Video Game as Preparation for Death

Video Game as Preparation for Death September 4, 2013

I couldn’t help but be charmed by Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, an in-browser game where you argue philosophy with a hit parade of great thinkers.  (That’s Thomas Hobbes being rebutted by the protagonist above).  You, Socrates Jones, are trapped in a kind of limbo for philosophers, and you can only escape if you give the Arbiter an answer to the question of Morality.

There’s plenty of room to be frustrated with nuances of the philosophies being left out, or with philosophers being omitted (Euthyphro’s is the only theistic argument), but on the whole it’s a fun game.  I’ll admit to not quite being over my deontologic past and cheering Kant on against my character when they came to blows.  If you get stalled out somewhere, you can cheat off of this walkthough, to see how the game intends you to play.

The four tools you-as-player have are “Ask for Clarification” “Question Relevance” “Press for Backing” and “Challenge!” (which involves bringing up a counterpoint — usually a premise that has already shown up in the philosopher’s argument.  And this was particularly fun for me to discover, since I’ve been engaged in debate design over at my day job.

We wanted to make the debate participatory, but we didn’t want the audience in an antagonistic frame of mind, so we didn’t want them to just play “Spot the Fallacy.”  We wanted to give people the opportunity practicing directing a disagreement in useful directions, not just sniping an opponent, so we came up for ways for them to signal things like “Give an Example/Be Specific!” “Relevance/Tangent?” and “Paraphrase your Opponent” and I was pleased to see the overlap in the game.  (Our debate is this Thurday, if you’re in the Bay Area).

What I liked best about the Socrates Jones game (and it sure wasn’t the answer) was the assumption that the philosophers answers ought to be intelligible to the accountant protagonist.  You couldn’t lose points asking for clarifications, and the player-character several times emphasized that, especially as the question was about morality, he had to be able to understand it, to be able to live it out.  (Which I think indicated that he should have listened more to Kant, who would have agreed it was necessary he be able to will the good to be good, not just be directed by some arcane rule to good consequences).

Oh, and the game was fun for me for one probably-unique reason.  On my last visit to DC, my role as Big Bad in my boyfriend’s DnD game (this one) came to a close.  I had been playing the last true disciple of the interrogator-god, described as follows:

Astermeid’s followers believe in rhetorical confrontation as almost the highest good, and also subscribe to a very Darwinist outlook with respect to others. Those who lose arguments or cannot give satisfactory answers to questions are, according to the Church of Astermeid, the most pathetic of all life and do not deserve to even have the dignity of justice.

My character had been trying to prepare an apologia for existence for her god, but unlike Socrates Jones, who got to answer questions in peace, she had to deal with pesky adventures who found a Talisman of Pure Good and managed to cast her/me into a fiery rift.  Alas.  We did at least get a picture of the death scene (which followed a Hannibal Lecture).

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  • grok87

    thanks- I tried the online philosophy game and found it interesting. I kind of got stuck and gave up after a while though…

  • Scott Hebert

    That D&D game sounds intriguing. I tend towards the Chessmaster and Magnificent Bastard tropes, with heavy doses of Xanatos anything and anything Gambits.

    Players tend to enjoy it greatly.

    • Leah’s Boyfriend

      Maglynn (Leah’s character) was probably the most magnificent of all my magnificent bitch/bastard characters, and that is saying a lot. I’m surprised Leah didn’t sell her more. Basically, imagine a female Osama bin Laden who also got herself elected Pope after replacing virtually the entire leadership of the Catholic Church with closet Muslims and you have the character.

      • LeahLibresco

        What are you doing commenting on this blog?!?

        • Leah’s Boyfriend

          Clarifying how awesome you are at being a villain, dear. Because your readers might get the wrong idea and think you’re a perfectly guileless moralist, based on the rest of what gets posted here. 😉

          Not to worry, I’m only going to comment if you mention the campaign or something.

          • Joe

            Oh no he didnent, Leah you better tell this guy to call Tyrone!

      • Scott Hebert

        *chuckles* Nice. I hope there was a lot of maskirovka about how the Orthodox-analogues were conniving with the Protestant-analogues to do what Maglynn was attempting all along. Basically, we need a dash of Sidious in there as well, or maybe Wilhelm.

        Hands off the Jew-analogues, of course, because, well, yeah.

        Regarding ‘guileless moralist’ below, I think I agree with Emperor Ezar Vorbarra when he told Cordelia that theists are far more ruthless than atheists. I would also apply that to moralists vs. amoralists, though not because morality implies theism.

        Lessee, have I made enough allusions to establish my gamer cred yet? If not, please let me know and I can do more!

        (Seriously, I do apologize for causing any tension between you and your boyfriend, Leah.)

        • Leah’s Boyfriend

          I wouldn’t call it tension. I just enjoy bragging on her behalf. Though apparently she’s worried I might turn over a few apple carts on this blog.

