What Pokemon Go Teaches Us About Virtue

Pokemon Go players at Loyola beach. Photo by Jaime Hovey.

Since its release on July 7th 2016, Pokemon Go has already become the most downloaded video game of all time in the United States. Nintendo’s market value went up an astonishing 9 billion dollars in five days, and most major cities in the U.S now have a dedicated following of people getting together to hunt digital creatures. We can of course point to a plurality of reasons why Pokemon Go has become such a success: 90’s nostalgia, the novelty of augmented reality, and a fun way to exercise, among others. However, I wish to illuminate one aspect of the success story that has been surprisingly ignored: namely, that playing Pokemon Go may also be virtuous.


If you have not yet downloaded Pokemon Go, here is how it works. The object of the game is to catch as many little fantasy creatures—Pokemon—as possible. The phone app displays the player’s location on a map via GPS. When the player moves around in the real world, so does a little avatar on the map. Therefore if you want to go from A to B in the game you have to do it in real life. Pokemon creatures are scattered all around the map and players have to move around in real life to catch them. Players go to real world locations, pull out their phones, and try to catch the creatures that appear on their screens. Pokemon come in various degrees of rarity and power, and the more caught the better.


To understand how and why Pokemon Go promotes virtue we need to first think about the role of play and playfulness in human life. When we think of virtuous people and list their characteristics, rarely do we list playfulness as one of their core traits. A virtuous person might be brave, generous and have temperance, but whether that person is playful does not seem to matter in our evaluation of their moral character. However, this is a mistake. Play and playfulness are integral to what it means to be a harmonious and flourishing human being.


A large body of research spanning sociology, psychology, philosophy, and education all support this conclusion. Play and playfulness in adults have been showed to effectively reduce stress, and combat anxiety (Magnuson & Barnett, 2012). Play has long been shown to be an effective learning strategy inside and outside formal education (Mann, 1996). Furthermore, playfulness and play promote mental states that are almost meditative in nature. Being playful and playing makes us healthier, happier, and more open to new information.


The Vienna Circle philosopher Moritz Schlick (1882–1936) went as far as to argue that play is the very meaning of human life (On the Meaning of Life, 1927). Although this claim might seem extreme, we can learn various insights about human flourishing from Schlick’s definition of play. Schlick defines play as a state of mind in which an activity is performed just for the sake of itself. In other words the process of the activity is much more important than the product of the activity (114-115). Play is a mind state that can be applied to any human activity. The playful person finds pleasure in the activity itself, not the product.


If being a flourishing human is to be balanced, happy and steadily self-improving (as Aristotle believed), then playfulness must be included in the list of virtues, since it promotes all the conditions required for flourishing.


As Philosopher Dale Mann points out in Serious Play, learning is a latent function of play, but it is a very powerful and fortunate latent function. In fact, it turns out from studies done on players of the video game World of Warcraft that organizational and leadership skills are taught much better when the intention is simply to have fun and not to learn (Forbes Magazine, JUN 24, 2015). In other words, if you want someone to learn, let them enjoy something that is fun simply for the sake of itself, and they will work it out with a whole new skill set. Nobody gets on a swing to learn kinesthetic coordination, or to build muscles; children get on swings because they are fun. Similarly, nobody plays Pokemon Go because they want to learn the metric system, city geography, or statistics. People play Pokemon Go because it is enjoyable in itself, and that has tremendous learning potential.


Similarly–as the site Gizmodo reports–American students are suddenly starting to understand the metric system, since Pokemon Go operates in kilometers not miles (Nunez 2016). Geography teachers in Copenhagen Denmark found that those of their students who played Pokemon Go not only began to develop a much stronger contextual understanding of the city and its history, they also had much stronger basic understanding of maps and national geography (Realdania, 2016). As a personal example, I can say that I now remember which main streets in Chicago are North-South directed and which streets run East-West because playing Pokemon Go has taught me the city’s grid.


