But Thou Must: Video Games and the Categorical Imperative

But Thou Must: Video Games and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant played rail shooters; Jeremy Bentham played sandbox games.


I'm-a Mario! I'm-a an end in-a myself!

Who is Mario?

Mario is a guy with a moustache and red suspenders. He jumps on top of or over things in order to rescue a princess.

Why does he want to rescue the Princess?

Because she’s been kidnapped: sometimes by a giant ape, sometimes by a giant turtle.

No, that’s why she needs rescuing. That’s a tautology. Why does Mario want to be the one that rescues her?

Well, that depends on the setting. Most instances of Mario rescuing the Princess imply a rather chaste romance between the two.

Can Mario want something other than to rescue the Princess?

… hmm.

Mario is a character with only one goal: defeat the big boss and rescue the Princess. The player can assign Mario personal goals in the course of pursuing this big goal. Mario wants to get a score of 999,999, perhaps, or Mario wants to beat every stage before the music picks up speed. But these goals are incidental. The player may recognize them as successes; the world in which Mario lives does not. If you get a score of 999,999, the game does not offer you the chance to retire early, enter the Plumbers Hall of Fame and dodge questions about fire-flower abuse for the rest of your life.

In later games, Mario has multiple paths to this goal. Super Mario Bros. lets Mario progress through the Worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom in chronological order, or seek out Warp Zones that let him jump to different Worlds. These different tactical choices are part of the reason for the game’s enduring popularity. Contrast this with Kung Fu, a contemporary of Super Mario Bros., in which you literally progressed from one side of the stage to the other without altering your course.

Even if early video games only offered you one goal, the designers spiced things up by providing multiple paths to that same goal. The Legend of Zelda required that you conquer eight preliminary dungeons before entering the ninth, Death Mountain, but made no requirements to the order. Ninja Gaiden gave you a variety of ninja power-ups – boomerang shuriken, the fire wheel – that changed the tactics of each stage. And there was no One True Order in which to beat the robot bosses in Megaman 2, a fact which eluded my friends and I in many second-grade recess arguments.

(You clearly have to beat Flashman before Quickman so you can freeze him for half his life. Clearly)

But the first generations of video games all had to end at the same place: our hero, standing over the defeated final boss, having rescued the princess, acquired the MacGuffin or saved the world. You (the player) might want a high score, or to get through without losing a life, or to beat the game in under twenty minutes. But you (the pixelated man on screen) could only want one thing.

This all goes back to Kant. Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant wrote the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785. He meant it, among other things, to rebut philosophers such as Hume, who believed that morality could not arise from reason alone. “Reason,” they argued (and I’m not quoting here), “is excellent at telling us the best means to achieve various ends. But you can’t use reason alone to decide which ends to achieve!”

Ah ah ah, said Kant, but you can.


Check out the dome on THIS guy!

Kant asserted the following:

  1. First Maxim: A person acts morally if his conduct would be the right conduct for anyone in similar circumstances.

  2. Second Maxim: A behavior is good if it treats a person as an ends in himself and not a means to an end.

  3. Third Maxim: Therefore, a person is acting morally when they act in such a way that their conduct could be willed into a “universal law.”

In other words, don’t do anything you wouldn’t want everyone to do all the time in an ideal world.

Instead of judging decisions and actions by their consequences, Kant insisted that we judge actions by whether they fit these criteria. This is the foundation of what we call deontological ethics, or “ethics that arise from duty.” Kantian agents are duty-bound, rather than scrutinizers. This radical reconsideration of what it meant to evaluate ethical behavior blew a lot of minds in the 18th century, with philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill mounting rebuttals against it.

Kant rejected the notion of morality as deciding some right end and then investigating the world, like a detective or scientist, to find the means to achieve it. Rather, in Kant’s view, if you act rightly, you must automatically be acting toward the right end. Just keep your eyes on the path, rather than the horizon, and you’ll come out okay. And since to act rightly is to treat all people as ends in themselves, not as means to an end, and to live only by consistent maxims that can be willed into universal law, there’s something to be said for that.

(I personally don’t think Kant had it completely right, but I have the advantage of two centuries of hindsight since Groundwork was published.)

Now let’s reconsider video games. Take Ninja Gaiden, for example.

Notionally, you’re controlling the actions of Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja whose father died while exploring an ancient ruin in the South American jungle. The instruction manual has a page explaining this, and there’s a neat cinematic as the game loads. But once you start playing, this notion falls away. You are not constantly reminded of your father’s fate, or driven by your mother’s nagging voice in your head, to continue against frustrating odds (god DAMN it, another bird out of NOWHERE, why am I still PLAYING this).

Instead, the moment-to-moment gameplay looks a lot like this:

A guy’s coming at me with a baseball bat! I cut him. Here’s another one! I cut him too. There’s a fence in my way. I climb it. This lantern’s sparkling, so I cut it. A power-up! Now I can throw shuriken. There’s a dog running at me; I throw a shuriken at it! Running low on ninja power; better switch back to just using the sword until I can find some more. Ooh, a lantern!

