Erica L. Neely

Why write about video games?

Given that I wrote my dissertation on a topic in the philosophy of language, it’s reasonable to wonder why I now write about video games.  Moreover, one might wonder why any philosopher writes about video games.  Aren’t there more important topics to work on?  (Or, conversely, why am I dragging all this philosophy stuff into something that’s supposed to be fun?)

Fully addressing those questions would take more time than I have, but here are at least a few thoughts.

First, I have lots of interests.  Off the top of my head, I’m interested in testimony, truth in fictional worlds, what originality means in the age of digital art, and a whole slew of questions in philosophy of technology.  I used to work on language; now my focus is elsewhere.  (I had actually hoped to work on ethics and artificial intelligence in graduate school; for various reasons, I shifted my focus.  So in some ways this is actually more a return to my original interests than a pursuit of new interests.)

One thread that runs through my work, however, is that I am a social philosopher: just as I have a social view of language (sorry, Donald Davidson), I am interested in the social dimensions of many other philosophical questions.  The move from a social view of language to looking at communities more generally and then to looking at online communities was fairly natural for me.  I have since branched out into other, related issues in the philosophy of technology.

In terms of the more general question…yes, there probably are more important topics.  I am not curing cancer or feeding the starving.  On the other hand, the argument that “X is more important than Y” too often seems to justify ignoring Y completely.  (You see this in a lot of online arguments: “How can you complain about how women are treated in video games?  Women in Saudi Arabia aren’t even allowed to drive!”)  Yet, of course, the fact that X is more unethical than Y doesn’t render Y acceptable.  Genocide is causes far more harm than cheating on an exam, but I’m still going to fail a student who cheats.  Humans have the capacity to recognize more than one harm in the world.

Similarly, in the US we have a history of acknowledging that wrong actions are not limited to “important” arenas.  We desegregated schools and workplaces, but we also desegregated movie theaters.  Watching a film (or playing a video game) may not be as important as learning or working, but unethical behaviors still aren’t acceptable in those arenas.  Ethics doesn’t cease to apply simply because we want to goof off.

According to a recent PEW study, over half of adults in the US play video games.  Given their pervasive reach, we can’t afford to ignore philosophical questions stemming from games.  Some philosophical questions may be eternal, but this doesn’t mean we turn our backs on new and interesting questions (or old questions in new and interesting settings.)  I’m not terribly worried that philosophers will stop pondering what it is to live a good life or what it means for a sentence to be true, even if a few of us are also examining how video games implement moral systems in their games.

Or, perhaps in sillier terms: philosophers are interested in everything.  Games are part of everything.  QED.

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