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Beginnings in Philosophy (some game-related content, I swear!)
Posted on Sunday, June 22 2008 @ 11:09:09 PST

This Post May Contain Spoilers

    I should start by saying that my own knowledge of the body of Western philosophy is still in embryo. I'm working on the problem as best I can, using a particular set of books to correct the deficit. The books, which I recommend to anyone seriously interested in pondering the questions of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, politics and so on, is Frederick Copleston's A History of Philosophy series. Likely available at local libraries or purchasable on Amazon or Barnes and Noble (or at any bookstore with a decent philosophy section) it provides a good introduction to the whole organon of thought in the west, from the pre-Socratics up to the twentieth century. This is not the place for a review, and the nine volumes each demand in-depth treatment.
    That disclaimer aside, it's worthwhile to consider certain problems in light of reason, well tempered by the weight of experience. One of the more interesting problems that critical reception of Bioshock revealed is that it seems largely unknown in the gaming press, indeed in much of the press generally, that moral and ethical problems are philosophical derivatives that stem from prior considerations and given positive statements in metaphysics and ontology. The practical value of any theoretical ethical system, whether it be the deontological ethics of Kant, the ethical relativism of the Sophists, the 'objective morality' of Ayn Rand or the Thomists she unknowingly plagiarized, or even the ethical utilitarianism of the Benthamite liberals, is its provision of a systematic framework of judgment; a way to evaluate the problem of right and wrong in the context of day to day action. If we allow that much, we find that the controversy surrounding Bioshock's moral question becomes all the clearer; what good is an ethical system that breaks down in light of the tough cases? It is precisely useless, actually. As L. Neil Smith once wrote, "Principles mean nothing, in fact they mean less than nothing, when adhering to them is easy," and it is in the face of this that people were so disturbed. The ontological context in which the individual critics held their ethical values - implicitly, as few who are not dedicated philosophers or wakened to the problems of philosophy will even consider the problem - and the values they held, were revealed as being inherently baseless. In other words, their judgment would only vaguely address reality as they understood it, and they understood it poorly. All they could see was the dead little girl and the apparent contradictory problem of the player's survival against the child's. Even those with some foggy notion of rights were befuddled; after all, do not both individuals have the right to survive? At no point did the criminal acts of violence (the little sisters were of course victims of many acts of violence well before the player's earliest contact with them) by their nature impress upon the critic; the act was itself the context in which a judgment must take place. Murder was committed. Whether it was necessary to the individual's survival or not does not change that fact. So the man murders, and must address the fact of it without reference to some ethical deus ex machina to liberate considerations of the inherent evil of the deed from judgment of it. If one digs to the root of the problem, one is often left facing a vast monstrosity in the judgment of others; they want moral judgment without moral responsibility. Or rather, they want the claim to moral judgment without having to take full responsibility for the judgments they make. It is as if they want to write well-respected articles published in learned journals on the subject of physics or mathematics, without ever having to address any problems of physics or mathematics, and be called great physicists and mathematicians. It is, quite simply, a childish mentality and unfit for the adult world; where the problem of right and wrong will not suspend itself at the individual's earliest convenience.
    Ever orbiting the subject of games a question has come up now that I consider especially pertinent; in my first post I addressed a problem that games have with moral problems that seems irresolvable; one cannot readily, or even possibly, quantify good or bad. How does one do such a thing? Is murder six, rape five, theft four? But these are only beginning steps in understanding the enormity of the problem. To handle moral problems properly a game would have to be orders of magnitude more sophisticated than is even possible today. So I say, let us have presented choices, stock "angel and devil" moments and so on. It will be a long time before a real alternative that threatens such a simplistic paradigm at its core can come along, and for now, it does add very much to the experience, as we might, if just for a moment, consider our actions in the context of situational being, even if the situation is a fictional one.
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