The Philosophical Roots of Computer Game Design

Ernest W. Adams


Hello and thank you for coming. I'm Ernest Adams.

As many of you will know, my lectures have been getting progressively more and more woo-woo over the years (that's a philosophical term). Two years back I even tackled the question, "What is art?", so that should give you an idea. I need to warn you that this lecture is going to contain nothing of any practical value whatsoever. [applause]

What I've been trying to do is tease out the underlying philosophical issues surrounding the interactive medium, and, if not to find answers for the problems, to at least come to understand what the problems are. I'm going to talk about the culture of game development and the ideas that inform that culture—our particular worldview or Weltanschauung as I would say if I were a German philosopher.

Industrial Development Culture

Before we get really into it, I have to introduce the two most significant branches of Western philosophy in the last 200 years or so.

First there is the English, which includes the American. It can be characterized by rigorous logic, argument from first principles, and considerable abstraction from daily life. It's essentially deductive in nature. The logic is sound, but many people would see it as rather arid and sterile.

The other is the French. The French, by contrast, tends to be more a matter of opinion. French philosophy occurs through observation and inference. When Michel Foucault argues that our notions of sexuality are largely social constructions that have very little to do with biology, he can't prove it, but he can point to data gathered from daily life which suggests that it might be so. Sartre's existentialism is much the same. He doesn't start with 2+2 and derive the universe, as the English do; he starts with life as it is lived. As a result, French philosophy is essentially inductive in nature; it's much more open to interpretation and debate; there's a lot more room for bullshit.

One might almost say that English philosophical thought is driven by the head, while French philosophical thought is driven by the heart. This distinction between French and English approaches to philosophy somewhat parallels two other dichotomies that are going to be important later on.

One is between the classical and the romantic. Robert M. Pirsig discussed this point at some length in the first third of his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The classical approach to things is ordered, abstract, rule-based, and mechanistic. The romantic approach is disordered, free-flowing, chaotic, based on whim and emotion.

This is often simplified into a distinction between thinking and feeling, but that's not right. Classical people can feel too—they feel a delight in the ordered perfection of mathematics, or in an elegant algorithm, that romantics are completely incapable of feeling. Romantics get irritated at the suggestion that computer programming is creative, because they think it doesn't flow from an emotional drive. In fact, it does—it's just an emotion that they don't have access to.

As a programmer, I find that what turns me on is thinking about ways of representing the world mathematically, and simulating the world algorithmically. I well remember the a-ha! moment I had when I realized how to represent the connectivity of rooms in a text adventure using an array. It was a moment of great joy. But it was not an emotion that William Blake was capable of feeling.

And on the other hand, romantic people think too—it's just that they don't put as high a value on logical consistency as classical types do; emotional responses are given priority in their thinking. In creating public policy, like a voting system, classical thinkers would design a system that they can demonstrably prove is fair, even if nobody likes or understands it. Romantics would design a system that feels fair and makes everybody happy, even if it can be proven mathematically that it isn't fair. So that's the classic/romantic split.

The other dichotomy is that of the "two cultures" debate begun by the scientist C.P. Snow in 1959. He argued that there is a breakdown of communication between the sciences and the humanities, that they were evolving into two separate cultures, and that this is not only a weakness in the academy, but an actual hindrance in solving the world's problems. Many scientists have never read Dickens. Many literary intellectuals cannot describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

I don't know about the world's problems, but the two cultures are certainly a hindrance in making video games. I'm going to allude to these dichotomies, the classic/romantic dichotomy and the C.P. Snow divide between the sciences and the humanities, later on.

I am a game designer, but first I was an engineer. And once upon a time, all game developers were engineers. We're technologists. The programmers, the audio people, the artists, even the writers are technologists. I used to have to write the voiceover scripts for Madden NFL Football, in such a way that sentence fragments could be assembled and played seamlessly in real time. That meant that I had to choose my words not only on the basis of their meaning, but on their phonetic content, and on the movements of the lips and tongue. These are not issues that Gabriel Garcia Marquez had to pay much attention to.

The philosophical center of our world is the Von Neumann stored-program digital computer, and that still influences everything else. Computer programming is about formal logic. About rigor and precision. As with a deduction in a chain of proof, the tiniest error in a computer program can undo the whole thing. In other words, we are classicists, with classical, formal methods, and this influences every part of game development. For us a bit is either one or zero, and if it's not either one or zero, then there's something wrong with it and we replace that RAM chip with one that conforms.

