Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on March 3, 2010

Philosophy enthusiasts Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox discuss their book Philosophy Through Video Games, their gaming backgrounds, and talk about their latest project involving Dungeons & Dragons, while refuting video game naysayers and tackling a rather serious hypothetical question along the way.

Jon’s blog | Philosophy of Video Games site

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Could you take a minute and explain what your book Philosophy Through Video Games is about and what you were hoping to accomplish with it?

The book explores a set of distinctively philosophical issues that arise naturally when one starts to seriously think about this new art form. Has what it means to be a self changed in a world of avatars? What do kinesthetically realistic games such as the Wii provides tell us about the nature of perception? Is there something morally degrading about role-playing bad people? What does it mean for a game to have a “God’s eye view” or to incorporate ethics? Should the radical interactivity of some video games change our view of the nature of artworks? What does the attempt to do “artificial intelligence” in video games tell us about the academic paradigm that predates these games? Does spending a lot of time playing games represent a failure to engage in meaningful human activity, or is it a paradigmatic example of such activity?

Thinking about games changed our views on all of these issues, and we wanted to put our thoughts into book form. Some of it is more focused on our understanding of games more narrowly, but we also ended up defending what we think are some new philosophical positions.

How did the book come about?

Well here’s part of the first draft of the book’s preface, which we ended up taking out because it had way, way, too much pathos.

The name of the game was Scramble. When you pumped your quarter into the machine, a fat little spaceship began to troll along a side-scrolling screen, dropping bombs and shooting missiles over an irregular landscape the color of a rotten peach. The game was not exactly rich in narrative content–basically, you just kept shooting and dropping bombs until your fuel ran out or you crashed. And it was very, very difficult. Even a reasonably well-coordinated twelve-year-old could burn through a whole roll of quarters in less than an hour. But its strange, indefatigable allure drew one of the present book’s authors through the freezing streets of his hometown in Canada, across fields of snow to the (terrible) local pizza joint two or three night a week with his best friend in tow, for an embarrassingly long phase of his early adolescence.

The other author of the book still remembers the first time he saw Space Invaders, when the craze for this game was first sweeping through North America in the 1970’s. At the time, he was suffering from the effects of severe and hitherto undiagnosed dyslexia, which (combined with lack of co-ordination) caused him to have difficulties performing some of the most basic everyday tasks, like tying his shoes and finding his way around. He recalls spending hours staring at the game over his older brother’s shoulder, just watching the soothing left-to-right and right-to-left movements of the little aliens as they fulfilled their mission of destruction, and thinking in a way that he could not have expressed at the time that there was something deeply correct about what he was seeing.

So that was phase one. Phase two was how much we loved logic in graduate school. Neither of us is good enough at logic to prove any original theorems, but the manner in which computability theory allowed one to prove things about the limits of what could be proven in given systems struck us both as one of the great achievements of civilization. Phase three was what we did besides just playing games to not think about our dissertations. We both played lots of games. This was an exciting period, with the Nintendo 64 changing everything with consoles and really good first person shooters and god games coming out on computers. Further time wasting strategies included Jon type-setting his dissertation in Tex, the typesetting program used in lots of scientific publications. He got pretty obsessed with it and started thinking about the nature of programming. While this was going on, Mark got deeply involved in interactive fiction, even running part of a Canadian web portal dedicated to the art-form. This led Mark to actually work on the teams designing Earth and Beyond and Aidyn Chronicles. The final stage was actually post-dissertation, during a period even worse, when both were non-tenure-track contingent labor (Mark at Auburn, Jon at LSU) making twenty five thousand a year before taxes, medical, and retirement, all with no job security whatsoever. We would meet every year at the Alabama Philosophical Society meeting and give papers and talk philosophy non-stop. At this point the game stuff, logic, and more general philosophy (we also publish in metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and epistemology) all started to come together, and we found that the things we did to avoid philosophy also became the subject of philosophy.

Who would you say it is written for?

Any literate, thoughtful person who loves video games, or who suspects (rightly!) that they have cultural significance.

Or really just about anybody who has ever gotten any pleasure from either fantasy or gaming, and wants to get a better understanding of their nature.

Playing the devil’s advocate, how would you answer the naysayer who tells you that video games are just that, games, and there’s really nothing to experience beyond something on an entertainment level?

The final chapter of our book is to some extent an explicit attempt to answer this naysayer, though the deck is a bit stacked, since anyone who has read through the previous six chapters already agrees with us.

Philosophers have developed all sorts of different views about what it is that makes us essentially human: Hume- the ability to rationally assess the most efficient ways to achieve ends, Kant- the ability to bind oneself to rational norms, including the rationality of ends themselves, Hegel and the existentialists- the ability to creatively instantiate a new essence. Our fundamental conviction is that any such philosophical theory that leaves out either collaborative story-telling or game-playing massively mis-describes the essence of humanity.

So we do not think that Saint Paul’s maxim, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things” applies to video games or fantasy more generally. Supposing that it does is a recipe for inhumanity.

