The Potential Dangers of Minds Getting Played

I clearly remember hearing about a new kind of game back in the late 90s- a friend handed me a magazine while I was playing Descent. The article detailed a new genre of game: Alternative Reality, in which the content of the game connected with the real world, and the gameplay was woven through physical space as much as game space. The article focused on a game called Majestic. Even before law school secured my youthful cynicism, I was already concerned about the potential for disaster with this game: trespassing, distracted operating of motor vehicles, unfortunate confusion with actual crime- by both police and criminals, etc. The game, and the genre, never really took off, and so a lot of the issues got pushed aside and ignored for a decade and a half.

Then Pokemon Go came out.

I) How do we Distinguish Alternative, Augmented, Virtual Realities from Plain Ol’ Boring Reality?

As Jerry “Tycho” Holkins has pointed out, when someone is experiencing a reality that differs from the reality that others are experiencing, we usually conclude that the singular experience of reality is a hallucination of some kind. So, inviting a parallel version of reality is a bit ambitious for a species that still has some fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the capacity to perceive it. But humans tend to be ambitious.

Metaphysics has tried for several millennia to explain what reality is, and epistemology and philosophy of mind (now backed up by nascent efforts of neurobiology) have tried to understand how the human mind interacts with whatever reality is. These kinds of questions seem tiresome and sophomoric because they seem to be trying to solve a problem that we don’t have. Fortunately for philosophers, scientists, and lawyers, humans are good at creating interesting problems.

II) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Social Media, and AI: A Combination for Confusion

The biggest danger isn’t really just immersing the human mind in an alternative reality. Literature and media have been doing that since the first tools of imparting imagination were created. However, there have always been clear markers about the borders of fiction and reality: the edges of pages, the entrance to the theater, the “play” button. Since video games started making recognizable depictions of reality, political bodies have been concerned with the ability of the mind to keep the fiction of the game separate from reality.

Some games have recently made a deliberate effort to blur the distinction between the game and reality. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow created a visual effect that looked to the player as though the game-machine itself was having technical problems. Metal Gear Solid villain Psycho Mantis had similar behaviors, interfering with the usable controller ports on the Playstation, reading memory cards to learn what other games the player plays, and giving the appearance of technical problems with the visual display.

The connection of games to social media platforms and profiles perforates some barriers between games and reality. These perforations tear wider the more the game uses them. How much more of a leap would it be for a game to read the social profiles of a player and allow a villain to make threats against the actual friends and family members of the player?

This trajectory, combined with increasingly better artificial intelligence programs that can learn and affect both game worlds and real worlds, creates the potential for some bizarre problems that will still seem like science fiction even after the first time we read an article reporting on why a 22 year old is dead after a cat walked across her keyboard while she got a soda. It may not be long until someone is arrested in real life for a murder committed in a game due to a bug or an AI program getting out of control. Or, perhaps even more likely, some hacker will make use of the obfuscated and blurred boundary between the game and reality to either commit a crime or frame someone for one.

III) Pokemon Go: Traps, Muggers, Molesters

If these possibilities seem like pure fantasy, we should remember that we’ve already seen some of the first iteration of the dangers of people trying to handle two realities simultaneously. Pokemon Go serves as an example the nature of the problems and the sometimes tragic stakes of not handling the problems well. There have been reports of muggers and sex offenders using the game to their own malicious ends, as well as reports of accidental deaths and car accidents from the simple carelessness of distracted (or overly-ambitious) players.

If you die while playing Pokemon Go, you die in real life.

IV) Philosophy is still relevant

In 1967, Phillipa Foote introduced the famous “Trolley Problem”: a hypothetical dilemma of choosing to allow a train (or trolley) to kill several people, or choosing instead to intervene and divert the train to kill only one person. The problem was meant to probe people’s moral intuitions, as the goal was not so much the answer to the problem but the justification for the choice. Many people outside of philosophy dismissed this hypothetical as irrelevant nonsense that showed how stupid and meaningless academic philosophy had become in the enlightened, advanced age of the 20th century. Then, in the early 21st century, automotive engineers and programmers confronted the exact problem in determining how to program self-driving cars when confronted with similar dilemmas.