Dave Thomas, who's a journalist with a fascinating website called, has written an extremely interesting article called "Pre-Socratic Game Theory." In this article he pointed out that the Pythagoreans, a pre-Socratic group of philosophers who made a cult of mathematics, had a saying that "all is number." (They were the ones who tried to suppress the square root of two as heretical, because it was an irrational number.) And he goes on to say that this Pythagorean philosophy ties in both with the move The Matrix, and with video games. I'm going to quote a portion of his article:

This is the invisible strand that ties The Matrix to video games—the Pythagorean model that numbers define reality. Both The Matrix and video games are concerned with the system, with algorithms or rules. In The Matrix part of the entertainment is found in exploring (narratively) what the Matrix is and how it works. The idea of a perfect world of rules both resonates with our rational seeking in the physical world for fundamental, systemized explanations for phenomena and our hopes and fears about the power of these systems of rules that we encode into our machines. Video games are the most like the Matrix, of any of our digital systems, in the sense that they provide active worlds that we know must run on rules, their souls knitted into their algorithms, stored as numbers on digital media.

Leaving aside the fact that I'm extremely jealous of his eloquence, I think that is the most articulate expression of the situation that I've ever heard. We'll come back to The Matrix later on.

In any case, we are firmly in the English philosophical camp. Our philosophical roots are in John Locke, David Hume, Bertrand Russell. They are not in Bergson, Sartre, Derrida, or Foucault. We do, in fact, start with 2+2 and build a universe from it.

The Victorian Parallel

Game developers, and indeed the entire IT industry, are the Victorians of our time. Now, when you say the word "Victorian"—particularly to an American—what initially springs to mind is a rigidly stratified class structure, repressive notions of morality, imperialist expansionism, and women corseted to the point that they could not breathe properly. This view, accurate though it is, has tended to obscure the great Victorian accomplishment, which was the Age of Steam.  The Victorian period was a period of scientific and engineering innovation that was unparalleled in human history, and has found a modern reflection since the invention of the integrated circuit. Electrons are the new steam. So it's no surprise that this period has spawned an entire new branch of science fiction, "steampunk." The technological advances of those days must have seemed every bit as exciting in their time as ours do today. You can sense that excitement in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which Twain fantasizes about the effect of modern, i.e. steam, technology on medieval society.

We engineers of the Information Age look back on the engineers of the Age of Steam with admiration and approval.  Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel, is our Isambard Kingdom Brunel. So we have a tremendous energetic enthusiasm for the benefits of electronics that nicely mirrors the Victorian enthusiasm for the benefits of steam. In media theory, this assumption that technology is the answer to all our problems is called technological determinism*, and it is so deeply engrained in the culture of game development as to be axiomatic. If you even question it, you're some kind of a weirdo.

[* I now recognize that this description of technological determinism was inaccurate. I should have called it a utopian faith in technology, or something similar. – EWA 2010]

There's a rumor going around that the Playstation 3 might be 1000 times as fast as the Playstation 2. This is accepted as a good thing without question… but what does it actually imply? Will the computer games be 1000 times as entertaining? Will the quality of the stories be 1000 times as good? Will the artifical characters be 1000 times as smart? I doubt it.

Hardware designers design computer hardware in order to maximize processing power, because that is their area of interest and expertise, that's what they've been trained for. Even though they are designing a machine explicitly intended for playing games, for offering ludic experiences, they still think of it primarily as a data-processing device. There is a distinct disconnect between the intended purpose of the machine—entertainment—and its design—data processing.

On the other side of the equation, the game designers are handed a new machine without ever being consulted about its capabilities. It is simply given to them, and their approach is, "Well, let's see what can be done with this thing." Computers were invented for calculating ballistics tables for artillery shells, and in essence that is what hardware designers still optimize them to do.

This is one respect in which we differ from the Victorians, because they were not using their steam engines to entertain with. But if they could have, they would have. And we possess that overweening Victorian self-confidence and enthusiasm about electronics that they had for steam, we just apply it to entertainment as well.

But let's suppose for a moment that the Victorians had used steam to create entertainment. The assumption that we make about our hardware is the equivalent of a Victorian saying, "We're going to be able to make much better entertainment because we have increased the steam pressure. Yes! Our new boiler is 1000 times as strong as the old one, so we can pump steam around 1000 times as fast, and that means that we'll make better entertainment products." Ludicrous.

The Literary Comparison

So let's cross the C.P. Snow gap, and turn from the technology side of our craft to the humanities side. How do professional game developers feel about their creative works?

First, it's important to be aware that the majority of computer games are non-narrative. They are simulations of real-world activities of one kind or another, such as sports or racing, and there really is no literary analogy to be made. If I catch you writing a Freudian, or a Marxist, or a feminist analysis of Beetle Adventure Racing, I'm going to smack you upside the head. Sometimes you just gotta drive a Volkswagen around.

