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Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy | The Irish Times

Video games remain largely associated with youth and immaturity. When Frank Underwood – the evil, scheming central character of Netflix’s House of Cards – relaxes after a day’s politicking by playing the blood-splattering Call of Duty, the impression is conveyed that here is a man both juvenile and sadistic.

But according to Jordan Erica Webber and Daniel Griliopoulos, Underwood and real-life gamers may be doing a kind of philosophy, no less, by blasting enemy forces from the comfort of their armchairs.

On the grounds that “philosophy is about everything and games are about everything”, the authors of Ten Things Video Games Can Teach Us advance the thesis that gaming is a forum for learning about key subjects like the nature of consciousness, logic and ethics.

Some games perform the function better than others, they say, citing Soma – a complex science fiction game based in an underwater research facility – as a stand-out example. Describing it as “a masterpiece on what it means to be human”, they say it produces “a feeling of existential dread that we’ve not experienced anything like (except perhaps after reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger while eating bad seafood)”.

The authors also put up a valiant defence of violent video games despite admitting “many of the most popular games treat . . . killing and dying as the most trivial thing in the world”.

As this week’s “Unthinkable” guest, Griliopoulos – the appointed “death” specialist of the duo – explains just why video games should be taken seriously. “Despite their problems, games are also educative,” he argues. “They can show us how to grieve, what the value of life is, how to prepare for our death and that of our friends, and when killing is a mercy.”

What does the research tell us about a link between video games and either violence or a loss of empathy?

Griliopoulos: “With regard to violence, research tells us that there’s no link and no correlation. Prof Christopher Ferguson has been researching this field for several years, because the existing research in the field was so consistently terrible and biased. He’s come up with some startling findings – like finding that school shooters in the US are actually less likely to be interested in video games than their peers.

“Honestly, these questions seem to come from a background of assuming there’s a problem, then trying to find one. It’s a familiar form of moral panic, which happened with video nasties, Dungeons & Dragons, movies, rock and roll . . . and probably back as far as the printing press.”

Your survey of existing games shows that players tend to prefer simulations where they are immortal, or can be reborn. Does this reflect a fear of death, or a low boredom threshold – in that people don’t like to have to repeat their steps?

“I’d say, it more reflects a power fantasy, mingled with expectations from their real lives. Death is a rare occurrence in life and unique in an individual’s own life – that is, we will never directly experience our own death, only the states that lead up to it. So to reduce our capabilities from the real world would upset many players.”

Many futurologists believe we will be spending more time playing virtual reality games as technology pushes humans out of the workforce. Can one gain philosophical insights or enlightenment by playing such games?

“Absolutely, if you play the right games. Like all forms of media, games draw upon and inform the human experience. Soma might be a horror game, but through its narrative about mind-transference, it raises very difficult questions about identity, what constitutes a human mind and what is of moral worth, which philosophers have been exploring in thought experiments like The Chinese Room for generations.

“Similarly, the Ultima series of video games explored the ethics of being a good person, aka virtue ethics, whilst the blockbuster game Bioshock 2 took a look at the practical ethics of maximising happiness, aka utilitarianism.”

What would you say to the view that video games are inherently anti-philosophical as they only ever deal with a representation of reality. Plato, for example, gave us the allegory of the Cave where the prisoners – representing the ignorant – spent their time staring at flickering lights divorced from the real world. He would find it hard to see any merit in “Call of Duty”, would he not?

“Plato also wanted to ban poetry, because he saw it as a representation of a representation, and hence doubly-misleading. I’m sure he’d see all forms of fiction including games, movies and books in the same way. Whilst he’s the founder of philosophy, I wouldn’t argue that his views are widespread today.

“Nor would I accept that games are inherently anti-philosophical. They’re entertainment experiences that provoke feelings and thoughts, which are the foundations of philosophical insights.

“And mainstream games are more moral than most other media, partly because of their interactivity. They tend to have strong moral codes which the player has to enact to win the game, rewarding the player for actively doing the right thing, whatever that may be.

“The US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden told the investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald that games had informed his moral code, that along with history they had taught him that “seemingly ordinary people who are sufficiently resolute about justice can triumph over the most formidable adversaries”. Very few games revel in the sort of nihilism that blockbuster movies and popular crime books get away with every day.”

