The Dark Side of Objectivism as Presented by BioShock

Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? “No!” says the man in Washington, “it belongs to the poor.” “No!” says the man in the Vatican, “it belongs to God.” “No!” says the man in Moscow, “it belongs to everyone.” I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different.

So summarizes the core philosophy behind the first-person shooter/RPG hybrid, BioShock. For many gamers, this is about the most exposure they’ve had to Objectivism, a controversial philosophical system conceived in the 1900s by famous Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand. A couple weeks ago on Twitter, games writer Leigh Alexander made a quip about BioShock creator Ken Levine’s unintentional indoctrination of Objectivism on impressionable, pseudo-philosophical gamers, which, in typical Internet fashion, caused a shitstorm of criticism from irate fans.

I have no desire to weigh in on Alexander’s personal opinions (jocular or serious), but I do think her commentary raises a great question: does BioShock endorse or criticize Objectivism? Addressing these issues himself, creator Ken Levine has stated his intention was not to say whether the philosophy is good or bad, and I have no doubt he speaks earnestly. However, an analysis of the game shows a leaning toward one side.

To appropriately understand the politics behind BioShock, it’s important to first have an idea of what Objectivism states. Without getting into specifics (that would take far too long), Objectivism promotes rational thinking while spurning faith (though it supports freedom of religion) and, most important to the plot of BioShock, a laissez-faire, capitalist economy. In this regard, the ideals of Andrew Ryan (the creator of BioShock‘s underwater metropolis, Rapture) are pretty much in line with Ayn Rand’s.

BioShock Andrew Ryan

And, on the shallowest level, perhaps these seem like good ideas. All too clearly, BioShock illustrates, piece by piece, just how out-of-hand businesses free of regulation, artists free of censorship, and science free of morals can get. The argument could be made that Fontaine’s rebellion against Andrew Ryan could have occurred in any political and economic climate, but Levine made a conscious choice to use Objectivism as the backdrop for the world of Rapture.

Perhaps the most prominent and detrimental Objectivist element is scientific freedom. Unencumbered by morals or ethics, it’s easy to imagine how quickly experiments could spiral out of control, and it’s the testing of ADAM and Fontaine’s exploitation of what would become the Little Sisters that serve as the catalysts of his rebellion. Amorality birthed these horrors, and BioShock uses Splicers, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters throughout the game to remind the player what Andrew Ryan’s extreme vision wrought.

The other big one is economy. As a major driving force behind any government, it’s a no-brainer Ryan’s economic philosophy would serve as a basis for the setting of Rapture. Though some out there—such as Rand herself—would argue there should be little to no government regulation on business, BioShock illustrates how even a laissez-faire economy can create enough class distinction to incite rebellion.

The problem here is that a truly laissez-faire economy leaves room for monopolies and labor exploitation. For instance, Objectivism criticizes current child labor laws. We don’t even need to go that far to get a grasp of the class distinctions that could grow in such a world, and BioShock imagines such a dystopia, as Fontaine’s manipulation of the lower class aided his cause to overthrow Ryan. This revolution would not have been possible without both the economic policies and scientific freedom granted through Ryan’s philosophy, and without such a revolution, Rapture would not have fallen into decay.

Sander Cohen BioShock

Less impactful on the core plot of the game but equally as horrifying is art sans censorship. The mere mention of Sander Cohen will strike unease in any sane person who ventured through Rapture’s virtual corridors and entered its theatre of sadistic expression. Censoring art is perhaps the stickiest subject of the three pillars of Rapture as presented by Ryan, but in Sander Cohen Ken Levine perfectly depicts that uncensored art, too, can go too far.

Though Ken Levine asserts that he does not mean to provide commentary for either side of the argument, the fall of Rapture seems to be, in large part, a product of Andrew Ryan’s Objectivist ideals and the means he was willing to take to ensure his vision endured. Whether a true Objectivist government would crumple in this manner is debatable (surely any remotely competent national leader could keep a government sustained for more than two decades), but if Twitter remarks are any indication, many fans of BioShock missed the underlying message of the game, regardless of whether that message was intended.

*This article barely scrapes the surface of Objectivism. If you’re truly interested in learning more, consider checking out the writings of Ayn Rand herself.