Bioshock Infinite releases next Tuesday, March 26. A highly anticipated prequel to one of the most widely acclaimed video games in history, the title stands poised to awe not only with inspiring visuals and thrilling gameplay, but with a controversial critique of American Exceptionalism.
Film critic Roger Ebert earned the ire of gamers a few years ago when he ruled declaratively that video games can never be art. Emerging from the resulting swarm of agitated youth, Ebert later relented slightly, if only to admit that he really ought to experience video games before banishing them from the realm of artistic consideration.
An intriguing debate regarding what makes a thing art is woven through both of Ebert’s pieces linked above. However, the argument may be moot. It seems fair to say that when a craft begins to express complex ideas regarding the human condition, when it begins to stimulate thought and debate on matters of genuine import in the real world, when it can affect how you think about issues and what you believe about your world, it achieves the status of art.
By that standard, the video game industry has produced a bounty of artistic titles amidst a sea of thoughtless cookie-cutter fare. Of course, this makes video games no different than any creative medium. There exist far more vulgar scratches on bathroom stalls than masterpieces hung in museums, far more trashy romance novels than genuine epics, and certainly more popcorn flicks and action movies than truly inspirational films.
Like any medium, games can evoke powerful emotions and make compelling philosophical statements. The element of interactivity can heighten such moments beyond the experience of a novel, painting, or film. No longer a mere observer, what happens in a game happens to you. The world of the game and the characters which inhabit it change, live, and die according to the choices you make.
The inherent power of the medium proves all the more reason to treat it seriously as an influential artistic form. Therefore, as Bioshock Infinite makes its case against the notion of American Exceptionalism, we do well to pay attention and respond.
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.
Audio diaries scattered throughout the game slowly dispense the story as the player progresses. Rapture attracted free thinking and ambitious immigrants from every field of endeavor – scientists, artists, industrialists, and criminals. Invariably, all descended into madness as they became addicted to “splicing,” rewriting genetic code with chemical cocktails that enable super-human abilities.
The player becomes embroiled in the conflict between Ryan and a mysterious benefactor known only as Atlas. A twist upon John Galt, Atlas is an elusive rebel looking to escape the carnage of unchecked freedom.
The problem with Bioshock’s portrayal is that it excludes the central tenant of the objectivist ethic. Ryan details his vision for a city where “the scientist would not be constrained by petty morality,” as if Objectivism were amoral and ambivalent to the consequences of individual actions. A plastic surgeon goes mad and begins unconventional cosmetic adjustments to unwilling patients. An artist turns homicidal in pursuit of his craft. A crime lord builds an army of splicer addicts in a bid to take over the city. All the while, Andrew Ryan refuses to intervene lest he invite the scourge of “Big Government.”
Levine and company make an error common to critics of the Right, whether the specific target of their criticism is Objectivism, libertarianism, or the Tea Party movement. Rapture would be more accurately associated with the licentious anarcho-capitalism seen advocated among Occupy Wall Street protesters than the rights advocacy of Ayn Rand or the Tea Party. Rand was not anti-government, and never sanctioned the indulgence of harmful whim. On the contrary, Rand’s theory of individual rights requires a government which takes all measures necessary to protect people from the harmful actions of others. Unlike Andrew Ryan, were Rand the master of Rapture, she would enthusiastically sanction police action against its rights-violating denizens.
Levine and his team at Irrational Games further defame Rand’s philosophy by depicting a world where bibles and crucifixes must be smuggled in. In one setting, such a smuggler splays across a wall, sliced open and tied in the crucifixion position above crates of bibles. The implication is that Ryan, who will not act to govern murder, imposes upon the freedom of religion. While the atheist Ayn Rand held contempt for religious institutions, she defended the right of individuals to believe whatever they chose and never would have sanctioned a ban on bibles.
In spite of its mistreatment of Objectivism, Bioshock stands as an ambitious tale set in a marvelous, creepy dystopia. The narrative supports fanciful game mechanics much in the way The Matrix made wire-fu a believable combat form in a virtual world. Bioshock Infinite looks to match the original’s creative achievements. Unfortunately, it also looks to match the original’s philosophical sophistry.
At the root of the Bioshock series’ confused philosophical portrayal lays the false sense of moderation common to centrist politics, where the indecisive and unprincipled comfort themselves with the notion that both sides of a given argument are extreme. Levine hints at this as he discusses the conflict in the forthcoming Infinite between the leftist Vox Populi rebels of the floating city Columbia and their fanatic religious overlords, the Founders. The International Business Times shares his vision:
Troubled by historical conflicts like the North/South voting divide, Levine’s work explores the cynical middle ground:
“I think to take sides you have to be more idealistic than I am. The conflict between the Vox Populi and the Founders doesn’t really get resolved. I think to have it all get wrapped up would not be reflective of the existing left/right conflict.
“Political positions are often secondary to our nature; the idealistic natures of political movements are sullied by our weakness as human beings. We’re not as strong as our ideals…I think the American Utopian ideals that Jefferson and Franklin and Adams set out to make were designed specifically with a kind of cynical viewpoint. You can’t just make a set of ideals and expect those to change people.”
Hence the original Bioshock ended without taking a firm stance one way or the other on Andrew Ryan’s corrupted form of Objectivism. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? Levine and company aren’t saying. Nevertheless, the ideals articulated by Ayn Rand are not utopian. They account for the weaknesses of human beings, as they account for every fact of objective reality. There is nothing utopian about the notion that men ought to live free of coercion and fraud. The only obstacle to implementing that imperative in government is accepting it as unassailably true and morally right. Hence the Declaration of Independence preceded the Constitution.
While Bioshock Infinite will likely distort the concept of American Exceptionalism, at least it will get us talking about it. That’s more than can be said of the average first-person shooter game, and perhaps the distinction between mindless entertainment and a semblance of art.
New this week at PJ Lifestyle from Walter Hudson: 7 Real Life Lessons Learned in Video Games