Philosophy, Grinding and The Video Game as a Bullshit Machine: Moral Learning in Social Video Games

Children in GTA:O in particular seem to prefer characters with masks. At a guess, these two characters are probably being played by kids younger than 12.

So… what does video game philosophy matter?

It’s an open and valuable question – what’s the point of even thinking about this? Why does anyone care about video game philosophy – especially since philosophy is so marginalized and meaningless these days?

The first and best answer is that video game philosophy matters because how we raise our children through play as a society matters. It would be lovely to assume that we all live in a world where parents always make the best decisions for their children and are constantly present and supportive throughout the growing process.

In reality, there is a shockingly large number of unattended and unsupervised children playing highly sophisticated social video games that teach life lessons – through interactive style, not through narrative – that some parents might find objectionable.

Children in GTA:O in particular seem to prefer characters with masks. At a guess, these two characters holding up a liquor store are probably being played by kids younger than 12.

Children in GTA:O in particular seem to prefer characters with masks. At a guess, these two characters are probably being played by kids younger than 12.

People learn and experiment with morality through play, and social-virtual play like that offered in social video games shapes social expectations. The value of video game play arises through social learning. The mechanisms of that learning and its efficacy are properly psychological concerns; but the content of that learning, the actions and thoughts that we want to encourage as a society, must be philosophical ones. We might call this the “social-learning” view of video games. The social-learning viewpoint I’m arguing for is a similar to the moral argument against violent video games, but with important differences.

The standard contemporary moral argument against video games argues argues that children enact the violence they’re transposed into being the agents of in video games. This view makes several flawed assumptions:
- It assumes that players are sufficiently immersed in the story for the “violent message” to take hold;
- it assumes that people enact in real life the actions they take as virtual characters. Here, the Stanley Milgrim Stanford Prison Experiment might be cited – it can be argued, quite convincingly, that playing the role of an anti-social or even “evil” actor can cause players to internalize that role and in a sense “become” the evil they are enacting;
- It assumes, most critically, that players are always transposing themselves into their video game characters – that the character is always an “avatar”.

Thus, when Modern Warfare 2 has the player enact an airport massacre as a undercover Marine posing as a terrorist, for the contemporary view, in a sense, the player themselves are committing this notional massacre.

Yep, that's you, the handless, leglless eyeball with a gun grafted onto it, floating through the airport, committing this massacre. YUP.

Yep, that’s you, the handless, legless eyeball with a gun grafted onto it, floating through the airport, committing this massacre. YUP.

These assumptions fall apart upon even cursory examination of a modern social video game. In particular, the assumption of player transposition – the over-used and now sickeningly familiar term “avatar” – should appear patently false to anyone that has thought about and played video games at all seriously.

Every single first person shooter game “turns” the player into what is essentially a floating eyeball with a gun. Without proprioception, olfaction or a sense of touch, the only constants in a first person shooter are the viewport (eyeball), the weapon (gun), and the player’s movement (floating). Every third person shooter “turns” the player into a clumsy psychopath with a gun; without the constant sensory feedback and instinctual programming availabe, third person representations are always clumsy, steered-rather-than-guided dolls, ‘driven’ more like cars than ‘worn’ like suits. Players do not “become” their characters, not even in a poetic sense, and it is almost incomprehensibly naive to think that they do.

This is Orbb, from Quake 3. Based sheerly on what you can see of your own character, every single FPS character is basically no different than Orbb.

This is Orbb, from Quake 3. Based sheerly on what you can see of your own character, every single FPS character is basically no different than Orbb.

When a male player choose a female character, is that player really “becoming” a female character? Is every male player playing a female character a man trapped in a woman’s body? Or is it instead, as many players have stated, that players would rather spend time looking at a female’s backside than a male’s? What about when a famous World of Warcraft player names his rogue after a girlfriend who dumped him (probably because he spent too much time playing World of Warcraft…). Does he really want to “be” his ex-girlfriend, or play “as” her?

This was his website, back when people actually cared about World of Warcraft.

This was his website, back when people actually cared about World of Warcraft.

When a child playing GTA:Online (which he really shouldn’t have been considering it’s rated ‘Mature’) takes his female character, dressed to the nines in a scarily authentic replica of a 1950s Vogue cover model, and repeatedly subjects that character to unpleasant and hilarious accidents, is that some weird kind of vicarious masochism, as the contemporary view would suggest? Or is it instead just doll play?