You both are obviously fans of video games. Would you mind discussing your own gaming backgrounds (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Jon Cogburn

Both of us have pretty laughably generic back-stories in this regard. We were both suburban geeks desperately bored by most of what public education had to offer and tortured by the hegemony of what Charles Bukowski calls “unoriginal, macho energy.” We still are! We found salvation in RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons for Jon, Top Secret for Mark), science fiction, and fantasy literature. We still do!

The one significant difference between us is the way that we actually play games. Jon likes to spend hours really mastering all the strategic and tactical nuances of very deep PC games like those of the Elder Scrolls, Civilization and Total War series’. Mark’s first great love is 1990s point-and-click adventure games such as Myst and Broken Sword, and these days he usually has three or four games from different genres on the go at any one time, only a few of which he ever gets around to finishing.

Are either of you particular fans of MMOs? What has your experience with these been like?


We’ve both spent some time in the MMO trenches (Azeroth mostly), but don’t have the deep love for them that we do for non MMOs. World of Warcraft just involves too much slogging through for either of our tastes. And what you do doesn’t really affect the world narrative. As soon as you complete a mission, the world resets for somebody else to do the same mission. Games where the world is affected in non-trivial ways, such as Eve Online take such an incredible sink of time that obligations in “the real world” have prohibited us from engaging in them. We discuss some of these issues, actually defending the game, in our contribution to Cuddy and Nordlinger’s World of Warcraft and Philosophy anthology.

At some point in the future there will be a fantasy based MMO where you can craft interesting narratives for your character and also feel like you are affecting the history of the shared game world. At that point we hope to be able to jointly sink a month of summer into obsessive playing of it.

I’d like to pose a question rephrased from your book. Can playing an MMO lead to greater self-consciousness? I’m afraid I’ve played a few that have lead to greater unconsciousness.

We were pretty bummed out when Peter Ludlow’s attempt to make an MMO in Second Life foundered in 2004. One of the things in our hopper is to examine what’s been happening since then (starting here).  We think that in the long run that user generated content will produce evolutionary feedback mechanisms to create something that is in the same universe as being as cool as D&D.

What’s the connection between your work on philosophy of video games and your current book project with Dungeons and Dragons?

In two of the chapters of Philosophy Through Video Games we found ourselves contrasting video games with D&D. The first is in Chapter 1, where we discuss the rationality of identifying with one’s on-line personas and avatars (e.g. “I killed a dragon last night”). There we noted how a Dungeon Master systematically helps players craft a character. This is really obvious when there is a pervasive mismatch between the player’s basic personality traits and his character’s. If a really impulsive person is supposed to be playing a character with high wisdom, then the Dungeon Master has to fill in the story and present choices in all sorts of ways to help the impulsive person role play a wise person. Video games really can’t do this.

The second discussion of D&D is in Chapter 6, on artificial intelligence, where we characterize human (and arguably animal as well) intelligence in terms of flexible adaptive richness, the ability to respond rationally to new problems and challenges in novel ways. The “frame problem” in artificial intelligence is just the name for the vast difficulty in getting mechanical agents to manifest flexible adaptive richness. Weirdly, as games get more immersive and sandboxy, this lack becomes all the more apparent. The latest installment of the Elder Scrolls franchise has thousands non player characters, each with unique faces and facial expressions in reaction to your character. They all do recognizably human things. But if you play enough you start to notice that they always do the exact same things over and over again, have the same conversations with one another, etc. And sometimes in your interactions with them you can exploit the fact that they are so non-flexible. For example, if your character is in the gladiatorial arena and can jump high enough and shoot a bow well enough (and possesses magic arrows in the higher challenges), you can just jump up on a parapet and kill opponents by shooting arrows at them. Instead of trying to jump up after you or running for shelter, your opponents just attack the stone column over and over again with their weapons.

This would not happen in D&D because a human intelligence is running the world and controlling the NPCs.

As we finished the book we kept thinking of other philosophical issues with D&D. How is magic different from just a different kind of science? Is it? What does the alignment system teach us about philosophical ethics, and vice versa? What happens when you take an aesthetic theory such as Kendall Walton’s that foregrounds role playing (in accounting for traditional art forms) and apply it to actual role playing games. What about narrative ethics and an artform that should be considered collaborative narrative? Or should it? What happens to the ludology/narratology debate when applied to Dungeons and Dragons? Is Dungeons and Dragons morally compromising because players role play violence? Such questions proliferate.

Instead of writing another book, we decided to try to edit an anthology. We’ve separately written some papers, are getting other philosophers to contribute, and are in the process of pitching it to a press right now.

We’ve also both separately joined tabletop games, something we hadn’t done in years. We’re big fans of 4th Edition.

Do you ever find that your philosopher’s mind gets in the way of your enjoyment of a game?

No! We’re both really dedicated to the thought that one of the primary good-making features of a work of art is that one can lose oneself in that work. And we take this talk in an entirely literal way! The pleasure of theorizing about art comes after the fact, when you are not engaged.