But there is a literary analogy with adventure games and role-playing games, because they incorporate narratives, and that is where our most intractable philosophical problems lie.

To start with, we are not postmodernists. We don't read Don DeLillo or draw any inspiration from him. And part of the reason that we reject postmodernism is that one of our holy grails is immersiveness. The kind of immersion that you are able to achieve with a really good book or a really good movie is very hard for us. It's hard for two reasons:

  1. Our graphic display technology was so poor until recently we haven't even been able to come close to what TV and the movies can do.
  2. Our artificial intelligence is poor—we can't create genuinely lifelike characters. This is the single biggest problem facing the game industry. It is a technical problem, and it is one that will be helped by faster hardware. But there are a lot of other problems we face that faster hardware can do nothing about.

Also the concept of self-reference, beloved of postmodernists, is absolutely nothing new to us. People have been designing self-referential computer algorithms for decades—it's called "recursion" in programming—so it doesn't seem particularly amusing or clever.

It's so easy to create an immersive book that some authors find it funny to play head games with the reader, shocking them out of their immersion by reminding them that this is only a book, and so on. The French Lieutanant's Woman was a good example of this. John Fowles stopped in the middle of the book and started talking about the fact that it was only a book. When they made it into a movie, they did an extraordinarily good job of representing this self-referential nature cinematically.

If you don't believe me that immersion is easy to create in a book, just look at Harlequin romances. We highbrow literary types might dismiss them as cheap trash, but nevertheless, millions of people slip into them very easily.

With video games, it's so damned hard to create a really immersive one—apart from purely mindless exercises like Tetris—that there's nothing to be gained by intentionally destroying the fiction. The player doesn't want to be told "It's only a game." He has a hard enough time forgetting that as it is. That playful refusal to take yourself seriously that is characteristic of postmodernism is anathema to us. We already know what play is about, thank you very much, and we take ourselves extremely seriously. So we're not post-modernists.

We are not even modernists. We have not yet had our Virginia Woolf, our James Joyce. The kind of experimentation that they did with words is only now beginning to occur in games, and the reason it's beginning to occur is that video games are starting to be seen as an art form that is worthy of experimentation. It is not occurring in industry, however. Experimentation of this kind is firmly discouraged in the commercial game industry.

Could we be pre-modernists? Sir Walter Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen. Well, if only we could write one-one-hundredth as well as they could. [laughter] Computer games are in some respects like Victorian novels: bold, simplistic themes; clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; ending in the triumph of righteousness. Like Victorian novels, many computer games are too long, and require perseverance and dedication to get through. Indeed, at times you must tolerate being sadly bored by the process if you want to make it to the end.

In fact our model is even older even than Victorian novels. Let's not forget that among the game industry's most influential authors is J.R.R. Tolkien, and he himself was inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, the Eddas, and the whole body of Nordic and Teutonic myth. Those, too, are our cultural forebears: the great northern European tale of adventure. They are our literary roots.

Duke Nukem would be entirely at home aboard a Viking longship. His blond hair, his contempt for women, his violent anarchy make him the very type of berserker. Duke Nukem is not a Roman, a conquerer, who comes to pacify, build and settle; he is a raider who comes to rape and plunder and leave.

And what better mythic metaphor for Quake could there be than Valhalla, a heavenly place where warriors go to kill and kill and kill, and each time they themselves are killed, they are resurrected so that they may continue to kill and kill and kill until the coming of Götterdammerung, when the server goes down for the last time.

The game industry's fascination with the works of Joseph Campbell, the monomyth, the heroic quest, bears this out. The heroic quest is ideally suited as a narrative structure for a video game. It concentrates on a single person, and his interaction with others; it's about challenge, and struggle, and overcoming obstacles. But the heroic quest is a very limited form of literature. Campbell's popularity notwithstanding, it's hardly the apotheosis of storytelling. It does not admit of books like The Grapes of Wrath, or the works of Dickens.

We can't do The Grapes of Wrath. We can't do Dickens. You can make The Lord of the Rings into a video game. Beowulf. Wagner's Ring cycle. But you can't make The Grapes of Wrath into a video game—not yet. Not now, anyway.

The Classical and the Romantic

I've been using this term, immersion. A related concept is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief." In the preface to his book Lyrical Ballads, which he wrote with Wordsworth, he created this notion as part of his plea to the reader to indulge in poetic faith, to allow your mind to accept tales of fantastical things, and to fill in the gaps left by the poet.

