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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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Reading the text: Luke Cuddy interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on February 8, 2010

Luke Cuddy is the co-editor of  two books on pop-culture and philosophy: World of Warcraft and Philosophy and The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy.  He is also a philosophy instructor, a copywriter for Vandusen Design, and a freelance writer.  In this interview Luke answers some hard-hitting questions about World of Warcraft and Philosophy, talks about how he plays WoW and what the rest of his gaming background has been like.

Luke’s website: Neo-Philosophy

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Could you take a minute and explain what World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King is about?

The book is a collection of essays (and a couple of stories) that, in a very informal tone, explore some aspect(s) of WoW as it relates/connects to a particular philosopher or philosophical idea. In some cases, greater social issues are explored—for example, the relationship between Blizzard execs and the players themselves, or the real-world economic implications of in-game actions (like Gold-Farming).

Forgive me here, but how would you respond to someone who said that “philosophy” and “World of Warcraft” don’t belong on the same title page together let alone in an entire book discussing the two?

First, I would ask for this person to give me some premises rather than a conclusion alone. But I think this question really goes back to the distinction between those who believe philosophy itself is a specialized activity, only fit for a select few, and those (like Rene Descartes) who believe that philosophy should be brought to the masses in whatever way possible. Given that I’ve edited two books for Open Court’s Pop-Culture and Philosophy series, you can tell which side I’m on.

Or maybe the person has another intention that goes beyond WoW. Maybe she is implying that the nature of games is such that philosophy cannot help us understand them, and vice versa. After all, the person might argue, it’s only a game; it’s not real. Of course, claiming that the game is real or not is itself taking a philosophical stand on the issue. And even if it were argued that the game is, in fact, not real we could still ask why so many people experience it as real. All of this can help us address a key philosophical question: what is real? If WoW can help us understand this question, what else can it help us understand? Well, that’s what WoW and Philosophy is for…

How do you see World of Warcraft as an ideal environment for exploring philosophical concepts?

It’s a virtual environment with over 11 million users, each with a real life identity as well as an in-game identity. Although players have some limits in terms of creating a toon, they are not limited the way they are in many console RPGs. Furthermore players can do so many things as they play, like raid or gather herbs or terrorize noobs or explore. This vast amount of player freedom creates an ethical minefield. What will players actually do with this freedom? Will they adhere to the moral standards of “good” and “bad” behavior we observe in daily life, or will they hide behind the anonymity of a toon to become a “murderer” or a “tyrant” (as a guild leader, for example)? And these are only the ethical implications…

So, does the book target WoW fans specifically, or did you have a wider audience in mind?

It’s definitely for fans primarily. We want players to see the way that WoW participates in the long history of philosophical inquiry. We want players to think about what they’re doing in the game and why. Other readers can still get something out of the book, but they might feel a bit out of the loop when they come across references to the greater WoW community, like the Gnome Tea Party.

Ruminating on the books subtitle, how would you say Arthas stacks up as a philosopher king? Would he make Plato proud?

Well, despite living an interesting life, Arthas unfortunately doesn’t indicate a direct interest in the quest for knowledge and philosophy. Plato’s philosopher king is just that, a philosopher. I guess we don’t know enough about what Arthas did in his spare time, but my guess is that a detailed study would show that he doesn’t quite stack up. Plus, I don’t remember Plato suggesting that a philosopher king should kill his own father and mentor:)

Based on the reviews I’ve read of the book it seems those who have read it find it impossible to play WoW in the same way as they had before. Would you say the book was then working as intended?

Absolutely. As fans of philosophy, we want people to think about their experiences instead of just experiencing them, at least sometimes. Hopefully people who see WoW differently will eventually see life differently too.

Okay, so you’ve got Plato, Saint Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche and Marx running a 5-man heroic of Icecrown Citadel. Who would be the tank and who the healer? Also, who would most likely be the one to walk out with the phattest loot?

Haha, great question. To prevent a class struggle from occurring, Marx would be the healer, providing potions and buffs for all. And Kant, of course, would be the tank, given that he has a moral obligation to his fellow philosophers. I think Nietzsche’s ability to propel himself “beyond good and evil” might lead him to leave with the phattest loot.

You’re obviously no stranger to World of Warcraft. What has been your experience with the game (when did you start playing, what is your playing style, etc.)?

I love WoW. I think it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. However, I’m told that I play differently than many other people. Although I’ve been on my share of raids, I prefer solo play. To me, it’s just amazing that there is this entire world to explore in the game, and sometimes it’s easier to explore on your own. I’ve built several characters up to about level 60 mostly by myself, then started an entirely new character and did the same thing. The thing is, I’m really an explorer, in the real and virtual worlds. I got deep into WoW a couple of years ago, but before that I had played one of my friends’ accounts (roommate at the time). Before WoW, I experimented with the original real-time strategy Warcraft games.

Would you mind giving us an overview of your gaming background?

