in philosophical dialogue: the attitude of trying to knock down a thinker or an argument rather than trying to engage with and build on other thought.
And that's why my most fundamental issue with this book concerns these scattered digs at historical philosophers. I can forgive a book of this sort a certain shallowness, or a failure to achieve exactly what it's aiming at - I recognise what it's trying to do, and it's an interesting and worthwhile project, even if it doesn't entirely succeed. A book aimed at introducing beginners to philosophy, however, ought to show philosophy at its best, and I don't think Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us does that when it treats important philosophical voices as if they're barely worth considering. As an undergraduate, I was taught always to interpret philosophical texts as charitably as possible - to assume, essentially, that the authors weren't stupid. Ten Things doesn't abide by that principle.
I have a couple of other issues with the book (its odd footnoting/referencing system, for one, and its tendency to treat contentious philosophical issues as if they're easily settled), but this review is long enough to be going on with. I'm a bit concerned that I've been overly critical - after all, it probably does serve its main purpose, of introducing philosophical concepts to video gamers, pretty well. Some of my problems are just to do with being the wrong kind of reader. I'd very much like to hear from readers unfamiliar with either philosophy, on the one hand, or video games on the other, to get a sense of how it struck them.