Games, the digital and the philosophical
By Celeste Pedro
* This article was adapted from a larger study on Public Philosophy presented by the author as part her PhD studies at Faculdade de Letras da U.Porto.
January 2023 – Digital Humanities is a world of possibilities. The fact that it means something concrete (as using digital technologies to learn, teach and spread knowledge pertaining to the Humanities), nonetheless, also means that it could be anything. We are then left with the search for what matters about Digital Humanities, how is it different from “non-digital” Humanities, and why is it necessary for the Humanities? Different fields would answer with their particularities, but in general, the picture contains the following details: in academic research, automatic text analysis, AI, and large databases have become standard means of inquiry; in education, online classes and web resources have made it possible to overcome social distances. The availability of digital content and the proximity between people in online environments has already begun to change the Humanities in very positive ways. The digital is also a source of creativity. Having to adapt a very classical canon for doing things to a whole new system, a new language in some cases, is bringing the best out of theory and practice.
One example of the possibilities offered by the Digital Humanities is that our audience is no longer limited to the faculty and international (short-scoped) events; another is that we do not need to think of it as “using software”; we can think of it also as a creativity platform. And all research needs some creativity.
A few months ago, I was recommended to pay attention to this project called “Critical-Creative Philosophy” created by Ph.D. candidate Carlota Salvador Megias (https://incorrigibles.carrd.co) at the University of Bergen. This year, as part of her proof of concept, she organized a critical-creative philosophy game jam. The goal was to have submissions that followed a set of premises: it should be a critical piece based on a work of philosophy and facilitating engagement with the general public in a creative way: “We welcome anything, so long as it is both a piece of scholarship and a work of art (broadly construed).” Results are now out, and jam winners will be published in The Digital Review (https://thedigitalreview.com/submissions.html).
Most submissions were games and literature pieces (the jam was launched on itch.io). Curiously, in a digital environment (the online jam), the games submitted had a physical form; on the contrary, literature took a digital format. The concept behind the game jam was well designed and explicit, and the webpage provided a long list of examples and resources that can be useful for any of us: https://itch.io/jam/critical-creative-philosophy. Throughout the months, there were ten very sound submissions. Here are some examples:
The Baby Game
A role-playing game based on John Stewart Mill (utilitarianism). You can download and print the game, and there’s also a teacher’s supplement.
Aristotelian Development & Deduction
A chance/strategy game based on virtues and the doctrine of the mean. You can download a very complete table of contents that introduces the players to Nicomachean Ethics as well as the mechanics of this intricate game.
On Distance: practicing the dialectical method
A hyper-text digital play book on Giacomo Leopardi’s dialectical method. Simple and effective, keeps you locked on the experience!
Principia Mathematica: The Choose Your Own Adventure Story
A digital story-telling device that takes the player through the chapters of Principia Mathematica using a series of hyper-network nodes.
In an article published in 2019, Daniel J. Anderson reviews why games, especially role-playing games, can be used to foster players’ capacity to think and make decisions, advocating not for a gamification of Philosophy but for the use of “philosophical mechanics” in games. This approach is particularly useful in educational contexts and more engaging to a broader audience.
This was certainly the case in some of the pieces submitted to this jam: guiding rulemaking to create the right philosophical mechanic, such as in Aristotelian Development & Deduction, and the players’ decision-making, such as in The Famous Violinist (created by https://makephilosophy.com/, an open-source project with tools for philosophy teaching).
The use of metaphors and personal identification have long been a standard in games pending toward the philosophical; Anderson proposes game decisions based on “enforced” consultation with other players as an example of a fruitful introduction of philosophical mechanics in games. This too was visible among submissions, such as in The Baby Game, where the “consequentialists” must discuss with the “loving parents” whether to sacrifice the Baby.
As a concluding note, I’d like to add that this jam contributed to the co-existence and co-appreciation of both digital and non-digital pieces for the share reason of using the digital as a platform for creativity in philosophical research and education and not as a limit.
Working in (or with) Digital Humanities doesn’t have to be haunting (programming-wise) or just strategic (funding-wise), it can be fun and critical-creative in its own right.
When asked about how to deal with the digital technologies students are now involved with, Elaine Treharne responded it is all about “developing modes of communication that are appropriate to the method that you are using”, and games are very appropriate to Philosophy, and if it works better and reaches more people when using digital media, let’s not be refrained by it!