ON BIOSHOCK, AYN RAND, AND THE POLITICS OF POLITICS


So, I’m going to try and add more content beyond my main feature, and add some more media-related stuff. For today, I’ll discuss the game Bioshock. Massive, massive spoilers contained within, so if you haven’t played it, do so, now.

Instead of hanging around, you SHOULD be getting a job.

Instead of hanging around, you SHOULD be getting a job.

Bioshock has received many positive reviews, as it should have. It’s a beautiful game with an interesting story and contains wondrous graphics, luscious sound, and tight controls. Furthermore, its willingness to engage in a political-social ideal is rather bold, especially in this day and age when that very same ideal is being somewhat discussed throughout the media.

That ideal would be Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

I’m not an objectivist, mind you. Hell, I’m not even sure what the details are within the overall concept of objectivism. Wikepedia helps, but like most “–isms,” it’s hard to put into words; it’s something that’s more embraced in the broadest sense via like-minded individuals. From what I gathered, BASICALLY, objectivism believes that a person’s worth is SOLELY based on their contribution to society (specifically, the “free market workplace” since our society is capitalistic), and that any interference from government, religious, or other social structures is automatically “bad”.

Cribbing from that possibly-woefully diminished definition, one can certainly see how Bioshock is playing into that definition; however, I would argue that it really isn’t giving it due credit. Or, more accurately, isn’t giving the idea a playing field in which one can experience it fully without understanding it in mere black and white terms.

For example, let’s consider Communism for a moment. Once viewed as an abject evil in the 1950s, and despite the misguided attempts for certain people to combine Democratic beliefs with the malevolence of the connotation of Communist ideas (not the ideas themselves), nowadays, its seen as a viable possibility, even though its inherent problems are clearly and evidently obvious—see, China. We sure as hell wouldn’t be borrowing money from them 60 years ago.

My issue with Bioshock in this regard is that we’re presented with an after-the-fact, automatic failure of objectivism in action, and I feel as if this may not be a truly fair assessment of the concept. In America, our liberties are derived from the fact that anyone can believe in anything, even in the things that may be antithetical to that very liberty, so to see this game present objectivism as an out-of-control, free-for-all of market forces; well, I’m skeptical.

The story, if you think about it, really has nothing to do with objectivism at all. Mind control? Making tough choices over the fate of children? Corruption? You can take all those ideas and plug them into a democratic, capitalist (and most-likely sci-fi) story, and no one would know the difference. Heck, if the story of the game is a critique of the failures of objectivism, then every movie/game ever made about corrupt businessmen and lawyers are critiques of the capitalist/democratic system. And more likely then not, they have “good endings”, with the heroes exposing the evils of these socio-political monsters, and ensuring the system is fixable, if flawed. Bioshock? Not so much.

It fell apart, miserably, and you’re wandering the once beautiful deco-era landscape with gun in hand, trying to keep away the oppressed crazies. Really, it’s a means to an end, a deep but still easy excuse to make an FPS. I kind of wish the game took place during the midst of Fontaine’s rebellion, where you can see the process actually fall apart, where his and Ryan’s tenuous partnership collapsed, and the beginnings of Ryan’s paranoid genocides. I’m a sucker for a good political thriller, made-up or real, and I can easily see a game where you play a morally ambiguous character playing both sides as Rapture starts to crack. After all, in some form or another, objectivism WAS working—I mean, it can’t be easy to build an entire, self-functioning underwater utopia AND give normal citizens superpowers, even in 2K land. I’d even be THRILLED if in such a hypothetical game, you had the choice to save Rapture somehow… but of course, that may be too much (and, uh, anti-American? Better start tea-bagging!)

In the end, I didn’t get the idea that objectivism in itself is ultimately flawed; rather, I got the idea that really crafty con-men can exploit any system (even in our society, whether for the poor, like welfare and food stamps, or for the rich, like Enron and Bernie Madoff). I guess what I’m saying is I’d like to see more political systems in action and more of the effects of those systems in games than the aftereffects.

Now, would you kindly post your thoughts and comments down below?

Share

  1. #1 by Character Sketcher on May 22, 2010 - 5:49 pm

    While I didn’t consider it from a very political perspective, I think you’ve identified what about this game felt so very bland to me. I had previously assumed this was a result of playing the game so very very late (about two months ago) after hearing so much hype about how it deconstructs the genre and so forth, but this makes more sense. The game is okay as FPS’s go – it functions, it has some interesting dynamics, it’s not too easy (until about halfway through the game when you have more money than you can spend and start mowing through things with an armory at your fingertips), controls are dodgy but serviceable – but the vaunted story just didn’t seem all that interesting.

