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Realism in Fantasy

A post discussing the applications of philosophy in video games.

Anek Baweja, Blogger

December 9, 2014

14 Min Read

Philosophy in games. Whoa don’t fall asleep just yet. In more than a few games we notice philosophical concepts that affect a character’s behaviour or the atmosphere of a particular game world. I’m no philosopher or great revolutionary thinker, but even the average consumer can unknowingly have their game experience influenced by philosophies they are unaware of. This essence of deeper thinking in video games adds both meaning and complexity to the narrative of a game. To put that in more technical terms, it makes the game like super deep. Without this complexity innate to humanity games can feel aloof and foreign. Sometimes this feeling of aloofness is wanted in a video game, but in those that wish to present a variation of our world, game writers may want to ground, as much they can, the vast ideas they present. Philosophical ideas and thinking, when present in the media of video games, enhances both the narrative as well as the user’s understanding and enjoyment of the game.

    Immersion is often difficult to achieve when gaming experiences are often set in fantastical realms that to the average consumer, obviously do not coincide with what we perceive as reality. A simple solution to this would be to craft a gaming world with an accurate likeness to that of the real world. This would however remove the element of fantasy, which to many games, is an important factor influencing both the story and gameplay. Removing that aspect of the game would take away, essentially, the whole concept and point of the game. Instead of sacrificing such an integral feature of the game, why not add something pertaining to humanity. Something only we as humans can achieve. Something like extensive, deep thought and philosophy. Game writers instill a world of fantasy with philosophical concepts and ideas to harness our unique capability to reason and ask questions in order to humanise the otherwise radical concepts in the game, creating realism in fantasy. In Bioshock, the underwater world of Rapture is but an idea implausible with our current technology, with a dark, gloomy, steampunk stylistic design, yet throughout the game I felt immersed in the narrow corridors and dimly lit rooms. I believe this stems from how the game “dip[s] into the ethical morass of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophies” (Crecente, 2008). The philosophy is “in essence...the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." (Rand, 2007). However, in Crecente’s (2008) article, he speaks of Levine’s (creator of Bioshock) opposing view on Rand’s ideology in her famous novel “Atlas Shrugged”. He questions the realism of the world she presents and the characters she crafts.. “Rand’s characters are super heroes,” he said. “Great people without flaws.” (Crecente, 2008). This opposition to Rand’s beliefs is encompassed by the entirety of Rapture. Levine creates a world in which he believes would be the realistic result of objectivism. With an entire city of those who only wish to better themselves, the inherent flaws of humans (greed and jealousy) take over, leaving the city bare, stripped of civilization. This incorporation of this system of thinking, as well as how humans, with all their flaws, could misconstrue it, help ground the extreme concepts in bioshock. With Bioshock’s take on objectivism, we see how a world like Rapture could have turned into the desolate wasteland it is in the game. It becomes plausible within the realms of the game. The glowing neon signs, and eerie, carnivalesque vending machines help create a unique, dark, world, but objectivism is “the glue that holds the aesthetics together.”(Crecente, 2008)

    Ingrained philosophy does not only help craft a believable world, but also believable characters. Countless times I’ve found myself questioning villains in video games. “I have waited a long time, now I shall destroy the world!” Why? What purpose does destroying the world serve? These generic “evil for the sake of being evil” villains add no depth whatsoever to the narrative. There is no agenda the antagonist has that we can relate to or oppose. Without a reason for all the antagonistic behaviour, players lose value in their own actions to oppose the villain. If we were however, to understand the villain’s philosophical ideals and background, we could better understand the villain’s mindset and actions. Once again from Bioshock, the antagonist and creator of Rapture, Andrew Ryan, is presented through various forms of media littered throughout the city including audio recordings and video advertisements. From these clues, we can begin to piece together Andrew Ryan’s way of thinking. In AnotherGaming Englishman’s video (2012) he attempts to link Andrew Ryan’s ideology to that of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of Übermensch. Übermensch, or superman in english translations, is “one who has superseded the bondage of the human condition and reached a liberated state — one of free play and creativity.” (Bates, n.d). AnotherGaming Englishman further elaborates on this concept, stating that Nietzsche believes that to be free, one must stop relying on human safety nets and constructions such as politics and religion in order to find purpose in life, but rather “find meaning in existence through existence itself” (AnotherGaming Englishman, 2012). These ideas are similar to those displayed by Ryan as seen in his video advert of Rapture. “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor. No says the man in the Vatican, it belongs to god. No says the man in Moscow, it belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers” (2K Boston, 2007) Andrew cleary opposes these concepts present in our world. Like Nietzsche he rejects the human constructs and instead created his own world, abiding by different rules. This thinking, when presented in the game, allows gamers to understand Andrew Ryan, hence understanding the entire foundation on which Rapture was created. This brings an unprecedented level of understanding to the narrative, while simultaneously encouraging outside thinking. Once again objectivism comes into play, this time in Andrew Ryan’s concept in creating Rapture. Going back to the beliefs of objectivism: man living his life to improve his being and achieve happiness for himself. Rapture was created to brush away the limitations of the modern world. Again you are hinted as to how Rapture eventually tore itself apart.  Ryan believed that “morality isn’t moral because it limits the progress of man” (AnotherGaming Englishman, 2012). By eliminating, rules and moral constrictions, Ryan would be able to follow his objectivist ideals, and achieve Übermensch. These subtle clues, impart an understanding of the ideology around the game, allowing for a more comprehensive game experience.

