How games like The Walking Dead turn us into armchair philosophers

A mass of reanimated corpses swells against the door. To your left, a man has his back to a smashed window, undead hands pulling at his shoulders and neck. To your right, a woman tries to reach for her gun, but is held back by the grip around her ankle. The man is your friend. The woman is a good shot. You only have time to save one of them.

How games like The Walking Dead turn us into armchair philosophers

On the other side of town, a runaway train hurtles down a track towards three people. The only way to prevent their deaths is for you to pull a lever that will divert the train onto a course that will kill one other person instead. You’ve never met the three people. The single person is your friend. What do you do?


(Above: Trolley Problem by Pippin Barr)

These dilemmas differ in several ways, but the most notable is this: the second is used in university-level discussions of ethics, while the first is from a video game and is (a few exceptions aside) generally left in the realm of entertainment. Yet, despite their differences, the scenarios both fall under the same category – they are both examples of narrative thought experiments.

Trapped cats and infinite monkeys

You might not have heard the phrase “narrative thought experiment”, but you’re probably familiar with a few examples. The “infinite monkey theorem” proposes that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Schrödinger’s Cat is a model meant to make it easier to understand quantum mechanics: a cat is trapped in a box with an unpredictable radioactive source that will at some point trigger a deadly poison. Whether you’re describing infinite strings or quantum indeterminacy, these thought experiments make abstract ideas easier to grasp.armchair_philosophers_2

(Above: Infinite Monkeys in The Simpsons) 

Thought experiments also frequently stand in where physical experiments are impossible, which is often the case in philosophy, and are particularly useful to test intuitions about human experience where the necessary social experiment would be unethical. Philosopher Frank Jackson, for example, attempted to disprove physicalism (the assertion that there is no more to the world than its physical properties) with a story about an expert on the neurophysiology of vision who has lived her entire life in a black-and-white room. The thought experiment asks: when Mary leaves the room and sees colour for the first time, does she learn anything new beyond the physical information she already had? Testing this setup is ethically (and practically) problematic, but framing it as a thought experiment let’s us consider our intuitions about what would happen.

As vessels for narrative thought experiments, [games] actually have several advantages over other forms of media

So where do video games come in? Games still often find themselves questioned for their cultural and artistic merit, but as vessels for narrative thought experiments, they actually have several advantages over other forms of media such as books and films. As Marcus Schulzke explained in his 2013 paper “Simulating Philosophy: Interpreting Video Games as Executable Thought Experiments”, this is basically down to those often uneasy bedfellows of video games: narrative and mechanics.

“Game narratives set out explicit problems that raise philosophical questions,” says Schulzke, while “gameplay mechanics set the rules that govern players’ range of choices.”armchair_philosophers_3

(Above: BioShock Infinite by Irrational Games)

Video games are often based on counterfactuals, offering the player a world to explore that is different from our own. BioShock Infinite is set in an alternate-history 1912 in which quantum physicists are able to suspend an entire city in the sky and tear holes in the spacetime continuum that act like windows to alternate universes. It’s one big narrative thought experiment that asks: if the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is true, what consequences does that have for personal identity? What would happen if we could travel between those worlds and meet our alternate-reality selves?

The execution element

Video game narratives contextualise philosophically interesting scenarios, making them less abstract. Game designer Pippin Barr digitalised the runaway train dilemma above in Trolley Problem, but the dilemmas in The Walking Dead feel weightier because they’re embedded within a larger narrative.

In Trolley Problem, one dilemma asks you to imagine that one of the people tied to the tracks is someone important to you. You choose from a list: mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, daughter or son. However, even if you label the minimalist onscreen figure as your “son”, it’s difficult to care enough to give the decision the necessary weight.


In The Walking Dead, however, you care for the characters because you’ve travelled with them through the story, spoken to them, shared secrets with them. And, after you’ve decided whether to save Carley or Doug in the scenario above, you have to face the consequences and witness the death of one and the survivor’s guilt of the other.

The player has more input than the philosophy student

Of course, books and films can have contextualising narratives and explore counterfactuals too, but the interactivity afforded by their mechanics gives video games the edge. The player has more input than the philosophy student. Video games feature what Schulzke calls “the execution element”. That is, “they allow the experiments to actually be performed”.


(Above: The Swapper by Facepalm Games)

The Swapper is a science-fiction game that raises philosophical questions around personal identity by presenting puzzles that can only be solved if the player creates clones of their character and swaps control (and consciousness) to one of the clones. To complete the story and end the game, the player must choose either to swap into a stranger aboard an escaping ship or stay trapped on the planet. They have to consider the conclusions they’ve drawn about the nature of personal identity and act accordingly.

Accidental armchair philosophers

Importantly, the actions the player can take are governed by rules. Discussions of the trolley problem can be derailed (groan) by resistant students who offer alternative solutions to the two provided, from the heroic (“I’d run in front of the tracks myself!”) to the extreme (“I’d blow up the train!”). But video game creators can restrict the player through programming. In Papers, Please, you can’t quit your job as an immigration inspector and flee the fictional dystopia of Arstotzka. If you want to engage with the fiction at all, your options are limited: do you let in the desperate stranger and risk a financial punishment that would make your family go hungry, or do you turn her away, possibly to her death?

Video games have further benefits over other media, such as their ability to incorporate probability and luck, as in the Fallout series. But perhaps their greatest advantage is their allure, particularly among the kinds of audiences that might not be instinctively keen to engage in philosophical discussion.armchair_philosphers_6

(Above: The Talos Principle by Croteam)

The term “armchair philosopher” can have negative connotations. It suggests a person who argues on a topic without sufficient knowledge, and this admittedly does sometimes apply to video game players. But its true meaning applies, too. Players can be accidental armchair philosophers by engaging in narratives that spur philosophical ideas.

This Christmas, buy a teenager both a book about the philosophy of artificial intelligence and a copy of first-person philosophical puzzle game The Talos Principle and see which one they finish first.

NEXT: How games like SOMA and BioShock tap into our internal fears

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