Philosophers on Gaming: Part I – Nietzsche

Throughout history, people from all corners of our humble Earth have turned to Great Thinkers for support during their lives. Philosophy became integral in the fabrics that made up societies. For the most part, philosophers were respected, venerable men whose views and opinions were taken with the utmost gravity. People, even now, almost worship Nietzsche; thinking his outlook on life was intelligent, conceptual and, well, just plainly true. The truth, believe it or not, was that Nietzsche was a grade-A nutter – it’s speculated that he suffered chronically from Syphilitic Insanity (picking it up from a brothel in his heady student days).

This gave him a rather, erm, ‘delicate’ constitution, so he roamed around Europe, searching for the best place to settle down and write his, often nihilistic, thoughts down. Towards the end of his life, Nietzsche lost it completely – before his death in 1900, he and his admirable moustache were shipped off to a psychiatric clinic in Basel after he broke down on the streets of Turin and lovingly embraced a horse. He also claimed he had been “crucified by Germans” and “was Jesus”. Mad.

So what’s this got to do with gaming? Nothing really – I just like telling people about how this genius of a man played out the end of his life. If you’re going to go mad, do it properly, right? But beyond this superficial view of the man lie his ideas and his well-documented philosophies. In life, some of the things he has to say can be very interesting to take on board, but when applied to gaming… they seem to fit oddly well. There are a lot of people out there that revere Nietzsche as an idol, and some people will think that applying his thoughts to gaming is a horrible dilution of everything he stood for.  But after thinking about it, it’s hard not to see the parallels.

Now a symbol for remembrance and suffering... the man would have surely gone crazy (crazier) for this symbolism

For example, some of the main principles in Nietzsche’s philosophy were centred around hardship and difficulty, and our capacity to deal with life’s challenges. Nietzsche effectively claimed “difficulty is normal” and that we “experience pain because of the gap between who we are now, and the person we believe we could be at the end of the task”. I agree with this, both in life and in gaming. If there’s something I can’t do, I get irritated and grouchy – as Nietzsche puts it, I “experience pain” because I know I possibly could achieve what I wanted. So, by experiencing failure, I am enriched when I succeed; the path through hardship has made me into a better person. Nietzsche liked to use the metaphor or flowers to illustrate his view – to paraphrase him (massively) he said: plants have ugly roots. If you go through the trouble of hiding the roots, you can expect a beautiful flower to bloom in the end. Not quite as elaborate as the man himself, but it’ll do.

So if we take Nietzsche’s botanical view of life and look at it from our perspective – a gaming one – there are certain pieces of advice we can subscribe to. Take, for example, his view on envy. Nietzsche doesn’t see envy as a particularly bad thing – he believes that if we experience envy, we channel all the negative emotions that it brings into something constructive; envy can spur us on to compete with a rival, furthering our own sense of achievement.

One of my greatest gaming achievements, for example, is climbing to seventh place in the Soul Calibur IV ranked leaderboards. To me – a sad individual who feels virtual achievements represent valid social worth – this was beautiful. It was a bragging right, it was a benchmark against which all my other gaming achievements could be measured – it was a monolithic status symbol.

Nietzsche would say that I couldn’t have achieved this without failure. Without hardship. Without complete, debilitating humiliation and defeat. And he’d be right. In the online lobbies and in the bouts themselves, there were certain names that always cropped up. Names that always beat me (and, sadly, sent gloating messages when they did). So I practiced more and more, investing a steady amount of (probably unhealthy) hours into the game, seething with envy at their skills. Eventually, like the protagonist of some haggard Kung-Fu movie, I managed to beat them, and I have achieved happiness and joy from the end result.

Nietzsche would argue that I couldn’t have experienced the core emotions that success imparts if I hadn’t had to struggle first. And I agree. It goes deeper than just “enjoying the challenge” – it’s the generation of emotions that compound each other – envy and success clash against each other so vibrantly that they draw the other one out more. Nietzsche wasn’t just saying I’d enjoy victory more if I struggled to get there. He was saying I actively couldn’t understand the depth of success if I had just been awarded it, effort-free.  Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche also has a fair few views on anxiety. In a painfully concise nutshell, he argues that anxiety might lead to panic, or, if you cope with it effectively, it could blossom into an accurate analysis of what’s wrong, and lead you on the path to solving it (10 points if you noted the flower metaphor again. The man was obsessed).

