When we sit down to play a video game, it’s often because we want to relax, unwind, and escape. Unbeknownst to us though, sitting down to play a game sometimes also involves sitting down to receive a philosophical lesson, because all of a sudden the games we’re playing have something to say. Not even in our living rooms, apparently, can we escape the classroom! With this in mind, we’ll be taking a brief look at some philosophical ideas presented to us in modern gaming. Some are very obviously designed to explore a particular philosophy, whilst others are more subtle, and their inclusion in this article may surprise you. Onwards, then, on our whistle-stop tour…
Bioshock – Ayn Rand’s Objectivism
Let’s begin with perhaps the most famous example of a game that explicitly seeks to bring a particular philosophy into discussion, Bioshock. The philosophy in question is Objectivism, a movement founded by Ayn Rand, a Russian-American author most famous for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In short, Objectivism states that reality exists independently of consciousness; that humans interact with reality only through the senses, and can obtain an objective truth by doing so; and, most crucially for our purposes, that the moral goal of each individual’s life is to pursue happiness by explicitly attending to his or her own self-interest.
So, how is this rather perplexing combination of assertions relevant to the narrative of our beloved Bioshock? Well, we should start with the quote on the banner hanging beneath the statue of the game’s chief antagonist, Andrew Ryan. The quote is as follows: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.” This refers to the Objectivist notion that the interest of each individual man is of paramount importance, and when each person pursues his or her own self-interest, society no longer has a need for Gods or Kings.
It is no coincidence that Andrew Ryan and Ayn Rand share the same initials—A. R.—and indeed the two names are practically anagrammatic. Ryan believes that by establishing a great community under the sea, the crumbled ruin of which the players descends into at the start of the game, that he can create a utopia free from the overbearing influence of the state, where humanity can truly flourish. He calls this community Rapture.
For a short while, Rapture appears a great success: its scientists are free from ethical barriers to their research, and its businessmen are at liberty to conduct their affairs without taxation, or harassment from the state. This utopia is though, short-lived. What ultimately razes Rapture to the ground is Ryan’s own obsession with insulating both himself and his community from the outside world, to the extent that he bans all communication with the surface. His subjects come to doubt his commitment to the utopian ideal, chalking his actions up to paranoia and power-hunger. Meanwhile, the flourishing sciences result in the creation of powerful yet dangerous ‘Plasmids’, drugs that give users immense power, but can also reduce them to insanity. Thus, Ryan’s (and Rand’s) Rapture crumbles into the state of disrepair we, as players, are familiar with.
Bioshock engages us with a conversation about the plausibility of utopia, about what happens when humanity prioritises self-interest over all else, and about the consequences of a grapple for power. The irony of Ryan’s quote: “No Gods or Kings. Only Man.”, is that by pursuing his own self-interest, as the Objectivist mantra tells him to do, Ryan himself becomes the God he seeks to escape.
The Souls Series: Existentialism & The Absurd
(Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I-III, Bloodborne)
Now, I will not profess to be a master of the Souls series’ extensive lore, which is so complex as to be unfathomable to most. However, that’s no reason to shy away from discussing the games’ philosophical elements.
Existentialism is a philosophy represented most famously by a group of 20th Century French philosophers: Jean Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Broadly, Existentialism states that the world is an absurd place, and that there is no universal, objective meaning to life on earth. Therefore, each individual must learn to accept this fact, and find meaning and value in personal pursuits.
Unlike in Bioshock, where philosophy is brought immediately and very literally to the player’s attention, in Souls games Existentialism represents itself more subtly, in various signs and symbols. Take, for instance, the bonfire, where the player respawns time and again after each death. For the uninitiated, death in a Souls game represents the loss of all previous progress: any souls collected from defeated enemies are left at the site of death, and all enemies previously defeated are suddenly reanimated. This repeated loss of progress bears strong resembles to Albert Camus’ version of The Myth of Sisyphus, wherein Sisyphus each day rolls a boulder to the top of a mountain, almost reaching the summit each time, only for it to roll back to bottom once more. Each time the player falls to one of the various vicious and unrelenting foes, his metaphoric boulder rolls impotently back to the foot of his metaphoric mountain, and he respawns at the bonfire, ready to try again.
In-game, the absurdity of our own world is amplified ten-fold, as represented by the myriad downright terrifying foes, and also the labyrinthine environments, in which the player is wont to travel in circles and lose himself entirely. Further, the theory of the absurd states that there is no such thing as good or bad, and therefore there is no such thing as justice; whatever happens, happens. This idea is embodied by the cruel environmental traps (the concealed pitfalls, spikes, and mimic chests), and by the deviously placed enemies, who lay in ambush, ready to knock the unsuspecting player over a precipice at any moment. According to Camus, Sisyphus is the absurd hero, condemned to a meaningless task; a role the player comes to embrace as he desperately tries to navigate the brutal environs of the Souls games.
In fact, the world of the Souls games is an exaggerated parody of the Existentialist conception of the absurd. “If you think the real world is absurd,” says developers From Software to Sartre, De Beauvoir and Camus, “then take a gander at this!”
Minecraft – Capitalism & Materialism
Okay, you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because the connection is a bit of a reach, but it’s there, I promise. I’m going to discuss Capitalism in relation to that little-known game, Minecraft. Don’t know if you’ve heard of it?
Capitalism is, of course, a socio-political system under which trade and industry are controlled by private individuals, and not by the state. In a Capitalist society, any man, however rich or poor, has the potential to scale the social hierarchy by accruing resources and capital. He can start with £1, and with hard work and devotion turn this £1 into £1,000, and then from there into £1,000,000.
This vision of the self-made man is exactly what drives the gameplay of Minecraft. The player begins with nothing but his own two fists, and must manually harvest wood from trees in order to create rudimentary tools, and must search for coal in order to provide himself with light and energy. From here he quickly progresses into the Stone Age, and then the Iron Age. Ultimately, after much hard work and a great time-investment, the player struts about his self-crafted mansion, taking for granted resources that at the start of the game were invaluable to him.
Minecraft demands an endless pursuit of bigger and better infrastructure, of a greater abundance of material, and ever more power. When broken down, this whole process can be reduced to a simple cycle: the player accrues more and more resources, simply in order to accrue more and more resources. His life is admittedly made marginally easier with each passing cycle, but ultimately all he has to show for his efforts is more material, more things. If this is not a fitting metaphor for capitalism, then I don’t know what is.
Our games, then, may have a lot more to say about society and philosophy than at first we might think. I’m not saying that the idea of Minecraft is to dutifully instruct the player on the merits (or demerits) of Capitalism, or that the Souls games are designed expressly to teach us an important lesson about the futility of our existence. They’re not, they’re games and they’re fun to play. It is, however, interesting to think about games in the context of a medium that has something to say. Perhaps video games are not just a means of frittering away time, but represent a new medium that is more engaging than studying a dusty philosophical tome in a poorly-lit library. If I can think while I play, then I’m all for it.