Atlas shrugged-and built an underwater nightmare…
|Though at heart a darkly entertaining first person shooter, the 2007 game Bioshock takes the time to quite explicitly turn Ayn Rand’s vision of paradise on its head.|
|Background: As the game begins, the lone survivor of a plane crash finds a strange tower in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As he makes his way into a bathysphere, a slide show dramatically introduces him to Rapture, the secret, underwater city created by Andrew Ryan.|
|Bioshock (2007), by 2K Games|
|Opening scenes (edited).|
|Original footage (here edited for length) posted in YouTube by WarpNine|
Themes: Moral individualism, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, greed.
Bioshock is one of the best selling games of the last decade, with a very recognizable imagery and style. It was followed by Bioshock 2 and Bioshock Infinite. Any videogame fan will immediately recognize it even if they haven’t played it, so it makes for a very popular frame of reference for philosophical discussion.
In the game, the player discovers by accident an underwater city, “Rapture,” created by tycoon Andrew Ryan. In the spirit of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Ryan has tried to build a purely capitalist civilization, where no “parasites” suck the efforts of the hardworking few. Additionally, this civilization will not be hindered by “petty moralities.”
Naturally, the experiment has gone catastrophically bad, and the city is collapsing while bands of crazed genetically engineered individuals brutally murder each other. Ryan himself has become a ruthless tyrant.
The references to Rand are quite explicit, as is its inspiration. The main character is guided by one Atlas, who has become Ryan’s nemesis. Posters inquiring “Who is Atlas?” echo the iconic “Who is John Gault?” of Rand’s novel. Adam Smith and Keynes curiously make an appearance in a shared tombstone!
While the game is obviously critical of Rand’s views, it is doubtful whether it presents anything like a real argument. This said, the main cause of the city’s catastrophic decay seems to be the madness caused by “splicing,” genetic enhancements akin to superpowers, which, it could be argued, is a direct consequence of abandoning “petty moralities.” And it is suggested that the collapse of Rapture may have been brought upon by greed, causing a civil war between the controlling Ryan and a mobster called Fontaine. So those themes can be explored as implicitly criticizing Rand.
The main value I see in this clip is that it shows some unexpected connections with philosophy. It can be quite a surprise for young students to see how philosophical ideas that were fiercely discussed during the mid-20th century have now given shape and texture to one of the most popular game series of this decade! So in this case I would recommend first to show the student some of Rand’s interviews (look below for the links), which are extremely interesting and thought-provoking, whether your students agree with her views or not (I don’t; but I love to see my students torn between a gut-based disagreement, and the inability to put into words what is it that bothers them). Then, after some discussion, show them the Bioshock clip and discuss some of the connections.
“In the end, all that matters to me is me, and all that matters to you is you. It is in the nature of things.”
Andrew Ryan, underwater tyrant
Questions for discussion:
- Assume you know nothing of what Ryan’s vision has turned into: what would be your opinion of his project?
- “Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” What is implied by this question? Why does Ryan use it to open his statement? [This may lead into an interesting discussion about rhetorical devices.]
- Ryan’s vision could be categorized as “moral individualism.” Can this philosophy be actually put in practice? What do you imagine a society would be if ruled by moral individualism?
- Or perhaps: Is the ruling philosophy in the U.S. a moral individualism? Yes, no, why?
- Is Ryan onto something, and if so, what? Or is he oversimplifying the issues? And if so, how?
- Ayn Rand interviewed by Mike Wallace (1959). This short interview goes straight to the issues (About 30′, though showing just about 10 or 15 gives you enough to talk about for one class period.)
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