The End of Gaming

I have grown up with computer games, as have many of my younger peers (though my family did not have any console systems till I was in college). The arrival of the arcade in the home raises quite a few interesting questions (such as whether games are, or ever can be, art. My brother and I debate this one). One interests me here: what is the end of gaming?

I am, as may be evident, a philosopher (hopefully in every significant sense of the word). As such, I am given the opportunity to address things in ways that the modern world tends not to. For example, since the late middle ages one concept that has been fading in the popular mind is that of ‘ends,’ or telos (the latter is the Greek word for the same thing). It does not speak of the cessation of something, but rather as the goal, the ends of the phrase ‘the means don’t justify the ends.’ Thus I am looking at the idea of the goal of gaming, or its purpose. One plays a computer game to accomplish what?

The immediate — and not wrong — answer is that one plays a game for relaxation, pleasure, enjoyment, etc. But this is an insufficient answer in several respects. First, it presumes a certain value to pleasure qua pleasure, as opposed to specific pleasures in specific circumstances (e.g. the pleasure of eating should be attached to nourishment; bulimia is bad). Secondly, it fails to address the question of time. Few modern computer games can be won (if winnable at all) in less than 10 hours and all have vast replayability. How much time is legitimate to spend on a given enjoyment?

Thirdly, and the actual (though still limited) focus of my thought here, is the idea of involvement and production. Unlike film, books, opera, etc., video games demand the intimate presence of the enjoyer and the level of success depends on their involvement (you can come to the end of a novel even if you only commit a few minutes a day; it’s completely possible to never reach the end of a game’s story because one is not committed enough to develop the skills necessary to beat level X). Modern games in particular are projects; the gamer, in playing, creates a digital something, be it a character, a ranking, or a profile full of achievements.

There are two types of hobbies: the productive and the collective. The productive hobby, as the name suggests, produces things. This can be a dinner, a chair, a poem, etc. Collective hobbies are those which do not produce, such as stamp collecting, reading, and so forth. Gaming is fairly unique in that it is, internally, productive but externally collective. That is, the gamer feels as if he is producing something while to others it appears as if he is collecting something.

This is problematic, in the end, because it really doesn’t produce anything. Let us pick a specific hypothetical example: a young woman dating a young man. When he holds a productive hobby, she can say “You should taste his chocolate torte,” or “He made the chair you’re sitting in” and be quite proud of this. But how honestly proud could she be saying “He has five level 90’s”? The gamer may feel he is creating but the outsider does not.

This is not to say that games therefore are bad. But the problem is that gamer can easily fall into the belief that he is partaking in something greater, for he is ‘accomplishing’ things and producing something (albeit something more-or-less wholly limited by the structures built into the game). Thus a gamer achieves ‘success’ physiologically while not leaving any external success. If one is unreflective he is in grave danger of being overtaken by this illusory success, of lauding himself for something that is not.

The end of gaming is then this pseudo-success, this creation of a character, a ranking, a profile of achievements. And this telos is unending, but also, essentially, unreal. The gamer is not fundamentally involved in becoming more human, nor in helping others become more human (it may be that one does become more human but that is almost certainly incidental to the game itself). Insofar as the gamer is using games for relaxation and legitimate leisure they are not problematic. But there is always a danger that the illusion of production will exert an unnatural influence on the gamer, resulting in a hobby that is fundamentally dishonest.

(NB: There are dozens of tangents I have chosen not to pursue in this post and thus it is, in many ways, importantly limited. I hopefully will address at least the questions of hobbies (in general), productive hobbies and relationships (broadly speaking), and the other types of telos in games).

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4 Responses to The End of Gaming

  1. i type freehand says:

    video games are fantasy, no? can fantasy be honest? 🙂 thanks

    • I would argue (and I suppose probably will, but not hear due to lack of space) that fantasy is fundamentally honest but not necessarily real. That is, it reflects the deeper things of reality (our desire to make things ourselves, for example) while not actually being a part of this reality.

      • i type freehand says:

        I agree, deeper reality if it is desire, is not an actuality (this reality). So speaking of that compared to ‘this reality,’ can fantasy become reality? And reality perhaps, reflect fantasy??

  2. Richard G. says:

    Neat post. Another difficulty I see, another element to add to the mix of discussion, is the vast genre of games, just as in, say, literature or movies, and each may suggest different telé (pl. of telos); for example, one game that I played on the Nintendo Wii when I had it was “Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree.” It purports to foster brain growth in the context of game fun. You may also have noticed, as I have in various places, advertisements for Lumosity (http://www.lumosity.com/). Of course, the relation between brain functioning and playing games is a whole different topic, but the main point I brought I’m thinking of here is the intentionality of the player in participating in such games–the telos may be basically to improve brain functioning. This telos is obviously very different from, say, many who play World of Warcraft for hours on end, only to say in the end that they have “five level 90’s.” You mentioned this element in passing when you noted that the effort to become more human may very well be incidental to the type of game played, not so much to the person’s conscious motivations. However, I think it is worth bringing up the notion of intentionality with some more emphasis.

    Another manifestation of the importance of the intentionality that is brought to games (whatever their implicit telos/telé may be–whether through the manufacturer, culture, etc.) can be considered in the reaction that people make when questioned about their video game habits. I think specifically of those who have emotionally negative or defensive reactions even to light or casual questioning about their gaming habits. Is there addiction? And what of the unconscious motivations, e.g. a kind of self-sabotage as seems to be the case in those who also suffer from other symptoms that would be expected in self-sabotaging personalities, such as obesity, living dependence, low emotional maturity, etc.?

    There seems to be a twofold consideration in intentionality here: on the part of the game–from the producers, the economy, and the cultural pressures that present a telos–and the telos of the human subject brought to the game. What happens in the interaction of the two, and what principles could be elaborated that may serve as general or broad guidelines for healthy use of gaming, such as you mentioned with different forms of hobbies. At what point is a video game basically equivalent to, for example, personal exercise routines or golf and at what point is it not? (This applies also to exercise routines and golf…people can become very upset at golf…)

    If you’re wondering where this came from, your post prompted this reflection because I’ve been reading Fr. Clarke, Lonergan, and phenomenologists in Contemporary Philosophy. It seemed to be a possible application of what I’m learning there.

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