****

Ask a sage:

Question: Can wisdom come from staring at a screen?

Plato replies: “The mind’s eye begins to see clearly when the outer eyes grow dim.”

Source: Playing video games? No, I’m doing philosophy

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I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Dan Griliopoulos, games journalist:

“There’s no inherent meaning in life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. First off, you’re raised, deliberately or accidentally, with an array of beliefs, values and prejudices by family, school, and society, that mesh or clash with the things you biologically like – that is, nature and nurture shape your preferences. So there’s already things that you value, more get put on you fairly quickly, and you get to spend your life exploring their precedence, their acceptability to society and its laws, and whether you really like them or not.

So, what I’m saying is that value is inherent to us all, which provides a grounding to meaning. I’m not saying that such a meaning is justified, but if you’re smart, lucky and/or ruthless it might be internally coherent by the time you hit adulthood, which is more than most off-the-shelf meaning systems out there (whether that’s philosophies, health systems, or religions). Meaning is a human thing – to go looking for it in the alien, unconscious universe is nonsense on stilts.”

Source: I Asked Atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe

Interview: Bossa Studios' Founder Henrique Olifiers on Surgeon Simulator 2013

holding-a-heart-surgeon

This interview was for an Edge Online piece, which was forgotten about many moons ago, in November 2013. It’s an interview with Bossa Studio’s founder Henrique Olifiers.

Can you quickly run me through the history of the game?
Surgeon Simulator came out of the Global Game Jam in early January 2013, where the given theme was ‘heartbeat’. The team decided to take it literally and, by embracing the blunt approach to the motif, humour became the focus of the game.

You went from a 48 hour game jam to one of the fastest ever greenlight campaigns to huge commercial success. Why did an incapability simulator take off so well?
It’s difficult to pin down a single factor to justify its success, we’ve spent quite some time looking back at Surgeon’s story trying to learn from it as much as we can. In the end, like everything that goes incredibly well (or horribly wrong), is usually a ‘perfect storm’ scenario where several factors work together amplifying each other.

One of the strongest aspects of the game is that it’s as fun to watch as it’s to play, failing in Surgeon (and you fail a lot in it) is as funny as it gets. This was crucial for the success it achieved on YouTube and Twitch, making the Let’s Play videos cool to watch no matter if you were into the game to begin with.

Surgeon Simulator also never took itself seriously. We have this saying ‘where one cannot make a fun game if he’s not having fun while making it’, and it turns out that Surgeon is the perfect example of this motto: the team had a blast making it, both during the jam and full production, this filtered down to the players, no questions asked!

And yours was amongst the first games we can say was mainly successful down to Youtube and Twitch, which is one posited future of all media. What do you think?
Absolutely spot on, Surgeon wouldn’t be anywhere without the YouTube community. First and foremost, it’s incredibly humbling and amazing to see how much love is out there for the game through YouTube, and to witness it becoming the theme for so many different videos, parodies, cartoons, songs and jokes. As a developer, one cannot ask for a bigger reward, it’s simply mind-blowing and the reason why we keep on doing what we do every day.

Then it went full circle with the team watching what was going on and feeding it back into the game. When we saw a video of someone doing a slam dunk with the brain in the transplant surgery, we updated the game with that as an achievement. When some fan-art of Surgeon and the ‘Meet the Medic’ video was made (an original inspiration for the game), we spoke to Valve to get the rights to TF2 and add that as a free DLC. We created an ARG with a whole new section of the game hidden behind a ludicrously difficult puzzle because people were looking for that sort of conspiracy theory to guess all sorts of things, from the launch of Half-Life 3 to Steam’s Summer Sale date. We learned how to be inspired by the players.

We became connected to the community like never before, and found out how brilliant it is to work this way. I really think this is the only way forward for the games industry, developers who don’t know how to engage with their players will find it increasingly difficult to make games that resonate, that become relevant. It’s no longer about playing alone in a dark room; games are now part of our culture, so it’s integral to have aspects build over the impetus of sharing your experiences with the wider world.

Doctors' Handwriting.
Doctors’ Handwriting.

