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Philosophy & Video Games

Course Description

In the space of about five decades, video games have evolved from rudimentary programs written by programmers in their free time to a sophisticated form of popular art which supports a multi-billion dollar industry. Along the way, a range of metaphysical, aesthetic, ethical, and phenomenological questions about this new art form have emerged. This course explores some of these questions. Its primary aim is to work through some issues specific to video games, and to use these points as a launch-pad for approaching broader philosophical questions.

The course has three sections. The first explores questions about demarcating video games from other media types. Questions here include: what are video games – are there necessary and sufficient conditions that something must satisfy for it to be a video game? Are video games a kind of art and, if so, what kind? Finally, video games are frequently said to be essentially interactive – playing a game involves a kind of active participation from a player that is distinct from what’s involved in merely passively watching a film. But how exactly should we understand this notion of interactivity?

Building off these investigations, the second section concerns the relationship between video games and several puzzles concerning the nature of fiction. Topics here include the video games and truth in fiction, the (apparent) tension between games’ interactive nature and the requirements for constructing a narrative, emotional responses to video games (e.g., should players be afraid of the ghosts in P.T., or feel guilty for brutally murdering someone in Manhunt?), the puzzle of imaginative resistance, and the alethic puzzle.

The third and final section focuses on questions about morality both in and of video games. For example, Grand Theft Auto 5 is notorious for its violent content and sexual themes, and it is undeniable that GTAV involves its players in (fictional) immoral activities. Relatedly, many have contended that violent games are psychological and behaviourally injurious to their players, desensitizing, if not out-right inclining, them to violence. But are players morally blameworthy for what they do within the fictional world of the game? And, more generally, how does the (im)moral character of art works relate to or effect their artistic value? Finally, numerous feminist critics have raised concerns about the androcentric focus prevalent in the production and consumption of video games, arguing that games promote and support harmful conceptions of women. With this in mind, how should games and ‘game culture’ be changed? What would a properly feminist game look like?

Over the course of the semester, we will endeavour to address these questions. As this is an advanced course, a familiarity with basic philosophical concepts and notions is presupposed. Further, because they are the central topic, some familiarity with video games is expected, though not required.

Course Materials