I was a child when video games were coming into their own, consoles anyway. My brother and I had an Atari 2600. Later we got a Sega Master System which I still like despite having been virtually forgotten by the gaming community—the original Phantasy Star was my favorite. Later a friend got an NES. I remember waiting for school to end each day in 2nd grade so we could go home to play Zelda. As a teenager I got into first person shooters, beginning with Doom and Doom 2. Role playing games, of all kinds, are my favorite, though, and I’ve been playing them my whole life. I also play board games with some friends when I can. I like Settlers of Catan and the expansions.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience (assuming they truly exist)?

Sure, I am working on Halo and Philosophy to be published next year. Any ideas?

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Reading the text: Grant Tavinor

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 24, 2009

art of vidogames2

Book information:

Wiley | Amazon

From the title of your book The Art of Videogames one might be a little mislead in thinking this is mostly about the visual art of videogames. What would you have to say to this?

The term “art” is used in a number of ways, including in a rather narrow sense to refer to the predominantly visual fine arts. In the philosophy of the arts, the discipline in which I do my research, “art” is almost always used in the more inclusive sense in which one might refer to “the arts.” The category includes, but is not limited to, painting, sculpture, music, literature, drama, architecture and film. A key argument in my book is that at least some videogames deserve to be included in that group on the basis of sharing a large proportion of the conditions that are thought to be characteristic of the arts. Videogames, I argue, extend the category of the arts in a new and largely unprecedented way.

This is not to say the visual aspects of videogames are unimportant, or irrelevant to their nature as art. There is a certain opinion of games, I think, that holds their gameplay or formal features are more important from a functional and critical perspective than their visual aspects. I agree that the visual success of a game is no guarantee to its qualities as a game: a game with stunning graphics can fail to provide good gameplay. But nevertheless I think that the qualities of the visuals of a game—their design, style, implementation, and technical qualities—do add to the qualities we should find desirable in games. Of two games with otherwise identical formal properties, I think we should prefer that which presents the more aesthetically successful artefact.

Also, it is surely their simply visual beauty that is one of the foremost reasons that we are so tempted to see computer games as a form of art (though of course this is not the only reason). That Grand Theft Auto IV depicts Liberty City in such a subtle and beautiful manner is surely a reason to find comparisons to art entirely natural.

So why did you decide to write this book?

The book came about because two different aspects of my life collided at some time during my graduate studies in philosophy. I had always played videogames, but not seriously. When I began my PhD I bought my first personal computer, ostensibly for study purposes, but I pretty soon began to play games like Age of Empires and System Shock 2. For a while I was pretty obsessed with Age of Empires. Anyway, I had a nice scholarship, and this afforded me some spare time in which to play lots of videogames while I was studying for my PhD!

At the same time, my doctoral studies were on the nature of our emotional involvement in fictions. I was looking into the question of what it is to become emotional involved in a fictional scenario, especially when we are aware that the situations depicted in fictions do not exist. This is sometimes called “the paradox of fictional emotions,” and it is a problem that has generated a large literature in the philosophy of the arts. My specific approach was to incorporate into my ideas on the issues recent philosophical and scientific studies into the emotions.

Somewhere along the line it became obvious to me that the consideration of videogames was a natural next step in terms of the ideas I was developing. In my thesis I spent only one or two paragraphs on gaming, because it was already clear to me that there was a whole other manuscript to be written on the topic of videogames. I subsequently wrote the first draft of a book on videogames in the final year of my PhD.

Jumping ahead several years, and I was lucky enough to have found a job teaching philosophy at Lincoln University, and the book had gone through several more drafts. I was also writing research papers on the topic, even though I had never envisaged or intended to research videogames when I started out in philosophy of the arts. I subsequently had a paper published in Philosophy and Literature, which it seems that several people read and liked.

What was the process like in getting it published?

Getting the book published seemed rather easier than it should have been. I originally submitted a proposal to one academic press, and they agreed to publish a book on the topic of videogames and aesthetics. At precisely the same time I was approached by the New Directions in Aesthetics series editor Berys Gaut at a conference in Los Angeles with an expression of interest in seeing a proposal, which they eventually also accepted. So at this stage I had two contracts before me, which was a nice choice to have! I went with Wiley-Blackwell mostly because they are a prestigious press in philosophy.

I already had the manuscript that I had been working on since my PhD, but at this stage I decided to start from scratch, so almost all of that first manuscript was discarded. What was eventually published was written over the course of several very intense but enjoyable months in 2008.

What kinds of research went into writing the book?

Generally the research was of three kinds. First, I read a lot of literature, both philosophical and non-philosophical, that pertained to the topic. There is very little literature in philosophy directly about computer games, so there was not a lot to respond to or build on. Most of the philosophical literature I refer to is principally about forms of art other than videogames, with my own work adapting or revising those ideas to the facts particular to videogames. This was also a real attraction of the topic because it allowed me to some extent to go my own way and define the issues as I wanted. As a result, much of the book is taken up by framing the philosophical issues with videogames, rather than responding to other approaches, as is more usually the case in philosophical works.

