Exploring what it means to play games is serious philosophy. But who says serious philosophy can only be done in dry academic books and journals? How about some philosophy on YouTube?
Playing games is often thought of as a trivial, perhaps time-wasting and juvenile endeavour. We tend to extol the virtues of a hard day’s work and the pursuit of other, supposedly more mature and serious ends. However, if we try to imagine for a moment a life without any opportunity to play games, we’d likely think such a life would be a drab, dull, and maybe even an alienating affair. Perhaps we should give game-playing a closer look and examine what its potential worth and value could play in our lives.
This theme of the value of game-playing is explored in the philosopher Bernard Suits’ classic work on the philosophy of games The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. According to Suits, in a world where all our day-to-day needs are adequately provided for (i.e. a utopia) an ideal life would be one engaged in playing games which is roughly defined as one where we set for ourselves seemingly arbitrary and unnecessary obstacles that we strive to overcome (Suits, 1978). This isn’t really as farfetched as it may sound. For instance, it’s been observed that play behaviour occurs much more commonly in animals kept in well-maintained captive settings compared with their counterparts eking out a brute living in the wild (Burghardt, 1988). Perhaps the same applies with us humans; when survival isn’t an issue, playing games just seems to make sense. Could this mean that playing games can be considered an ideal – perhaps THE ideal – of human existence?
This is just one of many questions that can be raised once one starts to poke around philosophically at the idea of play and games. The philosophy of play and games is a small but exciting, and indeed growing, area of philosophical research. One recently released book Games: Agency as Art by C. Thi Nguyen offers unique insights into age-old philosophical notions such as agency and practical reasoning by looking at the activity of game playing. Thinking about play and games is not just fun and games — it’s serious philosophy!
Of course, most of the material on the philosophy of play and games you can find in stuffy academic books and journal articles. But how about serious philosophy on a non-serious platform? That’s right, you can find proper philosophy of play and games content on YouTube courtesy of the channel Game for Thought. These videos aren’t just any old talk or lecture uploaded on YouTube; these are video essays produced by content creator Jonas Faria Costa, a Philosophy PhD at the University of Manchester and (for obvious reasons) a gaming enthusiast. Jonas is also the narrator in the videos.
In one of his video essays, Jonas talks about a kind of playful stoicism as a way to overcome the anxiety that can come with competitive game playing. Jonas based the video on a paper by Edinburgh’s own philosopher of play and games, professor Mike Ridge (2021). You can watch it here:
But it doesn’t end there. Upon finding the video by chance, Mike came into contact with Jonas and this eventually led to a long-term collaboration on a series of videos exploring the many thorny philosophical issues surrounding play and games. Who says you can’t do serious philosophy on YouTube? For starters, here’s an introductory video essay they produced sampling just some of the issues in the subject:
They also did a deep dive into the question we started with: the value of game-playing that includes a discussion of Suits’s utopia:
More video essays are in the pipeline! YouTube content creators doing serious philosophy is something we can definitely get behind. So you know the drill: hit that subscribe button and the notification bell to get updates!
About Michael Ridge
Michael Ridge is Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Ridge has recently published a series of articles on the philosophy of play and games. He currently plans to write a book in this area focusing on the role of play and playfulness, arguing that playfulness is an overlooked moral and intellectual virtue that can help us transcend a craving for “cosmic meaning”, which Ridge will argue is both elusive and morally problematic to desire. This research informs his two current honours courses, Philosophy: Fun and Games and Meaning and Fulfilment. Previously, Ridge has done extensive work in moral and political philosophy, especially in metaethics, where he has defended an original “hybrid” version of expressivism (see his Impassioned Belief, OUP, 2014; https://global.oup.com/academic/product/impassioned-belief-9780199682669?cc=gb&lang=en&).
Burghardt, Gordon M. 1988. “Precocity, play, and the ectotherm-endotherm transition: Profound reorganization or superficial adaptation?”, In: Handbook of Neurobiology, Vol. 9: Developmental Psychobiology and Behavioral Ecology. Edited by E. M. Blass. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Nguyen, C. Thi. 2020. Games: Agency as Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ridge, M. 2021. “Illusory Attitudes and the Playful Stoic.” Philosophical Studies 178: 2965–2990.
Suits, Bernard. 1978. The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.