Videogames, Art, and Philosophy
November 23, 2006

It's amazing how attitudes can change over the period of 10 years. We've gone from a paranoid society that blamed games like Quake for mass shootings, where videogaming enthusiasts were at best social outsiders, to a slightly less paranoid society where games like Halo 2 and The Sims exemplify the mainstream nature of the industry. The new question that arises is whether or not this form of entertainment is also capable of being used for more artistic nature.

On one hand, we can look at the Japanese videogame industry, as people like to assume this is where a lot of creativity comes from. While you may have games of a surrealist nature like Rez or Katamari Damacy, you also end up having clunkers like Metal Gear Solid which act pretentious about philosophy but degenerate into having sub-standard plots that aren't anything but intrusive. While the cyberspace motif of Rez is reminiscient of the 80s and Tron, the actual game is little more than shooting stuff and taking in the surreal visuals and music...or vibrating your girlfriend to orgasm. Beware for the site below is somewhat unsafe for work, but it shows how weird the Japanese can be with videogaming.


On the other end of the spectrum, we've got the Western developments in games. While many of them don't even bother to try to wax philosophical, content to be about shooting/rushing/outracing your enemy, there still lies the occasional game that makes you question whether or not games are capable of much more than they are.

The first such game I would like to dwell on is Alpha Centauri. This game was made in 1999 for the PC as the spiritual successor to Civilization II. Whereas Civilization II was an empire-building game based on history where one would select one of several factions and build an infrastructure, cities, etc. while researching technological landmarks ("The Wheel," "Feudalism," etc.), Alpha Centauri replaced national differences with philosophical differences. The eco-technological Gaia's Stepdaughers were at odds with the capitalist Morganites (named after the infamous banking legacy JP Morgan) who despised the communistic Human Hive, who viewed the humanitarian Peacekeepers as weaklings, who viewed the hyper-survivalist Spartans as gun-toting nuts, who viewed the technophiliac University as a bunch of wimpy nerds.

Or something like that. While some groups were statistically more likely to ally or war based on their factional beliefs, in the end it was possible to conduct social engineering on your society. Do you want a free-market capitalist economy, or a planned socialist economy like Sweden? Maybe you feel like making Ted Turner your financial advisor, and you'll create an environment-friendly government at the cost of economic growth. (CAPTAIN PLANET!). You could select whether to be a police state or a democracy, or even a religious theocracy like Iran. You could select what your society values most: Power, Wealth, or Knowledge. And you could eventually work towards attaining some form of transhumanistic society; whether you wanted a society where everyone was a cybernetically enhanced superbeing, whether you had a eudaimonic society where everyone was able to work in paradise, or whether you wanted to use drugs to control your minions, ala Brave New World, you could theoretically pull it off. The weirdest thing though was the technologies you researched; while you'd research your typical technological advances like Applied Mathematics or Organic Superlubricant, you could also direct your research on unlocking philosophical truths such as the nature of Nicomachean Ethics or how to attain The Will to Power. So the game ended up having you wondering what is the purpose of life? Are we just meant to fuck a lot, to uncover truth, or to become filthy rich? Maybe a warrior-society will keep us strong, or maybe religion is our primary key to salvation. Who knows?

Another game I would like to dwell on is Deus Ex, also released for the PC. At first, it appears like any other shooter game, yet looks are deceiving. You create your character using a wide variety of stats, so you could learn how to be a master sniper, or maybe how to hack ATMs for cash. The actual reason this game is good is because of its unusually decent plot, which involves a world-domination conspiracy dealing with the Illuminati, Area 51, Echelon IV, the Knights Templar, and a good deal of other conspiracy groups (note this game came out at least a year before the Da Vinci code made conspiracy theories idiotically mainstream). How you acted in the game would affect the outcomes of future events, and potentially how the game ended as well; you were given the choice of multiple endings depending on how you believed society should work best: Should you destroy all global communication and force people into technological feudalism that would eventually result in the rise of independent city-states? Do you help resurrect the Illuminati and 20th century capitalism (a bunch of wealthy people protected by lawyers and tax codes)? Or do you merge yourself with a rogue AI in the attempt to invent a God in a manner that would make Rosseau proud? The game was worth playing through multiple times as each time you played through, you would find something you missed, and your worldview on society would subsequently be altered. Maybe you missed the allusion to the USENET Oracle, or reading about the fall of the Templars? Maybe you're curious as to how the Hashishin figure into all of this?

The point of this all is that there can be two different extremes by which a game could be classified as art. We've got the visual extreme in which games sacrifice depth for the sake of using artistic motif (games like Rez, Ikaruga, Katamari Damacy, Panzer Dragoon, etc), or we've got the games that look like any other at first yet are so loaded in philosophical debate that they can actually affect your outlook on life.

Commentary would be great, for this was a relatively hastily-written article.

Most recent blog posts from ...

janus janus - November 24, 2006 (03:26 PM)
The point that you can look at games as art (as much as I hate the term) from two different perspectives was something I hadn't really given much thought to before. Japanese games definitely place the emphasis on expression through visual content, so it's nice to see someone stand up for Western games. You should write a Alpha Centurai review - that game sounds very interesting now.
Halon Halon - November 24, 2006 (07:44 PM)
I also never saw that perspective before. I've played both games and spent many hours fooling around with them, and this never crossed my mind. Interesting.

Personally when I play games I don't look for "art" or some philosophical meaning; I just want to have fun. But having played both Alpha Centauri and Deus Ex, I can see where you're getting at. They were both awesome games, although the former wasn't without its flaws.
zigfried zigfried - November 24, 2006 (10:16 PM)
I've played neither Alpha Centauri nor Deus Ex, so I can't comment on those specifically, but you raise a very interesting point. I would say that level of social depth and philosophy are part of why I've always cherished Starflight and Wasteland, although I had never quite thought of them in that way before.

It's interesting that the recent upsurge of "games as art" has primarily focused on the visual side, implicitly rejecting anything but the aesthetic sense of the word. It's important that we think without limits, and I think you've put together a well-written piece to that effect.


eXTReMe Tracker
© 1998-2019 HonestGamers
None of the material contained within this site may be reproduced in any conceivable fashion without permission from the author(s) of said material. This site is not sponsored or endorsed by Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Microsoft, or any other such party. Opinions expressed on this site do not necessarily represent the opinion of site staff or sponsors.