This is part 1 of my thoughts about how BioShock could be taught as a text in a college-level comparative literature course (although on reflection, I think it could really work in a general English course as well). Part 2 is here.

Why Comparative Literature?

If, overall, The Path was a success in your view, how would its successes be translated into a successful learning enviroment or tool? Is it possible? Would it entirely rely upon content?
—Clay Lewis, asking hard questions

Clay’s question led me to identify a problem with how I think about games in education.

I’m inclined to want to see teachers teaching with games I think are smart, innovative and well-designed. But those qualities are not the qualities that necessarily make a game useful in the instruction of young minds. Therefore must I, refined and hypercritical game aficionado (read: pretentious nerd), turn off some portion of those faculties in preference to mediocre games that align more cleanly with traditional classroom content?

Thankfully, not necessarily. There are two fairly narrow situations in which good games can be used to positive effect in the classroom precisely because they are good games. The first option is to use such games as part of a lesson on game design. This is almost too obvious, and clearly not broadly applicable. Sure, you can have kids make games as an activity in almost any class, and I mean it sincerely when I say that there’s great potential in that approach. If you’re going to look in a deep way at game design, though, it’s going to have to be in a class about game design. Compressing such a complex subject into a single lesson would be like smashing a sculpture into little bits so that you could fit it home in your suitcase. And there just ain’t a lot of non-professional schools what teach game design these days.

More promising are the possibilities afforded by studying games as texts. Comparative literature is ready-made to tackle interesting questions about storytelling and games. As I’ve just recently read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and played through the thematically related first-person thinker Bioshock, I’ve been thinking about this way of using games a lot lately. There are some interesting papers that touch on this idea, but they’re mostly theoretical.

The wheels of getting interesting stuff into the classroom grind slowly, but data tends to grease them. The fact that I have a research proposal due in a week made for a nice fit. This post is an attempt to clarify (justify) my thinking on a curriculum that includes Bioshock. It will probably be much, much longer and more detailed than is necessary for the proposal, but who knows? Maybe someday I’ll get to teach it.

Why BioShock?

BioShock is a first-person shooter set during 1960 in a failed Objectivist utopia at the bottom of the sea. The game is highly conventional in some ways—a violent science-fiction story that sets up the player-character as a superhero—and despite some of the more hyperbolic exclamations from excited gamers on its release in 2007, the game is neither Shakespeare nor Citizen Kane. It is a big step in the right direction for game narrative, however, and it does deal with more substantive philosophical questions than usually appear in games.

I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. 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. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.

—Andrew Ryan expounding his philosophy at the start of the game

Bioshock’s undersea setting is Rapture, a city founded on Objectivist ideals by the industrialist Andrew Ryan (and designed by someone with a deep and abiding passion for Art Deco). Things went swimmingly for roughly a decade, until rival businessman Frank Fontaine made a power grab, exploiting fractures in Rapture’s society and economy. Ryan’s ideology left him blind to the resentment of a growing underclass, and to the dangers posed by unrestrained scientific experimentation. The resulting civil war saw most of Rapture’s citizens turned into insane, genetically modified “Splicers,” manipulated on the one hand by Fontaine’s faux-altruism (The man is part Ellsworth Toohey and part Al Capone) and on the other hand by Ryan, who had abandoned all pretense about the primacy of free will and begun hanging on to power so hard he was bleeding under the fingernails.

The player enters the city toward the end of this conflict, and immediately begins to work for Fontaine. There is no choice about this, although a thin veneer of story is provided to gloss over what amounts to an abrupt and brutal robbery of free will. The player’s inability to make decisions is illustrated in all sorts of small ways (linear narrative path, linear level design, bizarre automatic responses to certain environmental stimuli). Does this seems odd in a game about freedom as “rational self-interest?” It should.

Most players probably don’t think much about that problem until most of the way through the game. That’s because gamers are conditioned to follow orders in order to progress through games that have explicit narratives. Such games are inherently linear, however branching or squiggly that line may be. You get used to it.

For more perfectly legitimate criticism of the game’s mechanical and narrative flaws, read Clint Hocking or (the usually mediocre) Destructoid. This is where I start being impressed.

It’s about four-fifths of the way in that BioShock does something very clever with this unthinking obedience: it calls you out. The game provides the only possible explanation for your idiot behavior. You are, in fact, an automaton. Watch the fun below, paying attention to the audio.

Like I said, it’s not Shakespeare. Major problems include the fact that Rapture’s fall comes about through the diabolus ex machina of stem-cell excreting sea slugs, rather than through some inherent flaw in its founder’s philosophy; this is fundamentally stupid. It’s also a missed opportunity to create some pathos. Frank Fontaine is another gaffe. He’s a one-dimensional character with boring motives who nevertheless serves as the ultimate villain of the piece over the infinitely more interesting Andrew Ryan. Writing the game as a real tragedy would have meant cutting Fontaine. Why this wasn’t done is beyond me, although it’s apparent from this preview that the game’s story was in flux well into development.

Still, the game’s payoff is a noteworthy narrative achievement in the medium. It succeeds because it plays off of gaming conventions in a unique way, and it’s a fine showcase for the game’s sole great character, Andrew Ryan. I do understand where the Citizen Kane comparisons come from; they’re unjustified, but I understand. In truth, Citizen Kane and Shakespeare are unfairly high standards to hold every piece of art up against; lesser things than they still have a place in the classroom. I’ll be damned if Andrew Ryan’s final speech isn’t better than this.