In this module, we will explore some of the new questions and issues video games and other digital
media pose for philosophy. Part of this will involve broader considerations about the very nature of
digital media themselves; other questions will be more specifically related to video games.
The module will begin with some historical and conceptual background about computers, digitality,
programs, and so on. It will especially emphasize how and why all computing depends upon
‘programs’ that are both binary and linear. Video games are no exception to this.
With some computing basics in hand, we’ll then consider three issues more specifically related to
video games: (1) Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Non-Player characters (NPCs); (2) the ‘Virtual,’ the
‘Real,’ and ‘Virtual Reality’; and (3) the relation between ‘personal identity’ and ‘avatars’ in video
For this module, you should read Jesper Juul, Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and
Fictional Worlds. Also, you should readCogburn and Silcox, chaps. 1 and
6 and Sageng, Philosophy and Computer Games, Chaps. 12 and 13 (downloadable free from DU
library in .pdf format). Of course, don’t neglect to spend some time with the materials posted for this
At the end of Module III, you will be able to:
Explain some of the basic features and limitations of digital programs relevant for video games
Compare actions of player-driven characters vs. machine-driven characters
Evaluate philosophical ideas of free and meaningful choice in relation to videogame play
The Stanley Parable (Links to an external site.) appeared in the last year or so and has generated a
good deal of heated debate in internet ‘gameworld.’ (Do check some of this discussion out — it’s
quite interesting.) Though it can be played through (if that’s what you’d call it?!) in two or three
hours, it leads us into some really difficult philosophical problems. Questions like:
What is the nature of ‘free human choice’; in fact, is the idea itself really even coherent?
To what extent, if at all, can video games present genuine ‘meaningful choices’ to players?
What actually goes on ‘behind the scenes’ as game designers consider the overall architecture
of their games?
Are video games more a simplified model of human freedom of choice (a ‘weak AI’ perspective)
or is ‘free choice’ a sort of human delusion that we use to console ourselves in a world that
operates according to the same determinate laws as digital games (a more ‘strong AI’ sort of
In fact, since TSP pretty much tries to break or question all the rules and assumptions of most
video games, it leads us to ask what a video game actually is and does.
Of course, all of this provides interesting perspectives when we discuss NPCs, Digital
Ontologies, and Avatars in this module and part of your writing assignment will be to consider
some of these connections.
As soon as you can in this Module, use the link I’ve provided, which will take you to a download from
the ‘Steam’ site. The game is available for both Mac and PC and currently costs $15 to download.
(There is a free ‘demo’ version, but I don’t think it’s worked for some time; you should play the full
version anyway, otherwise you miss a lot of the point of the game.) If you don’t have it already, you
will have to create a ‘Steam’ account, which is very easily done on the website. Do spend some time
playing this game; you’ll mainly be trying to discover all the ‘multiple endings,’ but it shouldn’t take
you more than about 3 hours or so to do it. As you go along in the Module, keep some of the
philosophical questions that the game suggested to you in mind; it will be good preparation for your
writing assignment for this module. Do have fun with it, I think you’ll be impressed. It is important
that you get this game and play it right away, as it will be an important part of the topic for
your next paper.
Week 3: AI and NPCs
During this part of the course, we’ll look at some of the basic concepts involved in discussions about
‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) and then we’ll consider the most conspicuous example of AI in video
games, ‘Non-Player Characters’ (NPCs). Read my powerpoint for background and then check out
some of the other materials dealing with AI and NPCs. Notice that NPCs have lately gotten a lot
‘smarter’ as opponents and ‘bondable’ as followers and companions (see Ellie from The Last of
Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite above). How far do you think this can continue? Are there
limits created by intrinsic limitations of digital processes themselves? What light can the
philosophical discussions of AI shed on these questions? Share you views about this on the
discussion forum for this module. Especially relevant for this week is Cogburn and Silcox, Chapter
The first link will take you to my powerpoint introducing Artificial Intelligence in Video Games:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Click on the following link for an excellent paper discussing the background, history, and
philosophical questions about AI and its implication for video game design, with some specific
reference to NPCs:
Link (Links to an external site.)
A Turing Machine – Overview (Links to an external site.)The ‘Turing Machine’
was originally a philosophical idea proposed by Alan Turing (who was also a leader of the group that
broke the German ‘Enigma Code’ in WWII). This idea proved to be the basis for the modern digital
computer. However, unlike most philosophical ideas, it was one that could actually be realized in
practice. Here’s an interesting clip of someone who built a functioning Turing Machine and his
reflections on what it represents.