          And believe me, your gamer cred is not in doubt. I simply wanted to establish that my campaign uses many of the same plot devices. I agree that theists are far more ruthless than atheists — in fact, since my campaign revolves around a massive religious war, you might say that’s axiomatic to the game.

          • Scott Hebert

            I don’t blame you about liking to brag on her behalf, either. 🙂

            And regarding ruthlessness, I meant mainly in a rhetorical sense, not the ‘holy war’ sense. That is, of course, a completely separate discussion, and one which probably could do with its own topic.

            So *throws a smoke bomb over the proceedings* Yay for games!

  • alexander stanislaw

    That game was very entertaining, thanks.

  • “What I liked best about the Socrates Jones game (and it sure wasn’t the answer) …”

    But what other answer could we expect? It ended pretty much exactly as I anticipated (whether or not Ari successfully called it, I did). SPOILERS The programmers certainly couldn’t come down, definitively, on the side of a particular morality. I guess they could have, but that would be disingenuous: morality’s still an open question in the mortal realm, and we haven’t got access to an Arbiter of truth. It seemed like the ending just laid out what was an obvious fact about the state of philosophy. /SPOILERS

    What I liked about the game was the emphasis on looking for internal contradictions rather than bringing in outside claims. The only arguments you could use to challenge a philosophy were arguments made by the philosopher you were interrogating. Until the end, of course, when you get access to choice claims from each of your previous interlocutors, which I thought was an excellent narrative touch (and was the one thing that surprised me). I do wish Nietzsche got a chance to make an appearance.

    Thanks for the rec. Was this the first computer game you played, or have you played others since your announcement that you’ve never played any?


      But the game actually does end up with an answer the arbiter is forced to accept, and one far less respectable than any of the others. (Actually that only works because the roles and thus the burden of proof shift for the final round.)

      The absence of a consensus doesn’t allow an inference to the intraceability of the problem. And even if the problem was intraceable, the poor man’s existentialism about the way being worthwhile without the destination would still be depraved.

      • Depraved? Seriously? Come on. You may think it’s incorrect, but depraved is harsh. (Unless “depraved” is some fancy Catholic terminology, I suppose. Even then, though…)

        Also, I have no idea why you think it’s even incorrect. If you grant that the perfect moral answer really cannot be (ultimately) found, but you grant that increasingly accurate answers are still findable (which the game seems to imply, if not state), then it seems obvious to me that continuing to search is still a good (though, of course, there’s a bit of trouble there, in that we’re calling something good without fully knowing what good means, and I wish the game had addressed that). That seems better than throwing in the towel on morality and starting up with solipsistic hedonism. All this seems obvious to me, I suppose, because it pretty closely describes my own view of morality: it’s extraordinarily important, we need to wrestle with it constantly, but no perfect/absolute answer will ever become available to us (at least because we couldn’t justifiably identify it as perfectly correct, though the game suggested it was because we couldn’t formulate, a claim about which I have no opinion), hence the constant need to wrestle.

        • It seems you’re interpreting the game more charitably than I do.

          If the conclusion actually is only that idea-space is incomplete and correct morality is an unreachable limit, that would be implausible but not morally problematic beyond believing other false things.

          But I don’t think the game implies even asymptotic approachability of the truth. Except for Euthyphro all viewpoints are presented as about equally good and they certainly aren’t refinements of each other. It seems more like everyone getting a price because the game is somehow fine even without a way to compare success.

          That’s basically the position of the episcopal ghost in The Great Divorce and I actually do think it’s wrong morally as well as epistemically.

          • “It seems more like everyone getting a price because the game is somehow fine even without a way to compare success.”

            I’m sorry. I don’t understand this sentence. Can you explain?
            Also, why do you think presenting them as equally good is a problem? If the game intends to teach about moral philosophy–that’s how I was reading it–then an objective and equal presentation is expected and acceptable. That’s typically how philosophy courses are taught.

          • Gilbert at work

            Basically the opinion of the game seems to be that all those theories don’t form a progression to the truth, but still are valuable, because somehow thinking about this question is supposed to be worthwhile even without an expectation of getting any closer to a correct answer. I think that’s fairly obvious hogwash.
            I’m fine with a philosophy course giving each theory equal time and presentation on its own terms. But I actually wouldn’t agree with teaching the students every theory is equally good. For comparison, in a civil court case each party gets equal procedural rights and time, but that doesn’t mean we accept both parties to be equally right. Procedural equalaty is fine, but claiming objective equality is stinking relativism.

          • Giacomo Carmody

            There’s no reason we the audience must treat them as equal, though. We’re more than capable of seeing the flaws in each philosophy ourselves, without the game explicitly stating it. Looked at that way, I think the game handled its presentation extremrely well.

      • LeahLibresco

        This was my issue. The final answer doesn’t make any prescriptions or predictions as the others did. If Socrates Jones is right, what would he like us to do while we’re learning. Or, how does he know when we’re moving closer to the answer vs farther away.

        Based on the game, it looks like the metric is internal consistency, but more than one system can be consistent, and a truer system may not have all the bugs worked out yet.