Reflection: Video Games and the Problem of Thought

Words: 1174 Approximate Reading Time: 5-10 minutes

I’ve now been operating this blog (for lack of a better term) on video games, game design, and philosophy for a year now. In a more accurate sense, I’ve been writing down ideas and sending them out into the void for a year now.

The point of this operation was always just to serve as a hobby. I never really saw this as anything approaching a professional endeavor, and there were enough bloggers who were already doing this professionally that I felt no need to really muscle in on the market. Instead, I simply wanted to use the whole thing as an opportunity to share, as well as to force myself to sit down and really think carefully about some of the problems posed by video games – as a medium, as a product, as something we interact with.

I’ve said a decent number of times that we tend to be pretty bad at thinking. Not that we can’t ever think well or have good thoughts. But that when it comes to thinking we tend to really favor conclusions over the actual process of thinking. We can see this in how often people will defend poor ideas because those ideas are theirs, or in how people will get annoyed with “longwinded” discussions and favor a clear and concise statement.

But slowing down with this stuff is important. Thought and examination are key to understanding the world around us and how we relate to it.

And in that vein I wanted to offer a kind of encouragement to write. Because writing is a process that is often slow, and puts our mental skills to the test. Writing is an effective way to engage with the problem of thought, and without necessarily involving any stakes. Whether we put ourselves out there and allow others to read our thoughts is not relevant to the immediate process. It can, of course, still be helpful to allow others to read and comment on these ideas. Fostering a dialogue is a useful way to encourage us to reflect upon our ideas and come back. But even the mere act of writing on its own can help us to collect our thoughts in a way that lets us examine ourselves and what we claim to hold dear.

The task is learning to write “logically” as opposed to “psychologically.” In trying to form any sort of argument – this game is well-designed/poorly-designed, this segment was well-written/poorly-written, this mechanic is good/bad – we can tend to run into a couple of problems.

The first is a myopia: we tend to see the issue from our own perspective. Which means all of the baggage that comes with that perspective. Do you hate stealth games? Then a stealth section in a game might feel like a punishment for you, even if it’s exceptionally well-designed. Are you a sucker for secrets? Then a game might appeal to you by loading itself with all sorts of secret goodies, even if the rest of the game is bland and uninteresting.

Writing forces us to step back and examine a game through a more structured lens. Sure, we can mention the things we like and dislike, but we now have to put those likes and dislikes into a broader perspective. What do those likes and dislikes mean with respect to the game as a whole? We can’t just rely on a visceral feeling attached to a particular memory. Instead, we need to take apart our experience bit-by-bit and hold it up to the light.

The process allows us to potentially see the same issues from another’s perspective. Again, conversation can help with this process. But simply asking “How might someone else look at this, and would they agree with me, and if not, why not?” can help us step outside of our narrow perspective and take on a new viewpoint.

The second problem is shortcuts. When we think, we can often race towards a particular conclusion. That race means that we are focused on getting to the end more than on carving out a careful path for others to follow. And so we often ignore all of the ideas and information and argumentation that would help a reader or listener understand what is going on.

The failing is that claims usually make a lot of sense when they’re bouncing around in our head. You have this theory about a game’s story, and it makes perfect sense because you see all of these invisible connections that show you absolutely have to be right. But when you then communicate the idea to someone else, those connections are not visible to them. They can’t see what you see, because they can’t read your mind. But the response we have to this problem is not explanation, it’s frustration: the other person doesn’t believe me not because I failed to explain my idea properly (or because it’s incorrect), but because the other person just doesn’t understand or is unwilling to understand. It can be a frustration towards criticism – our ideas have to be right, and anyone who disagrees is stupid or just disagreeing to be disagreeable – that leads us to attack others simply for not acknowledging our own (often perceived) rightness.

The purpose of writing these ideas down, especially in a more structured manner, is to force us to slow down and ask about the viability and logic of our own claims. If I’m going to present a theory or argument, what would I need to show? How can I make all of those connections visible? What might only seem right because it’s an association that my brain has made, as opposed to an association that I was supposed to make? All of these questions can get us to re-examine our views, and in turn construct better arguments.

I will note that writing is not a cure-all for these problems. These issues exist just as much in writing down ideas as in discussing them verbally, and just as in not discussing them at all. Even when we write, we’re still going to be plagued by the same problems. The reason writing helps is not to eliminate the problems, but to make us be more careful, in a way that the problems are more likely to be avoided. But even when we’re writing, we still need to put in the effort.

And so I conclude this by encouraging everyone to write. Write for whatever audience you wish. Write for others. Write for friends. Write most of all for yourself. Share your ideas with whomever you would like to reach. But most of all, don’t let ideas just remain cooped up in your head. Those ideas – whether they are as grand as “this is what the ideal game looks like,” or as minor as “I think so-and-so is the optimal way to play X game” – are likely to stagnate when they remain in your head. It is by forcing them onto the page and giving them structure that the ideas can come alive, and in being alive be examined.

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