And so forth.


You don’t need to question if killing everyone you see, stockpiling on shuriken and climbing cliff faces while birds fling themselves at you like meteorites (these damn BIRDS) is getting you closer to your end. You never stop and wonder, “Is any of this bringing me closure on my father’s death?” You just keep going. So long as you kill everything you see and keep your life bar full, you’re doing the right thing.

You’re on the path. And so long as you stay on the path all the time, you’ll get to the end. You’re following the categorical imperative.

For a couple decades, all video games followed this pattern. Many of them gave you multiple paths to the same end. You could beat Final Fantasy III without recovering every character from the World of Ruin. You could fly one of several different paths to reach the planet Venom in Starfox 64. But everything ended in the same place. No matter what circumstances you encountered, you acted in accordance with that maxim which could be willed into universal law: kill bad guys, get powerups, watch the life bar.

Then we got to Liberty City.

17 Comments on “But Thou Must: Video Games and the Categorical Imperative”

  1. Rob #

    Amazing article.

    Would entering the Konami Code to start with 30 lives be a violation of Kant’s second maxim?


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    This is great stuff, and I think you only scratch the surface.

    I think what a lot of videogames do is strive to give you the ILLUSION of control, of being free to explore the world, but actually limiting your choices as strictly as Mario. Grand Theft Auto is a pretty good example. Yes, you can wander around Liberty City all you want… but you can’t enter 99% of the buildings. You can take on taxi missions, buy new clothes, and find all of those hidden pigeons. But those are side quests and mini-games. They don’t make the game open-ended. The game only has one ending, and there’s only one way to get there.

    If the Grand Theft Auto games are “sandbox” games, than isn’t Final Fantasy 1 a “sandbox” game?

    Other games offer you real choices, but choices that are basically meaningless. Take Bioshock – you can either harvest Little Sisters, or free them. But either way, you get pretty good rewards, so it doesn’t really change the game. A bunch of games let you choose between a “good” and “evil” path (Infamous, Dante’s Inferno, a bunch of Star Wars games, etc). But usually, all this does is determine what special abilities you gain, and which cutscene you get at the end.


  3. perich OTI Staff #

    @Rob: it’d take a better Kantian than myself to answer, but I’d say no, unless you count each life as a discrete “person.”

    @Belinkie: I never beat GTA III, but I have completed the main storyline of GTA: Vice City. You kill all the mobsters sent against you in your palatial mansion. And the game keeps going. You don’t stop playing at that point. GTA: Vice City never “ends” in the sense that other games end (at least, not in my experience). So if you complete the “official” storyline, you can now live out your life as a successful mob boss.


  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @perich – It’s true that Vice City doesn’t actually stop you from playing, after the ending. But I really don’t see why you’d keep playing. Sure, you could run around trying to get five stars, or find all the rare cars. But I still say the large majority of the fun in that game is tied into the storyline. (Obviously, I’m not one of those guys who tries to get all the XBox “achievements”.)

    I think what we need is a Sandbox Scale. Game which are strictly linear are on one side. For instance (to name two of my favorites), Left 4 Dead and Modern Warfare. You proceed from the beginning of the level to the end of the level. There are no detours to take. (Ignore the multiplayer modes, for now.)

    Grand Theft Auto (the whole series) is in the middle of that scale. You character has clear goals, a series of missions, and a predetermined ending (or two). But there are a lot of valid ways to enjoy the game outside of these goals. Here’s the key thing for me: just because Grand Theft Auto has a bunch of street races you can participate in doesn’t make racing on equal footing to all the plot-related missions. Racing is clearly a minor part of the game.

    So what are the most sandboxy of all games? Discounting the experimental indie games? Maybe World of Warcraft – I like that example. Obviously, you can’t do ANYTHING you want, but gameplay is a lot more freeform than Grand Theft Auto, which offers you a clear path you have to choose to AVOID.


  5. Perich #

    @Belinkie: this may be personal taste, but I don’t see the storyline quest in Vice City as being any different from the main Alliance or Horde quests in World of Warcraft.

    But I like the idea of a scale of linearity from 1 to 10, where 1 = most linear and 10 = most open (without being “reality itself”). I’ll offer my own scale.

    1 = Kung Fu
    2 = Super Mario Bros.
    3 = Mega Man II / Ducktales
    4 = Bubble Bobble
    5 = Pokemon
    6 = Animal Crossing
    7 = GTA / Elder Scrolls
    8 = World of Warcraft / EVE Online
    9 = SimCity
    10 = Second Life


  6. Jeff #

    Excellent article, thanks!


  7. Rob #

    @Perich – Makes sense. If we believe that a Contra is reincarnated for each of his 3 lives (or 30), and that he is the same man as long as he has a character in play, then I guess entering the Konami code is in fact a categorical imperative. And even if we believe that the different lives of a Contra represent different individuals, all these soldiers have the same duty. The survival of humanity is at stake, regardless of whether it takes 3 soldiers or 30…

    (Now I’m reminded of a short story that Belinkie wrote many years ago, a story titled “Red Pants, Blue Pants”, which was the first and only previous time I’ve been led to contemplate the free will of video game characters. I don’t remember whether Belinkie referenced the Konami code though…)


  8. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Rob – Wowzers. It has been a LONG time since I’ve thought about Red Pants/Blue Pants.