See this character? This is being played by a man.

See this character? This is a dude.

And this is a dude.

And this is a dude.

Slutty mismatched outfit, definitely  dude.

Slutty mismatched outfit, definitely a dude.

Is it the case that video game makers really had, say, Husserl’s view of phenomenology or Rawl’s veil of ignorance in mind when shaping their games, as so many modern graduate-level video game philosophical papers seem to claim? Or is it instead the case that when all you have is a toolkit of discredited and archaic philosophical hammers, everything begins to look like a theoretical nail to slam away at with difficult-to-read academic prose?

See this book here? It's $179, and not a single writer in here is a serious MMORPG players or video game designer. This is the state of the art: Overpriced, abstruse academic bullshit.

See this book here? It’s $179, and not a single writer in here is a serious MMORPG players or video game designer. This is the state of the art: Overpriced, abstruse academic bullshit.

It is a unique problem of this field that the philosophers who bother to touch upon video games are by and large journeymen philosophers trying to make a name for themselves by applying outmoded or discredited epistemological or phenomenological viewpoints onto modern video games, and are usually never serious video game players. Most video game players are too unthinking or simply too stupid to philosophize meaningfully; we simply do not live in a particularly philosophical or reflective age. And so all we have instead to speak on the field are sales and marketing pitches, corrupted video game reviewers and an endless legion of naive, modern-savage players fumbling about and trying to describe ideas and patterns using an intellectual toolkit deprived of the ancient and disregarded ways of thinking, ignorant of history itself.

The result of this savage, unthinking, ahistorical kind of two-way-street of folk philosophy is a pervading naivete that informs the social learning that video games provide. For lack of a lesson to teach or a meaning to discern, we end up teaching that there are no lessons, that there is no meaning. We’ve trained an entire generation of social video gamers that mindless, work-like repetition as a good and enjoyable thing. This is the notion of “grinding” – the idea of repeating an incentivized activity repeatedly, a favorable lesson for a people expected to perform rote technological labor. “Grinding”, for instance, by killing several of the same type of creature in a certain area repeatedly, reduces the player to a routinized mechanical component – but unlike a standard machine part that has value-producing labor as a goal, the player becomes a machine part in what essentially a confabulation machine, a bullshit machine, producing a certain amount of meaningless in-game incentive in exchange for an input of equally meaningless “work”. Grinding makes a player into the mechanism of his own domination and his own learning to be dominated. It prepares the player for a menial, unthinking job working as a cog in an even more important bullshit machine: the modern corporation.

The grinding player squanders away time and purpose, receiving meaningless operant-conditioning rewards in return. In exchange for grinding, the player gains an illusory kind of esteem – the “respect” of other players. But since video games are not considered a socially worthy or even macho activity, and since video games are essentially solipsistic and individualistic activities, this respect is ultimately meaningless. In a fantasy world where NPCs are constantly telling you that you are The Special One, what value would players think to assign to information that tells them they are not as good at the game as they think they are, that they are not The Chosen One? With no consequences for ignorance beyond being stupid, it is a natural conclusion for a player to ignore the social information of respect in favor of the constant stream of blinding, self-reinforcing narrative that the game feeds him.

The grind generation, then, as we might call these game players, through shaping by video games have become a generation for whom the purely, repetitively familiar is of paramount importance, even when it doesn’t work. The overall lesson – grinding makes your character better – remains firmly implanted even when individual grinding activities are suboptimal or ineffective. This is a generation that will do things suboptimally, repeatedly, simply because the suboptimal method fits better into their inaccurate chosen-righteous-warrior self-image. This is a generation that is so self-involved and ahistorical that it even sucks at video games.

In striving, in attempting to achieve a goal, even a meaningless goal, we recognize that there is moral value. This is the reason our society has unproductive activities like sports. The sportsman is a reminder, more vicariously and more meaningfully than most video game characters, of the importance and moral value in self-actualization – in being what you were meant to be, doing what you were meant to do, and improving yourself in the process. This is why we have school sports teams; we recognize that there is value in trying and even failing at an activity.

So in an age where more people play video games than play sports, why do we have no school video game teams? Why is the moral value in striving and attainment absent from video games, unlike almost every other activity in modern life? I’ll argue in my next essay that the reasons for its absence mean that we need to change the way we think about and play video games.

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