Gaming at a philosophical playground

Updated: Jun 21

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 computer games have with philosophy in general, with the teaching of philosophy in particular. For your project "The Philosophical Playground" (Filozoficzny Plac Zabaw) you rely on computer games to spark 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 be 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 ask 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 a 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.