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Bioshock Infinite Vs. American Exceptionalism

While elevating gaming to a semblance of art, the dystopian series takes unwarranted shots at both Ayn Rand and the Founders.

Walter Hudson


March 21, 2013 - 9:10 am
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Big Hollywood previewed the new game in February, expressing concern that it will foster distorted views of American history and vilify patriotic movements like the Tea Party. Noah Dulis writes:

Infinite is a spiritual sequel to Irrational Games’ 2007 hit BioShock. In the original, studio head Ken Levine and his team examined Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy in a fictional underwater meritocracy gone mad called Rapture. This time, the developers are ostensibly tackling the concept of American exceptionalism through the isolated denizens of Columbia.

“The American Exceptionalism, theocracy-based power structure has been around the edges of American culture for a long time,” Levine says. “BioShock Infinite gives it its full day in court.”

The problem is that the representatives of this philosophy, the Founders, are straw men. Racist, xenophobic, religious fanatics, they are progressive caricatures of conservatives writ large, stripped of any subtlety; nothing but ugly monsters full of naked aggression and violent bigotry. Levine claims, “We don’t try to go into these things with a particular axe to grind,” but it’s hard to accept his assertion based on what has been shown of the game to this point.

Indeed, a review of the narrative content in the original Bioshock proves Dulis’ concern well founded. If Irrational Games’ treatment of American Exceptionalism is anything like its treatment of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the court Levine holds will house a kangaroo.

Bioshock’s underwater city of Rapture sprang from the vision of antagonist Andrew Ryan. As the player descends into watery depths during the game’s opening moments, Ryan explains the philosophy which drove him to abandon life above the waves and build a brave new world on the bed of the Atlantic. Readers of Atlas Shrugged will immediately recognize the tone and tenor of author Ayn Rand, whose name is a partial anagram of Ryan’s.

Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?

“No,” says the man in Washington, it belongs to the poor.”

“No,” says the man in the Vatican, “it belongs to God.”

“No,” says the man in Moscow, “it belongs to everyone.”

I rejected those answers.

Rapture serves as a practical laboratory where Levine and his team at Irrational Games imagine how Ayn Rand’s theory of individual rights might play out in the real world. They portray an unmitigated disaster where Ryan’s refusal to govern enables rampant crime, tragic abuse, and a hellish carnival of social Darwinism.

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I just finished BioShock Infinite. I mostly enjoyed it: the graphics, art, and gameplay were good. However, I was disappointed by the ending -- I should not have to read Wikipedia to figure out what actually happened. Also (and I had a hunch this would happen after a couple occurrences during the game), I think the concept of "tears" was used as a sort of crutch to get away with a weaker plot -- much as time travel is often abused in the movies. I think there was a lot of anticipation for this game (including my own), but ultimately I think it was overhyped; I would not rate it any higher than 8/10.

As for the knocks at Objectivism and American Exceptionalism, I think the author of the article is correct, but as at least one of my fellow commentators has pointed out, the various BioShocks fail at both because Ken Levine doesn't seem to understand either one. Instead, he posits straw men. Fortunately, a concretization of the application of Objectivist principles does exist, although not in video game form: the novel Atlas Shrugged. And those of us who still believe in American Exceptionalism can see that we are living it, despite the efforts of many of our so-called elected leaders.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I agree with the assessment. I predict I will find myself often frustrated at the straw men they prop up as the "founders", however I will probably still buy (and love) the darn game.

Side note: I don't think Vox Populi (nor OWS) are supposed to be Anarcho-Capitalist, but Anarcho-Syndicalist (i.e. socialist anarchists), hence the name Vox Populi "the voice of the people."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I just finished the game.

You pretty much get the whole story in the previews in regards to the ideas presented.

The Founder Faction has elevated the Founding Fathers to deity level beings along with their prophet Father Comstock who himself fought at Wounded Knee.
The good father (sarcasm ;D) is pretty much a racist asshat on his face but there is a great deal more to the story.

As for the Vox they don't really have a system in place. They simply want to be elevated to where the others are.

In total the game distorts things like they did with the last two but aside from some minor issues on the actual game side that are hardly worth the time to dwell on it's a fantastic game where only flaw is how fast it seems to go by.

The ending gotta see it. It's...epic.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"You can’t just make a set of ideals and expect those to change people."

Isn't that what the founders said, anyway? Isn't that the whole point of putting limits on government?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm playing the game now and I'll be honest:

You Need To Play It First!

You are between the extremes in Infinite. The Founders which take extreme views on what they deem American.

Then you have the Vox Populi which are defined as Anarcho-Capitalist.

First game was a distorted Objectivist line.

Second game (the one you did not mention) is based on collectivism.

Fact is that Bioshock is about the extreme lengths of various ideals.

I happen to like all three games because I recognize that they are in fact extrme distortions.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Not all players do, though. I recognized it in Bioshock, just as you did, but met many MORE people who thought it was an accurate representation of what Objectivism is in real life.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
An interesting bit I noticed in the first Bioshock is the real villain of the game is the guy promising collectivist utopia to anyone willing to make him their defacto king.

The authors tried to make Rand the scapegoat for Rapture's demise, and, in the end, failed. The needs of the story demanded it. I rather expect Infinite will end up the same way, or won't work as a story. Your characters have to behave like real people, or it withers on the vine.

You could argue that Rand was a heartless , but her sort is never the ones who set up the gas chambers.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Bioshock's first sequel, simply Bioshock II, was made by another developer. It showed the other side, as it were. A collectivist psychologist, Sofia Lamb, seeks to meld religion and communism. You play one of her fist victims, a Big Daddy, a previously mindless animal made from a man. Your "little Sister," another apersonal abomination, who has been freed, revives you. Big Daddy's and Little Sisters are necessary to acquire the means to give men the incredible abilities the player can use.

She is Eleanor Lamb, the daughter of Sofia. Sofia seeks to destroy her daughter by giving her all the gifts and memories of the people of Rapture. Eleanor revives you to stop Sofia. Sofia is Ryan's opposite in everyway, using the idea of utopia to excuse any immoral action. The only morality to her is the good of the collective. Eleanor responds to decisions you make, being merciful or brutal. She can become the straw man Ryan on steroids, or she can become something closer to Rand's true philosophy, wanting to quietly pursue her own good without harming others.

The second game is much more personal. I prefer the second game to the first. The Minerva's Den DownLoadable Content is probably one of the best DLC packages out there.

I'm not sure if I'll get Infinite. I knew it was going to critique hyper-nationalism, but I'll probably get very angry at the religious and conservative straw men. (The first game was okay because I respect Rand, but I definitely reject objectivism).

Why does nobody critique the hypernationalism on the left? Obama and other progressives conflate patriotism with support for an expansive federal government. Patriotism is more about the government, but also for American culture and history. The true patriotic appreciation for our government should not be for what it does, but for how the government is limited to ensure the liberty of Americans. Pride in the Bill of Rights and our history of limiting government power is real patriotism, not pride in entitlements. Our pride in our military walks a thin line. Patriotism honors the sacrifice of our military to protect our liberty, but historically progressives, from Wilson to Obama, have only expressed pride in our military as an example of collective discipline and power.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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