Second, I played a lot of games. No one would think of writing about the aesthetics of music without a significant first-hand experience of music. The same surely applies to the aesthetics of videogames. I made a point of playing a wide range of games, and playing them thoroughly. Mostly I played on my Playstation 3, and as a result my focus in the book is often on console games, though I try to note how the theory applies, or needs modifications, in the case of other formats of kinds of gaming. Fortunately, I also received a research fund from Lincoln University that I was able to spend on my gaming!

Lastly, being a philosopher, I philosophised. Thinking about videogames has dominated my life most of the last two years, which has not always been a positive thing.

How much of your research would you say dealt with MMOs?

I played World of Warcraft in the preparation of the book because I wanted to be able to write with some assurance about that game. This was about the extent of my direct concern with MMOs. But much of the content of the book, aimed at explaining computer games and videogames in a more general way, is eminently applicable to MMOs. Indeed, they provide some of the best examples of the issues that I focus in the book because of the extensive nature of their fictional worlds.

A basic claim in the book that the virtual worlds of videogames are robustly represented and interactive fictional worlds. The interactivity of these games comes about because computers are able to provide fictional props that respond to the interaction of the player, which means that unlike films or novels, the fiction can acknowledge the presence of the player in what is depicted by the work. In multiplayer games, unlike almost all other works of fiction, players may simultaneously experience and interact with a fictional world. What is happening in a game like World of Warcraft, then, is that multiple appreciators are engaging with a fiction for the purposes of playing a game, and having a social interaction. This is interesting in terms of the philosophical literature about fictions, in that it seems to connect such computer games quite strongly with the games of pretence or make-believe from which all fictions may ultimately derive. MMOs may thus reconnect fiction and social interaction, something that is missing from other largely solitary fictive experiences such as reading a novel or watching a film.

As such, there is no doubt a great deal more philosophical work to be done on MMOs specifically, especially concerning the ontological status of some of the objects and events seen in such games. To take just one example, the puzzling nature of virtual currencies has frequently been noted. Is World of Warcraft gold real or fictional gold? How could one really trade a fictional substance? Answering these questions will demand some pretty close attention to the philosophy of fiction. And arguably, previous analyses of such issues are often confused because they have not taken such a careful philosophical approach.

Stepping back a bit, would you mind describing what your own gaming background was like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I grew up in the 1980s, and as a smart kid at that time was pretty hard to avoid being drawn into Dungeons and Dragons, even in New Zealand. So I played a fair bit of that as a kid. More than playing it, however, I was interested in creating and documenting fictional worlds using the rules and conventions of Dungeons and Dragons. I put a lot of effort into the detail and history of these fictional places. This of course is another sense of the word “game”: games of make-believe. Computer games are not only called games because they have rules and objectives in a way chess does, but because they present compelling imaginary worlds in which you can lose yourself. I think that’s what mostly attracts me to videogames these days, and I’ve always basically been interested in the imagination, as a kid in terms of the activities I engaged in, and as an adult in terms of my philosophical studies.

I also played videogames as a kid. I was gifted a Nintendo handheld parachute game. I also occasionally visited games arcades, though I never had any money to play, so I mostly just had to watch. The famous early Star Wars 3D game was around at this time, and that made a big impression on me. I also occasionally played on the Sega consoles in the early 1990s. But for the most part I forgot games when I went to university. As I noted, I was reintroduced to gaming in my graduate studies, and I’ve played regularly since.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

In as much as gaming has given me an exciting and rich topic to write about I think it has. I’m not sure that it has substantively changed my writing though; most of my influences there come from reading other writers. I admire writers like Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who manage to address interesting and sometimes complex ideas in an approachable and engaging ways. I’ve tried to write in that way myself.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

For me, writing has certain predictable stages, which have different degrees of pleasure associated with them. I always struggle to get going, and this can often be an unpleasant experience, especially when something has a deadline. Once I’m into the subject, things tend to flow and I can write pretty quickly; this period is far from a grind, but can be quite exhausting. I spend a lot of time subsequently reworking and revising a piece of writing, which I also find a pleasurable experience. Eventually, though, this can become a grind, which is probably a good time to take a break form the work!

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Apart from the being in a state of flow, as noted above, I find just getting ideas down on paper and constructing arguments to be an enormously rewarding experience. Writing this book was a lot of fun, largely because I was sure I had something interesting to say, and that I was lucky enough to get the chance to say it. I’m looking forward to writing another book.

When do you find time to write?

Research and writing is a key part of my job as a philosophy lecturer, so luckily I get to assign large stretches of time to the activity. Most of my best writing is done between eight and noon, fuelled by lots of coffee. We’re also lucky to get some long breaks in summer, which can also be a productive time. During term time though, it is often quite difficult to maintain enough concentration to be productive.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I like to go wandering in the Capital Wastleland, shooting super-mutants, which I still find is a nice escape even though in some sense videogames have become work for me. In the real world I occasionally ride my mountain bike or go walking in the bush, both of which are nice ways to escape, especially in New Zealand where we have beautiful areas to pursue both activities. A glass or two of pinot noir is also a nice distraction!

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