Artificial Intelligence in ‘Halo 2’ (Links to an external site.) provides a good practical introduction to
how AI in video games is designed and functions. Remember, however, that this article was written
in 2004 (about the time Halo 2 came out). That means it’s almost 10 years old — and Halo 4 is now
out. So what’s described here is relatively simple compared to current version of AI. Still, a good
place to start.
Artificial Intelligence in Video Games (Links to an external site.)Check out this
lecture by Ian Davis, a leading game designer, founder and CEO of Mad Dog Software, and director
of a major academic program in vg design. The actual talk (excluding questions at the end) is about
45 minutes and includes a demo of some new concepts in design his company is working on as well
as some interesting reflections on the future of AI in game design.
Top 5 Best & Worst NPCs (Links to an external site.)Here’s one gamer’s
opinions about the best and worst NPCs. You might not agree with all of his picks (I don’t), but he
provides an interesting discussion of what we like and dislike in NPCs. What would your own lists
‘Improved Companions": Elizabeth vs. Ellie is a comparison of two of the ‘new generation’ of
‘companion NPCs’: Ellie from The Last of Usand Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. What do you
make of the fact that they’re both female characters? This short essay is a reaction by a female
gamer. Do you agree with her?
The Uncanny Valley (Links to an external site.)One phenomenon often noted
in connection with attempts to develop AI in video games to the point where it simulates ‘reality’ is
the ‘Uncanny Valley Effect.’ (Cogburn and Silcox discuss this on p. 111.) First, view this short clip,
then ask yourself whether the increasing trend in video games toward ‘perceptual realism’ is either a
desirable or practical aim. Given the ‘Uncanny Valley Effect,’ do you think that the resources of
video game producers are best utilized in the pursuit of further ‘perceptual realism’ or should they
redirect their efforts more toward the mechanics of gameplay, ‘meaningful choices,’ or more
engaging narratives? Post any thoughts on this you may have on the discussion forum.
Week 3: Virtual Reality and Digital
In this section, we’ll be considering novel philosophical questions posed by the advent of ‘virtual
reality’ technologies, of which video games are often cited as important examples. This will involve
us in a discussion of the most fundamental philosophical field of ‘ontology’ — what sort of things are
‘real,’ what ‘unreal,’ and what constitutes the difference between them? Further, in the case of video
games, they’ve been viewed variously as ‘fictions,’ ‘virtual reality,’ and ‘possible worlds.’ Which do
you think is the most adequate and productive way to view video games? By now, you should have
read most of Juul, whose ideas will be helpful in considering these issues. Also, read Chaps. 12
and 13 in John R. Sageng, Philosophy and Computer Games for discussions of current views on
the debate between viewing video games as ‘fictions,’ ‘virtual reality,’ or ‘possible worlds.’ (This is the
book that you can download from the DU Library site in .pdf format.)
Read through this Ontology and Virtual Reality ppt for some background on ‘ontologies’ and
Click on the following link for an interesting, if occasionally ‘technical,’ discussion of the history and
current status of the ‘ontology’ of video games. Though I don’t agree with everything he says or
some of his conclusions, this is ‘state-of- the-art’ thinking about this topic. It also refers often to things
you’ve already read.
Link (Links to an external site.) to "Video Games Are A Mess," by Ian Bogost
Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life and New Worlds (Links to an external site.)
Jeremy Bailenson heads the Stanford Virtual Reality Lab. Here he gives a
presentation about his work, the future of VR, and its philosophical and ethical implications. View
and think about this clip in relation to our discussions of both ‘Virtual Reality’ and ‘Avatars.’
Oculus Rift: Step Into the Game (Links to an external site.)This is a sort of
‘infomercial’ for a new virtual reality headset for video gaming, the Oculus Rift. The reviews of
prototypes have so far been very positive. Is this the future of gaming? Will you buy one?