  9. cushman #

    I’m in the midst of my second playthrough of Mass Effect 2, and I’m struck by how well the game provides the illusion that every decision made will have far-reaching implications and opportunities for greater branching of the plot and subplots. The good/evil (or paragon/renegade) mechanic, paying off plot points and decisions made in the first installment, and the seemingly open-world structure all provide granularity to your “good” or “bad” ending — and even a “bad” ending is embraced as a possible outcome to be carried over to the final chapter in the trilogy.

    Everyone I’ve discussed ME2 with has had a very different experience with the game, and that speaks to how well-crafted it and other good open-world/sandbox games are. Every game is a series of segments, even the sandboxy ones, where the meaty missions are suspended in a malleable goo where you’re given the illusion of being able to go where you want and do as you please (within the rules and conceits of the game). When you think about it, even though Super Mario Bros. lacks these interstitial playgrounds, there are still hundreds of ways to play the game. You could jump in one place until time runs out, and that’s a complete game of Mario. What excites me most is that video games are beginning to let us dance with a game or fight with it. To finally embrace all of the ways of playing.

    apologies for being semi off topic – great read, perich.


  10. Heather #

    I heart Perich more than I heart Mario!


  11. Tom #

    This is a little OT, but:

    When people talk about video games as “art,” I think the paradigm most people think of is a painting, or a novel. You enter into the author’s world, explore its confines, and reach the end. But what if the proper metaphor is in fact a piece of written music? There is a “Beethoven’s 9th Symphony,” for example, but there is not authoritative performance of it. In order to experience the piece as it was meant to be experienced, you need to make choices about the performance of it, either directly (as part of an orchestra) or indirectly (by choosing to listen to a particular performance and/or recording).

    Video games, then, can be the same way: the skeleton is there, but you – as player/performer – choose how to interpret the work. Do you play through it in a manic weekend? An hour at a time? Do you explore the side quests? Do you choose “good” vs. “evil” actions in those games that let you? The experience is still bounded by the programming of the game (or the score, in written music), but you choose how you experience it.

    Maybe the phrase to “play” a video game now has more meaning than it did when it was first used?


  12. aion database #

    Who would ever forget about Mario? It’s the game we grew up playing with. Since it’s still hitting the market until the present, it can now be tagged as the video game of all time, right?


  13. Jon Eric #

    GREAT article, but what was up with that Mega Man 2 video? Downright average playing there.

    One of the guys from The Megas did a really great complete-game speedrun and they did commentary on it:
    (the Air Man section section starts about 3:12.


  14. Joshua Lyle #

    Since when are consequentialists a majority amongst philosophers? According to the PhilPapers, a recent survey of actual philosophers, they are split evenly between deontological ethics, virtue ethics (itself often considered a form of deontological ethics) and consequentialism. If anything, the secular trend favors virtue ethics.


  15. RJ #

    Fascinating read, Perich. Though a couple line struck me in particular:

    But the first generations of video games all had to end at the same place: our hero, standing over the defeated final boss, having rescued the princess, acquired the MacGuffin or saved the world.


    A game with no goals inherent, merely opportunities to explore and obstacles to overcome, probably wouldn’t sell very well.

    Many of the earlier video games, especially those that became popular in the late 70s/80s, followed the latter’s exact structure, with no real hero at all. Take Asteroids. What is the only function of the ship in Asteroids? To destroy asteroids. What is the result of the ship destroying asteroids? More asteroids appear. The cycle never ends, and there is no ultimate end goal, no final asteroid-boss that the ship must defeat. Sure, the player might aim for the high score, or try to complete several dozen levels without dying, but that calls back to your earlier point: the asteroid world does not give a shit, and will continue lobbing rocks at your tiny-ass ship until you die. And yet, this game was still able to drain the wallets of adolescents back when arcades were popular. I sort of feel like the philosophical response to that would be akin to a working stiff saying, “Who cares what Kant or Mill has to say? That doesn’t really change the fact I have to go to my job every day.” Any number of popular single-player puzzle video games also follows this same basic structure and perform really well within the cell phone market.

    Do you have any additional thoughts on Second Life? I don’t know too much about it (since I need my goals, or at least obstacles), but from what I do know about it, the openness of the system provides a Calvinball-esque opportunity to create and pursue whatever arbitrary goals you decide in a gigantic exercise of existentialism.


  16. perich OTI Staff #

    @Joshua Lyle: really! I stand corrected. The article reflects my own bias – I’ve heard of more consequentialists than I have deontologists, so I just assumed they were more numerous. Good cite!


  17. stokes OTI Staff #

    @Tom: you ought to read this. Actually, everyone should – one of the best overthought pieces on video games I’ve ever come across.


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