I Game, Therefore I Am
Published Feb 20, 2010"For every choice, there is an echo. With each act, we change the world. One man chose a city, free of law and God. But others chose corruption. And so the city fell. If the world were reborn in your image, would it be paradise, or perdition?" ― Dr. Sofia Lamb, Bioshock 2
Videogames may not be passive, but rarely has it been considered a thoughtful medium. Rather, gaming has mostly been viewed as merely reactive and, besides some puzzle-solving, hardly a workout for one's mental muscles.
Ah, but then along came BioShock in 2007, a thinking person's first-person shooter rooted in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. Rand ― and her inspired-by BioShock avatar Andrew Ryan ― reject the sublimating influence of altruistic religion, activist government and socialist economics in favour of a hyper-capitalist and ultra-libertarian creed of self-sufficiency, self-interest and, indeed, selfishness.
Set in the seabed city of Rapture ― its civic slogan: "No Gods or Kings. Only Man" ― the underwater metropolis was intended to be a laissez-faire land where, as its industrialist founder Ryan said, "the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small."
By the time we first arrived in Rapture, having escaped a mid-Atlantic plane crash and made our way down via a mysterious lighthouse bathysphere, paradise was already lost.
But as we battled through the Art Deco dystopia, it was revealed via shortwave messages, flashbacks, graffiti and audio diaries that the city had collapsed under the weight of Objectivist ideology once its free-market moralism met ADAM, a gene-modifying substance that allowed the city's best and brightest to make themselves better and brighter with fantastical powers like shooting electrical bolts, fireballs and even swarms of bees out of their hands.
Ryan had hoped his submersed city would allow man to reach his full potential, but ultimately all that was fully realized was man's potential for self-destruction. A power struggle between an increasingly tyrannical Ryan and the anti-elitist insurgent Atlas (a hat-tip to Rand's polemic Atlas Shrugged) led to civil war between armies of insane ADAM-addicted "splicers." (This class conflict, sparked by a New Year's Eve 1958 sneak attack at a masquerade ball, sorta unrolls in BioShock's 2's multiplayer section.)
Though it turned out Atlas was not a working-class hero but an alias of fisherman-turned-ADAM-dealing mobster Frank Fontaine, it was the fault-lines in Ryan's every-man-for-himself philosophy (in particular, egregious economic disparity) that facilitated Fontaine's rise. As the man said, people came to Rapture "thinking they're gonna be captains of industry. But they all forget that somebody's gotta scrub the toilets."
The first BioShock was widely interpreted as a takedown of Objectivism ― but the sequel, while admittedly made by a different creative director, reveals the series to more concerned with dismantling any ideology that is taken to its extreme.
Set a decade later, Rapture has gone in a completely opposite philosophical direction thanks to the city's new leader, evolutionary psychologist Sofia Lamb, who is inspired by John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism and Karl Marx's socialism. Like the communist-capitalist whiplash once common to South American politics, Lamb has replaced Ryan's egoist rule with a collectivist cult of splicers known as the Family. Though Lamb considers herself an altruist, her all-in belief in the common good is as corrupted and socially destructive as Ryan's.
Other philosophical dilemmas explored by BioShock include moral relativism and free will. The original game was also a meta commentary on the illusion of free agency in first-person shooters, as a now-legendary plot-twist revealed ― spoiler alert ― that up to that point you were brainwashed and being controlled by a trigger phrase. In the sequel, you play as the game's iconic diving suit-adorned Big Daddy drone, but one who has somehow achieved free will and regained responsibility for his own actions. So your moral decisions are far deeper than the original's superficial rescue or harvest of the ADAM-scavenging Little Sisters, and every choice has implications.
BioShock's thoughtfulness has slowly started to infiltrate the industry. Zen meditation has been explored by Jenova Chen's first-person wind game Flower while the malleability of time and fragility of love is examined in Jonathan Blow's melancholy, Super Mario-inspired side-scroller Braid. Academics have jumped onboard with books like Philosophy Through Video Games, which examines such topics as the metaphysics of Wii Sports, and The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy: I Link Therefore I Am, which wonders if Hyrule can be seen as an ideal society and if games can be enjoyable without winning.
But BioShock is by far the big daddy of philosophical gaming. Though one can easily play both entries without looking beyond the Art Deco atmospherics, bad-ass boss battles and wildly inventive weaponry, the games are far more rewarding for those who dig deeper into the narrative's philosophical underpinnings. BioShock's braininess moves it well beyond the tired are-games-art argument and into can-game-make-you-think? Spend a few days in Rapture and the affirmative answer won't be shocking.