By Emma Louise Backe
BioShock’s impeccable, steam-punk inspired graphics, superb game design, innovative and evocative storytelling and underlying political, social and economic commentary made the game an instant sensation that revolutionized the gaming industry. The game received numerous awards and provoked critical attention for its artistry, included in books like Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media (2008) and exhibits on video game art by the Smithsonian. The game’s appeal speaks to the multiple, and expertly crafted creative layers that make BioShock continually playable, revealing new insights and mysteries with each exploration. But BioShock is also evocative due to the dystopian society, the labyrinthine, enigmatic story, and the moral and bioethical subtext that informs and drives the narrative. The immersive storytelling experience rewards multiple rereadings and can be approached with an eye toward textual analysis. As a student of both anthropology and literature, I was most drawn to the biopolitical controversies BioShock provokes. Andrew Ryan’s supremacy of the individual and the ego are analogous to Ayn Rand’s philosophies of Objectivism expressed in The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), so that BioShock’s Rapture is grounded in the same self-deterministic principles as Galt’s Gulch. The laissez faire economy of Rapture and supposed sovereignty over your own destiny are turned on its head through the game mechanics, story development and disclosed audio diaries, raising questions about individual agency and the governmental control over the human body. As you first enter Rapture, you encounter signs proclaiming, “We’re not your property!” and “Ryan doesn’t own us,” yet the sinister reality is that the citizens of Rapture are genetically manipulated and controlled like objects without even realizing their subjugation.
The medical experiments conducted by Dr. J.S. Steinman present an ulterior aesthetic philosophy, one that elevates a radical form of beauty that strains for superhuman perfection yet deforms the visage of the patient beyond human recognition. Rapture citizens are morally compelled to achieve beauty and progress into a state of near divinity. Steinman’s character and aesthetic ideologies can be further situated in the history of eugenics, its appropriation by Hitler for his Nazi regime, and the medical experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele. Through Steinman’s medical experiments, individual value is placed on appearance and is perceived as an outward demonstration of inner beauty. Not only does Steinman elicit harrowing historical resonances, but his experiments also serve as a warning to contemporary society as plastic surgery become normalized and individuals reformulate and endanger their bodies to fit ever changing aesthetic ideals.
BioShock also speaks to the bioethical dilemmas of our time. The creation of ADAM and plasmids reformulated human genetics, promising the potential of superhuman powers and instead perverting humans into zombified Splicers, individuals that could be considered post-human. The creation and subsequent commodification of the Little Sisters further represents the dangers of an occult, capitalist economy, in which supply and demand reproduce schisms and hierarchies of dispossession. The Little Sisters are seen as monstrous by their very creators, yet are seen as necessary devices for Rapture’s social order and sustainability. We can see the way that certain bodies are deformed and objectified by certain medical establishments and global power structures, just as those in Third World countries are often coerced into selling their organs to support their family, victims of a global market in human materials created by biomedical innovations. As Lars Schmeink points out, “In Our Posthuman Future, Fukuyama claims that ‘the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a “posthuman” stage of history’” (2009). What will the encounter between human and posthuman look like, Schmeink wonders. It is clear from the rendering of biotechnology in BioShock, and its perversion of human society and morality, that the alteration of human nature will not be fortuitous, nor will it usher in a better version of human society. BioShock is a fictional harbinger, an experiment of what our potential posthuman future.
BioShock encourages video game writers to construct complicated, morally vexing worlds that make us consider the history that has determined our present, and the future that may emerge from our contemporary society, global assemblages, and concepts of harm and personhood. BioShock teaches us as much about our society, as it makes us think about the society that we hope to inhabit and build in years to come.
BioShock (2007). 2K Games & Feral Interactive.
BioShock Wiki. http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/BioShock_Wiki
Schmeink, Lars (2009). “Dystopia, Alternate History and the Posthuman in Bioshock.” Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies, Vol. 10.