Pokemon Go in Perth. Photo source: The Sydney Morning Herald

It has been accepted for decades that meditation is a healthy way to relieve stress and anxiety. However, if we take Moritz Schlick’s definition of play seriously, then a successful engagement with a playful experience should have the same healthy effect as meditation. This means we might start thinking of play as another avenue for self-love and self-care. Researchers are finding that Pokemon Go encourages a kind of playful sensibility and sociability that can be very good for shy people, people with agoraphobia, and people with autism, many of whom struggle with social skills. Cities such as New York and Chicago have communities of people who venture out together in flocks to catch Pokemon, set lures, and acquire Poke Gyms from rivaling teams. When walking through the Chicago loop one can often see groups of people spontaneously meeting and talking to one another because they ran into someone else playing Pokemon Go. Players rely on information from other players about where to find a Poke Gym or where rare Pokemon have been sighted.



What is even more astonishing is that the game seems to promote almost altruistic tendencies in people. Players can work together by setting lures, which are little traps that attract Pokemon the same way using bait attracts fish. One person might pay for a lure and launch it somewhere, but anyone else in the vicinity can benefit from it. Players enjoy this social aspect of the game, as the lures they have generously set attract other humans as well. While there is no reward for helping other players, Pokemon Go has developed a community of people helping one another out by setting lures or giving directions simply so that others may enjoy the game. This is especially pronounced in the case of setting the lure, since the player may never see or talk to the person that benefits from the help. Although we have to be careful drawing any grand conclusions regarding human nature from a video game, it is interesting to note that as soon as people are in a non-competitive playful environment, the possibility of genuine altruism emerges.


Pokemon Go promotes self-care because it is played only for the sake of itself. The enjoyment one get’s from catching Pokemon is not from completing the game, which is currently impossible. In fact the game is very up front about the fact that it is impossible to complete it. Neither can the game be lost, since there are no time limits and no life counter or points. Rather, the enjoyment from Pokemon Go is generated from process itself. Unlike so many other games that are focused on competition, skill acquisition, and achievement, Pokemon Go demands only the desire for adventure (and good walking shoes). We can say that Pokemon Go promotes the mental state of flow: the mind set in which a person becomes so engaged with the activity that they forget everything else and become one with the activity. Some might see achieving such a mind state in a video game as a form of dilly dallying, but that is exactly why it is healthy. Entering into a mind state of flow has consistently been shown support overall happiness, improve academic and work related performance and relieve stress (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Whether the condition of flow is acquired through a video game or diligently working on a tax report, the benefits are the same.

“Pokemon Go takes me to Black Lives Matter Protest” by Jesse Samuel Anderson.

We cannot forget that play is intrinsically community oriented. Culturally in the West adults have many forms of entertainment available to them, but there is an important difference between being entertained, and playing. Entertainment can be a passive form of consumption; play and playfulness, on the other hand, demands participation. Pokemon Go encourages players to explore their community by making landmarks in the real world appear on the map as either Poke Gyms—places to battle with other players–or Poke stops (locations to pick up game items). Poke Gyms are often important locations such as the entrance to a museum, a famous sculpture, or a historic site. For example, the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago is a Pokegym (guarded by a Gastly). By making actual landmarks integral to the gameplay experience, Pokemon Go makes its participants explore their own and other communities.


Pokemon Go has been a global success for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons people enjoy it is because the game is inherently playful and encourages collaboration and altruism. To be playful is a virtue that directly takes us towards flourishing because it promotes balance, happiness, community, altruism, and self-love. So the next time you see a group of grownups running around trying to evolve their Bulbasaur, don’t just roll your eyes. Think about joining in the fun.

Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

Universal Oneness: the Feeling of House

The philosophy of House music and dance aims to create unifying and meaningful life experiences for its practitioners through the idea of being one with each other and the universe.


Brandon 1
Brandon Dorsey, aka Bran1 at Rooted: Hip-hop Choreographers’ Evening 2016 (Minneapolis). Photo by Corina Seuasoukseng.

To learn more about House dance culture, history, and philosophy of self-transcendence, I had the honor of interviewing the distinguished House dancer and event organizer, Brandon Dorsey, also known as Bran1. He has been part of the Chicago dance community for more than fifteen years, organized several events, traveled across the globe to perform, teach, and compete, and has won multiple prestigious competitions. Brandon is the organizer of the event series Provide The Vibe, and is also a successful businessman in the logistics industry.


