Gaming at a philosophical playground

Updated: Feb 17

Computer games are both a huge industry and a cultural phenomenon. Łukasz Krzywoń talks with Łukasz Androsiuk and Ewa Kosiedowska about how to reflect on computer games and find meaning in playing them. #gaming #philosophy #p4c #digitalculture

Łukasz Krzywoń: It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that our everyday lives today depend on digital technologies to an unprecedented degree. For our generation, brought up on Atari computers, first PCs, but also Nintendo / PlayStation consoles, this asks for a deeper reflection. We were the very generation that made computer games, and in fact, the entire culture associated with them, quickly become the most profitable branch of the entertainment industry. For me, who used to program his first games on Commodore 64, it is amazing that it is not programmers, but Youtubers playing games that are breaking popularity records today. It turns out that playing games is as popular today as watching favourite gamers playing them. How to explain this fact? What is so attractive about computer games? What connection do computer games have or can have with philosophy?

Łukasz Androsiuk: It is impossible to provide so many questions with one consistent answer that would be able to cover all the issues you ask about. It is impossible to capture the essence of the phenomenon of computer games and the practices built around them, speaking only in the language of the games themselves, which in itself is already a philosophical challenge. This is why the subtitle of my book does not refer to computer games, but to the culture associated with them. This means that I am interested not only in games but also in their cultural significance, in particular in their educational potential. Our attitude towards games, and not only computer games, in fact, but the whole digital culture (as games are also only a special case of this culture), depends to a large extent on the language with which we are reflecting on them. This means that we can talk about computer games as texts, which are - like all texts - a carrier of specific meanings, but also as an industry worth billions of dollars. That is why there is more than one answer to the questions you ask.

Łukasz Krzywoń: Ok. Maybe at least we could try and determine if and what connection do computer games have with philosophy in general, with the teaching of philosophy in particular. For you project "The Philosophical Playground" (Filozoficzny Plac Zabaw) you rely on computer games to sparks some philosophical thinking.

Ewa Kosiedowska:

Although it may seem surprising, the relationship between philosophy and games, not only computer games, is something completely natural.

After all, the popular and philosophical suggestion that each of us only “plays” a social role has always been quite popular. Therefore playing computer games, which most often consist in "impersonating" various characters, is perhaps the most suggestive metaphor for this. Actually, the very term "game" is a concept that occupied the most eminent minds, only to mention Wittgenstein's language games. For me playing computer games, but not only, is interesting because it prompts and encourages questions about the importance of the rules that govern the worlds of these games and those that govern the real world. Thus, games can be and usually are an exceptionally attractive introduction to a philosophical reflection. Philosophy also provokes questions about the essence of a game as a certain culturally significant phenomenon.

Łukasz Krzywoń: Let's talk for a moment about the current generations, which have been immersed in digital culture from an early age, in particular the culture of computer games. As a father, I want to ask how to talk about the possible benefits of playing games, and at the same time being aware of the possible risks associated with them, in other words, how not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Ewa Kosiedowska: As a mother of 8-year-old Aniela, I can say that I asl similar questions and I encourage asking them. Jordan Shapiro - also a father - in his excellent book "The New Childhood" convinces us and he really convinced me, that digital culture and practices built around it are best compared to a ‘global sandbox’ where you can play all the time and with everyone. Such a prospect undoubtedly tempts with its attractiveness, although we know that the more opportunities, the more threats. The problem, however, is that by telling young people "You must not play there / with it", we will achieve the opposite of the intended effect and we certainly will not make the sandbox cease to exist. Therefore, one should accept the fact that it simply exists and assume that much more effective than ban is, as Łukasz puts it, "sharing intergenerational experiences".

In practice, it is about a message like “I'm glad you enjoy this game! I want to experience it too and play with you.” In this way, we do not exclude a young person from the digital culture, while at the same getting an insight into the content which he or she interacts with.

Łukasz Krzywoń: Let’s return to games for a moment and a suggestion that choices the child makes while playing games are a kind of metaphor for the choices he or she makes (or will make) in real life. By asking about the reasons for these choices, are we also able to understand what is happening in their world? Or does the cultural gap between us and our children is too vast to understand it?

