When video games and philosophy collide

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on December 16, 2013

From The News Desk

If someone were to tell you their academic focus was video games, you'd probably think they were a developer of some kind, right? Me too. That may not, however, always be the case. Other disciplines are beginning to take them on.

Video games as philosophy course? Sure, why not.

The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research has announced its latest course offering: "Better Than Real Life: Towards a Critical Theory of Videogames." This three-week long class looks at video games like Halo, Super Mario Bros., and Saints Row as an "ascendant cultural form," and, as the its description explains, examines its "emancipatory possibilities" using a primarily theoretical and philosophic lens.

This course, which begins early next year, is instructed by the Institute's director Ajay Singh Chaudhary. And video games and their theoretical ruminations are something that he has been thinking about for quite a while.

"There is a huge community of gamers and writers working on the popular level doing criticism," he said. Academics too. At the same time, Chaudhary said that scholars have generally focused on the "development side or the psychological side" of these games. That is, the software behind a game, or questioning the mental impact games have on its players. In contrast, this course focuses more on aesthetic and sociological questions.

What he is trying to not focus on is what he described as a sort of "moralistic crisis." That is, analyzing video games from the standpoint that they are detrimental to society and help to create "little murderers" out of those who play them. In terms of his academic interests, this question is uninteresting. Chaudhary explained that, historically, this kind of moral reaction happens in every form of art -- even the novel -- and he doesn't intend on having this kind of conversation.

Instead, he's interested in the way these games generate "art as an experience." While the course will read numerous scholarly works, Chaudhary said he will focus a great deal on the oft-cited essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction" by German scholar Walter Benjamin.

This course, quite obviously, isn't for everyone -- and my guess is that the average gamer probably won't gravitate towards it. At the same time, anyone who wants to can take it (so long as they shell out the $315 tuition). The Institute, which launched over a year ago, isn't a university; it's a place for anyone and everyone. According to its website, it sees its goal as as providing a "liberal arts educational opportunities to local communities." So even for those with scant philosophical background are able, even encouraged, to participate.

Chaudhary has discovered a few other scholars analyzing games with a similar academic focus. All the same, he views this kind of research as very new, as he deems video games "a very nascent medium."

Nascent perhaps, when comparing them to media like books and music. Societal popularity, however, is a different story. One statistic states that the world collectively plays 3 billion hours of games each week. And yesterday a South Korean Starcraft II gamer was granted a US visa for "internationally recognized athletes."

While academic inquiry of video games is still in the early stages, that can't be said for their cultural proliferation. This is probably why Chaudhary has decided to attack this subject.

So for those interested in the intersection of technology and philosophy -- or even those just interested in aesthetic theory -- this would probably be a fun academic romp. Those who aren't, however, would probably be bored and confused by the first page of the assigned reading.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]