Wednesday, August 10, 2011

BioShock's Assault on Exceptionalism

The computer game BioShock (and its sequel) was set in what the developers called a "failed underwater Utopia." The game's story was based on the concept of Ayn Rand's exceptionalist philosophy of Objectivism, but did its best to paint that philosophy as so irredeemably broken that it could hold only the power-mad bigots who espoused it and the power-mad opportunists who exploited it.

Now BioShock: Infinite is being discussed by its creators. And the horrible principle animating the story this time? Exceptionalism again... only this time it's American exceptionalism (as imagined at the dawn of the 20th century) that's scheduled to be demonized.


I played BioShock 1 & 2 and enjoyed them for what they were. And I'll probably be able to enjoy BioShock: Infinite.

But why do these games now have a pattern of making exceptionalism their bĂȘte noire? Why continue to focus on wrapping the story setting around a grossly negative portrayal of exceptionalism? Did the notion of a culture that works hard to accomplish great things just happen to be one concept among several that the designers felt could safely be caricatured as villainous, like eeeeeeevil corporations? Or does someone have a special reason for wanting to try to smear the highly successful American experiment in freedom in particular as some kind of dangerous aberration?

Was there really no other historical social philosophy that could have served as a satisfying and effective narrative backdrop for shooting lots of simulated people? Really?

Again: I expect to play and enjoy BioShock: Infinite. It's no System Shock, but it's closer to that exceptional game than a lot of others. That doesn't mean I can't wonder why the striving for exceptionalism -- of all things -- is chosen to be the designated horror story in the BioShock universe when so many other human notions have had demonstrably worse consequences for humanity.

As just one possibility that springs to mind, does no one recall the popularity of eugenics in certain "progressive" circles around the very time period in which BioShock: Infinite is set? Why would that not have been an even more appropriate social-narrative hook for a BIOshock game littered with "gene tonics?" Why instead try to portray exceptionalism, American or otherwise, as threatening?

One day I hope to read a straight news story or interview that explores the real answer to this question.

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