“House” music emerged from the Chicago club scene in the early 1980s. Its origins can be traced to the Chicago nightclub The Warehouse (1977-1983), where legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles—often named the Father of House music—was experimenting by blending disco and other genres with music technologies such as drum machines and synthesizers. By taking the intensity and pulsing base rhythm from disco, and mixing it with new electronic sounds, Frankie Knuckles along with other Chicago artists created a sensation. Soon people would travel from the other side of the town, and eventually from the other side of the country just to hear “Warehouse music”. Eventually this became just House Music.

The vinyl collection of Frankie Knuckles will go on display in new Chicago cultural center, Stony Island Arts Bank. Photo from Electronic Dance Magazine. Read more here.


House dancing as a self-aware culture and art form emerged in the late 80’s early 90’s after House music had gained its rapid international success. House was branching out to all corners of the world. Dancers in NYC, Chicago, and other cities began to come together to develop a specific foundation of steps to be the foundation of the dance that accompanied House music. These steps predominately came from Salsa, samba, tap dance, Breakdancing, and Chicago Footwork, but had other influences as well.


“It sounds like such a cliché at first, but House is a feeling.” Brandon elaborates that House dance as a community and a philosophy is centered around a specific mindset, namely that House is a feeling. Philosophers might call it a form of transcendence; House dancers call it “Blacking Out”. The phenomenon of Blacking Out has many similarities to meditation or the mind state of Zen.


When in this state of mind the dancer forgets about themselves, forgets about their problems, and simply becomes one with the music. It is dancing without boundaries, determined less by steps, forms, and conventions, and fully by intuitive on-the-spot interactions between dancers and their music. Brandon describes the ideal House moment as one in which everyone is in tune with each other’s movements, creating a collective freestyle partner dance. When one person moves, everyone moves with them. Such an experience can only be achieved when dancers are fully engaged in the music and with one another. The dancers must forget about their own needs and desires, and become one with the moment.


Brandon explains that such moments are prized by the House dance community on both a practical and philosophical level. House dancers will get together not only to achieve “the House feeling”, but also to discuss what it means to have such experiences, how to better achieve them, and what they mean for their community at large. Hence the feeling of House becomes the centerpiece around which an elaborate philosophy is constructed.


The principle of unity is shared and articulated by practitioners not only through philosophical conversation outside the dance floor, but also on the floor when people will yell “This is church, this is church!” The chant “This is church” and other similar phrases are meant to reinforce the understanding of the philosophy but also to show that moments of intense unification are sacred to House dancers. Brandon explains that he has no qualms in using the word sacred, since it is the closest thing he can find to explain the strong spiritual aspect of the dance.

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 Chosen Few 2016 House Music Festival. Photos by Marc Monaghan.

In fact, Brandon articulates that he and many others do not see a difference between practicing a religion and practicing House dance. Like many organized religions, House dancing or “Housing” consists of a community coming to worship, confirming a set of beliefs, practicing rituals, and tapping into the sacred and the spiritual. For Brandon and many of the practitioners in the international community, House dancing fulfills all of these functions and more.


House competitions exist, but they are not at the center of the culture. In fact, while in Breaking it is seen as odd not to want to compete, house dancers find it inauthentic to practice the dance in order to compete. House is a feeling first, a community second, a technique third, and a competition last. This concept is explicitly part of the virtues that house dancers are told to develop. If Breakdancing is the Art of War, House dancing is Taoism.


It is understood by House dancers that they must develop the virtues of intuitiveness, sensitivity, universal love, and respect for the sacred. In turn, the community and the “feeling of House” will provide a meaningful life to the dancers, letting them know that they are part of something much bigger, part of everyone and everything. The philosophy of House speaks of a universal love for people, beings and things. Through the feeling of House, practitioners become unified with each other, their community, society, and the universe at large. The feeling of House is an entry way into a form of epistemology that will ultimate reveal that everyone and everything is connected. So by loving others we love ourselves, and by loving ourselves we love others.


Brandon explains that although House started as a predominately Black and Latino form of music, House dance culture’s focus on community makes it a virtue to eliminate the isolated particularity of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In fact, because of the strong emphasis on unity, house dance celebrates those who can obtain the universal feeling of House, where all other aspects of a person’s background recede. Taking part in the dance and helping achieve the feeling of House in the moment is all that matters. Transcending the self in order to become part of something bigger and more important is at the core of House dance philosophy and is part of what makes House dance a meaningful experience.


Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Breaking for a Better World

Bboy Inverterbrate at United Styles 2016 Boston

In 2009 I gave a talk on “Break Dance” culture at Hunter College, New York. A student who had taken a few classes around the city raised his hand and asked “How come all the breakers I meet are so happy? Why are you guys so happy all the time?” After thinking about this question, it occurs to me that breaking creates an artistic community that allows for individual self-expression but also requires commitment to the greater good of both the breaking community and the larger world where breaking finds its practitioners and audiences. Dancers must be committed to each other, but they must also demonstrate a deep commitment to making the world a better place for everyone.


In the 1980’s the general public was introduced to the phenomenon of break-dancing—young men spinning on their heads, dance battling, and flipping in the streets of New York. However, bboying—or breaking, as the practitioners themselves like to call it—was invented much earlier in the late 1960’s as a mix of Latin and African dances, martial arts, and gymnastics. In other words, the dance and its culture was nothing like its portrayal in the media. While many people still think of breaking as a kitsch 80’s thing (cardboard, white gloves, abandoned warehouses), the dance has a deep and positive philosophy and a vibrant community. Today, that community is stronger than ever (more than a million people worldwide) in part because of the value placed in virtue and self-transcendence. As we shall see, breaking culture is profoundly Aristotelian.


Aristotle believed that human beings should work towards their own happiness to have a meaningful life. However, the word happiness was used differently then. In contemporary English a Chai Latte, or a the newest iPhone might make us “happy”, but that kind of happiness is fleeting, and bound up in consumerism. Aristotle’s use of the word happiness–“eudaimonia”–translates much more as something like “human flourishing.” Happiness is not a quick fix, but a process down the long road of self-cultivation and hard work. In other words, there is a huge difference between being a human that is merely happy and a human who is truly flourishing.


Aristotle’s notion of virtue and breaking culture both agree that human flourishing requires the cultivation of virtue (also sometimes called good habits or dispositions). Breaking culture in the 1970’s realized much as Aristotle did back in 400 BC that the road to true flourishing is a form of balance between excessive and insufficient character traits. Take learning the back-flip as an example. In order to learn such a stunt a person must be courageous. However, too much courage is being brash, and the brash person will throw themselves into the flip without preparation and technique. This will more than likely lead to a serious injury. However, a deficiency of courage—cowardice—will make it hard for the dancer to learn anything as difficult as a backflip. The fear factor has to be overcome. A cowardly dancer is a bad dancer, but breakers and Aristotle alike would also agree that such a dancer is a person lacking in good character.


In fact, the four most important virtues described by Aristotle (courage, temperance, wisdom, justice), are vital to becoming the perfect bgirl/bboy. Next I will show how wisdom and temperance (self control) are integral parts of the dance, and finally move on to justice. But to understand the wisdom of breaking one must also understand its basic history.


Justin Alomar mentoring Rising Dynasty Boys Before Breaking Battle NYC 2016
Photo by Kien Quan.



As the result of fiscal and political neglect, the South Bronx of New York City was one of the most abandoned and dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S during the 60’s and 70’s. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, spearheaded by Robert Moses, had displaced more than 60,000 people and created an economic and humanitarian crisis. Gang war was rampant, drugs flooded the streets, and it was more beneficial for landlords to burn down their own buildings to collect insurance money than to keep tenants (hence the phrase “the Bronx is burning”).


It was out of these dystopian conditions that breaking emerged as part of the art form and social movement we know today as Hip-hop. Breaking became an outlet for young men and women to express their creativity, energy, and anger. The flashy acrobatic dance that most people know from TV shows and music videos started as a response to poverty, racism and abandonment. It is therefore not surprising that Breaking has philosophical answers about how to overcome those problems.


Breaking as a belief system is still very much an oral tradition. Every bboy/bgirl has one or more mentors that pass down the history and philosophy of the movement. Even though much has been written on the history of breaking, not much has been written on its philosophy (with the exception of Foundation by Joseph Schloss which I highly recommend). The mentors not only teach the next generation their movements and history, they also pass down important life lessons. The emphasis put on passing down the knowledge of how to overcome society through dance, makes wisdom a key virtue of breaking culture.


