Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Why We Love Sex and Violence

Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Why We Love Sex and Violence

Erin Hoffman (Philomath Games, USA)
Copyright: © 2010 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-845-6.ch008
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We often discuss the interactive medium as being possibly the ultimate in “meta” studies, touching virtually every discipline, and yet we rarely discuss it in serious terms of that other most comprehensive of humanities: philosophy. Correspondingly, philosophy and the traditional humanities have historically distanced themselves from games, relegating them to some curious and inconsequential sub-study of cultural anthropology if they are studied at all. Yet it is the very human foundational compulsion to contemplate death—as will be shown through the works of philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Ernest Becker—that drives much of the violent content that makes the video game medium a lightning rod for cultural scrutiny and controversy. The chapter explores two video games—the controversial Super Columbine Massacre RPG!—through the lens of existential death-anxiety to show how video games represent contemplation of fundamental ethical concerns in the human experience.
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If we are going to properly talk about ethics, philosophy, and games, we should begin with death, the driver of the fundamental question of human existence, and the impetus for our definition as living beings. Without death—and with it, suffering—our questions about individual ethical relationships between human beings lack gravity. Without death, the central ethical question posed by Aristotle—how should we live?—becomes a trivial curiosity, an experiment lacking the time pressure that defines our existence as mortal beings.

Modern philosophy primarily concerns itself with what is called “analytic” philosophy, questions pertaining to the physical nature of reality and the nature of human consciousness. But when we consider the relevance of philosophy as one of the humanities, and the role of philosophy in popular media, we’re really talking about what games say about the experience of being human in our present time. This chapter seeks to show how death perpetually lurks in our subconscious, and how our treatment of death in video games and popular media is fundamentally rooted in this concept, both clarified and illustrated by great thinkers of our past, namely Søren Kierkegaard, famed first existentialist—who may have managed, hundreds of years before their advent, to profoundly underestimate video games.

Because this chapter attempts to subvert the traditional limitations of linear media, you should also feel encouraged to jump between headers.

What We’re Doing When We Play

To begin thinking about what differentiates the mechanic of death in an interactive medium from its presence in linear passive media, we must begin with a definition and an understanding of the basic psychological phenomenon at work in interactivity.

The most concise description of the basic psychological exchange present in interactivity is provided by James Paul Gee in his work on games and literacy (“literacy” in the sense of symbolic representational thought, not just verbal language). Because Steven Johnson does an even better job of paraphrasing Gee, I’ll borrow his language:

The game scholar James Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink” cycle (Johnson, 2005):

  • 1.

    The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).

  • 2.

    Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artifact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.

  • 3.

    The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.

  • 4.

    The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

Put another way: when gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.(Johnson, 2005, p. 45)

This process of interacting experimentally with a virtual environment, which characterizes the differentiating activity that defines a digital game, is not just the basic procedure of the scientific method, but is the basic procedure for human organized thought, for core cognition, learning, and the fundamental roots of curiosity, innovation, and—for our species, at least—survival.

This hypothesize-and-test cycle is the core of the play interaction; a series of play interactions linked together under a greater creative thesis constitutes a “game.” In the classic board game Monopoly, players test strategies for achieving the greatest amount of in-game wealth (game tokens, or “Monopoly money”) within the rules for obtaining it—money-token exchange for property-token items is the basic play interaction. The collection of total play interactions constrained by a rule set is the game—in this case Monopoly, invented by Elizabeth Magie (as “The Landlord Game”) in 1903 to illustrate a ludological—that is, game-delivered—thesis on the consequences of land monopolism (Magie, 1903).

Now that we have considered a specific definition of the play interaction, we can examine the appearance of death in the video game medium.

