BioShock wastes no time getting the player to Rapture, a self-contained underwater city. Free from restriction by government and religion, Rapture’s inhabitants had the chance to freely pursue their ambitions. Rapture’s founder created this paradise as an arena where everyone could compete for their desires and a free market would determine the winners. Ultimately though, it stands the test of time because it is about philosophy as much as it is about gunplay.
Ayn Rand and Objectivism
Andrew Ryan is a transmutation of the name, Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) promoted Objectivism and believed that humans were free to use reason to pursue happiness. Ayn Rand maintained that free-market capitalism was the ideal way to achieve this happiness. Andrew Ryan created Rapture to ensure non-interference from government and freedom from what he viewed as a parasitic society.
“I had thought I had left the parasites of Moscow behind me.” Ryan supported laissez-faire economics, a form of capitalism where individuals buy, trade, and sell without government interference. Ryan expressed complete disdain towards anyone who thought they deserved anything more than they earned. This distinction between Man and Parasite is not based on greed, but on selfishness. Like Rand, Ryan was unapologetic in his stance that one’s intellect, determination, and effort are the key to achieving one’s desires.
Consistent with Randian philosophy, Ryan believes that our only moral obligation is to our own happiness. The path to happiness is not caring for others, but pursuing and acquiring whatever one desires. Ayn Rand grew up in real-world Russia and described non-enterprising citizens as parasites, moochers, and looters. In Rand’s 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, several prominent characters withdraw from private enterprises because of government regulation. The characters desired to establish a new society where only they were entitled to the fruits of their labor.
“A man builds, a man creates, a man invents.” To do otherwise is to be a Parasite. Ryan does not seem to leave room for grayness between the extremes of capitalism and socialism. Like Rand, Ryan found government regulation (interference) unacceptable. Anything less than unfettered free trade was Marxist. This excluded the possibility of a social market economy (or regulated economy). Most 21st-century capitalist economies are regulated to some extent. This means that governments can limit the power of corporate entities. In a regulated economy, governments can establish laws to protect competitors, consumers, and laborers.
In BioShock‘s audio diaries, Ryan does not deeply address competition, consumption, or labor. Supporters of laissez-faire capitalism assert that markets will self-regulate. This means that creative and efficient entrepreneurs will prosper and others will fail. Objectivists do not believe that the government should intervene in this process by supporting competitors who were not smart enough or strong enough to achieve their desires. Like Rand, Ryan regards any sense of entitlement to anything unearned as morally unsound. The free market will determine the winners and the losers according to natural law.
John Locke and Trade
John Locke (1632 – 1704) was an English philosopher who had a major impact on the establishment of the United States government. Similar to Ayn Rand, Locke believed that reason was our greatest asset. Locke applied reason to questions of religion, science, metaphysics, society, and politics. BioShock makes no direct reference to Locke, but his ideas underly basic tenets of capitalism, particularly currency and trade.
“Free enterprise is the foundation upon which our society has been established.” Ryan spoke about industry as if it were a religion or way of life. John Locke lived before the Industrial Revolution, but firmly believed in the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property. Locke reasoned that a stable and prosperous society would depend on the trade of goods and services, currency being necessary to facilitate this.
Any tradable item can loosely work as currency, but Locke believed that economies require a currency that could represent value. It is much more practical to describe the values of goods and services in terms of units – like dollars, euros, pounds… Interestingly, American dollars are imprinted with “In God We Trust”, whereas Rapture’s dollars have Andrew Ryan’s likeness. Ryan despised religion, but a player could infer that this was an attempt to present himself or his image as sacred to his new society.
Rapture’s Pursuit of Industry
“There is something more powerful than each of us, a combination of our efforts: a Great Chain of industry that unites us.” Rapture’s citizens were free to buy, trade, and sell at the behest of the free market, which focused largely on plasmids, serums that gave users special abilities. Consistent with Locke’s economic philosophy, Rapture’s citizens’ labor played a role in exploiting Sea Slugs in order to develop this product. BioShock’s Splicers, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters were all necessary to maintain production. Ryan was concerned with Frank Fontaine’s illegal activities and the possible consequences for Rapture. Ryan seemed fine with Fontaine’s plasmid business, even though Fontaine seemed to have a monopoly on plasmids. However, Ryan seemingly contradicted his belief in unregulated commerce by preventing Fontaine from unrestricted trade. Fontaine arguably would have been permitted to continue producing plasmids if he operated within Rapture’s law and limited his contact with the outside world.
