Beyond Bioshock | Relating back to Ayn Rand and philosophy

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 10:40 -- admin

I just found my final from a Bioshock class I took a few years back in college, and thought I'd make a blog post out of it.  The questions had to do with relating Bioshock to Ayn Rand's life and philosophy, and the growing complexity of our world via the Sleeper Curve.

Question 2:

The outcome of Bioshock is guided by the moral choices you make throughout the game, mainly focusing on the rescuing or harvesting of the Little Sisters.  The world around you acts differently based upon your actions, and it is your sense of self that truly causes you to make these moral judgments.  Joseph Campbell once said “Our life evokes our character”, which in this situation, means that your choices to either harvest or rescue the Little Sisters says something about who you are.  My decision to harvest every single Little Sister during the game says something about me that is not, however, a value judgment.  The battle between selfishness and altruism outlines the moral fabric of Bioshock.  It is only with a further understanding of the actual meaning of these terms in relation to Ayn Rand that I am able to dissect my choice to harvest the Little Sisters.

Ayn Rand defines selfishness as a “concern with one’s own interests” (Rand, 80), completely disbanding the negative connotation selfishness receives in the American culture.  She says that ethics and reasoning should define whether or not your choice is moral; there should be no predisposed notion that one should be acting to benefit others just because a society deems it “right” to do so.  Rand explains an example of an immortal, indestructible robot that cannot be affected by anything or be “for” or “against” anything in her paper called The Objectivist Ethics.  She says that this robot can have no goals or interests at all, due to the fact that nothing in the world can affect it in any way.  Only living beings can have goals and values, the ultimate value being an organisms standard of life, meaning “that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (Rand, 87).  Regarding this statement, Rand says that altruism, in the general sense, is completely corrupt.

Wiktionary defines altruism as being “regardful of others; beneficient; unselfish”, but this definition does not explain the positive connotation altruism receives in our culture.  Rand says that altruism substitutes the moral question “What is value?”  for the question “Who should be the beneficiary of values?” (Rand, 80)  This means that any act committed for the sole reason that one’s society depicts it as the “good” or “right” thing, to do is an act not based on reasoning or ethics at all.  It is with this understanding that I based my harvest/rescue choice on; I decided to harvest the Little Sisters based on the fact that I needed ADAM to survive, and I did not let society’s preconceived evil notion of selfishness get in my way.

At the end of the first level in the game, I was given the choice to either rescue or completely destroy a Little Sister, and this choice was mine alone.  The Little Sisters contain sea slugs that give the person harvesting them ADAM, which is the fodder for genetic modification in Rapture.  Tenenbaum and Atlas were both speaking to me at this time, Tenenbaum telling me that I would receive a reward later in life for rescuing the Little Sisters, and Atlas conveying that each Little Sister was a demon and that you needed the ADAM they possessed to further your own endeavors.  Both Tenenbaum and Atlas preach different viewpoints; Tenenbaum wants you to act altruistically, while Atlas implores you to act selfishly.  During their speeches, the Little Sister in at the end of the first level is screaming for you to leave her alone, crawling away from you and backing into a corner.  I chose to harvest the Little Sisters because of the current state of Rapture: every man has to fend for himself.  More ADAM meant a greater chance of survival for me, so logic and reasoning played an important role in my decision.  Disregarding any negative connotation selfishness has in our culture, I made this decision because ADAM was what I needed at the time, and my choice was concerned with my own interests, no one else’s.

All throughout the game, Bioshock forces you to make these types of moral judgment calls which I decided to make completely based on reason.  At one point in the game, I met a group of Little Sisters that said they weren’t supposed to go near me and that I was a terrible man for harvesting their sisters.  This is the negative connotation of selfishness at work in Bioshock; these Little Sisters were trying to guilt me into changing my ways by trying to make me feel that my values should be based upon those who benefit from my actions.  I continued to harvest all Little Sisters, focusing on my needs for ADAM alone because that was what I deemed important; what was in my best self-interest.  Andrew Ryan created Rapture on the sole basis of free enterprise and choice, so my actions made the most sense for the world I was living in.