In 1995, the journalist Scott Rosenberg, commented that the new generation of video game hardware, with its emphasis on photorealism, was producing not willing suspension of disbelief, but coercive suspension of disbelief. The game industry isn't going to let you fill in the gaps with your own mind; it's going to do its damnedest to convince you that what you see is real. Again, that's all to do with the incredible difficulty of creating immersion in our medium. We work so hard on suspension of disbelief because it's so difficult to obtain. This is all part of taking ourselves seriously.

To quote the famous game designer Brian Moriarty:

You know, the suspension of disbelief is fragile. It's hard to achieve it, and hard to maintain. One bit of unnecessary gore, one hip colloquialism, one reference to anything outside the imaginary world you've created is enough to destroy that world. These cheap effects are the most common indicators of a lack of vision or confidence. People who put this stuff into their games are not working hard enough.

Coleridge's introduction to the Lyrical Ballads was the opening salvo of the Romantic era. Nowadays we might even call it a manifesto. So what does Romanticism have to do with game developers?

Well, I've already said that we're not postmodernists, we're not modernists, we're some kind of pre-modernists, but we don't know exactly what. We are certainly attracted towards romantic ideals. Not necessarily capital-R Romanticism in the tradition of Byron and Shelley. Rather, I'm talking about the small-R romantic aspirations of the lonely, geeky adolescent. Why do you think so many games are teenaged power fantasies? They're all made by a bunch of pale-skinned, narrow-chested male nerds who secretly dream of being Conan the Barbarian.

It's not just that that's all we know how to do; it's that that's all a lot of us want to do. Games are made by the same guys who go to action flicks and listen to Metallica. As Chris Crawford famously said, "Computer games are played by teenaged boys and emotionally retarded men." And one could without difficulty say that they're made by teenaged boys and emotionally retarded men as well.

Now of course this is all a dreadful stereotype, and it's no longer true. But like all stereotypes, it has historical roots and it possesses a grain of truth.

Look out at the rest of the GDC. How many of your colleagues can you name who would be really comfortable in room full of fine artists? How about in a theater troupe? How about in a literary salon? How about in an orchestra?

And even if it's no longer true that most game developers are nerds, it is true that nerd enthusiasms and nerd limitations and nerd philosophy are still at the very heart of our culture. I guarantee you that the fine artists and the literary types and the theater people would not be very comfortable here. Yes, it is possible to name a few artists and theater people who are also technologists, but they are exceptional; that's why it's possible to name them. They are not the majority. For the most part, those people are not technological determinists. To them, not only is technology not the answer to everything, a lot of the time it's not the answer to anything.

And at the same time that our technology is light-years ahead of whatever they're doing off in the English department, they see our storytelling as literally about a thousand years out of date. So our creations are highly romantic creations, full of blood and thunder and derring-do.

But didn't I just five minutes ago say that we were classicists who were obsessed by logic and rigor and formalism? Yes I did. The game industry consists of very highly intelligent—intelligent in the Stanford-Binet sense—people who yearn for the power and the respect and the social acceptance that their intelligence alone cannot buy them.

The game industry strives towards romantic ends by classical means. That is the central point I'm trying to make. This explains why it is so hard. We are at our best when we produce classical games: Tetris, chess, Nine Men's Morris, and so on because our underlying philosophy, not to mention our underlying hardware, most closely supports that model.

We run into trouble, and produce two-dimensional 1960's comic books, when we try to do anything more complicated. It's interesting to observe how many computer people love Tolkien, and yet Tolkien himself could not have engineered his way out of a wet paper bag. He was a little later than the Age of Steam, but he certainly saw many of its products around him in Warwickshire, and he loathed them. The man was a Luddite, pure and simple. Yet we revere him all the same because we aspire to his romantic dream. We yearn for kinds of feelings, experiences, emotions, affairs of the heart that these romantics have, but we can't produce them. Video games are nerds' poetry. But it's all still Beowulf and Icelandic sagas.

In literary theory, we draw a pretty clear distinction between fiction and non-fiction. A novel by Thackeray and a shop manual for a Dodge pickup truck have very little in common besides being written in English. The novel is about an imaginary world; the shop manual is about a real vehicle. The novel is intended to be read linearly; the shop manual is intended to be consulted on a random-access basis. The novel entertains; the shop manual affords. And so on.

And yet as a game designer, I walk this tightrope every day. What I do is to write technical documents that enable the creation of romantic fantasies.

That is utterly bizarre. Again, struggling by classical means to achieve romantic ends.

We glue these classical abstractions together with our romantic stories, and for the most part the result is incredibly artificial. Planescape: Torment, one of my favorite games. Good writing, bogged down by the AD&D mechanism. Here we have a story of an immortal man who doesn't know why he is immortal, surrounded by people who know him but whom he does not know, because he has amnesia. He's trying to understand his destiny. Yet I'm still spending a lot of my time rolling dice. Final Fantasy 8: lauded for its storytelling, hampered by an appallingly complicated user interface.