Łukasz Androsiuk: Many researchers dealing with let’s say gamification actually believe that the choices we make as players tell us something important about our inclinations, fears and expectations. At the same time, others, such as Noël Carroll or Jesper Juul (the one who studies games and not the recently deceased and distinguished Danish therapist) claim that when playing games we are always aware of the fictional status of the world in which the game is played and that the choices we make in the game have nothing to do with the decisions that we would actually make in the situation suggested by the game. Games do not make us bear any real consequences, and they always allow us to play again. Although from a philosophical point of view the matter seems more complicated.

Screenshot from the mystery game - Hitchhiker

Ewa Kosiedowska: Both perspectives seem interesting. During Philosophical Playground classes, I often ask children to imagine a situation - inspired, for example, by the game "Growing Up" - in which they would have to make a moral choice relying on fictional characters to later confront their decisions by substituting these characters with their loved ones from the real life. It turns out that at least some children are extremely consistent in these decisions, while others are not fooled and almost immediately answer "well, you know normally I would have acted differently". However, no matter what their final answer is, they all prove that we operate within the same values, the conflicts associated with them, regardless of generational differences. So even if the game itself is only a specific form of expression for the player, relying on games in the learning/teaching process has a unique cognitive value.

Łukasz Krzywoń: Exactly, hence my next question is about educational applications, especially when it comes to philosophical education. Are there any games that directly refer to philosophy or philosophical issues? How to play games with the whole class?

Ewa Kosiedowska: Of course! Many of the games are designed for the age group of children work with (primary school) in mind, for whom computer games are actually the first contact with digital reality. The choices are vast. There are games that reflect ethical issues in a very attractive way, and there are games that focus on cognitive issues. The latter are extremely valuable from the didactic point of view. It is easier for an 8 or 10-year-old to show what the problem of cognitive relativism is than it is to explain it with the help of complicated terminology, often unintuitive to a child. The game "Shadowmatic" (Triada Studio Games) works wonders in that regard. It involves manipulating an object so that its shadow becomes its representation, which is, of course, a variation on Plato’s cave. Absolutely delightful on the aesthetic level and innovative in terms of mechanics, but also a bit more difficult in the presentation itself is the game "Gorogoa" (Jason Roberts). It is visually, auditorially, and above all, procedurally beautiful. It’s almost like a philosophical essay on human existence and how seemingly unrelated events determine the course of our fate. Bee Simulator (Varsav Game Studios SA), a game in which we experience reality from the bee's perspective, is an invitation to a reflection on the role and value of nature, but also a concept of social justice. Both games are independent productions that can be played on a smartphone for as little as €5, at home as well as in the classroom.

Łukasz Androsiuk: It is necessary to clearly distinguish between educational games and education through games. The former are games that were intended primarily as teaching tools and that do not give young people as much fun as the games they play in their spare time. The games that Ewa talks about do not have such ambitions, although they can actually serve the same purposes, only that their didactic value depends on the competence of the teacher himself. It is up to him/her that ultimately depends on which game and for what purpose it will be used. However, let us add that, although from the didactic point of view, games may indeed be a carrier of equally important content and meanings as books, films and other cultural texts, they are fundamentally different from them. Education through games is not and should not be understood as a competitive strategy.

Łukasz Krzywoń: I like the idea of ​​a "trustful guardian" that you speak of in your book. You see, I also like to play games from time to time and I often try to choose games that I could play with my children. I remember that dr Marek Kaczmarzyk, at his Neuroscience of education course I attended, recommended to try and play games with the youth or children in our care.

He argued that in order to enter the world of our children, to build healthy relationships with them, it is enough, amongst other strategies, to play games with them, get interested in what and why they are playing.

Ewa Kosiedowska: That's it! As a mother, I try to do the same. This postulate does not have to be limited only to parents. School, in general, would gain more authority, if among homework assignments, not to mention major exams like a leaving cert, at least one question was "Write a review of your favorite game" or "Describe your favourite computer game hero" etc. In Poland, the game „War of Mine” (by 11 bit studios) is on the recommended ‘reading list’ by the department, but the lack of appropriate competence means that even the most dedicated teachers simply do not know how to go about it.

