The Is/Ought Gap

I made this game to illustrate Hume’s “Is/Ought Problem,” which basically says that there is no way for the reason to connect a statement about how the world is to a statement about how the world should be. There is a fundamentally uncrossable gap between what is and what ought to be.


I made this game for the Game Praxis competition while reading Alien Phenomenology, which challenges the notion that philosophy can only be done through writing.

This was, then, an attempt to create philosophy through the use of an interactive toy/game. You play a figure who attempts to leap over a gap. With every failed leap, a counter increments your number of tries.

Initially, there was no way to ‘solve’ the game, in keeping with Humean thought, but — and I hesitate to explain myself here, because it sort of runs contrary to the point of doing-philosophy-without-writing, but I am ultimately incapable of not explaining myself — I began to think of a way I could critique Hume’s thought within the game.

Personally, I do not believe that it is impossible to make moral claims through reason. But — like many philosophic “problems” — Hume’s is/ought gap is difficult to cross, and so — like many philosophic “problems — it is therefore ignored. The solution of the game, then, is to turn away from the gap (Hume’s gap).

This is a spoiler, and I apologize for spoiling the game for you. But I wanted to think about what this means for Hume (other than, of course, nothing).

Does this game provide a critique of Hume’s statement?

I think it does, in that it provides a way of crossing the gap. However, I doubt that this HTML 5 toy is going to be included in a peer-reviewed journal anytime soon, because — as an interactive toy — it does not meet the criteria of being a written critique.

It writing, this game’s critique feels not only trivial, but off-point. “How do you cross Hume’s is/ought gap?” is the question, but “Walk left” does not seem to suffice as an answer.

Something for me to consider when making subsequent games, or to expound upon, or to otherwise examine.

On the reaction.

This game was easy to code, simple, and fun. I made it in a night and shared it with /r/philosophy. A lot of people focused on “beating it,” and shared how many “tries” it took them to win.

As a game designer, I am typically thrilled when people talk about beating the game. But I felt, in this case, a little disappointed that I had made it this easy.

Hume’s problem is a really interesting one to me, and I wanted to convey some degree of that interest. I wanted the game to reflect the problem, and by making it easy (or too easy), I feel like I undercut the nature of the problem itself, so that my answer felt more like hand-waving (“Nah, just think outside the box!”), than it did a legitimate critique.

But, more complicated answers (invisible platforms, weird jump patterns, etc.) might further conflate the point: “Oh, Hume’s problem can be circumvented by doing a bunch of a weird philosophic gymnastics.” I don’t feel like that’s much of an answer either.

Maybe the answer is simply to make the walk take a lot longer. And — perhaps — if you walk left for a minute, you appear on the other side. But, if at any point you turn right, you immediately pop back out on the left side of the gap.

This — I think — might better convey the philosophic critique: You must turn away from the problem completely to address it. If you turn back, even for an instant, it is there.

But I’m not sure if I’m going to implement that right away. I feel like the worst moment to revise a game is the moment it’s released. Better to take those feelings of incompleteness, of imperfection, and apply them to the construction of the next game.

What’s next?

While I’m working on a couple of non-philosophic games (or, rather, games not specifically focused on addressing philosophic problems), I am very interested in making more philosophic games, for a couple of reasons.

Obviously, it’s fun to feel like you’re engaging with important figures in the history of Western thought. Making this game felt like I was doing something important, even if it’s ultimately an HTML 5 toy.

Secondly, it was quick and easy. I didn’t need to worry about gameplay questions, or how to make it fun, how to make decisions have meaning, etc. Because the game is secondary to the philosophic statement, which reminds me of this Mamet book I just read called “Theatre,” where he lambasts theatrical pretensions, specifically (1) acting methods, (2) directorial aspirations, and (3) theater that is designed to improve people.

To Mamet, theater is only supposed to entertain. Everything else is unnecessary. A play must entertain, and if it entertains, it’s successful. If it doesn’t entertain, it’s a failure.

I think — to some degree — he is right. If you can’t entertain people (whatever that means), and get them to come out, then you can’t have a play, because a play requires an audience.

But, more importantly, I think that all art has — as its primary function — the goal of filling an unknown need, of making a statement, or of otherwise inspiring an audience. Art that does not inspire is pornography, and I feel Mamet’s injunction that the theater entertain (and entertain only) can be refuted simply by asking him if — therefore — a strip club is the greatest theater.I disagree.

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