Now, some of us don't want to appeal to the Romantic imagination. We want to create systems that our players can beat algorithmically, strategically. And that's fine. There are also players who only want that. They're the ones who button through the intro movie and never read the backstory in the manual. But in that case, I think it's a mistake to try and glue a story on. If you're not going to do it well, why do it at all?

At id Software, back as the first Doom was being created, they intentionally eschewed story. They called it "the S-word," and they didn't include one. And I think that was the right decision, because let's face it, any story that you could write about the characters and situations in Doom would have to be pretty stupid. So they were better off without one.

But for those of us who are interested in solving these problems, it remains a real struggle. For the last 20 years we've been asking, "Can a computer game make you cry?" and for the most part, our answer has been "well, yes, probably, but why in God's name would you want to?" That's a typically classical, male, English, sort of a response. And the comebacks are:

  1. Because this is a medium, not just a business, and until we can make you cry we haven't fully exploited its potential, and
  2. Because there's money in making people cry. What the hell do you think the chick-flick and the chick-lit phenomena are about? Women like to cry. It's good for them. It joggles their hormones around and makes them happy. And they'll pay money for that.

So it's not adequate just to have stories; we have to have good stories. Which brings me back to The Matrix. Dave Thomas was exactly right. The Matrix connects to video games because it relates to the question of artificial worlds and the dominance of numbers. And like video games, it is a dreadful story.

It's got the traditional ridiculously exaggerated problem. "The machines have taken over, all humanity is subject to a terrible enslavement, and only one man can save the world." Please! Who writes this stuff? It sounds like a comic book circa 1954. Anybody would think that Frank Miller and Alan Moore had never been born.

I had a serious problem finding anybody to care about in The Matrix. "We're trying to save the world, but it's imperative that we all look as cool as possible while we do it." I guess if you saved the world but you didn't look cool, then it wasn't worth doing. Let me tell you something: people who really save the world look like hell—like the men in Band of Brothers. Saving the world is a dirty business.

It's got the pornographic obsession with gratuitous violence. We get to watch slow-motion pictures of shell casings falling to the floor, and concrete dissolving to dust, in endless lascivious detail.

It's got the emphasis on style over substance. Let's face it, anybody who wears sunglasses indoors, and is not blind, is a wanker. And anybody who does kung fu in a raincoat is a moron. [laughter]  Here's this guy who can dodge bullets, but he can't dodge raindrops. He can change the laws of physics by using the power of his mind, but he can't change clothes.

The Matrix is the epitome of the nerd aesthetic. It's a perfect illustration of what's wrong with our products: lots of flash, lots of geek appeal, no heart or soul, no romance.

Computer games are unique among entertainment media in that they require both a great deal of high technology and a great deal of artistic imagination. But our works are extremely unbalanced. Amazing technology, lousy narrative. We're like a man with one strong leg and one withered leg. We can only shuffle along in a lopsided fashion, and in fact we use the strong leg to compensate for the weak one, so the weak one never gets any stronger.


On the philosophical side, there is a great deal of work to be done to understand the real nature of interactive narrative. The conventional tools of semiotics and literary theory are insufficient to deal with fluid media. The interactive medium not only calls into question such things what a text actually is, which I'm sure is old ground, but even what a symbol is.

In a video game the subject becomes a part of the object; in a multi-player game, each player contributes to the game, becomes a part of the game, both creator and consumer, encoder and decoder, simultaneously, while the so-called-designer retreats into the background, becomes more of an enabler.

In effect, the author ceases to be an author and becomes a manufacturer of notebook paper. So in our efforts to understand the relationship between the creator and the consumer of media, games are a real curve ball.

As for us in the game industry... look at who our heroes are. John Carmack. Chris Hecker. Michael Abrash. Jonathan Blow. Doug Church. Now, all of these people are completely brilliant and they each deserve the accolades they get. I don't dispute that for a minute. But many hero artists can you name? How many hero audio engineers? How many hero writers?

I feel that the game industry needs new heroes. We cannot simply look for them in the traditional areas of aesthetic endeavor. Computer games have always required engineering and they always will require engineering. Engineering is as essential to the game developer as words are to the writer, as paint is to the painter. But we need to restore the balance between the two.

We need to seek heroes who are able to combine technological innovation with aesthetic sensibility, to stand astride the C.P. Snow gap between the sciences and the humanities. A hero who can touch our hearts even as he tests our minds.

Here endeth the lesson.