Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Bioshock on objectivism

First, a dismissal, then a rebuttal, and then cake. Oops, wrong game.

I was not convinced by the narrative of Bioshock that objectivism as a philosophy ultimately leads to destruction, or that the game by utilizing narrative means is a critique of objectivism as a political theory. Others do not agree.

I argue that to criticize objectivism through the lens of Bioshocks’ narrative is similar to using the case of Soviet Russia to criticize communism. To begin with we have to agree that Rapture as a society failed in more than one way; neither did it oblige to the rules set out by a minimalist government approach to the state since law had been replaced by chaos when the player arrived, nor was it a success from the perspective of single individuals—that is Andrew Ryan, or me, and probably not you. The significance of an ideology for practical (as in possible) purposes in the future should be measured by it’s own statements and imperatives laid out by its’ theoretical framework, and not by the prerequisites and milieu of those who “abide” to the ideology or plan/execute the orders of (or outside of) that society in which the ideology takes place—insofar as the ideological statements to begin with have their basis in reality and a proper understanding of La condition humaine; otherwise the ideology is an utopia, something which I don't think Ayn Rand would want you to take objectivism for.

Now, what I can gather from the narrative and what it (implicitly) tells us in Bioshock is that in Rapture there were breaches in the imperatives laid out by the ideology supposedly adhered to. For once, religion found its’ way to Rapture, as can be seen by the bibles spread across some levels, and—arguably but not decisively—because of some citizens’ (whom I perceive as supposedly mad) knack for biblical allegories in their threats and ravings. Also, was not Andrew Ryan a megalomaniac? This is a simple pathological statement, but I think my saying this makes the point clear enough; crazy people will make crazy societies, even if they set out to make things right, and especially if they do not understand the ideological framework with which they work to begin with.

What I’m saying is that the games’ narrative didn’t give me conclusive evidence as to why rapture wasn’t an ideal society, and also didn’t hint about it strongly enough for me to perceive something along those lines. Instead, I started thinking that the city’s apparent failure could depend upon other factors, such as the individuals within it. Was Andrew Ryan a true objectivist? If ze was at the beginning, was ze towards the end of ze’s life? When Rapture started falling apart? The madness which infested Andrew’s haven could have unhinged once the breach of objectivist ideals were already underway—is objectivism to be put to blame for this?

I will leave you with these questions unanswered and instead bring up some other points and finally give you some cake. Concerning rational self-interest in objectivism: helping others is not a vice per se for an objectivist, tis’ only so when helping someone whose ethics (and/or ability, which are closely connected to ethics) are inferior to your own, and by helping that someone you are making a half-man king and mankind a disservice. Helping the little sisters can definitely be motivated by rational self-interest in this context. Killing the little sisters, on the other hand, can be motivated by the ideology of objectivism only when physical danger to someone’s person is a threat. Do the little sisters seem dangerous to you?

I argue that the ludonarrative dissonance when playing (the ludo part of the dissonance) as an objectivist and completing the game (the narrative part of the dissonance) is non-existing if you simply perceive rational self-interest from a different point of view, specifically, as in that interest being in harmony with helping others, if so only for ones own pleasure or for getting some answers. I as a player certainly wanted answers from Atlas, but since your avatar Jack had no narrative-infused motivations whatsoever, giving a narrative explanation for helping out Atlas was impossible, thus creating a sense of ludo-narrative dissonance.

I will leave it at that and propose my own theory concerning rationality, free will and the scene where the murder of Andrew Ryan and the “death-disarm” takes place. Yes, I too “… see all this as a parable about gaming" as Iroquis Pliskin put it, but also as a possible reading on objectivism. A quote from Roger Travis at Living Epic:

"By the shorthand “death-disarm” I mean to refer to the entire sequence of the cutscene in which your character kills Andrew Ryan and the gameplay sequence that follows, in which the game will not progress unless you obey Atlas and disarm Ryan’s auto-destruct sequence."

I will borrow something from Pliskin once again, namely the malignant demon which in Pliskins reading is the authour/designer. This time imagine the malignant demon having the original meaning set out by Descartes/Cartesius twisted to invoke society as looking glass. I do not want this invoked Cartesian society to be about oppression committed by the majority (as seen in classical individualist ideology), or in behaviourist analysis of mass-psychosis states (such as Nazi-Germany), but rather about social pressure as a part of La condition humaine in every society. Simply; man is not man as we know man without society as we know society.

