Virtual Realities and Real Communities


Plato hated the written word.

His teacher, Socrates, never wrote down his philosophy and taught exclusively through verbal dialogues (making it ironic that the only record we have of the thought of Socrates is what Plato committed to the page – I mean, scroll). Later would come the printing press, telegram, telephone, and so on.

People considered to be informed intellectuals by their societies have often been skeptical of technology. Long before VR and AI, all these technological advances were regarded as virtual and unreal. They supposedly separated their users from reality rather than engaging them with the real world. After years of studying the video game industry, I’m not so sure about all that.

One of my favorite philosophers is with me. Paul Tillich is widely regarded as one of the more important philosophers of the 20th century (he was on the cover of TIME. He saw hope for healing after one of the greatest failings during his lifetime, the Holocaust, in the virtual.

He thought art could transform reality for the better and connect individuals and communities previously at odds, especially modern art that was not intended to copy reality or which even distorted the everyday world. Art can do this because even though it is a human fabrication, it does not separate us from reality.

One thing that disgusted Tillich most of all was how the vast majority of German churches that supposedly stood for truth and goodness stood in line behind the Third Reich and supported Hitler. Tillich wanted to stay in Germany and face Hitler, but was convinced by American colleagues to emigrate because his work was too important and he would have likely faced death in a camp. He moved to New York City, and in its art scene Tillich found many gay, lesbian, and otherwise marginalized people that his home country killed now being accepted. Their lives were radically transformed through art.

I see similar capabilities in video games and the communities that develop around them.

If you search for Tillich online, you will probably find references to him as a theologian rather than a philosopher, though he was both. I share a similar perspective. Academia is weird with terms, but I see a lot of theology in video game communities even if they would not self-describe in that manner.

Personal acceptance and responsibility toward others are ultimate matters. Whatever career, gig, or begrudging occupation occupies most of your days, everyone wants to be seen and accepted for who they are. It does not matter what you think about news topic X, Y, or Z because encountering another human being asking for help transcends all of that.

Feeling seen and accepted by certain games seems to be a fairly common experience for people who might be marginalized in their daily lives. When I talk at conventions about video games, personal courage, and ethical behavior, someone enthusiastically approaches me afterward to tell me about a personal connection to their life almost every time. A self described “super gay nerd” told me about the confidence they received from playing Gone Home and how it helped them more authentically be themselves among others.

Straight cis white men who are at the center of society and work in game development have told me that games like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday and even increased diversity in the Call of Duty franchise have opened previously blind eyes to the importance of cross-cultural understanding.

I think games like these are courageous and can help develop personal tenacity with their players.

Courage is not about physical power or violence. Germany did not display that virtue during World War II, to stick with a Tillich-related example. Building walls to keep out fleeing immigrants is not brave or valorous. Those are cowardly acts resulting from imagined threats, and lead to us-versus-them mentalities that are often the root of human failures. It takes actual courage to stick by inclusive principles instead of reverting to only protecting a narrowly defined in-group who holds the most power whenever there is a hint of crisis.

The video game industry is not perfect and toxic individuals and communities still exist. However, the somewhat common perception that the industry is more toxic than others does not seem accurate, at least not anymore. Continued abuses are no longer swept under the rug as easily. People are calling for action, even if that action would come more swiftly in a perfect world.

I work in higher education, often with religious institutions (I write a lot about philosophy of religion), and now study video game communities. It really is striking how quickly the latter reacts to social issues compared to the former two spheres. If that sounds disappointing because the video game industry still has problems, that just shows how far society at large has to go when it comes to increasing and accepting diversity.

I am going to make a bold claim: video games can help make that progress.

Whenever you encounter another person, you encounter a learning experience. Each of those experiences can become a means to avoiding us-versus-them situations. Regardless of race, sex, gender, etc. everyone is deserving of basic respect and care just by existing. However, quite often on the internet, that basic call for respect is forgotten and people are only treated well only if they check certain boxes. A genuine encounter with another, though, can be a reminder that only treating people well if they check certain boxes is an ethical failing.

Bullying is a universal part of growing up across cultures. At some point most kids have the “aha” moment of “oh, this is a person and regardless of what group at school they are a part of, there are certain things I should not do to them.” For people who live in homogenous communities or self-isolate from experiences with a diversity of people, virtual encounters with other characters in video games can convey the same real-world lesson.

I’ve been writing nice things about video games on a video game website. Yay! What’s the real point of all this? There are four key points to take away, actually: video games relate to validation, autonomy, politics, and policy-setting. It is validating to be “seen” by a game with diverse representation among its characters. That validation should lead to more autonomy, more empowerment for those who are more likely to be marginalized in the world. All of that will create political pressure on the forces that lead to marginalization in the first place.

That pressure will ultimately impact who has power to set damaging (or helpful) policies in the first place. When someone says a game, movie, book, or any other piece of entertainment isn’t political, think of these four points as a reminder that practical consequences are always involved.

They are like a wheel that can turn in one of two directions, either toward oppression or liberation. If people are not seen, they can more easily be ignored and given little to no agency. That means those in power are less likely to hear their cries, and the policy structures allowing all this to happen will stay in place.

Turning the wheel toward liberation starts with validation of those being mistreated, which is why diverse and accurate representation in pieces of media is important. It leads to greater empowerment. I think of all sorts of LGBTQ+ stories in games that have been crafted in a slightly autobiographical fashion since Gone Home became a hit (play If Found… if you haven’t already). When people are no longer ignored, and with real power, pressure on oppressive institutions becomes real and societies can change.

Video games can do this.

Does this ring true to you? I hope so because, gestures broadly at everything, video games and their virtual realities may be needed for the sake of this world now more than ever.


No idea about the future but right now the online communities of most platforms and games are super toxic. I played one public game of CoD during the pandemic and the sheer amount of racial slurs was overwhelming.

The Steam forums are a complete disaster.

TheGameguru wrote:

No idea about the future but right now the online communities of most platforms and games are super toxic. I played one public game of CoD during the pandemic and the sheer amount of racial slurs was overwhelming.

The Steam forums are a complete disaster.

Very true. There are many islands of pleasantness, but they're amid a sea of toxicity and hate. Positivty just doesn't seem to happen naturally in gaming spaces very often. Every single one seems like they were purposely built, and requires a major amount of vigilance and dedication to keep them running.

Hi there. I'm the author of this piece. Neither of you are wrong, it is just that these loud abrasive examples of toxicity no longer tell the whole story. There are many examples of positivity that I did not get into here. I would not refer to them as small islands anymore. Also, as we discussed on episode 878 of the podcast, toxic interactions drive further toxic interactions. Often, nice experiences are had and then simply move on with their lives without making a huge deal about what happened. In other words, anger, outrage, and toxicity are overrepresented in the public perception of many industries. Finally, and I guess I am asking you to trust the comparative work I have done unless you want a reading list of some dense sociological studies and my philosophical reflections on them, while all sorts of industries are experiencing toxic fandoms, video game culture really does call out the problem with more expediency than others. Paradoxically, the fact that the first two comments called out continuing problems is proof of the point. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!