Philosophical Playground - We give children the right (back) to think

Łukasz Krzywoń: Ok, I’m convinced, but as a parent, I still cannot get over the fact that playing - as I can attest to watching my own children - causes them to lose track of time altogether. You see, when Jonathan Swift wrote his books, he did not have a team of psychologists and marketing specialists to advise him on what to do to make the books completely captivate readers' attention. Meanwhile, computer games are, as we have already said, a huge industry in the first place, for which the most valuable is child's time spent in front of a TV or smartphone screen. I believe that this is an important issue.

Łukasz Androsiuk: Nobody pretends that the problem doesn’t exist. The position of the WHO, which recognized gaming addiction as a disease, is also important here. But let’s remember you can get addicted to many things. It is interesting from the philosophical point of view, that we are usually more understanding towards other practices like reading for example! Our fear is directly related with the attitude to the very object/phenomenon to which we are addicted to. The aforementioned Jordan Shapiro in his book shows that similar concerns also arose when the culture of reading went en masse. Do people glued to books do not remind us of something? Of course, let’s not underestimate the problem of gaming addiction. But let us be honest that, despite the impression we have about gaming, games do not necessarily engage our attention more than any other media. Perhaps for the same reasons, we can binge a whole season of our favorite series in one night, we also play games. We want to make people aware of the problem but also draw attention to the fact that not necessarily the former is more harmful than the latter.

Łukasz Krzywoń: In some way, using appropriate language, one should talk about computer games with children. About what is valuable in playing specific games, playing in general, but also about the risks associated with losing control over what and how much kids or young people play.

Łukasz Androsiuk: Sure, when talking to parents and teachers about it we try to look for the Aristotelian "golden mean". Often, in relation to the culture of computer games, either we are absolutely "no" or in defense of games we do not pay attention to the mechanisms that, after all, require some suspicion.

I suggest that the skeptical parent/teacher adopt the attitude of what I call the attitude of "trustful guardian". “Trustful" because they give credit to the games, but a "guardian", because after all, they are aware and guard against what is harmful, dangerous, morally questionable, not only in the games themselves, but also in the culture associated with them. It seems to me that this is an attitude that should be implemented in the context of the culture of new technologies in general.

Ewa Kosiedowska: That’s it. Having in mind computer games, and in particular corporate practices related to them, Julian Kücklich proposed the term "Playbour", which is best translated as playwork or work-fun. The point is that while playing the game, in fact, we also perform a number of other activities that feeds information about us to big companies, in effect "learning" how and with what effectively attract our attention. This is very valuable for those companies. So often we pay triple for the pleasure of playing: money, data (often sensitive data about ourselves), and time, which of course cannot be recovered. It would not be an exaggeration to say that having a mere conversation with children on these matters could have an ethical or philosophical value, right?

Łukasz Krzywoń: If it allows them to understand themselves better and navigate their lives better, then of course it is!

Last but not least, could you suggest what games do you recommend, games you would use for your Philosophical Playground project?

Ewa Kosiedowska:

Bee Simulator (Varsav Game Studios SA, 2019, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)

Shadowmatic (Triada Studio Games, 2015: iOS Android)

Gorogoa (Jason Roberts, Buried Signal, 2017: PC, Mac OS, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)

Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow, Armature Games, Santa Monica Studio, 2012: PC, PlayStation 4, iOS)

Łukasz Androsiuk:

Gris (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac OS, iOS)

Spek (RAC7, 2019, iOS)

Chronology (Bedtime Digital Games, 2014 iOS, PC)

Łukasz Androsiuk - doctor of humanities, research and didactic worker at the Pomeranian University in Słupsk. Member of the Słupsk Educational Council and the Polish Game Research Society. He is interested in media culture in its philosophical and pedagogical dimension, single-player player, snooker enthusiast, fanatic of Lars von Trier's work. Author of the book "Day One Patch. Sketches in the field of computer game culture ", Scientific Publishers of the Pomeranian University in Słupsk, Słupsk 2021.

Book (Polish) html

Link to article (English) - “Press Y to Quit the Game, or X to Resume...”: on Game Culture in the Context of Hermeneutics of Didactical Experience