The story for the philosophical field of Aesthetics (the area concerned with understanding art and beauty) is similar. In the coming years, the interactive entertainment media industry will have to confront problems of understanding the boundaries of how, when, and why fiction is experienced. The analysis of essays on the use of the fourth wall and meta-humor will be important to cutting-edge games looking to balance novel thrills with consumer safety.

V) Solutions: Design for Safety, Be Helpful

The law can make some efforts to protect the public, but it’s almost always going to be reactive, not proactive, in these matters.

Developers should design for Audience Meta-Awareness. Yes, the much-touted quality of immersion adds fun to the experience. However, it is necessary to provide safety outlets for that immersion. The game creates a space- players need to always be able to see the door to the space and get out of it. They need to be clear about when they are in that space and when they are not. Games that actively seek out players to update them about the game undermine that distinction. Games that don’t allow players to put down the game, or don’t allow players to know when they have put down the game, are looking for problems.

The community can create safety nets, as we saw with Pokemon Go players acting as safety guards in potentially dangerous scenarios. However, if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that groups of people knit together by cyberspace are not always a recipe for safety and well-being. Still, the more that games resemble mind-altering drug experiences, the more important it is to have a sober friend nearby.


4/14/17 UPDATE: One of my favorite web series on game design, Extra Credits, apparently also thinks this is an interesting subject. They provide a lot of examples of the concepts I addressed.


The Transition From Art to Entertainment: Copyright’s SystemFailure()

Transistor is really, really beautiful. Through every minute of play, I truly enjoyed the graphics, the game design, the story, the characters, the artwork—I even have the soundtrack on my iPod. It has some astonishing aesthetic quality. All of that said, I did not particularly enjoy playing it. The combat was awkward and annoying, the customization feature was poorly explained, and I never felt like I’d really accomplished anything more than some bothersome errands.

Transistor succeeds magnificently as a work of art. It fails as a piece of entertainment.

I’ve talked about games as art before, but I think a distinction between art and entertainment can help explain the perverse twists of copyright law we see today. One analysis of the current state of copyright is that it has not kept up with time, and even the DMCA provisions fail to bring copyright law fully into the digital era.


Entertainment is marked by an ultimate aim at financial gain. Entertainment needs money. For this reason, it is often symbiotic with advertising. It is frequently exploitative because it needs attention to thrive. It fails when ignored and succeeds when it sells.

Art wants to be enjoyed (or sometimes it only wants to express its artist). Art is probably the origin of entertainment, but art does not require the financial success that entertainment seeks. Art can be evaluated on aesthetic terms of beauty or expression, rather than ticket sales or ad revenue.*


Copyright law is meant for entertainment, not art. Art does not have the same legal concerns that entertainment has because it does not have the same financial concerns. In the US, copyright law focuses largely on economic questions, not moral questions (as it is in Europe). The treatment of damages (money you can get if you win in court) in copyright law makes sense for large entertainment entities (e.g., movie studios or record labels) in the 20th century, though it makes hardly any sense when applied to small-scale artists and typical citizens in the 21st century.**

Most copyright laws are enforced at the discretion of the rights holder, and artists often decline to enforce their rights the way that entertainment companies do (though one reason could be the cost of enforcing those rights, rather than a desire to enforce them).


Judges have always made a pointed effort not to make aesthetic judgments while applying the law. This means that both bad art and bad entertainment get the same legal rights. It also means that the law will not distinguish between art and entertainment.

Understanding this difference between art and entertainment makes sense of why an area of law is applied vigorously by some people and ignored by others. It also explains why smaller artists are less favorable toward many parts of copyright law while large studios are stronger proponents of strong copyright law.

Transistor is a good case study for illustrating this distinction. It is a game made and produced as entertainment, but it acts and feels more like art. I’m sure Supergiant studio would protect it as entertainment, as would SuperGiant Games and distribution services like Steam. And under US law, that’s fine. Just because something is artistic doesn’t mean it should be subject to piracy or hampered from monetization. But it’s worth remembering that the copyright law isn’t about protecting the artistic integrity or beauty of Transistor’s sounds and images—it’s all about protecting its potential to maximize profits.

Too many discussions around copyright law and reform fail to address this fundamental difference in the genus of media. Recognizing this distinction could make discussions about copyright (and copyright reform) much more clear and productive, and would help in presenting the issues at stake.