We’re already seeing copycats – Viscera Cleanup Detail being the notable one. Given the success of the game, is it something you hope to return to more?
Tricky question… We never bothered too much with copycats, as it’s not an easy task to copy a joke. I’m not even sure it’s possible. But while this somewhat insulates Surgeon from copies, it’s also its Achilles’s Heel: We’re wary of telling the same joke again or ruining it by going too far. You know, like the guy who repeats the end of the joke a couple of times thinking it makes it funnier? That.

We’ve set ourselves the challenge to try to make Surgeon work on tablets some time ago, and failed miserably a few times. Thirteen, to be exact, until we finally got the controls right. Now that we have the game running well on an iPad, we want to add new content and change the surgeries so they make the best use of the new control scheme we created and the portable nature of the platform. It’s also a matter of respect for the players, as we hope many of them will already own the game on Win, Mac or Linux – so the touch version of Surgeon Simulator should be something unique, worth on its own, to neatly sit side by side with the PC rather than a simple straight port.

Will there ever be a Surgeon Simulator 2014? Probably not… But I guess this is not the last time we’ll see Nigel Burke and his clumsy arm in action, as long as we can come up with something new, original and fun for him to star in.

How many platforms is the game on now?
The game is available for Windows, Mac and Linux, through Steam, GOG, Get Games, Mac AppStore and a few other platforms. It’s even being launched in Japan, with the help of ZOO, a local partner. Next stop is the iPad, early next year.

Are you still actively working on it?
Very much so, the touch version for the iPad has been keeping us busy!

Do you see SS2013 as a promotional tool for the other games you’re working on? Your games are all on different platforms, which must make it difficult.
I hope we’ll carry on the reputation from Surgeon Simulator along with every new game we make, and that on its own has a huge value. Trying to shoehorn some sort of cross-promotion on Surgeon would likely do it more harm than the good we would get on the other end.

We did a tiny cross-promotion by having a floppy disk on Surgeon that you could boot into the reception’s computer and see a scene from Deep Dungeons of Doom. But that’s as far as we could get without harming the game by having something out of context.

That said, we do indeed have a huge challenge ahead of us with our multiplatform approach. Surgeon Simulator was our last game born as a desktop-bound title; every other title we got in the works is cross-platform, meaning you can carry on playing it independently of which hardware you’ve got.

This is different from having GameA on PC and GameB on mobile, which was the case with Surgeon and Deep Dungeons of Doom. Instead, by having the same game on multiple platforms, playable across them all, should help boost awareness around it since players from all creeds will have a common talking point.

Time to Live is the perfect example: we want players to be able to multiplayer across all platforms out there, from Linux to iOS (notice the Linux here, we’re betting SteamOS will be the thing, and that it will be fast). This decision has a large impact on development, and a huge impact on how we communicate. But in the end, it may pay off big time: once you go multiplatform, you don’t go single!

Deep Dungeons of Doom
Deep Dungeons of Doom

I’ve seen Time To Live, Monstermind, Merlin – what can you tell us about these games? Is there anything else you’re working on?
While we’re extremely proud of Monstermind and Merlin, both being nominated for BAFTAs and the former winning best online game, they’re firmly in our past. We’ve moved away from social networks as platforms after having invested so much into them to the point of almost becoming our undoing. We saw a potential in these platforms that just wasn’t realised for many reasons, in the end they didn’t go in the direction we’ve wished they would.

Time to Live is our next game, again something that was born out of a game jam just like Surgeon, but an internal one. It’s a very unique concept in which it’s an arena game, but without weapons. You’re in a dystopian futuristic TV show bloodsport with 120 seconds to live before your head is blown off your shoulders, and have to steal time from the other contestants by luring them into traps. Only one player walks away alive from each arena, and go on to see another round in its career towards stardom.

Time to Live is the one game jam result we kept coming back to and playing over and over. It’s a fast-paced game that builds a character reputation on the long run, and it’s just great to play on both the desktop and the tablet.

Then there are a couple of other games we’re brewing, but it’s way too early to be sure they’ll become something real. The one thing we’ve been working on a lot is AI, we want to take artificial intelligence in games to a whole new level. If we succeed in doing that, the kinds of games we think would suddenly become possible to create is just mind-blowing.