Week 3: Personal Identity and
In this section, we will be considering the connection between ‘personal identity’ and avatars in video
games. ‘Personal identity’ has been an important philosophical issue long before the advent of video
games and I review some of the most important philosophical theories of personal identity in my
powerpoint at the beginning. Videogame avatars, however, present novel problems when viewed
against the background of traditional philosophical theories of self-identity. One of the best ways to
see these issues is to consider what decision-processes go on in constructing our avatars for video
gameplay. Check out the examples provided. For background, be sure to read Cogburn and
Silcox, Chap. 1. Also consider the essay at the end of this section as an general discussion about
factors involved in identification with videogame avatars. How should we regard our avatars: As
extensions or projections of our actual selves? As pure constructs, separate from ourselves, that
merely ‘represent’ us as players within the ‘possible world’ of a video game? As partial projections of
certain aspects of our selves? Are there other alternative ways of viewing this? Think about this and
share your thoughts on the discussion forum.
Personal Identity and Avatars
Cool Websites: Create Your Own Avatars (Links to an external site.)This clip
isn’t specifically about VGs but suggests how widespread the practice of creating avatars is
throughout the internet. It also gives you some handy websites (some of them free) that allow you to
create your own avatar. Give it a try if you want. It might even be cool if you include an avatar
you’ve created when you post your next essay for this course.
Creating a Great Character in World of Warcraft, Part Two (Links to an external site.)
This clip walks you through the creation of a customized avatar for World of
Warcraft, one of the longest running and most populous MMORPGs. Notice the ‘ontology’ employed
by this process of avatar creation (‘gender,’ ‘races,’ ‘professions,’ ‘skills,’ etc.).
Ask yourself these questions:
(1) How determining is this choice of ‘ontology’ for the rules and play of the game itself? Can you
imagine other sets of choices for avatar creation than this one? Would these constitute a different
game? or, Within what limits could the ‘avatar ontology’ in WoW be altered and still issue in
essentially the same game? (The basic question here is to what degree do the basic assumptions
we make about avatars determine the broader ‘world’ experienced in a VG?)
(2) Now think about the ‘real world’ from this perspective. What is the basic ‘ontology’ (i.e. the basic
assumptions about features of actual persons) that we make in ‘sorting out’ and distinguishing
between various individuals and the groups to which they belong? To what degree do these
assumptions determine our broader assumptions and views about how the ‘real social world’ is
structured? (The basic question here is to what degree do the basic assumptions we make in
distinguishing among various individuals and the social groups to which they belong serve to form
our views of the ‘real social world’? Would you say that these assumptions somehow reflect natural
features of ‘real human beings’ or do they seem mostly arbitrary and variable?)
(3) To what degree do the ‘avatar ontologies’ of video games reflect those of ‘real world’ judgments
(or perhaps ‘stereotypes’) concerning other ‘real persons’? In what respects do the two ‘ontologies’
differ? How do the ways in which they differ help to clarify the limitations and maybe prejudices
operative in ‘real world’ judgments about other persons, their possible actions, and social situations?
(4) What would you say about VGs in which you play an already fixed character (i.e. in the case of
games that are not RPGs)? Does this alter the overall rules and dynamics of gameplay? In what
ways might this correspond to the actual situation of ‘real persons’ in the ‘real world’?
Fallout 3 – Character Creation (Links to an external site.)Here’s another
example of avatar creation, this time from Fallout III. Ask yourself the same questions as in the
example from World of Warcraft. Also, consider the differences in the ‘avatar ontologies’ (i.e. the
different types of choices one can make about avatars) between this example and WoW. How do
you think these differences influence the rules, type of gameplay, and overall experiences in the two
games? (Note that WoW is a full-on RPG, while Fallout III employs only limited elements of an
Read this somewhat ‘scholarly’ but very informative paper called Identifying with an Avatar (Links
to an external site.) on the processes involved in how, in what respects, and to what degree VG
players come to identify with their avatars. What conclusions would you draw from this regarding the
advantages and limits of ‘avatar indentification’ in VGs? How would you formulate a response to the
How important to the overall game experience is it that VG players ‘identify’ with their avatars?
How important is it that players be able to maintain some ‘distance’ between their ‘real selves’
and their avatars?
What can this discussion of avatars tell us about the various ways in which we form our own ‘real
How might this influence our existing ‘theories of personal identity’ or give rise to new ones?
Any of these topics are fair game for the discussion forum for this module.
Finally, watch this video for an interesting discussion of the difference between ‘being’ and
‘controlling’ an avatar and the philosophical issues it raises.
Controlling VS Being Your Avatar (Links to an external site.)
Need assistance with this?