On Games & Other Formative Arts

Deciding the Claim

If readers follow my work on this site, they’ll notice an assumption threading most of my pieces together. Weaving through each article is the notion that, like literature and other forms of art, some video games play a formative role in our personal development. By personal development, I mean the process by which we become better or worse versions of ourselves. In this article, I’ll motivate this notion.

To some, the idea that most video games play a formative role in our personal development is an odd one. One might be hard pressed to think of a game that made them better or worse as a person. Video games, they might say, are just pure fun. Games themselves have no moral value. Put another way, video games communicate morals without communicating morality.

Knowing this, I understand the notion seems counterintuitive. But I think, spun a certain way, the notion is more intuitive than we might think. If I understand the task before me, I need to argue that some video games are like other formative arts, like literature, music, art, etc. To do this, I’ll clarify what I mean by ‘like’ other formative arts. Afterward, I’ll suggest some formative powers of literature, music, and art. Then I’ll argue that similar formative powers reside in some video games.

Formative Arts Video Games

Clarifying the Claim

So, what do I mean by ‘like’ other formative arts? By that, I mean ‘shares one or more important qualities found in’ other formative arts. One might classify some things with others because they share important qualities with each other. We lump large things with other large things, small things with small things, red things with red things, and so on. For example, we might put some chairs and some tables in the same class if they were the same color, made by the same manufacturer, made out of wood, etc.

Similarly, I’m claiming some video games share one or more important qualities found in other formative arts. For instance, both are creative, valuable, and entertaining. But I want to suggest they have more in common than these.

Justifying the Claim

With the claim clarified, I move to justify it. To do this, I’ll first outline what I take to be some additional important qualities formative works of art share. I think some additional important qualities of formative art include intelligibility* and the power to impress.**

Beethoven Formative Arts Gaming

For example, consider Beethoven’s 5th and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. If one listens to Beethoven’s 5th or reads Les Miserables, one finds an intelligible message. Both deal in some way with power dynamics, revolution, and justice. Furthermore, both are impressive. Because both works of art are intelligible, they also are capable of speaking something meaningful to those who will listen. Given their themes, and given that the themes resonate with deeper questions we have about life, both Beethoven and Hugo can speak into matters important to us.

Therefore, because Beethoven and Hugo can speak into matters important to us, there always remains the possibility they’ll say something that teaches us, surprises us, inspires us. In short, they can impress us.

Video Games and Personal Formation

So much for important qualities in formative art. Do some video games share some of these important qualities? Yes, some video games are both intelligible and impressive. Some video games speak. Lots of indie games are known to address the ethics of suicide, the nature of reality, hope in grief, and so on. Because these video games speak, they can impress players. Some video games offer meaningful commentary on important, worldview-straining issues. There is always potential, therefore, for a video game to suggest a new perspective on an old problem.

Personal Formative Games

Therefore, some video games share one or more important qualities with other formative works of art. If this is true, then some video games play a formative role in a person’s life. The games we play actually speak into our lives in one way or another. They critique, affirm, and inform our worldviews; and, in so doing, form our moral, philosophical, and emotional intuitions. Minds meet when we play video games. When minds meet, they meld or mold. If they meld or mold, we should ask, “Into what?”


In sum, I’ve argued that some video games play a formative role in our personal development. To accomplish this, I offered an argument by analogy. In the argument by analogy I observed that some video games and formative arts they have certain qualities in common. I then argued that formative arts have two further qualities; namely, intelligibility and the power to impress. So, given that some video games and formative arts have certain qualities in common, and since formative arts have these further qualities, then it’s probably the case that some video games also have these further properties. Therefore, some video games play a formative role in our personal development.


* =By intelligibility, I mean the ability to be understood in some way. Someone’s gotta be able to pick up what’s being put down. Also, distinguish between intelligibility and comprehension. Even if someone doesn’t comprehend something, one may still understand some parts of it.

** = I pick these qualities because they’re almost universally experiential. Also, without either of these, any chance of communication between art forms is lost. If one can neither make sense of what’s being said nor be impressed by it, then we should conclude no one’s saying anything.

Ryan Shields

Ryan Shields

A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it's Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I'm eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.

So what do you think?

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