“This war ain’t about Ryan and Atlas… it’s about ADAM my friend… Those who gots it and those who don’t.” Atlas (aka Frank Fontaine) was not willing to limit his plasmid enterprise to Rapture. The title of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged references the Greek Titan who upheld the world on his shoulders. Rand’s novel highlighted the ways in which private industry leaders refused to support a welfare state. In BioShock, Atlas rallied the people and seemed to lead them to revolution against Andrew Ryan. However, Atlas’s singular focus was to acquire the excretion of the Sea Slugs and uphold the plasmid industry. The Sea Slug excretion called ADAM was used to create plasmids that were in high demand. EVE was a byproduct of ADAM and was necessary for consumers to use the plasmids they purchased. The schools and orphanages were means to perpetuate trade in order to supply the consumers with the products they demanded.
“It is only when we struggle in our own interest that the chain pulls society in the right direction.” Like many economic theorists, Locke believed that government should ensure fairness in the marketplace and prevent disproportionate wealth. These ideas go directly against Ryan’s beliefs that there should be no limits on an individual’s potential to achieve and acquire. Ryan regards anything less than pure capitalism as equivalent to extreme socialism, but Ryan attempted to stop Fontaine from trading with the surface. In this specific case, Ryan was more concerned with Rapture being kept secret than guarding free trade.
Ryan’s actions suggest that measures should be taken to protect the market instead of following the natural law of the free market. I believe that Ryan would see this as a social benefit, but it seems somewhat hypocritical. I once worked for a German who openly ran the company on the principle of social capitalism (aka soziale Marktwirtschaft). Basically, he believed employees should get more pay, vacation, and benefits as the company became more profitable. BioShock does not explore this middle ground, but this form of social capitalism seemed effective for my German boss to grow the company. Perhaps Bioshock‘s creators were suggesting that some flexibility or balance was necessary to maintain a healthy economy and society.
Commerce of Video Games
It is interesting to consider how video games exist at the intersection between art and business. In Bioshock 2’s Minerva’s Den DLC, there is an audio diary named Spitfire by Johan Mordhagen. He describes looking at a screen, controlling an X, and shooting at several 0s – like a fighter jet shooting at enemies. His supervisor saw no value in the project, but Mordhagen wondered if it is “better to change what’s on a screen than just to stare at it?” In the fictional world of BioShock, video games did not develop beyond this point. In the real world, video games emerged in the 1950s, but they were not commercial products until the 1970s. BioShock represents the creative efforts of writers, animators, designers, musicians, and many other artisans. It exists because a company (like 2K) decided that there was profit to be earned by disseminating the creators’ vision.
In a recent interview between Colin Moriarty and Matt Stoler, Matt stated that “capitalism works because you take a bunch of inputs, combine them into something new, and sell that new thing for more than it cost to make all the inputs.” As video games require the time, energy, and technology of many parties, it makes sense that private companies would demand currency in exchange for these products.
In Bioshock, Frank Fontaine harnessed citizens’ labor in criminally dangerous ways. Modern video game publishers leverage workers’ labor to create products that are (hopefully) humanely produced. Most video game consumers are probably unable to appreciate the value of the required inputs. We have to decide if the cost is worth the capital earned by our labor. Video games are indulgences that some of us are fortunate enough to enjoy if the fruits (or outputs) of our labors are surplus to our immediate needs.
BioShock as a Hands-On Thought Problem
“It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.” Andrew Ryan created Rapture as the only way to fully effect his beliefs about human potential. Ken Levine, the studio’s director, created a piece of art that invites the player to experience and engage with a realized ideology. It is certainly possible to learn about philosophy and economics by reading the work of Ayn Rand, John Locke, and many others. However, Bioshock gives the player the chance to exist within a world that demonstrates a possible outcome of a purely Objectivist economy. Philosophy uses thought problems to explore the potential strengths and weaknesses of an idea. Video games go beyond conveying ideas through language to allow players to engage with concepts in a more visceral and multi-sensory fashion.
“Even in a book of lies sometimes you find truth.” Since Rapture eventually failed, the easy conclusion would be that free-market capitalism is flawed. A more nuanced conclusion might be that free-market capitalism requires interaction with outside parties to offload surplus and acquire necessities. It is also possible to infer that the limited labor within Rapture was not self-sustaining as it could not acquire new labor in order to grow. The important thing is that video games can provide opportunities to think about the systems within which we live and work. Bioshock provokes the player to consider their participation in capitalist projects and the extent to which we are complicit in their proliferation. Every time the player hears “Would you kindly?” is a chance to reflect on our motivations and what we are willing to do to succeed and thrive.