    What is right and what is wrong? Morality has become a huge part of various games due to it’s incorporation of having a choice and a sense of control in games. These morality systems weigh heavily on the experience of the game, and with each game incorporating their own unique system, we can see what aspect of morality each system emphasises and how this skews the players view on what is good and what is evil. In games like the Fable series, morality is judged on a singular linear scale, where acts of kindness and acts of treachery push the dial of morality a certain direction. Effectively one could kill an entire group of villagers and keep the same moral rating if one were to cancel out the bad act with an equally good act. This idea that any unjust can be wiped away by simply masking it with more kindness diminishes player’s view on the irreversibility of actions. This experience of ethical principles contrasts that in Mass Effect in which “One earns paragon [good] points and renegade [evil] points so that no good action can negate a bad one and the reverse. The two scales slide independently” (Schulzke, n.d). This approach emphasises how an action, once made, cannot be reversed. This sense of permanence means that players must then make more thoughtful decisions when confronted with a moral decision, much like the real world, thereby increasing the immersion of the game. Apart from the scale of morality having an effect on the game, whether or not the emphasis is on the action or the consequence, influences the view of what is the “right” thing to do in the game. In games like Fallout 3, the emphasis is more on the intention of the action and whether that action is or is not just. This coincides with Kant’s view on moral order: “...a good will is intrinsically good; its value is wholly self-contained and utterly independent of its external relations.” (Kemerling, 2011). An example provided by the YouTube channel Philosophy Tube (2013) is a mission in which players are given a choice to either help the ghouls who want to live in the same area as the humans (peacefully or with force) or kill the ghouls to prevent them from pestering the humans. If we were to follow Kant’s philosophy, such as this game does, the obvious choice would be to help ghouls settle a deal peacefully with the humans, as that action is in itself the most moral. [SPOILER ALERT] This choice however leads to the ghouls eventually killing the human occupants anyway. But in the end, your action in the game was viewed as moral and so you receive good karma as a result. If the game was approached with a more consequentialist view, The obvious choice for an overall benefit to society would be to kill the ghouls. Another variant of morality is games is one which does not focus on the grand scheme of your actions, but rather what your fellow party members think about each action. Dragon Age, an RPG by BioWare, has implemented such a system. Each character has a unique “philosophy” in the way they think and see things whether it’s the female guard who values hierarchy or a man who favors a more communistic approach and supports those of a lower class. “Do something they agree with and they like you more, do something they don't like and they'll disapprove” (Takacs, 2013). The beauty of this system is seemingly impossible task of pleasing everyone in your group. With contrasting beliefs, the player must tailor their gameplay around which characters they prefer creating a unique experience for each player or run through of the game. Players begin to realise the consequences and impact of their actions.

Another philosophical concept present in certain games is the idea of destiny. Though it isn’t alway to main theme of games, this concept can impart a different experience depending a players beliefs. According to Kant, if someone is destined or born to do a certain task, like saving the world for example, they deserve no moral praise for doing said task. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, an rpg by Bethesda, you play as the Dragonborn, essentially being the only person capable of dealing with dragons, the main monsters in the game. This aspect of being born to save the world, if taken from a Kant perspective, can make certain quests feel like burdens that are thrust upon the player. Those who view destiny as more of an honor or a gift may view these same quests as choosing to help others. Each view provides a unique gameplay experience.

Some games form around philosophical concepts, while others merely scratch the surface. In all of these games though, these ideologies are present in the characters and societies in the game and produce a realistic yet fantastical experience. Games are particularly good at conveying the beliefs of a philosophy as players are able to interact with characters, and explore how each ideology sculpts a characters personality and behaviour. As games venture deeper into the implementation of deep thought and philosophical ways of thinking, games begin to approach a narrative that can accurately portray humanity. In contrast, a game trying to create a world so incredibly distant from humanity could discard human concepts and constructs, employing a lack of ability to reason and question.


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