*Obviously, these traits can overlap and diverge: a work can be artistic and commercially successful, and a person can have goals of creating something beautiful and charging lots of money for it. However, a work can be evaluated independently under both of these categories.

** One of the exciting effects of networked digital technology is that it made the entire area of copyright law suddenly relevant to the bulk of the population (who previously had very little reason to think about it).

Dragonrend: The Power Of Language is the Expression of Ideas

Language is a difficult and important thing. It is the bridge between two minds. Skyrim subtly poses a question about what happens when those two minds are phenomenological incompatible (experience reality in different ways).

     I recently finished the main storyline in Skyrim (I’m usually not very fast at finishing videogames). I was quite pleased with the story’s depth and writing quality. My favorite part, by far, was the idea of the Dragonrend shout. For those who haven’t played Skyrim, “Shouts” are a sort of magical spell the player can employ in the game. The story holds that the famous fire-breath associated with mythical dragons is actually the ability of the dragon to speak (or shout) in a way that its voice commands  and becomes a force in itself. This interpretation of the dragon allows for great writing opportunities, as the very concept of “words” and “speech” have a rich history in human (especially Western) civilization and history.

     In gameplay, the Dragonrend shout has the effect of temporarily weakening a dragon, forcing it to rest on the ground (rather than fly overhead), thereby making it easier to attack with a sword (or even an easier target for arrows). It is extremely helpful in defeating dragons (especially if you have specialized in melee weapons).

     The Dragonrend shout is enormously philosophically interesting for a few reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with what the shout is, what it refers to, what it represents for humanity, and what it implies about language and experience. Language is sometimes discussed as technology, and this makes Dragonrend interesting because it was invented by humans, not passed on from dragons. While it is spoken in the Dragon language, it is not entirely comprehensible to dragons. As far as I can tell, it exposes the dragon to the concept of morality, temporality, and the finite. The implications of this are delightful.  Is this shout an interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous “Abyss” or the “Despair” spoken of by so many nihilists and existentialists? Does the shout summarize Being and Nothingness, thereby weakening the dragon’s will to go on? Is the struggle of a Dragon to comprehend the finite analagous to the struggle of a human to comprehend the infinite? If so, is the effect of Dragonrend similar to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime, in which we experience an aesthetic awe when presented with sheer vastness (such as the stars in the sky or tremendous landscapes)? Is Dragonrend a blend of aesthetic pleasure and agonizing despair?

     More interesting than “what” the shout is, is the question of “why” it works. Can language bring us to perceive what we cannot phenomenologically experience? What is the relationship between the phenomena we experience (or may possibly experience) and the language that describes it? The effect of the Dragonrend shout seems connected to the question of how our experience relates to the language we employ to describe our experience. How can words expose our minds to what we cannot comprehend or experience? (For that matter, what is the connection between comprehension and experience?) This is what I loved about the concept of Dragonrend in the game Skyrim. This device synthesized gameplay and story in a way that opened up speculation both in the gameworld and in the real world.

     More generally,  this is an example of where I think most good videogames are right now: Games don’t often directly educate, but I think they often provide a great deal of material that is ripe for teaching. Skyrim doesn’t quite posit philosophical questions of language as explicitly as Deus Ex poses questions of humanism, cyborg theory, or post-humanism. But for those who are curious, interactive simulations of stories are tremendous resources for exploring any issue the game designers choose to present.

Does “Good Writing” Mean Something Different for Video Dames than for Novels?

For all of the storytelling opportunities that videogames offer, I have to recognize a serious flaw they face: they are frequently poorly written. Most FPS games don’t even have a plot or characters, and if they do, they aren’t exactly well-crafted. The biggest efforts I’ve seen at developing a great deal of story come in the RPG and RTS games- Blizzard’s Starcraft and World of Warcraft come to mind.

Some might argue that because all stories are fundamentally, even necessarily, formulaic, this can’t be a complaint. What, then, really differentiates the lore of League of Legends (The Journal of Justice) from Dickens or Tolstoy or Austen? If videogames can be art (as I’ve contended) and videogames are “phenomenal” storytelling media, what do we need to have a Great American Videogame?

