Philosophy and Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I wanted to start this blog because I’ve had a lifelong fascination with both tabletop roleplaying games and with philosophy. In this first piece, I want to explore how those two things are connected—how philosophy and game design are similar, how philosophy can improve your games, and how games can do philosophy.

Philosophy and Games

How are game design and philosophy similar? I think there are at least three interesting ways.

The first is that both game design and philosophy have formal logical elements. They might be more or less hidden by the way the text is written, but these elements are always present. The central activity of philosophy is developing and testing arguments in favour of a particular position. Ideally, you want your arguments to be as clear as the subject under discussion permits and logically consistent. Games, too, have a logical element in their mechanics. These could be more or less complex (e.g., contrast What’s So Cool About Outer Space? with Starfinder), and more or less mathematical/probabilistic (e.g., contrast Dungeons & Dragons and Quest). But even in games with no dice and few formalized mechanics, there is some logical structure to the flow of play—it’s never a total free-for-all, because the game’s text at the very least suggests or encourages certain courses of action and downplays or disallows others.

The second is that both game design and philosophy have narrative elements. With the exception of highly technical theoretical material, a good philosophical essay won’t just push symbols and abstract concepts around: it will test those abstractions by applying them to real or imagined lived experience. This is what thought experiments, like the late Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous story of the violinist to whom you have been forcibly attached as a life support system—a fictional horror story intended to illustrate a pro-choice argument.

Lived experience is also where much philosophy begins: work on epistemic injustice—instances where someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower—starts from the experiences of, for example, women and people of colour being dismissed as unknowledgeable because of their social identities. Good game design, of course, also has a narrative element to it, at least when it comes to roleplaying games. The game starts with a description of fictional characters and the scenario they find themselves in. Whereas philosophy would then apply an argument or theory to this scenario and see what results, looking to see if the consequences are absurd or unacceptable, the game would apply its mechanics and see how the fiction changes and develops.

The third is that people both do philosophy and play games, at least some of the time, because we think these activities have intrinsic value. We write and talk about philosophy just for the love of wisdom and a desire to understand our lives and the world around us. We write and play games for the love of creativity, collaborative storytelling, and the act of play. We may also do these things because they bring us joy or satisfaction, but we also do them for their own sakes.

Philosophy of Games

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let’s be good philosophers and define our terms. (I could just as easily have said, “Let’s be good game designers.” Please don’t introduce a piece of jargon unique to your game without explaining it, unless part of the point of your game is to make the players confused.)

What do we mean by a game? This turns out to be a notoriously difficult philosophical question to answer, and there is a small subfield interested in the question. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, thought that you couldn’t come up with any comprehensive list of features that all games have in common. The best you can do, he said, was to say that there are some things that many games have, but what really makes them all games is the family resemblance that they share. The idea is that while siblings, parents, cousins, piblings, and so forth all have some things in common in their appearance, there are no features that all of them must have in order to be recognizably of the same family.

A more recent philosophical theory of what games are comes from C. Thi Nguyen’s recent book, Games: Agency as Art, and I think it’s actually quite instructive in the context of game design. Nguyen says that games have two defining features.

First, games are a motivational inversion of ordinary agency. What does this mean? Well, think about how you usually decide what to do. Typically, we have some goal we want to achieve—the end of our action—and we pick a course of action that we think is likely to achieve that goal—the means to our end. If I want a cookie—this is my end—I might decide to go into the kitchen and pick one out of the jar—this is my means. If there are no cookies in the jar, then my means will have to change: I could go to the store and buy some cookies, or perhaps I could bake them myself. In our usual exercises of agency, we adopt a means in order to achieve an end.

According to Nguyen, though, games invert this typical structure of agency. When we play games, we adopt an end for the sake of engaging in the means. When we play chess, we adopt the end of achieving a checkmate for the sake of playing a game of chess. When my friends and I play Root, we adopt the end of gaining the most points in order to engage in the activity of playing the board game. When we play a tabletop roleplaying game, we adopt various ends—completing quests, defeating monsters, romancing non-player characters—in order to engage in the activity of playing the game itself. This characteristic of motivational inversion makes games unique as a form of agency.

Second, Nguyen says that games are a distinctive art form that uses agency as its medium. Think of how other forms of art have a distinctive medium—painting has paint and canvas, literature has text, comics have text and drawings. Games work in a similar way, but their medium is the agency of the people playing them. Games give us both an end to adopt and a constrained set of means for achieving that end. You can’t play chess by just moving the pieces any which way in order to achieve checkmate, nor can you simply push your score counter to the end of the row to win Root, any more than you can simply declare that you have slain the dragon and won the prince’s heart in D&D. Well, you could, but you’d be missing the point.

