In his 2014 book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald wrote that a contributing factor to Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified information from the NSA was his consumption of video games: “The moral narrative at the heart of video games was part of his pre-adolescence and formed part of his moral understanding of the world and one’s obligation as an individual.”
Whether or not you agree with Snowden’s actions, the idea that playing video games could affect a person’s ethical position or even encourage any kind of philosophical thought is probably surprising. Yet we’re used to the notion that a person’s thinking could be influenced by the characters and conundrums in books, film and television; why not games? In fact, games have one big advantage that makes them especially useful for exploring philosophical ideas: they’re interactive.
As any student of philosophy will tell you, one of the primary ways of engaging with abstract questions is through thought experiments. Is Schrödinger’s cat dead or alive? Would you kill one person to save five? A thought experiment presents an imagined scenario (often because it wouldn’t be viable to perform the experiment in real life) to test intuitions about the consequences.
Video games, too, are made up of counterfactual narratives that test the player: here is a scenario, what would you do? Unlike books, film and television, games allow you to act on your intuition. Can you kill a character you’ve grown to know over hours of play, if it would save others?
Consider the question of what we can actually know. When the player of Spec Ops: The Line discovers their character has been hallucinating because of PTSD, the indistinguishability of the hallucinatory and non-hallucinatory experiences raises the question: how can we ever know if our experiences are real?
Given the relationship between player and player character, video games are uniquely placed to explore questions of personal identity. In Soma, the player’s perspective shifts – initially without their knowledge – from a man called Simon to a robot that has copies of Simon’s thoughts and memories. The player is presented with choices that test their intuition about whether the robot and Simon are the same person.
Another topic that fits neatly with the unique nature of games is the question of free will. Video game players have far more agency than book readers or film viewers, and game creators have played with this, perhaps most famously in the 2007 Ayn Rand-inspired game BioShock.
The question of free will leads into those of ethics. Virtue ethics – being good rather than doing good – has been explored in the Ultima series (1981 onwards) with creator Richard Garriott’s system of eight virtues. Utilitarianism, which states the best thing to do is maximise utility (often interpreted as general wellbeing), is a popular philosophical position for video game villains who would sacrifice the few to save the many.
There are explicitly philosophical games (for example, The Talos Principle), specialist game writers, and plenty of games that raise philosophical questions even if that’s not what their creators intended. As video games continue to mature, hopefully more game makers and educators will recognise their potential as a compelling medium through which to engage in philosophical thought.
Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us by Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos (Robinson, £14.99), is out on 17 August. To order a copy for £12.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com