Complete Chapter List

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Editorial Advisory Board
Table of Contents
Henry Jenkins
Karen Schrier, David Gibson
Karen Schrier
Chapter 1
Miguel Sicart
In this chapter the authors define ethical gameplay as a consequence of game design choices. The authors propose an analytical model that defines... Sample PDF
Values between Systems: Designing Ethical Gameplay
Chapter 2
Gene Koo, Scott Seider
In this chapter, the authors consider the capabilities video games offer to educators who seek to foster prosocial development using three popular... Sample PDF
Video Games for Prosocial Learning
Chapter 3
Dan Staines
The Four Component Model of Moral Functioning is a framework for understanding moral competence originally developed by James Rest and subsequently... Sample PDF
Videogames and Moral Pedagogy: A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach
Chapter 4
Jaroslav Švelch
In this chapter, the authors create a theoretical model to analyze the challenges inherent in the implementation of moral choices in single-player... Sample PDF
The Good, The Bad, and The Player: The Challenges to Moral Engagement in Single-Player Avatar-Based Video Games
Chapter 5
David Simkins
Role playing games (RPGs) are compelling spaces for ethical play. Participants can take on roles very different from their own and experience the... Sample PDF
Playing with Ethics: Experiencing New Ways of Being in RPGs
Chapter 6
Roger Travis
Plato’s cave, when read with attention to its ludic element, provides a model for the way video games can teach ethics. This chapter describes the... Sample PDF
Bioshock in the Cave: Ethical Education in Plato and in Video Games
Chapter 7
John Nordlinger
Many of the opportunities in the virtual world are not available in the physical world, others open our eyes to real world opportunities we couldn’t... Sample PDF
Virtual Ethics: Ethics and Massively Multiplayer Online Games
Chapter 8
Erin Hoffman
We often discuss the interactive medium as being possibly the ultimate in “meta” studies, touching virtually every discipline, and yet we rarely... Sample PDF
Sideways into Truth: Kierkegaard, Philistines, and Why We Love Sex and Violence
Chapter 9
David Phelps
Recent societal critiques charge that the pervasiveness and ubiquity of screen-based technologies place the emotional, social, and cognitive... Sample PDF
What Videogames have to Teach us about Screenworld and the Humanistic Ethos
Chapter 10
Sam Gilbert
This chapter discusses how young people think about ethical issues in online games as seen in the GoodPlay project’s interviews with fourteen online... Sample PDF
Ethics at Play: Patterns of Ethical Thinking among Young Online Gamers
Chapter 11
J. Alison Bryant, Jordana Drell
This chapter looks at the interplay between video and computer games and values discourse within families. The authors focus on the theoretical... Sample PDF
Family Fun and Fostering Values
Chapter 12
Neha Khetrapal
This chapter emphasizes that cognitive science can play a significant role in formulating games for moral education. The chapter advocates an... Sample PDF
Cognitive Science Helps Formulate Games for Moral Education
Chapter 13
Lance Vikaros, Darnel Degand
Morality originates in dispositions and attitudes formed in childhood and early adolescence. Fantasy play and both the perspective taking and... Sample PDF
Moral Development through Social Narratives and Game Design
Chapter 14
Chris Swain
Humans learn through play. All games are learning devices—though most teach the player how to play the game itself and do not strive to communicate... Sample PDF
The Mechanic is the Message: How to Communicate Values in Games through the Mechanics of User Action and System Response
Chapter 15
Rudy McDaniel, Stephen M. Fiore
This chapter presents a case study of the design and development of two original ethics games entitled Veritas University and Knights of Astrus.... Sample PDF
Applied Ethics Game Design: Some Practical Guidelines
Chapter 16
Karen Schrier, James Diamond, David Langendoen
In this chapter, the authors describe Mission US: For Crown or Colony?, a history game for middle school students that they collaboratively... Sample PDF
Using Mission US: For Crown or Colony? to Develop Historical Empathy and Nurture Ethical Thinking
Chapter 17
Colleen Macklin
This case study of the big urban game Re:Activism examines moments where failures in the game’s design revealed how the design process itself is a... Sample PDF
Reacting to Re: Activism: A Case Study in the Ethics of Design
Chapter 18
Stephen R. Balzac
A major difficulty with teaching ethics is that it is relatively easy for participants to state the “right” thing to do when they have no personal... Sample PDF
Reality from Fantasy: Using Predictive Scenarios to Explore Ethical Dilemmas
Chapter 19
Brenda Brathwaite, John Sharp
This chapter provides two entry points into Brenda Brathwaite’s series The Mechanic is the Message, a group of six non-digital games that explore... Sample PDF
The Mechanic is the Message: A Post Mortem in Progress
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