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"Bioshock" and the Dangers of Centrism

I've been writing about fiction and philosophy for over 6 years. I am also an enthusiast of politics and art.

Many adherents of Ayn Rand have criticized "Bioshock" for what they feel has been a misrepresentation of her philosophy.

Many adherents of Ayn Rand have criticized "Bioshock" for what they feel has been a misrepresentation of her philosophy.

When the first Bioshock game was released in 2007, it reinvigorated the first-person shooter genre by offering a novel setting, story, and most groundbreaking of all, a take on philosophy. Granted, that philosophy was the work of Ayn Rand, an untrained "philosopher" who established a cult of selfishness mostly based on her works of fiction.

Bioshock's Take on Capitalism

The plot of Bioshock was a satire of Rand, and in particular, her novel Atlas Shrugged. In that novel, the "producers" of society go on strike to protest against "the moochers." Bioshock follows a similar plot when Andrew Ryan founds the underwater city of Rapture. Rapture is a place where unregulated capitalism is the norm, and it soon goes horribly wrong. However, Bioshock is no defense of socialism or is even a particularly potent criticism of capitalism. Spoilers for all three Bioshock games follow.

Against Ayn Rand's Objectivism

Many adherents of Ayn Rand have criticized Bioshock for what they feel has been a misrepresentation of her philosophy. This comes from the presentation of how Rand's philosophy, called objectivism, is portrayed in the game.

Andrew Ryan created a society where there was no regulation, and when scientific breakthroughs occur, they become exploited and used in harmful ways without a government to show oversight of them. The criticism from objectivists is that the characters in Bioshock violate some moral prescriptions of objectivism in their actions, and therefore it is not a very good criticism of objectivism.

However, the failure to adhere to objectivist values is partially the point. Rapture is supposed to be a utopian society. As such, it is made up completely of entrepreneurs who adhere to Rand's view of the world. As one character states, "They forget that someone had to scrub the toilets."

Rand's view of the world is by its nature divided into winners and losers. There cannot be a society totally made up of winners, as the citizens of Rapture initially assumed, and this led to them being pitted against each other.

The game also criticizes Rand's over-reliance on science as a standard for innovation. Without regulation, or an ethical principle not based on self-interest, the invention of "plasmids" goes horribly wrong. The plasmids are used to exploit the populace of Rapture, and many people end up getting addicted to them. This is part of what leads to the downfall of this society.

The main point that the game is making is that Rand's view of how rational and free men should act would be unsustainable in a society where everybody acted that way. While the defenders of Rand argue that the characters do not adhere to Rand's philosophy they miss the point. The characters who abandon Rand's principles do so because it no longer serves their self-interest.

Against Utopianism

Looking at the three Bioshock games as a whole we see that the series is not against one particular ideology, but is against Utopianism as a concept. Bioshock 2 makes this clear from the outset, but this game was not made by the original team at Irrational Games, or Ken Levine, the mastermind who spearheaded the first game. However, in interviews, Levine has praised many elements of Bioshock 2, including what he portrays as its critique of socialism.

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If the first game attempts to show how Objectivism taken to its logical extreme is doomed to failure, the second game does so with a different ideology. That ideology is Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a major consequentialist ethical theory, but in its pure form, called 'act Utilitarianism" it can lead to some absurd results. The major maxim of Utilitarianism is that the morally correct action is the one that promotes the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

There have been a number of "thought experiments" that attempt to show the absurdity of this.

  • In one, a surgeon kills a healthy patient and distributes his organs to save four sick patients.
  • In another, a judge sentences an innocent man to death in order to prevent angry townspeople from rioting and more innocent people being killed.

In short, any act can be justified if it can be argued to promote the greater good. As a result, few philosophers today promote act Utilitarianism, with today's Utilitarians taking different models to try and make the theory viable.

Bioshock 2 portrays this ideology through the antagonist Sofia Lamb. The critique of Utilitarianism is not really the problem but the fact that many players and original Bioshock creator Ken Levine have labeled it socialism. In many cases, the principles of socialism are not derived from consequentialist moral theories, but the deontological model of Immanuel Kant. The philosophy of Karl Marx even has Kantian roots in many of its principles. This idea that the "good" is the center between two extremes extends to the third game, Bioshock: Infinite.

Bioshock Infinite

The third game in the Bioshock series returned to Irrational Games and original creator Ken Levine, but it seems obvious he was influenced by the second game somewhat, even though he had nothing to do with it. The third game takes place in a new Utopian setting, the city of Columbia, which hovers in the sky away from the rest of civilization. Columbia is a Christian theocracy, based on the concepts of American exceptionalism and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Bioshock Infinite has a number of great elements and is a very fun game to play. However, the subtext is more than a little troubling. The player controls Booker Dewitt, who turns out is an alternative universe version of the game's antagonist Zachary Comstock. Booker was a soldier who was haunted by the atrocities he committed at The Battle of Wounded Knee, and he turned to Christianity, was baptized, and later became Comstock. Booker has been sent to retrieve a girl named Elizabeth, who has the power to open tears into other universes.

The game seems interested in exploring some heavy themes in terms of the crimes committed by early Americans. Both the genocide of natives and slavery are addressed, in addition to the general anti-immigrant themes. However, where the game reveals its overall problem is with the radical leftist resistance group, Vox Populi.

The Vox Populi is led by Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman angered by the oppressive nature of Columbia's government. The main idea of the game seems to be that Daisy is turned into a monster by her opposition to Comstock, being willing to even murder a child. The problem is that Daisy is portrayed as rage-filled and unlikable from the start. The message that is sent is that the oppressed fighting against their oppressors is as bad as their oppressors simply by virtue of their willingness to fight back.

Perhaps more nuance was meant to be portrayed in this storyline. What we get, however, is the idea that the dynamic between the racists and anti-racists is similar to the one portrayed between capitalism and socialism in the previous two Bioshock games. That dynamic is questionable enough, with the portrayal of socialism being an outright straw man, but things get worse when it is transferred to the dynamic of racism.

The oppressive ruling class of Columbia is portrayed as outright horrible. Their racism, in particular, is vile. However, if the response of the Vox Populi is not justified, then what alternative does the game give? The answer is nothing. The player is not challenged in their own views because the views of both parties are so extreme, and the result is ultimately an endorsement of the status quo.

© 2019 Robephiles


Larry Slawson from North Carolina on March 16, 2019:

Really interesting article. I never got an opportunity to play Bioshock. But I have heard about some of the game's underlying messages. Very intriguing. Thank you for sharing!

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