By Caden Kiedrowski –
Video games are commonly dismissed, both as a waste of time and as completely impractical. ‘All video games are about fictitious worlds that do nothing but distract us from the reality at hand’, many critics would purport. Popular thought would also assert the same things about philosophy. Philosophy encourages us to think about the fictitious world of what if, and has no practical application. Philosophical thought made an unlikely pairing with Science Fiction novels in the 20th century, and is doing so again with video games in the modern age. Video games have always been an artistic medium that, like Science Fiction novels, challenged us to consider what is and what could be. Just as Bradbury’s novels challenged us to consider fake worlds and to reject or reaffirm our ideas of what is right and wrong, so too can Video games.
SOMA, a game developed by Frictional Games, is one such video game that could rival one of Bradbury’s tales. It challenges us to think about what is right and wrong, in a very possible future world. It creates a set of challenging circumstances that force us to ask the question: ‘What if?’ This is a form of what is known as a thought experiment. This game is as thought provoking as any class of philosophy, but with the benefit of being presented in a less drab medium. No offense intended philosophers, but thought experiments don’t properly engage thinkers without the correct presentation. The game SOMA creates a thought experiment, that not only uses vivid auditory and visual stimulation, but also literally integrates the thinker into the experiment. SOMA’s thought experiment is wildly powerful, not only because of the content, but also because of the fact that it so thoroughly immerses the thinker.
Soma is greek for body, which in and of itself is cause for consideration when you begin playing this game. SOMA describes a world in our not too distant future in which human-kind has developed its computer and neuroscience so far that we are now able to scan and save a person’s mind in digital form. Living people can be scanned and saved as artificial intelligence, which can be downloaded, uploaded, and copied as any other file could be. The story follows a young man who has had one such a brain scan, and awakes from it about a hundred years in the future. A comet has hit Earth, killing everyone and everything on the surface. He himself is nothing more than a humanoid robot who has his brain scan uploaded to it. The ultimate goal of the game is to get a machine called the ARK, which can generate a digital reality not unlike the Wachowski Brother’s Matrix, into space after uploading all the saved scans of the once living human’s minds to it. This is so mankind can continue to ‘live’ on. Besides the obvious question of, ‘Would that really still be living?’, this fictional world begs several other questions of us. Would you be killing someone if their mind was copied into a robot which you then shut off? Would it be murder to delete the data file that has the capacity to be a human AI? Finally, if you copied your own mind into another body, which of you would be the real you? SOMA not only presents these conflicts, but also forces you to make decisions surrounding them.
Most critics would never expect such deep, thought provoking content from a video game. Most critics similarly dismissed Science Fiction, assuming nothing productive would ever come of it. Yet, Science Fiction is wildly adored and respected, albeit in hindsight, today. Video games are the Science Fiction novels of our time. They are the artistic medium through which the philosophical, and scientific, question; ‘What if?’, will be asked.