A man who knows all about pain... much of which, let's be honest, he has doled out himself

If he were alive now, and someone had managed to treat him of his terminal insanity and sit him down in front of a console with you, he’d tell you this: “play Gears of War 3.” (It’s all about survival of the fittest, he’d love it.) Why would he tell you to do that? Because there will be one map on the Online Versus you actively despise. So, he’d tell you to boot up Versus, play a few rounds and wait for that map to load. The anxiety or dread you feel when you see the top-down illustration of the map (let’s be honest, it’s usually Rustlung) would usually have you think, “right, let’s get this over and done with” and just play until it was all over, enjoying precious little of the 15 minute match.  Nietzsche would attempt to redirect you. He’d probably advise you to take stock of your situation and sniff out all the best spots on the map; learn the weapon spawn locations, find the most defensive (yet strategically placed) cover, remember the best place to plant grenades. Nietzsche would argue that your anxiety would take you to an accurate analysis of what’s wrong, and work on trying to remedy it.

It all sounds a little bit obvious, and chronically patronising, but after considering the blasphemy of applying Nietzsche to gaming, I tried this method on a fair few maps/games. For example, I was stuck in a section of Halo: Reach on Legendary, and after countless attempts at bursting through the Covenant lines (I believe it was the various nightclub clearances in New Alexandria), I took the time to deconstruct why I was having the problems I was, and re-piece them strategically. After that, aside from some Grunt launching a spammy plasma grenade at me, I beat the mission promptly, with minimal amounts of dismembered Spartan decorating the landscape.  It’s worth a shot, at least. It’s worked for me on Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 on the hardest difficulty, it’s helped me get better online at Gears, it’s almost let me complete Reach on Legendary, and I think I’m just about to break through with how stupidly hard Arkham City is on New Game+, top difficulty.

I think Nietzsche would have liked gaming, in its current form. All the “evolve or die” tactics used by online players are a sort of pseudo-homage to him, and he would just adore some of the thematic narratives told in games like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed (especially with his cynical view on Templars – I mean, Catholics). Nietzsche said that weak, untrustworthy people are “addicted to a religion of comfort” and loathed what he referred to as “small, mean people, who hide in forests like shy deer”. In his day, he was talking about the cowardly politicians and public figures that used shrewd tactics to influence others. In our day, he’d call them “campers”.

It’s safe to say that everything written here is diluted, vague and very brief, and doesn’t tap into the deep well of knowledge Nietzsche had. But it proves that gaming is like any other art form, and can be deconstructed as such.  I don’t know… Nietzsche may have even hated gaming – it was he who famously quoted “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

He’d obviously never experienced a spammy headshot.

Last five articles by Dom



  1. Ste Ste says:

    Well played sir, I thoroughly enjoyed this. Looking forward to the next part. Keep it up.

  2. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    The only philosopher that I ever found a kinship with was the late, great, William Melvin Hicks… apart from his penchant for cigarettes. It’s fair to say though, having read what you’ve said about Nietzsche here, that he’s damned spot on with his attitude to the pain vs reward situation. I have known people, and still do, who have life handed to them on a plate and they take it for granted. By way of comparison, I also know those who have suffered most of their lives and appreciate everything that they have achieved because they can balance it up with the memory of having nothing.

    Participating in the National Lottery is something that I’ve only considered doing in the last week or so, mainly through frustration, as I tend to believe that having something is pointless if you haven’t had to fight to get it. Perhaps that’s why, for my entire working life, I’ve strived for perfection and put in more hours in a week than most would consider doing in a month, but at least I know that anything I have around me is something that I fought for.

    This Nietzsche guy looks to be more than just a substantial moustache. I bet he’d be shit at Halo though, as it’d be hard to hear any tactical recommendations through that forest of mouth hair. Liking this series a lot already Dom; hope it continues.

  3. Edward Edward says:

    I don’t know much about philosophers (That’s what my best friend is for), but I know I like this article and this series. I hope to see more of it, Sir Dom!

  4. nowhereman1989 says:

    You are completely misguided and prove you have misread him when you say Nietzsche is a nihilist.
    Actually, Nietzsche’s thought was all about the affirmation of life, love, instinct and a celebration of personal power and individuality. He wrote extensively about the nihilistic tendencies of most dogmatic philosophies/religions.
    He saw the malaise that was taking hold of Europe embodied by the eradication of Christianity by Science (AKA God is Dead), and sought to replace the fading value system with one that affirms life,
    AKA the will to life.

    Read up some more on him.

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