Through their design, these games tell you how you are to go about achieving the end you’ve adopted. That’s how they use your agency as their medium. Different games might be more or less strict about how they do this: chess and Root give you limited options for how each piece can behave and what actions you can take as a player, whereas tabletop roleplaying games are more open-ended, constrained partly by mechanics but also by the fiction. The rules of a game, we can say, record a form of agency that we can repeat, just like a painting records a visual or a book records a text that we can experience again and again—potentially finding new meaning each time.

How Philosophy Can Improve Game Design

In this blog, I want to explore lots of different ways philosophy can improve your games, either as a hobbyist or as a designer. Let’s start with what Nguyen’s theory can do for us.

Now, this is a point that will come as no surprise to veteran players of roleplaying games, but by recognizing that games are motivationally inverted, we can get past a certain kind of bad play, and, indeed, justify that this kind of play is bad. The kind of play I have in mind here is when someone sets out to “win D&D” (or whatever game you happen to be playing, but chances are it’s D&D if this kind of behaviour is in the offing) by accumulating experience points or gold or glory or just attention from the gamemaster and other players. In addition to being obnoxious, we all know this kind of play misses the point. But why? The game practically tells us that these are the things we’re trying to achieve—what’s wrong with seeking the most efficient way to reach these ends?

But remember Nguyen’s point about how we only adopt the ends of a game in order to engage in the activity of play. Setting out to “win” a tabletop roleplaying game gets the motivational structure wrong, and leads to play that is less satisfying and less enjoyable for others at the table. What’s more, it deliberately side-steps some forms of agency the game makes available to you as a player. A narrow focus on “winning” means you miss out on so much of why playing the game is valuable: the emergent story-telling, the excitement of seeing how your characters’ hare-brained schemes play out, the thrill of collaboratively coming up with how different characters interact and how their relationships develop. That is the point of this sort of game—indeed, of any game—to play, not to win.

How Games Can Do Philosophy

Now let’s invert again: Another thing I’m interested in exploring with this blog is how games can do philosophy. There are lots of ways, each of which is worth diving into in more detail, but here’s a simple argument establishing its possibility:

  1. Games record forms of agency.
  2. Doing philosophy is a form of agency.
  3. Therefore, games can do philosophy.

But, we don’t just want a game that simulates the work of being a philosophy professor (at least, not without embellishment—in many ways, it’s just another job, albeit a strange one with tremendous creative latitude if you do it right). But we could build on this idea in a more interesting direction: could a roleplaying game provoke philosophical reflection without simply mechanizing it?

Rebecca Scott has done just that. She uses D&D in her ethics class as a way to get students thinking about the implications of different ethical theories. The students’ characters adopt a particular view—say, utilitarianism or Kantian deontology—then go about their adventures while trying to remain true to their ethical views. She describes one instance where a student playing a character based on Kant realized that sneaking into the goblin caves might be a kind of deception. And Kant, famously, argues that deception is always morally wrong, no matter what the consequences may be. So, perhaps their character is obligated to announce the party’s arrival at the goblin caves! (You may recognize some classic Lawful Good sticklerism here.) No doubt this launched a discussion of the ethics of deception both around the table among the players, and between their characters in the fiction.

Another approach would be to take after philosophical fiction like the works of Dostoevsky or Camus—or the less heady but still deeply philosophical Star Trek—works which explore philosophical themes but are not themselves essayistic in their approach. For example, by having you take on the role of freedom fighters in a world where all potable water is controlled by a megacorporation, Hydro Hacker Operatives explores themes of justice, authority, and capitalism. Or take the upcoming Thirsty Sword Lesbians, which explores themes of love, queerness, and one’s place in the world. Each of these themes provokes further philosophical reflection, not least on how they fit into our own lives.

What’s Next?

Thanks for reading this piece! In future posts, I plan to explore more specific topics, but I’ll remain guided by the basic ideas in this essay. Namely, I contend that games and game design are intrinsically philosophical in interesting ways, and so by bringing the two together I think we can do better philosophy and write and play better games. See you next month for another (likely shorter) post!

I presented a slightly different form of this essay to the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club, a division of the Virtual Philosophy Network, in October 2020. A PDF version of this essay is available on my Itch storefront for pay-what-you-want, and was submitted to Game Design Essay Jam.

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