Do you have a planned future for the studio or are you just trying to stay adaptable?
Adaptable is the keyword. If anyone tells you what’s going to happen with the games industry in six months time, you can be sure such person is either deluded or lying. As an industry, we’re going through a transformation period like nothing before, and it’s an incredibly exciting time for those willing to change overnight in order to make the best out of it.

As long as we can create games that are original, that do something special to the players, we’ll keep on doing it. We’ve found the hard way that planning to far along the line just set us up to failure in slow-motion.

What have you learned from the SS13 rollercoaster?
Probably a lot more than one single answer can contain, I’m afraid. But if there’s one thing to take away from Surgeon Simulator is that good ideas do come from anywhere, and how to embrace this inescapable truth as a studio ethos.

We no longer have formal brainstorming meetings to create game concepts that go on to pre-production, then production, and failed launch. No more. We game jam every single month, do snap brainstorms with the entire studio, and build a warchest of playable designs we visit when the time is right to start a new game project.

Our lawn is littered with cool ideas that played like a brick once jammed into prototypes, it’s gaming natural selection at its best. We’ve learned to let go of precious concepts and move on until we find something special, worth turning into a full game, rather than sticking to what plays great in our heads and underwhelm when made into something real.

We’ve learned to jam the hell out of it all. In a good way.

Charlie Was My Darling

Charlie.

Maria named everything we owned. I’d have to see the objects again to recall their specific pet names, but the one that mattered to me was when she named my car Charlie.

I’d started learning to drive when I was 21 and looking for a job as a journalist. I thought it would give me an edge in job interviews (little realising that I’m just awkward and terrible in all sorts of interviews anyway). When I got a job as a journalist, I stopped the lessons. Which was all kinds of stupid. Continue reading Charlie Was My Darling

Interview: Paul Dean and Simon Roth on Maia.

You were one of the early, shock Kickstarter successes. How much pressure are you feeling from that?

Paul: Personally, it’s a feeling of considerable obligation. There’s always the awareness that people have already paid you, that they’ve invested up front, and now it’s your job to justify that financial faith they’ve put in you. And you’re reminded of that quite starkly whenever you meet someone who happens to mention they’re a backer. It reminds you that the money is very real, the people are very real and that you’re being counted on to do the project justice.

Simon: Prior to the alpha release, it was a source of intense anxiety for me. I had no idea what sort of reaction the game would get and had an awful lot of people waiting to download.

Once we started releasing alpha’s, the pressure has dropped off significantly. Having tried out builds and seen the prototype of my vision they seem really happy to sit back and allow me to engage my creativity. It’s fantastic to have that level of trust put in our vision.

Maia was pitched as Dungeon Keeper in Space. Has it changed through development?

Simon: The foundation of game has been set in stone in my head for quite a while and few of the core features have changed since the Kickstarter. Having to describe the game in detail over the course of the crowdfunding allowed me to clarify and lock down down my ideas.

A lot of the smaller components have been tweaked for usability reasons, and a lot of extra detail has been designed into the game’s simulations as I’ve iterated them and brought them to life. Due to this, things have been slower to develop than I’d of liked, but the end product is turning into something far more rounded and detailed than my initial plan had foreseen.

You’ve never hidden your contempt for some old-school game developers. What is it about the old AAA developers that riles you so?

Paul: I’m interested to see what Simon says here. Personally, one of my favourite things about indie development is how relatively transparent it is and how the usual membrane of PR is absent. People are able to be much more frank about what they think, about what their jobs involve, about how they’re doing. That benefits all of us, whether developers or journalists or audiences, because with transparency comes truth.

Simon: Hard to nail it down really. I guess at a fundamental level it’s their loss of imagination. Chasing after mythical mass audiences at the behest of publishers has really killed the wonder that brought a lot of people to this medium.

Stemming from this I am really frustrated at how they run their businesses and treat their staff. The concept of crunch flies in the face of a hundred years of research into workforce productivity, common sense, and frankly, quite a few laws.