The game designers created this type of moral problem in order to explore the type of thinking that goes into these decisions, as well as to try to get the idea across that selfishness does not need to have a negative connotation permanently stamped on it.  Acting altruistically is fine, if it is in your best interest as an individual to do so, or it is coincides with your ethics and values.  The designers are asking you to evaluate your decision to harvest/rescue not on the basis of what seems “good” or “evil”, they are asking you to evaluate yourself and your priorities.  This is evident in the connections between the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Bioshock.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma factors into Bioshock gameplay when dealing with logic.  In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, each prisoner is given the choice to either confess or not confess to their crimes.  If they both confess, a medium length sentence is awarded to both prisoners, but if they both do not confess, an even shorter sentence is given out.  If the first prisoner confesses and the other does not confess, this leads to the first prisoner walking free and the other prisoner receiving a long sentence.  However, both prisoners are not able to communicate with each other, so the game’s focus depends entirely on logic, as does Bioshock.  Bioshock tries to teach the player that their actions need to be derived from the logical answer their situation, as the Prisoner’s Dilemma tries to teach its readers to confess/not confess based on reasoning that will give you the shortest sentence.  The Prisoner’s Dilemma is asking you to make a moral decision to further your own self interests, not a moral decision to help the other prisoner.  The world of Rapture was created with the ideals that altruism is the root of all wickedness: that choice dependent upon the views of others is morally and ethically without reason.  The Prisoner’s Dilemma implores you to make a selfish choice: one that is based upon your own values and your values alone.  My choice to harvest the Little Sisters throughout Bioshock was based upon my quest to receive the most ADAM/power, it was not impacted by any social connotation of the decision.  The fact that I made this choice by my own accord, based upon what furthered my current goals, epitomizes the Prisoner’s Dilemma in full: the answer to any question must be made selfishly.  Ayn Rand would say if one chose to rescue Little Sisters throughout the game, it would have to be due to a personal choice without any influence from others judgments.  In response to Andrew Ryan’s question, “Is man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”, I answer with a resounding yes.

Question 3:

Bioshock is the epitome of the increase in complexity of the video gaming world.  There are multiple plots followed throughout the game, the choices you make decide later outcomes, and the whole philosophy behind the game obviously has ties to Ayn Rand’s and Joseph Campbell’s philosophies.  Campbell’s ideas surrounding heroes are explored, and Rapture can even be thought of as a sacred place.  It is this multitude of events and levels of intellect going on that make Bioshock what is it: a testimony to the Sleeper Curve.

Johnson says that the complexity of video games today, in that they require the player to acquire information and then figure out how to utilize that information successfully, mean our generation is getting smarter simply from playing them.  Johnson defines the processes of probing and telescoping as the means by which players learn through video games.
“Far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions” (Johnson, 41) said Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good For You.  Decisions in Bioshock, control the entire outcome of the game.  Probing, as Johnson said, is the act of learning different aspects of the gaming world not by reading a manual, but simply by doing.  In Bioshock, you are thrown into a world already in chaos, with no immediate goal.  Sure, you have an arrow that points you in the right direction and a map that you can follow, but these features are just tools to use to learn about Rapture.  At the start of the game, I watched in awe as a deformed creature is sent away by a rain of machine gun fire from a Security Bot.  From this scene, I learned what purpose Security Bots hold in the world of Rapture.  Shortly after receiving my first Plasmid, the Electro Bolt, I figured out simply by experimenting that shooting the bolt into a pool of water containing enemies will kill them instantly.  My knowledge of how that plasmid functioned was furthered by this experiment.  I was even asked to choose between harvesting and rescuing Little Sisters based on a moral choice; I did not actually know what could be done with the ADAM gained from them until I harvested one and explored the Gatherer’s Garden for myself.  It is with examples like these that Bioshock forces you to learn about your surroundings and to formulate a strategy in dealing with them.

The strategy developed from constant probing in Bioshock is called telescoping, coined by Steven Johnson.  Telescoping comes about as a result from probing; it is a strategy one has formulated based upon the learning of the individual.  For example, after receiving the camera in Bioshock, I was able to photograph my enemies, which I found unlocked damage bonuses and special tonics.  These bonuses and tonics helped me defeat my enemies more easily, so my strategy evolved into taking as many pictures of my enemies as possible.  I developed another strategy that aided in my destruction of the Big Daddies, the trap bolts.  Through constant experimentation, which is the essence of probing, I realized that putting five trap bolts in a hallway, followed by shooting the Big Daddy once, would cause him to charge at you which in turn ended his own life as he sprung the traps.  It is these strategies, these telescoping examples, that are formed from constant probing, that show the rise in complex media, which leads to discussion of the Sleeper Curve.

