Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Some Thoughts Toward a Philosophy Video Game I

Strategy games for the computer are sophisticated enough these days that they could potentially be used for more kinds of things than they usually are. I was thinking the other day of how a Philosophy-based computer game might work, with particular emphasis on giving a sort of sandbox/toy-model version of the sorts of things historians of philosophy actually consider, and I think you could go quite far. Here is an outline of one possible version, based loosely on a Civilization-style form of play.

(1) The goal of the game is to build a philosophical movement that dominates the level of play.

There are three different levels of play: City, Nation, and Empire, each of which increase the complication by increasing the infrastructural complexity. In City, you stay at the level of one City, and thus the development of your philosophical movement is only a matter of internal growth, interaction with opposing philosophical movements, and city politics. With the Nation level, you deal with a number of different cities, each with their own internal politics and character, jointly creating a national politics; the complexity is also increased by the fact that the spread of philosophical movements is affected by features of communication networks (trade routes, quality of roads, etc.). With the Empire level, you deal with a situation in which a number of nations are joined in a single political unit, and therefore you have all the complexity of the previous levels, plus the complications that arise from having distinct ethnic and cultural regions. For what follows, I will assume only the City level of play.

(2) There are two mechanisms of influence by which a city may be dominated philosophically: direct persuasion of citizens and influence of the city leadership; both are required for domination. They aren't completely disconnected -- if you persuade virtually everyone in the city, you will inevitably have the leverage to become at least the semi-officially supported philosophical approach and the guiding philosophy of the city. But they aren't in lockstep, either -- the city government may be more conservative than the populace, and vice versa. (Both often happen in the history of philosophy: Enlightenment despotism, for instance, is an example of the way in which leadership can shift its philosophical approach despite and even actively against the conservatism of the populace; while, of course, governments, often bound by precedent, can often be slower to change the underlying principles of their approaches than their people are.)

(3) Every city has an Atmosphere, which constitutes its basic intellectual sympathies. (These basic sympathies are very hard to change but can be slowly changed over time by external events or internal philosophical debate.) Every city will have some combination of the following features (this is obviously something that could be done in very different ways):

Abstract or Concrete
Pragmatic or Idealistic
Worldly or Religious
Traditional or Encyclopedic or Genealogical

A city will tend to favor philosophical movements with traits similar to its own. Something along the lines of Neo-Confucianism, for instance would do very well (all other things being equal) in an Abstract Idealistic Worldly Traditional (AIWT) society, whereas it would be at a serious disadvantage in a Concrete Pragmatic Religious Genealogical (CPRG) society. I'm not really sure what would thrive in CPRG society, but something like Taoism, for instance, would certainly do better than Neo-Confucianism in such an atmosphere.

Abstract philosophical movements will tend to build speculative systems, whereas concrete ones will tend to focus on particular problems; idealistic movements will tend to be more focused on ethics than pragmatic ones; religious movements will ally with some religious movement while worldly movements will remain aloof from such things. These traits are easily changed by change of Doctrine, which I'll get to in a moment -- every player will start out with a randomly assigned set of traits, but if he or she builds up a philosophical system that is contrary to those traits, they will slowly change to match the overall character of the system. (This would be one of the tricky things in the system, and for practical purposes it might be easier simply to take them as set.) Traditional, Encyclopedic, and Genealogical indicate different approaches, and I think should for the purposes of a toy-model be taken as constants; they will directly affect how easy certain kinds of Doctrines are to develop, and will also affect intensive and extensive influence of the movement.

(4) The counterpart of 'researching tech' is developing Doctrines. It makes sense to put them in the old German layout of Logical, Aesthetic, Political, Ethical, and Metaphysical. Logical and Aesthetic Doctrines are the closest things to 'military technologies' in a game like Civilization; they give direct advantages in terms of influence -- i.e., make it easier to persuade people in Debates, and also make it harder for other movements to skim off your students. Ethical and Political Doctrines primarily affect how your movement interacts with the city government and populace, and Metaphysical Doctrines will tangle with the Atmosphere of the city in a more general way.

Although technically you can build your Doctrine any way you please, in practice the building depends crucially on your traits: a CPWG movement can very easily research the Will to Power, let's say, whereas this would require a very long research line for someone who starts out as AIRT. It's not impossible that you could have some variation of a Will to Power idea that was friendly to theory, values, and religion, and was consistent with a strong respect for tradition, but it would take some doing to develop such an anti-Nietzschean variation of the idea. Likewise, there are relative path-dependencies between Doctrines -- much easier to get a Doctrine of Perpetual Peace if you have a Categorical Imperative than if you have a form of Realpolitik, massively harder to reconcile a Categorical Imperative with a Principle of Utility. This makes the dynamics a little more complicated than your typical technology tree in a video game.

(5) You develop your philosophical movement not merely by developing Doctrines but by establishing extensive and intensive influence. In practical terms, intensive influence is how persuasive your philosophical approach is to people who already accept it while extensive influence is how persuasive your philosophical approach is to strangers, or, in other words, extensive influence reaches people and intensive influence keeps them. The two do not fit easily together: the kinds of things that contribute to intensive influence are more likely to be things that pay off only if you invest a great deal of time and effort in them, whereas the things that pay off in extensive influence are things that, in the main, can't require such an investment. Take, for instance, the difference between two Aristotelian variations, Thomism and Objectivism. Thomism (roughly an AIRT) has extraordinary intensive influence developed over centuries; for practically any subject you name you can find some Thomist somewhere in its centuries-long history who has discussed something like it, it has a close relationship with art and literature and religion, and its arguments are relatively sophisticated and not easily discounted when properly understood. However, precisely these features constantly trip it up: its good qualities are investment-intensive: for the most part you really have to put in a lot of work to figure out what's going on. This is not an absolute thing -- we'll get to this in a moment -- but it's a standing problem. Objectivism, on the other hand (an AIWE if there ever was one), as a relatively young philosophical movement largely developed by one person largely working on her own, is relatively weak in terms of intensive influence. But this is not actually a disadvantage for it in terms of extensive influence; no matter how much academic philosophers may complain about its simplistic approach (an intensive influence matter, which academics tend to concern themselves with), it is well-suited to being communicated to others without requiring them to invest a great deal, extending the number of people who can seriously be reached by it, and thus increasing the chances of finding people who can be persuaded by it. Its sheer simplicity is an advantage on this front, and it doesn't hurt the movement at all that that Ayn Rand was quite savvy about aesthetic presentation and presented things in novelistic form rather than academic treatises -- it allows her to tap into a shared cultural legacy of the striking tones and postures of leading men and ladies in Golden Age cinema. It is simply not a mystery why Objectivism has spread so well; just as it is not a mystery why academic philosophers respect Thomism more than Objectivism, or why internet debates over this or that facet of Thomism typically end with the Thomist throwing up his hands in exasperation and saying, "No, you've misunderstood; we have start at the beginning again." Likewise, analytic philosophers can be analytic as much as they please, and to good effect in terms of rigor of argument, but most analytic philosophy is in formats that simply don't translate well into extensive influence.

(6) Simply hanging around for a long time will slowly increase intensive influence and decrease extensive influence -- if you can get even moderately intelligent people talking about topics in the same general way for decades you'll develop a body of increasingly sophsticated work; and on the other hand, times change and the investment that it takes to learn Ancient Greek is much greater than the investment to learn contemporary English, etc. To fare better takes serious work, which gets us into Institutions, Texts, and Debates. But this post is getting long, and I have to run for now. More later.

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