Maia seems to have attracted a truly international audience (and it was certainly weird being asked, deep in rural Croatia, ‘do you know Simon Roth?’) What does that mean for development, as an indie? Are you trying to support other languages?

Simon: The wide audience is very cool. Having twelve thousand people testing and picking at the game is far less of a weight on development as I had expected and provides me with some serious QA grunt.

One of the interesting effects on development was receiving instant feedback from gamers who usually struggle to get their voices heard. I’ve had detailed advice and critique from colour blind users and even talked to a couple synaesthetics who reviewed the game on how it tasted!

Language support is something I am building in from the core so we can translate all the text quickly and easily. I’ve left the formats open, so anyone can do their own version of the game. This will let us crowd source the bulk of the work and then have it proof-read and cleaned up professionally. I can see some interesting challenges in moving some of our dryer British humour into other languages.

Paul: I know that Simon’s dropped in a character set to support Norwegian characters and we hope to include room for other language versions of all of the text I’m writing. I won’t be doing that myself, mind, but the simplicity of the game’s XML files means anyone could add a translation, probably for any language (with a Latin script) they wanted.

Paul, can you reveal anything about the story you’re working on? How are you differentiating it from the usual SF games tosh, which would be flattered to be called pulp fiction?

Paul: The basic framework of the story was already in Simon’s head before I joined. We’re keeping some of the details secret, but we’ve already revealed that the ultimate goal of Maia’s first colonists, those you’re controlling, is to build a space elevator. This towering structure sits on the equator, reaches up through the atmosphere into space and works far, far more efficiently for transporting materials to and from the surface than any number of space flights and landings. Really, the priority of Maia’s pioneers is nothing more glamorous than extraterrestrial infrastructure, paving the way for more and bigger projects. It’s just a job.

Hopefully, we’ll get a sense of this through the game’s writing, which I’m trying to make dry, droll and occasionally irreverent, a lot like many of us are when we find ourselves in day-to-day drudgery. This is a reality where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, where space travel is slow and boring, where corners get cut and where tired people are sometimes negligent. Also, the people sent to other planets are practical, they aren’t poets who have romantic notions about what they’re doing.

The idea is that it won’t be high drama and it will also be somewhat underwritten. Too many games have too much story. They’re too concerned with writing lots of plot and then serving up lots of plot and then pointing at that plot to make sure you’ve seen it. We should be showing rather than telling. That goes for directing players, too. Simon very much likes the idea that we don’t have a patronising tutorial where we tell players they have to feed and hydrate colonists, just that we have the simplest, most succinct reminder of how long a person survives without food, without water or without oxygen. Who honestly needs a game to say “Don’t forget that people need food?”

How many people are working on the project? Where are they distributed?

Simon: The team is fluid and can be five people one day and twelve the next, depending on what our current focus is. I’m keen not to enter people into exclusive and controlling contracts, allowing people can work on their own projects or even for other companies. It keeps everyone on their toes creatively and stops me having to worry about things becoming stale or stagnant – like a lot of full-time AAA work can become.

Geographically, we are mostly in the UK, but the Team is multinational. Interestingly, we also have a solid gender balance in the team, something that I eagerly point out to certain AAA developers who claim that women are unrepresented in industry. From my standpoint I haven’t seen much a differentiation between numbers of quality male and female candidates ( There are more unskilled male applications, but when you whittle them down it’s far more even). I think larger studios are perhaps misreading their own PR and HR problems as a gender skills gap.

You’ve made very early alphas of your game available to backers. Do you think this ‘endless beta’ model is the best way for developers to go?

Simon: I think for some games, especially ambitious indie projects, it will become the de-facto method of development. Obviously your design and processes need to gel with it, but the benefits are huge. In my case, without it Maia, in its current form, just couldn’t happen.

Paul: Sometimes. It’s a strange thing for me to see games grow like this, but once you have a core that people can play with, you can keep building around that to add new elements. The big question is how soon you release that core. Too early, and you give people too little to play around with.

Naturally, this doesn’t work for every sort of game. It’s ideal for games that are different every time you play. It worked for the first incarnation of the roguelike platformer Spelunky, or for Minecraft, but it’d hardly suit a point and click adventure or a plot-driven RPG. Something linear like that doesn’t invite replaying with new elements added in.