The Sleeper Curve is simply the effects of the rise in complex media: we as a society are able to handle more complex media, and it is making us smarter.  Take for instance the 1972 Atari game PONG; the only objective was to smack a ball back and forth.  Now look at Bioshock, which is a graphically immersing first person shooter that puts you in the shoes of Jack Ryan, tasking you with managing multiple relationships and plotlines, all the while making moral choices.  The level of thinking here, which requires constant probing and telescoping to succeed in the game, is the Sleeper Curve at work.  We as a society are able to handle more complex media than ever before, and as a result, the complexity of media keeps rising.

Bioshock is not only a complex piece of art, it fits into Joseph Campbell’s ideas on the hero’s adventure as well.  Campbell says that there are two different deeds a hero can perform: one, a physical deed like saving a life and two, a spiritual deed such as learning a mode of experiencing something.  Bioshock contains both of these deeds, in that Jack is tasked with the decision to save the Little Sister’s lives or not, and that throughout the entire game Jack is trying to find out who he is.  Through both physical and spiritual deeds, Jack’s journey coincides with Campbell’s notion that the “cycle throughout child/adult stages requires the death of the old condition, then the maturing of a new state.”  Jack is subject to Fontaine and Ryan’s mind control, until he uncovers the methods to relieve himself of this control.  It is through Tenenbaum, and the Lot 192 potion, that Jack is able to be reborn, matured into a new state where he can control his own actions.  Campbell says that these trials are very important in a hero’s journey, because they “transform the consciousness of the hero”.  Jack sacrifices something when he harvests/rescues Little Sisters, whether it be to himself or to others.  It is this sacrifice that puts him on a hero’s journey, whether he ends up as one or not.

The environment in which all of Jack’s actions take place, known as Rapture, is a sacred environment for the gamer.  Johnson said, “Life evokes your character”, which means that whatever you do in Rapture has a shadow cast from your own life.  You are able to be completely free of judgment from the real world of 2010; Rapture is available for you to explore and control how you wish.  Rapture was an especially sacred place for me because I thoroughly enjoy video games; Bioshock was my own personal “bliss station”.  Johnson said that the “realization of bliss comes with a passing moment when all else is aside”, which is what I feel when I am playing a game like Bioshock.  My personal ethics and values affect the outcome of Jack in Bioshock, no one else is making this decision for me.  My entire being is in tune with my full consciousness when I make choices in Bioshock, I am fully aware of what I am doing.  Bioshock is a place where I can control my own hero’s journey, all the way through his departure, fulfillment and return.  A hero such as Jack evolves as the culture around him revolves; Bioshock was born out of the culture of 2010.  The moral questions and decisions that we face in our own lives are reflected in Bioshock as it was created by designers experiencing these problems.  It is Bioshock’s representation of our culture, coupled with the fact that my personal actions in the game are not judged by anyone but myself, that make this game a sacred environment I thoroughly enjoy.

Jack’s becoming a Big Daddy at the end of the game symbolizes the hero’s journey in full: Jack, after all of his trials, is reborn as something new.  Reiterating Campbell’s idea that the hardships of a heroes journey “transform the consciousness of the hero”, everything in Jack’s life has lead up to the moment he faces Fontaine as a Big Daddy.  The designers put this part in the game to show you that even though you are now a Big Daddy, you are still superior to all other Big Daddies in that you are not bound by their choices.  You are free to do as you please, which summarizes your rebirth as something new.  At the beginning of the game you plunged deep into the ocean, symbolizing your entrance into the subconscious mind.  After becoming a Big Daddy, you rise up in the bathosphere to meet Fontaine, a symbolism that you have risen out of the subconscious and have been reborn as something new.  Furthermore, the bathosphere and the helmet of the Big Daddy are both circular, which symbolizes the unity that you have achieved in your life.  Jack’s transformation into a Big Daddy is the realization of the choices he has made on his journey: from them Jack has been reborn as a hero.