One becomes a savage when growing up without other human beings. Is a feral child able to make rational choices? Are socialized humans able to do it? What is this elevated state which some humans seem to have, while others not, even if the biological prerequisites among people differ insignificantly? Does the act of simply being with other human beings who are more rational than oneself make someone more capable of rational thought? Is rationality a tool?

Let’s say assume that Mowgli is capable of rational thought then, but how can anyone at all make decisions independently of opinions and attitudes of the surrounding people, the generalized others if you would, when they are part of the environment just as much as anything else? The only ones who are not affected by the feelings of other people are those diagnosed as psychopaths, yet I dare say that even those diagnosed as psychopaths are influenced by their peers. An internalized peer review comes with socialization is my understanding of all this.

Now, finally, on objectivism: one of the three axioms which objectivist philosophy comes from is the one concerning epistemology, namely—reason. The first point I’ve already made to some extent, which would be how we can trust other people to inform us with rationally perceived information and logic, and how can we trust our own processing of that and different information; the problem with the moral choice concerning harvesting vs rescuing little sisters is that we simply do not know just how dangerous they are, if they are at all, and what we should do about it from a rational point of view. A may be A, but what the hell is A? Can we even recognize it? What is the meaning of the question asking the meaning of life?

The second point I will make is concerning the corollary axiom of reason—the exercising of free will—, which presupposes reason in objectivist philosophy. If objectivist rationality did not exist, and these two are so interdependent upon each-other, would not the free will disappear? What happens in the scene you kindly murder Andrew Ryan? Exactly that;player agency disappears.


  1. It's certainly true that Ken Levine and the rest of the Bioshock team presupposed a failed Galt's Gulch, and then explained the failure by releaving clues throughout the game. Perhaps a more suitable treatment of Objectivism, or at least a more fair premise for debate, would be modeling Objectivism as an option among other ethical or religious systems in a "4X" game? Then, at least, we could discuss whether the mechanics and associated dynamics were potentially accurate.

    Ah, but we'd likely find ourselves ultimately stuck in the age-old argument of theory versus practical implementation. Practice never lives up to the pristine beauty of theory, but theory without implementation isn't often going to make any more tangible difference in individual lives than dreams would.

  2. How would we measure happiness of subjects incorporated in these ethical or religious systems and their respective "civilizations"? Even if we did find a way, Rand does state that an action can be immoral even if the results are good, because there is a moral lesson lost on someone performing an action without being aware of its consequences. On the other hand, if the ideals of objectivism or a different ethical/political system were implemented in a very extensive way for this 4X game, then perhaps the game would be able to tell us 'something' about the world and ethics anyway.

  3. Sorry for not responding to this sooner.

    Games like Civilization create abstractions out of things like productivity and average happiness per capita, and these things are influenced by things such as government choice--and, as someone like Ian Bogost can tell you, the way the model interprets reality is, in fact, an arguement that reality works roughly like the model. (Example: In Civ 1, I found that communist governments had a decided advantage--a tacit argument in favor of communism as the most effective way to govern.)

    Civilization IV introduced the ability to choose specific state religions (though they're functionally all the same--a deliberately avoided opportunity) and replaced the old choice of government type with a choice of "civics" in various sub-categories. Like with the old government choice, you'll see in that link that civics choices change the way your country works. I was wondering where Objectivism might fall into that type of dynamic (though Objectivists may have an easy time picking the ethically superior option in each case, there may be even better "civics" that aren't in the game).

  4. I think you guys really missed the point of the game, and it's that the cunning and emotionally unaffected sociopaths thrive in an environment with no social or moral bounds...

  5. I was waiting to see if Ava wanted to reply to this, but I think it's my turn.

    BioShock and its sequel, in light of their position as something of an epilogue to Atlas Shrugged, stand as an imagining of how Galt's Gulch (from the end of Atlas Shrugged) would play out. It's by no means a formal argument, but the gist seems to be that (some flavored version of lower-case "O") objectivism and an extremely limited government don't last long in practice.

    It's an interesting charge, since Ayn Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged and survivor of the Russian Revolution) was a vocal critic of communism and socialism not on a basis of their failures in practice, but on ethical and philosophical grounds.