Created by a philosopher, 'Something Something Soup Something' explores the barriers between language and cognition.
This article originally appeared on VICE Brazil.
In Polish, the word soup is zupa. It can refer to any food cooked in milk or even in blood, like the czernina, a classic Polish soup that's made from duck blood and clear poultry broth. If that sounds strange of unappetizing to you, it might be due in part to the fact that "soup" is a particularly hard word to define. Hear me out: Is broth a soup? In Portuguese, we have broth, sauce, and cream—but would you be able to identify the difference between the three dishes? Does it even matter? It's difficult to find a definite answer, which is why Dr. Stefano Gualeni—an Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer—has created a video game to better understand why "soup" as a concept is surprisingly hard to pin down.
Something Something Something Soup Something can be played on your browser and lasts about five minutes. In the game, the year is 2078: Humans have invented teleportation machines and now use technology to exploit the work of aliens, who are hired to produce consumer goods—including soup—for low wages.
But herein lies a problem: Because of the differences between language and cognition, the game asserts, aliens don't always understand what the humans are asking for. The player works in a human kitchen, and their job is to decide which soups actually qualify as a soup and which ones don't, according to their own criteria. They're also tasked with making sure none of the clients are poisoned to death as a a result.
During our conversation, Gualeni told me that "in the end, [the definition of soup] depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking." He teaches and conducts research at the University of Malta in southern Italy.
Operating like scientists and inspired by the language experiments of the 1970s, Gualeni and his team traveled to four different countries. They interviewed people of 23 different nationalities in an attempt to understand how different cultures describe soup.
"We realized that if we imposed certain visions, we would be somewhat skewing the experiment toward what we think a soup is," he said. "When [our Polish interviewees] told me about milk soup, I started thinking about cappuccinos and lattes, and about how these two drinks could be, fundamentally, soups.. I don't know. I started to see a lot more soups out there than I did before."
I thought it was funny at first, but then I started to fear I was suffering from the same query. I remembered when I was young and dipped my bread in butter and then into coffee. To counteract this disturbing train of thought (but really, are cup noodles soup or pasta?), I asked another question: Why soup?
"We think it's simple, that everybody knows what it is. But if you really think [on it, you'll] realize that there's not so much certainty," Gualeni explained. "This connects us to philosopher [Ludwig] Wittgenstein's idea that, in the end, language is formed through use and is a thing thats constantly in flux, not an absolute relation between things and concepts."
This fluidity of concepts echoes within video game culture, and Gualeni knows it. With the growing popularity of so-called "walking simulators" after Dear Esther left many game critics confused back in 2012, and Proteus achieved some success a year later, the most resonant critique is that these interactive experiences aren't games. After all, is Something Something Soup Something a video game or an interactive philosophical experiment? Does it even matter anymore?
"There you are, confronted with the fact that you may have doubts and that your definition [of soup] may be incomplete. The thing you thought you knew turns out to be a bit more problematic," Gualeni explained. "That's the central goal of my game."
This small philosophical experiment first questions our everyday language, but also suggests a learning tool that we rarely usually consider: The video game. And through the conversation I had with Gualeni and through his book, Virtual Worlds as Philosophical Tools: How to Philosophize with a Digital Hammer, it's clear to see he has high hopes for virtual worlds:
"It's incredibly difficult to try to [effect] change when you yourself don't know any better. We lack imagination. We have a lack of political, social, and philosophical imagination, and this is due to the fact that we have very limited experiences during our lives. And what if we could potentialize this imagination through [video games]? With accelerated capitalism and neoliberal programs, few people have time to cultivate the ability to think critically, so perhaps digital media is better than text, in order to offer immediate access to different possibilities," he argued. "Virtual worlds can be reservoirs for our imagination."