The major sin of aesthetic modernism is collapsing these two moments, thinking art should be “challenging” in a way that precludes losing oneself in it. It’s easy to go to the opposite extreme, as many like to do nowadays, and say that great art should always be “accessible” – i.e. shouldn’t require any serious thought or belief-revision at all. We certainly don’t believe that either. But we do think that one lamentable effect that the modernists had on western ideas about art was to give pleasure a bad rap. The American philosopher W.V. Quine once said that “learning is learning to have fun.” If he’s right about this, then it surely must be possible to learn a lot more from Robin Hobb or Brian Ruckley (and we read both!) than one ever could from Finnegan’s Wake.

Noël Carroll’s books The Philosophy of Horror and The Philosophy of Mass Art showed how one could responsibly theorize about popular art while respecting that art as art. He has pretty devastating critiques of the theories of art that sought to valorize “challenging” modern art and condemn everything else.

We’d go further. Much modern art that professors write about strikes us as not challenging at all, but rather catastrophically simple-minded. Much of this stuff is admired on account of being crudely self-reflexive, and commenting either on the history of the genre or upon itself in a way that really doesn’t shed much light at all. Think of Andy Warhol’s lousy Brillo box, which has probably generated at least ten thousand pages of insufferably tedious commentary from philosophers and art historians. And a lot of the rest of it is just calculated to piss off the bourgeoisie, either by flouting their moral values or by just being plain unenjoyable. Try reading one of Samuel Beckett’s novels for an example of this sort of thing. We have a few of our own complaints about the bourgeoisie, but we think there’s more to being avant-garde than just biting the hand that feeds you.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing a video game. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. What kind of game would you make?

Well, as noted earlier Mark worked on the teams that built Aidyn Chronicles and Earth and Beyond. But of course he didn’t have unlimited funds and resources (his parents’ basement would have been fixed up much nicer if he had).

If we had unlimited resources we’d set up a research center on emergent narrative. In Stephen King’s book on writing he talks about early “chose your own adventure” type books and how computationally explosive they are, requiring gigantic texts for the reader to have any real choice in things. Later on people marketed games to help with the writing process. These games consisted in a set of overlapping wheels where each configuration corresponded to an event that could happen in the narrative. We think that both of these were really the first computer games (predating the digital computer by centuries in the first case and decades in the second). We’d hire Chris Crawford to run this end of the business (assuming he was on the market) and encourage him to acquire a staff of brilliant but obedient programmer-munchkins.

Mark Silcox

If you think of the digital computer as the continuation of machines that help users create narrative, then an awful lot is suggested for future academic study and game development. First, game development needs to be tied to current work in computational linguistics. Users should be able to type and speak in natural language and have this affect game content in non-trivial ways. Remember Zork? The linguistic interface was really revolutionary at the time, so much so that we think of it as the third wave (after chose your own adventure and write a novel aids) in this kind of thing. Well since Zork a lot has happened in both theoretical and computational linguistics, but there is no major research center to tie those things to games (or to computationally implement some of the work in theoretical linguistics involving lexical decomposition for verb phrases, for that matter). We should start with simple games where users say things like “Go to the store Francine” and the computer represents Francine doing this. Not because “go to the store” is a preprogrammed command, but because the computer takes advantage of the linguistic rules that put together “go” “to” “the” and “store” to build a visually accessible representation. This is vastly harder than one might think, but we think the building blocks are there. David Dowty showed how to marry lexical decomposition to a compositional semantics that recursively hooks up natural language with a formal language, and current decompositional work by Levin, Jackendoff, Pustejovsky and others is just waiting to be modeled along Dowty’s lines. This decompositional work on verb and prepositional phrases lends itself very well to graphical representations, so once you put it and Dowy’s approach together all you would need is to go from the decomposed formal language sentence to a graphical representation.

After getting good protocols for compositionally generating on-the-fly graphical representations of basic natural language sentences, we would up the ante and try to incorporate expert-system type AI such as Cycorp into the protocols. The final results should lend themselves to all sorts of ways that users and computers together can generate new narratives, movies, and games on the fly.

Finally, if we really did have unlimited resources, we probably wouldn’t release any “games” per se at all. Instead, we’d provide the world with a vast panoply of computationally rich, easily learnable open-source game engines for different genres of interactive art and entertainment. We’d try to do for gamers what YouTube has done for amateur filmmakers, or what the blogosphere has done for political journalism, or what The Ramones did for bored American teenagers who wanted to rock out. We might bring about the collapse of western capitalism as the result, but that’s OK – we’d have bigger fish to fry.

We think within the next two or three hundred years, assuming we don’t enter a new dark age, something like this will happen. We don’t think we will lead the charge though. As philosophers we jealously guard our ability to think and write about whatever we want to whenever we want to. Trying to run a research center robs you of this. You spend most of your time writing grant applications for tasks other people have already chosen. Then there is an awful lot of paperwork just on the personnel side of things.

But if someone reading this wants to give us a few tens of millions of dollars, we would be willing to do some heavy lifting.

Any last parting words you’d like to leave us with?

Life is tragic, history merciless, and whole societies often collectively make very stupid choices. We do not think that games and fantasy more generally are merely a juvenile escape from the human condition and all of the unneeded stupidity, corruption, and resulting civilizational detritus. But they are that too, thank God.

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