Every bboy/bgirl must move from being seen as a social stereotype to being recognized as an individual. A successful bboy or bgirl must be unapologetically themself. How is this achieved? By cultivating the virtues of creativity, discipline, courage, humility empathy, and wisdom. A practitioner with these virtues has all the tools to express herself fully. In other words, the virtues lead to a form of liberation through dance. But even with courage, creativity and wisdom in place, spinning on the ground or flying through the air is still extremely difficult. There must be an organizing principle to it all. Temperance is therefore an integral virtue of breaking. Without self-discipline at most one can hope to achieve are some spasms on the ground.


Freestyle session 2016 Kien Quan
Photo by Kein Quan.

Breaking culture measures how successful each member is at practicing the virtues by holding intense competitions known as “battles”. This happens formally through organized competitions, but more importantly, informally, in dance circles known as “Cyphers”. The more battles that are won, the more a breaker has testimony that they have achieved individuality and thereby liberation from social constraints.


Although breaking puts a lot of emphasis on the flourishing of the individual, community is in fact the most important aspect of the dance. Which brings us to the final of our four Aristotelian virtues, namely justice in the context of a self-transcendent aim. Aristotle sees justice not only as a way of acting towards particular cases, but also as a way of acting towards one’s community. The ethos of breakdancing orients each of its practitioners towards each other and the larger world in a self-transcendent way that makes breakdancing about making the world a better place for everyone.


Each of the mentioned breaking virtues—courage, temperance, wisdom, justice– are supposed to be cultivated in a community-oriented manner. A successful bboy/bgirl must “pay their dues” by contributing to the community at large. The oral history must be continued, techniques must be taught and preserved, but most importantly, opportunity must be created for all members of the community. In other words a strong sense of justice serves as the motivating factor behind the enterprise of breaking. As a community at large breakers must move from few life opportunities to many, and it is the responsibility of the practitioners to create these opportunities for one another.


From the outside, breaking appears to be highly driven by competition, but actually opportunity building is at the core of its philosophy. The 1984 song Peace, Unity, Love and Having Fun, by Afrika Bambaataa, is emblematic of a deeper current of thinking found in breaking and the Hip-hop movement at large. The four breaking goals of Peace, Unity, Love, and having Fun are only achieved when members of the community provide opportunity for one another. Hence the slogan “Each one, teach one” was adopted by breakers to not only refer to technical skill, but also to encourage care about fellow practitioners. This notion extends from passing on job opportunities to fund-raising for community members to paying their medical bills. For example, in 2016, the U.S breaking community came together to save the spouse of a dancer by raising money for her chemotherapy.

The demand to go above and beyond oneself and care for the larger community is explicitly repeated not only by mentors, but at most breaking events. In fact, the community emphasis is so strong and explicit that it is considered rude and abnormal to turn down a request for free lodging by traveling breakers.


In short, breakers partake in a culture that is centered on the idea of flourishing through the cultivation of self-transcendent virtue, and this orientation means that for them dancing really can change the world. Bboys and bgirls know that their efforts contribute to the continuation of a unique and meaningful culture that artistically and materially helps people spin out of poverty. As with Aristotle, we see in breaking, that a meaningful life, comes with hard work towards the betterment of one’s self; beyond this, breaking’s self-transcendent orientation turns this cultivation of virtue and human flourishing outwards, towards larger communities.


Each one, teach one!


Christian Kronsted is a graduate student assistant with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Group photo: Working Group Meeting June 2016

Scholars Team June 2016
Click photo to make it larger. Photo by Marc Monaghan

We’re so happy our scholars are here in Chicago! Find out more about our scholars and their work this week in June here, and working group meetings in general, here.

Our scholars and team are:

From left to right, back row: Santiago Mejia, Michael Gorman, Matthias Haase, Jennifer A. Frey, Father Kevin Flannery, Candace Vogler, Katherine Kinzler, Howard Nusbaum, Talbot Brewer, Reinhardt Huetter, Marc G. Berman (not pictured: Tahera Qudbuddin).

Middle row: Christian Kronsted, Jean Porter, Father Thomas Joseph White, Mari Stuart, Nancy Snow, Heather C. Lench, Angela Knobel,  Erik Angner, Dan McAdams, Valerie Wallace, Jaime Hovey.

Front row: Paul Wong, David Shatz, David Carr, Anselm Mueller.