Keynote: Monica Vilhauer – The Play-process of Understanding and the Hermeneutic Dimensions of Computer Games

The Play-process of Understanding and the Hermeneutic Dimensions of Computer Games

In his magnum opus Truth and Method, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer reveals that understanding itself is a back-and-forth linguistic play-process in which human beings present and recognize meaning with each other, and come to a shared grasp of truth.  The play-process of understanding is at work whether we are trying to understand an artwork, a text, a ritual, a tradition, or what another person says to us face to face.  Considering that computer games have become a major force of cultural expression, and even constitute a cultural tradition of their own, it is worth asking a question Gadamer never considered: How might we come to understand the meaning of a computer game? Does a computer game, in fact, communicate meaning like an artwork or text? Does it communicate meaning in a way that artworks and texts do not and cannot? Is the process of understanding games fundamentally different from that of understanding artworks or texts? Is what we come to understand through playing computer games a fundamentally different kind of thing from what we learn in encountering artworks and texts? With this constellation of questions in mind, the paper seeks to humbly investigate the hermeneutic dimensions, processes, and potential unique value of computer games.

The paper first outlines, based on Gadamer’s phenomenological account of play, what is unique about the movement of play, as opposed to other movements (e.g., mechanical, domineering, competitive, or independent movements), and what distinguishes human play from the play of the rest of nature.  The paper, second, describes how it is that understanding itself is a back-and-forth linguistic play movement between human beings, and develops what sort of commitments are required of the player in order to participate fully in such a game. The paper, third, considers the hermeneutic dimensions of computer games and suggests that while a player of a computer game must, like an interpreter of an artwork or text, ask much of the time the question “What am I supposed to take as ‘true’ here?” she must additionally ask and answer “What am I to do and how?” in order to understand and participate in the game.  Thus, the paper encourages the use of the hermeneutic principle — that in order to understand the meaning of what has been said, one must understand the question to which the articulation is an answer – as a way to distinguish games from artworks and texts, without ignoring games’ hermeneutic dimension. 

Finally, because the question “What am I to do and how?” is so closely related to the quintessential question of ethics, the paper suggests computer games may offer a special opportunity, in a simulated environment, to explore questions of ethics in a much more practically engaged way than artworks and texts can offer.  They, thus, have a highly educative potential.



Monica Vilhauer’s research focuses on the philosophy of communication and dialogue. In her book Gadamer’s Ethics of Play: Hermeneutics and the Other (Lexington Books, 2010), she investigates how communicative understanding itself exists as a form of “play” between interlocutors, and what ethical conditions must be met so that a shared understanding, or shared meaning, may be achieved. She is currently pursuing questions regarding the body’s role in communication and the ways in which humans communicate with non-human beings (animals, nature, etc.). Vilhauer earned her Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research in New York in 2006, and earned tenure at Roanoke College in Virginia in 2012.