Videogames are a Humanism
by Martin Hare Michno
Courtesy of Flickr
At the very core of existential philosophy lie the haunting words, ‘existence precedes essence.’ Humans have no predestined purpose, we simply exist. It is through our existence, however, that we create our essence. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote ‘Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards’. Thus, with every single one of our choices, we create ourselves. Not only this, but with our choices we present a picture of what a human being should be like. ‘In fashioning myself,’ writes Sartre, ‘I fashion humanity’. Video games, interactive story games in particular, are arguably the best example of this philosophy.
It is not too outrageous to claim that the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would be a fan of narrative video games. Sartre defended existentialism in his lecture ‘Existentialism Is A Humanism’, where he tells of a dilemma faced by one of his students and one which resonates with anybody who has played choice-based games. The dilemma his student approached him with was a moral one: should the student join the Allies to fight against fascist forces, or should he instead stay at home with his poor, aged and weakened mother, to whom he is the only consolation and comfort? Should he go to war, he would be but a small, insignificant help to many nations; should he stay at home, however, he would be a massive help to a single person. Sartre knows that it is a dilemma with no superior answer. There is no authority, there are no pre-established morals. ‘No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do’ says Sartre. The student’s choice, whatever it may be, is the very creation of values. This is for Sartre what makes existentialism inherently humanist; it expressly places human choice in the centre and as a basis of the creation of what it is to be human.
Video games too make the human their centre. We can study the exact same moral dilemma in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please. In this indie darling, the player takes the role of an immigration officer, and is pulled into an on-going moral dilemma where they must choose between doing their job well to earn enough money in order to sustain their family, or do their job wrongly, with the purpose of taking part in a revolution against an oppressive state. It is again, much like Sartre’s student, a question between loyalty to one’s family, or loyalty to one’s nation. The player, if playing honestly, is setting an example of what they think a human should do, and thus they propose what a human should be. A more dramatic example of a dilemma which echoes that of the student’s is found in Square Enix’s Life Is Strange. The climax of the story, as it reaches a final conclusion, is put to pause. The player is given a choice between saving their friend from a gunshot or saving their town from a tornado (which they themselves have indirectly caused). Ignoring the extremities of such a situation, the player is reminded by Sartre that there is no pre-existing right answer. The player must choose and, by doing so, one creates the values of humanity. Sartre puts this wittily: ‘You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent.’
In every choice we make, or decide not to take, there is an implication of freedom, and this freedom makes us responsible. The implication of responsibility is what makes Sartre’s existentialism horrifying, and it is what makes choice in narrative-driven games so gut-wrenching. Dilemmas in video games cause us anguish because they are forcing us to be free by condemning us to choose. The Video Game, like no other Art, can bring the player to the realisation of their own responsibility and freedom. The player is never a passive spectator but is instead active and responsible. It is not much of a stretch, I think, to claim that video games can offer humanity an existentialist exercise like no other form of art can. According to Sartre, ‘There is this in common between art and morality, that in both we have to do with creation and invention’. In this sense, video games find what art and morality have in common and present it to an active spectator who will take part in said creation and invention – that is to say, the player is actively defining what it is to be human. The implications of moral dilemmas in video games are powerful and, if properly executed, could be radical. Karl Marx wrote ‘To be radical is to go to the root of the matter. For man, however, the root is man himself.’ Video games, as argued here, go to the root of humankind, that is to say, humans themselves. For this reason, video games are a humanism.
It is about time that the grossly ignored potential of video games is explored by academia. Video games are an art form that can offer our society radical change, and this article merely scratches the surface. However, to accept video games as a form of art is not enough, for they must be studied and treated as one too. As a society that embraces art as a revolutionary tool, we must think of video games as a tool that will help us re-define the human.