Dishonored. Call of Duty. Detroit: Become Human. Overwatch. Ninja Gaiden.
The discussion on this Thursday morning sounds more like a GameStop sale than a course curriculum for this 17-student class. But games are indeed the focus on a regular basis in Katia Samoilova’s first-semester course, “Philosophy and Video Games,” as she teaches lessons of traditional philosophy through the lens of the fastest-growing entertainment form in the world.
“Nothing is better than a video game at immersing in an experience, and specifically, testing thought experiments—that’s a major pillar of philosophy,” said Samoilova, who first envisioned a video games class during graduate study at Brown University in 2007. “Video game content rivals in its richness other media, including much of the philosophical literature I’ve read. It’s one thing to read about a philosopher struggling with moral decisions on paper—it’s another thing to experience it yourself.”
Her lecture is much more of a conversation, as she prompts students to consider basic questions about video games themselves: What do we like about them? What are some benefits?
Hands snap into the air as students share their examinations of some of their favorite games.
“You get to be somebody else in a different world,” offers one student.
“You get this escapism,” says another. “Like, a lack of consequences for your actions you don’t get in real life.”
As a group, the students utter a light groan when presented with another question: Are games, as some have asserted, addictive?
Samoilova first hears their input, then turns to a surprising source for context: She plays a clip from the TV show South Park, specifically an episode about the true nature of “freemium” games—free-to-play video games, typically for mobile devices, that offer optional paid advantages to players. The clip is used in conjunction with a slide from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to consider the nature of addiction.
Do games, for example, cause users to give up other productive activities to play prolonged sessions? (Some students mutter in sheepish acknowledgment.) Do breaks from games cause withdrawals? Do gamers engage in risky behaviors, such as breaking the law, to partake? As the group examines the list, they begin to make arguments for and against the charge of games being addictive. These questions, and a handful of others, eventually guide students to surmise that the games themselves are not addictive, but some elements—like gambling mechanisms in “freemium” games—could be.
“The game is the bait,” one student submits, “but the gambling is the hook.”
Such interactions, Samoilova says, form the bedrock of serious philosophical examination across a variety of themes, like consciousness, personal identity, and the triumph of good over evil—and it’s a process that this generation of gamers has been doing since they first picked up the sticks.
“Unlike this conception that there are no consequences in video games, they actually can tell us who we are—we can learn about ourselves just by playing them, and we do, often subconsciously,” she says. “Students playing games where their character has a choice affecting the world around them are actually testing their own limits of how they might respond in a situation or setting boundaries about how they might not behave. You learn about yourself, and that in itself is a pretty important consequence.”
An avid gamer since her childhood, Samoilova walks the line between engaging her students with a subject matter she knows will appeal to them and avoiding a label of frivolity, a concern she certainly factored in when she first began dreaming up the concept of teaching about video games. The year was 2007 and she had just finished playing through Mass Effect, the science fiction action roleplaying game famed for its world-shaping dialogue options that could dramatically alter how the game played out. Samoilova had recently completed her undergraduate philosophy studies at Harvard University, and Mass Effect struck a major chord: She found herself thinking about the in-game choices she’d made long after she’d finished playing, her memories of the game continuing to spark introspection.
Gaming seemed, to her, the perfect vehicle to explain philosophy. At that time, video game culture was still mostly considered time-filling entertainment; today, it’s a mainstream media and art form with worldwide appeal. Classroom discussions over the moral conundrums presented in The Witcher are every bit as appropriate as analysis of English philosopher John Locke.
“Talking about video games in this context has been really interesting,” said junior Kevyn San Antonio, a computer animation and game development major. “I don’t have any other classes where people talk this much or really get into the subject matter like this.”
The course is now set to be added to the University’s general education catalog.
“I wanted to see more appreciation for gaming, because it hasn’t always been there,” said Nathan Sanchez, a first-year mechanical engineering major. “It’s got such a wide range of different genres, and different people who play. I think we’re all learning about gaming on a way deeper level now. It makes homework pretty fun.”