Spaniels? Chickens?

Simon: With the game drawing inspirations from Dungeon Keeper I wanted to have a few direct references. Chickens were the natural choice, as they could fulfil the role of livestock in the early game. They have an AI that acts purely on base impulses, without any forethought or risk assessment, which leads to some amusing emergent behaviours and will hopefully provide an interesting contrast to the more complex higher-order intelligences of the other lifeforms.

Adding the pets of our Kickstarter backers to the game has been really fun, and allowed us to focus on them as solid characters in the game-world. Cats and dogs have had a symbiotic relationship with humans since the dawn of mankind in the palaeolithic and will likely continue to evolve along side us well into our futures. Having them fulfil rolls in future space colonies is pretty much inevitable.

It’s also important to note that more dogs have been into space than British people!

Paul: There are cats, too. In bee costumes. Admit it, it’s what you’d send to another planet.

When do you envisage the project being done?

Simon: The 1.0 release is sitting in early 2014. I’m not entirely sure when we will be able to nail that down, however we have some key milestones coming up this year, such as the Steam release and the addition of the alien food chain. The game in my head in massive, yet the design is complete, and I am quick to stamp out feature creep. Whether I will ever be happy enough with it to call it “done” is an interesting question…

Not to mention, I’d love to pick up the final stretch goal from the Kickstarter and produce different planet types as free expansions next year.

And, then, what next?

Simon: I have a lot of embryonic games in my head, on paper and even a few prototypes kicking about my hardisks. Firstly there’s a technoir adventure game I’ve been wanting to make for a while, a primordial life simulator, and a first person survival RPG set in the Maia time line.

Any merchandise? T-shirts, thumbdrives, board games…?

Simon: At some point I may put some together (beyond the posters, wristbands, and other stuff produced for the Kickstarter). Currently it’s too much of a distraction, doing physical manufacturing in an ethical manner really eats up time and money.

A board game would be fantastic, mind you. I’m sure Paul could flex his muscles on that one. I’ve also been thinking about getting some Maia mission branded survival tools; dehydrated foods, flint-steel fire starters and even military dog tags.

Once the game is demanding less of my time, I’d like to put together an anthology of short science fiction stories from different writers, exploring aspects the world we are creating. The game has sparked the imagination of a lot of excellent writers and I’d love to see their take on it.

I’m also working with Nick, our composer, to release an album of the game’s 70’s inspired synth-heavy soundtrack. We’ve had a lot of interest from composers in doing a compilation of music inspired by the game for B-side for it.

What sort of situations will players end up in the game? Can you walk me through an example scenario?

Simon: The game, due to its various interconnected simulations will yield all sorts of unforeseeable scenarios for the player to deal with. Here’s one based off our food-chain simulation:

A player focussing on rapid expansion of their base has large power needs and decides to build a large wind farm on the surface of the world. To do so she defoliates an area and sets up heavy defenses. Clearing a large area of grass and plant life unbalances the food chain, killing off the native herbivores through starvation and the odd 7.62mm round to the head.

This causes the larger carnivores, usually reliant on the herbivores to plug the new gap in their diet with the player’s colonists. Through trial and error, they eventually learn their way around the players turret systems and start intruding into the colony looking for tasty morsels.

The creatures tear through the airlock seals, rapidly depressurising the hastily designed base, the lights drop, alarms sound and the colonists start to asphyxiate. By the time the creatures find the colonists, the poor souls have slipped into unconsciousness and in their helplessness, are eaten alive.

Paul: Maia is being colonised partly because it’s similar enough to earth that colonists can make use of its natural resources to complement what they’ve arrived with, since there’s only so much you can cart twelve light years. Mining and excavation will provide many of the same metals and materials you’d find in the earth’s crust, while it’s also possible to use solar stills, wind turbines and solar panels to gather energy or clean water. We have a very humid hydroponics bay where vegetables can be grown and regrown but, who knows, maybe some of Maia’s own life might be edible? Eating cats surely has to be a last, resort, right?

That said, the surface of the planet is largely inhospitable. Everything’s happening underground because that’s out of the wind, solar flares and meteorite impacts.