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Philosophy Is Useful or: Why I Like Jonathan Blow

posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2012 (1:28 pm) by

People don't think philosophy is useful. Why is this? Macmillan Dictionary has two definitions of philosophy. The first, "the study of theories about the meanings of things such as life, knowledge, and beliefs", is what people think when they hear "philosophy". They think of boring and antiquated texts on the nature of what is sacred. They think of white-bearded men debating over the trivialities of pointless and vague quandaries. They think of glassy-eyed teenagers wondering aloud, "What if, like, our universe is just inside an atom in another universe?" These are not philosophy. Or, at least, these are not the heart of philosophy, but, rather, its side-effects. The second definition offered by Macmillan is more true to what philosophy is at its core: "a system of beliefs that influences someone's decisions and behaviour." Much like the purpose of the brain is to control the body's movement, the purpose of philosophy is to act as a tool for making decisions in your life. In trying to do so, philosophy might delve into complex and counter-intuitive ethical systems, philosophers might write long, tedious and precisely-worded treatises, and strange hypothetical situations or worlds might be concocted and considered, but philosophy is not a collection of books, or a series of musings, or a set of questions, or even a group of people. Philosophy is a process, a methodology, and, ultimately, a mode of thinking about things and examining situations. As I've previously bemoaned, not having philosophical foundations for decision-making or at least a sense of what things you value and what goals you wish to achieve (both of which philosophy can help determine) can lead to terrible, contradictory choices that are without sense and without purpose.

In the above video, Jonathan Blow, a wildly popular figure in the gaming world, talks about game design and what makes a game worth playing. He finds several things to be valuable: not only "fun", as traditionally emphasized in gaming, but also the ability to make one think, or to evoke an emotional response. This is exactly what has made Jonathan Blow so popular, at least from my perspective: he's taken the time to philosophize about video games, and examined the gaming world through the philosophical lens he's constructed. Far beyond that, he's used his philosophical framework to inform the design and development of his indie game hit, Braid. He decided, from a philosophical and ethical perspective, that games shouldn't try to "trick" the player but, instead, should respect the player's intelligence and time. The decisions he made in creating Braid reflected this considered viewpoint and (at least in part) made it the excellent and critically lauded game that it is. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his views, Jonathan Blow has become an influential and well-respected developer because he has internalized and applied the spirit of philosophy. And this, furthermore, is what I encourage you to do. Next time you need to make a decision, spend some time considering what you think has inherent value, how your goals reflect that, and how (if at all) your options appeal to those values. You might not end up making the right decision, but you'll at least make a well-reasoned and justifiable decision.

Tags: game design, philosophy, value, video games