Subject matter is one key component. I think Deus Ex: Human Revolution poses some fantastic questions and deals with relevant and deep issues. Like other classic examples of literature, it explores the human condition and asks basic questions about life and being.

Great literature uses devices of language, imagery, symbolism, and so forth to present multiple layers of material. Videogames have settings, but do the settings take on their own meaning the way that locations do in The Great Gatsby or Cold Mountain or The Odyssey? I would like to see videogames make more use of the cinematic qualities of the game. Writers may repeat phrases, words, or constannts or vowels to create a layer of depth to their text. Directors use a camera angle, a sound, a color, or a light level to the same effect. Videogames could surely find something similar to add depth and significance to the experience.

Characters might be the most difficult element to tackle in videogames, yet they are often the most salient feature of novels. For me, this seems to be the biggest difficulty in creating a literary videogame: allowing for characters that grow and develop in meaningful ways. Moral choice systems are a good attempt at this kind of development, but these systems tend to fall short because they only recognize extremes and come packaged with immutable judgments about morality that lack the kind of robust discussion that might be packaged into good literature (e.g., a videogame might decide it is wrong TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but it would miss out on a discussion of why this is wrong and would fail to provide an analogy of this act to the larger story arc in the game- or even differentiate it from shooting a rabid dog in a populated area).

Why are Video Games Art?

An ongoing debate that interests me is whether video games are art. Some critics feel this debate is meaningless, impossible, or pointless. I disagree on all counts. This requires careful definitions of both “art” and “video game,” and neither side in this debate seems good at defining either. Film critic Roger Ebert has said that video games are not art because they have a point and you can win. Others agree that fine art can’t result from player choices, so the structure of video games precludes them from being art. I argue that most understandings of “art” require involvement by the viewer, and video games only underscore that involvement – but do not deviate from the structure of art.

Art has been defined variously through history: Plato (the forms), Hume (discerned taste), Kant (play between imagination and understanding), Schopenhauer (romanticism), Hegel (expression of universe), Collingwood (emotion), Bell (formalism), Benjamin (art as political), Merleau-Ponty (phenomenology), Sontag (erotics). Under any serious definition that allows architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, and film to be dubbed “art”, video games must also be embraced as art. Note that I speak of potentiality: one may crudely smear paint on a canvas or crack one rock against another, we do not call these artistic paintings or the broken rocks sculptures. Likewise, we are not inclined to call the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster remake of an action film “art like Citizen Kane.” We need not defend Call of Duty or Madden ’12 or pretentious broken indie game #403 as “art.” My argument is not so much that “video games are art” as it is “there are no inherent barriers to prevent video games from consideration as art.” As I present it here, the argument will have two parts.

The first part of the argument is defensive: Why should player choice negate the artistic quality of a game? A good portion of thinkers, artists, and critics (if there is any difference) have valued the interpretation of the artistic piece. Is not a player’s control over the gameplay only a manifestation- a bringing forward- of the interpretations of art? Is it truly an act different in kind to navigate a character through a room than to navigate one’s eyes through a painting? If fine art involves a spectator and interpretation—someone to appreciate the form or interpret the content—there should be no qualm here. I posit that controlling gameplay is aesthetically identical to appreciating and interpreting other art: the viewer makes choices of what to see, where to “go”, and how to approach what is encountered. If there is a complaint about video games, it is that they make clear and obvious the processes that are often hidden from ourselves about our interactions and interpretations with The Aesthetic.

The second part of the argument is affirmative: Video games are art because they meet the requirements of the definition (of art).  I don’t have space here to outline each of even the major theories of art. But many concepts of art center around either the nature of the art itself (“formalism”) or the content it expresses (a focus on emotion). Video games have shown they can excel in either or both of these categories. Kant’s explication of beauty (in Critique of Judgment) relies on a notion of “play” between one’s faculties of imagination and understanding. Certainly, no medium “plays” more with a person than a game. Perhaps, on this view, all other beautiful art- paintings, sculptures, movies, and the rest- are actually games. And what’s more— the better the game is, the more beautiful it is.

If video games are not art, they are “superart:” some new mesh of artist and patron, their combined efforts of creativity and interpretation brought to new levels of involvement and interactivity. Perhaps the complaint that video games are not art is a cry of jealousy that no previous medium has the potential to explore the Aesthetic at this level.