    It had potential. It could have drawn me in, I think, if it had ever tried to do so…but it didn’t. The story seems to assume you’re invested in it simply because your circumstances dictate it is necessary to your survival to get involved, but I’m a gamer: life-or-death situations are my main fare. This is not a convincing argument for why I should care about the political background of the people I’m currently shotgunning in their mutated faces. You have to sell me on it.

    The child-trafficking angle was more interesting than the economic slant of the society shipping them around. I found myself wondering if their similarities were a result of cloning or gene therapy, why they all had to be girls (There were audio logs that mentioned in passing the hosts had to be children, but I don’t think I ever heard anything about why the children had to be female. Daddy’s girls easier to train than making boys behave? Girls marginally easier for the adults to stand having around than zombie boys? What?), what happened to all the OTHER children – seriously, maybe I’m just not remembering it but I can’t think of any indications of children existing in the city other than the Little Sisters, and no the toys and strollers don’t count because for all I know they’re just for show; there’s never a sign that children actually made use of them there. Maybe the parents just brought those things under the sea with them as mementos to reflect upon in the quiet moments of regret they felt about leaving their old lives behind in the “real world” on the surface.

    I could go on, but I think you get the point: the dynamics surrounding children in the game fascinated me; the objectivism detail feels tacked-on and useless for plot by comparison. I could care less and the game makes very little effort to educate me on what objectivism is and why I should care. As far as I’m concerned Ryan just sounds like an incredibly aggressive capitalist, which probably defeats the purpose of that foundation in the game.

    The mind control element is probably the one thing that directly ties the game to objectivism in being the total opposite of it, as I understand it: given objectivism is all about the personal contribution of individuals in the system etc., usurping the minds of people to make them not individuals but tools is destroying that system and making it into simple tyranny of sorts, yes? Making the baseline objectivism makes this plot point the ultimate insult in turning that baseline on its head…which only matters if you care about the original system in place (I didn’t) and otherwise functions as Standard Supervillain Plot for a game’s purposes. Serviceable, but not ground-breaking.

    Good lord this got long. Good writeup on the game – thought-provoking.

  2. #2 by kjohnson1585 on May 24, 2010 - 12:22 pm

    Character – that’s interesting. I never given much thought about the child-trafficking angle, as it seemed the game and the in-world stuff taken that side of events at face value. Of course, over-analyzing a game is a moot point, but considering that Bioshock seemed to bother to touch upon these elements, you would think they would explore one of these themes a bit deeper than “mere excuse to shoot badguys”. While you have a good point about the mind control idea, I wish the game explored that angle instead of leaving the gamer to figure it out.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. #3 by Calum on September 22, 2011 - 7:49 am

    HA! I see what you did there with the “would you kindly”. Clever.

    I’m trying to do as much research of objectivism, why the Right seem to hold onto it and why it’s so divisive. I haven’t had the time to thoroughly read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus yet despite getting it for Christmas last year and I just need to say that when you come up with a story, when you’re inspired by something, that usually just is the stepping stone to get the ball rolling as if you look at the making ofs and art books etc Atlas Shrugged itself was highly influential on the games. Not objectivism itself, mind – it is Atlas Shrugged that helped influence Bioshock. This is where a lot of people are getting confused thinking objectivism inspired it when it was just another work of literature inspiring another work of literature.

  4. #4 by Kevin on August 18, 2013 - 12:37 am

    The author of this piece would do well to do some of the research that the folks at Irrational engaged in when writing this game’s narrative.

    Rand herself created her protagonists as characters beyond corruption, human weaknesses, or any imperfection. What this game’s narrative posits is that Rand’s idealized human being simply does not exist. It simply places the realities of corruption and imperfection into the context of an idealized utopia that, by design, ignored these realities.

    So what the author perceives as an unfair depiction of Objectivism is, in essence, the simple introduction of human weakness into the existing “Galt’s Gulch” narrative of Rapture.

    I don’t think it’s an unfair critique to point out that people, given an unfettered environ in which to pursue their rational self-interest, can easily become corrupted in that pursuit.

  5. #5 by Admin on August 22, 2013 - 12:14 am

    Hi Kevin,

    First, we have the same first name. BOOM.

    Second, I certainly don’t begrudge the game or Irrational’s narrative choices. I enjoyed the game quite a bit, and its atmosphere, and the twist. And, unlike most gamers, I even enjoyed the post-twist gaming and Bioshock 2.

    I don’t think think the piece implies it’s an unfair depiction of Objectivism, although this was written a long time ago. I just felt it would have been more interesting to see the game during the peak of Rapture, and to play it through during its downfall. You’d feel more a part of the story instead of a scavenger exploring the aftermath.

    I suppose Irrational/2K Games may be thinking the same thing – if I’m not mistaking, one of the DLC for Bioshock Infinite is exploring Rapture in its prime.

    As for Objectivism? Yeah, it’s definitely built ready to be easily corrupted.

(will not be published)

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.