Video Games: Entertainment Meets Philosophy

By Jennifer Janviere

Most of us think of video games as purely entertainment; a temporary escape from the trappings of reality. But have we ever considered these games to be catalysts for critical thought or departure points for open-ended philosophical questions? A recent segment of  NPR’s On the Media discussed the moral and symbolic complexities of video games, a subject that has more depth than many of us may realize.

In a particularly interesting example, the broadcast referenced “Passage,” a 2009 release that, at first glance, looks like an early 1980’s arcade game. In the current era of slick, hyper-realistic video games, it’s easy to initially dismiss Passage by its unpolished appearance. The premise also seems simple at first: a pixelated character wanders around the screen, only to die within three minutes time, every time. What’s the point? It’s only after playing a few times that it becomes evident: the game is a metaphor for the human journey through life.

The character can explore his onscreen surroundings, but some choices lead to opportunities, while other decisions lead to literal closed doors. This forces the player to carefully consider the cause and effect of his or her actions. At the end of three minutes, however, time runs out and the game ends no matter how skillfully or poorly played.

For a seemingly simplistic video game, Passage provokes larger philosophical questions about the purpose of life and the choices that we make about how to spend our time and energy. The three-minute time span represents our lifespan, and even poses questions about the nature of free will. Does this knowledge cause us to wander aimlessly or does it push us to make the most of our experiences during the time we have?  The message may seem heavy to some people. After all, self-reflection and existentialism are not traits often associated with video games.

What I find the most intriguing about Passage is the reminder that sources for cultural and self-reflection are sometimes found in unexpected places. I may never look at video games the same way again.

Jennifer Janviere is a multimedia specialist and instructor in the Diederich College of Communication.

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