It is hard to say what ranks lower on the artistic food chain than video games. Comic books? TV sit-coms? X-rated films? These ratlike vermin at the bottom scurry to avoid the thunderous footfalls of the towering behemoths of the art world. […] Is that even art? (Robinett viii)
Video-game pioneer Warren Robinett’s obvious polemic ironically underscores the rise of video game theory as an emergent field of scholarship in various academic fields in the recent past. Still, there seems to be certain validity to his claim that video game studies have received a lesser degree of recognition from the established disciplines. This might explain the amount of energy devoted to establishing video game theory as a legitimate field of research, complete with a well-developed conceptual framework. As Jesper Juul argues in his paper “What Computer Games Can and Can’t Do,”  video games are oftentimes analyzed with theory that is “just interactive bits and pieces tacked on to narratology or dramaturgy.” So far, the genre has been neither systematically nor convincingly integrated into one of the established theories nor have the developed theories, such as Juul’s own (Half-Real), been fully recognized. In Juul’s terms the reason for this is that the potential objects of study “are sending the wrong signals. To an educated person, literally alien signals of low culture, fun and insignificance” (“Computer Games”). Even though Juul’s argument seems to be another polemic, overstating a high vs. low culture divide that has been debated within cultural studies since the 70s, it is born out of a reluctance within established fields to keep up a dialogue with the fledgling video game studies. A dialogue that from the other side is not wanted either, as literary or cultural studies approaches to the subject are consequently dismissed as “colonising attempts” (Aarseth).
My approach to this discussion is rather a dialectic of the two positions since I believe that video game studies offer us new insights into digital media and their workings which need to be analyzed with new tools and terms – or at the least with newly appropriated terms. But on the other hand I believe that video games are not a mere replacement of older textual forms but rather an addition to the spectrum of all forms. As such I believe in reading video games as a vital part of our cultural production, which then can be analyzed with similar approaches, as are all other cultural artifacts. I would therefore like to discuss 2k Games’ first-person shooterBioshock (2007) by reading it as a digital simulation against the backdrop of a posthuman dystopian society. I believe that Bioshock negotiates questions of agency central to this posthuman discourse and uses the medium’s specific possibilities to create the illusion of immediate agency and by that exceed the limits of conventional narrative.
2. Cultural Frame
As I have argued elsewhere (Schmeink), utopian texts of the new millennium reflect critically upon a paradigm shift in global power relations that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have described and commented on in their book Empire. Hardt and Negri see global power relations shifting towards a decentered system of sovereignty (xii), which they call Empire, and in which power is constantly negotiated between nation states, transnational corporations and international organizations. To me their description of the way this power is exerted via biopolitics is the key factor in analyzing the historic specificity of dystopian texts after 2000. Hardt and Negri believe that the exertion of power and control can be described as biopolitical in the Foucauldian sense, but they transfer it from the level of population to the personal. Instead of state-controlled discourses of race and sexuality, Empire is in part privately owned, privately motivated and as a result Empire takes full control over the private without any kind of boundaries:
The rule of Empire operates on all registers of the social order extending down to the depths of the social world. Empire not only manages a territory and a population but also creates the very world it inhabits. It not only regulates human interactions but also seeks directly to rule over human nature. The object of its rule is social life in its entirety, and thus Empire presents the paradigmatic form of biopower. (xv)
It seems a case in point when Francis Fukuyama argues that power in the (near-)future will be mainly exerted via changing the nature of humanity itself. 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” (7). In this he propagates a view on posthumanism that terrorizes, as N. Katherine Hayles has pointed out. A view that “the age of the human is drawing to a close” and that the posthuman is necessarily an anti-human replacement (283). But, Hayles argues, “[w]hat is lethal is not the posthuman as such but the grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self” (286-87). In her opinion, the negative view on posthumanism is mainly due to a clinging to humanist concepts instead of accepting and realizing the potential that a change from the presence/absence paradigm of humanism would offer. The autonomy of the self, the questions of agency and free will, are turning into the battlegrounds for the human-posthuman predicament. Posthuman representations in literature negotiate exactly these battlegrounds and by doing so expose more than one question to be answered:
[W]hen the human meets the posthuman, will the encounter be for the better of for the worse? Will the posthuman preserve what we continue to value in the liberal subject, or will the transformation into the posthuman annihilate the subject? Will free will and individual agency still be possible in a posthuman future? Will we be able to recognize ourselves after the change? Will there still be a self to recognize and be recognized? (Hayles 281)
Who will give the answers to these questions of the posthuman is a matter strongly connected to the question of who will control the means of biological production and reproduction, and is thus crucial to determining a possible future world. The discourse of the manipulation of human and other biomass constitutes a dominant theme in the dystopian imagination since 2000. But narrative devices such as films and books have limited strategies to provide interaction, giving choices and decisions only to their characters and denying it the reader / viewer due to medial restrictions. I am not proposing that other narrative forms do not offer any kind of interaction in a reader-response theory sense of the term. But I would argue, along with Marie-Laure Ryan, that the interactivity of these forms “describes the collaboration between the reader and the text in the production of meaning […] [T]he construction of a textual world or message is an active process through which the reader provides as much material as he derives from the text” (16). Ryan calls this interactivity in the “figural sense” and contrasts it with interactivity in the “literal sense” which refers to “the textual mechanisms that enable the reader to affect the ‘text’ of the text as a visible display of signs, and to control the dynamics of its unfolding” (17). In her analysis she differentiates between the weaker form of “predefined alternatives,” such as hypertexts or multiple-choice dramas or interactive movies, and “a stronger form in which the reader – more aptly called the interactor – performs a role through verbal or physical actions, thus actually participating in the physical production of the text. (By text I do not necessarily mean something that is permanently inscribed.)” (17). Video games represent one form (next to maybe improvisational or participatory theatre) that allows for such interactivity and thereby offers the player the unique opportunity to shape the text, to perform agency within the represented world. Important to note is that the player of a video game is not considered by Ryan to be the “operator of a textual machine” but that he is projected as “a fully empowered member of the fictional world” (308) therefore allowing a symbolic transfer of agency from the fictional character to the player. Thus, video games represent a new and so far only minimally discussed chance to envision a possible utopian moment for the discourse of posthumanism. In order to underline my argument I present a recent example for a video game that unfolds the backdrop of a posthuman society, analyzing the ways agency is constructed in 2K Games’ first-person shooter Bioshock.
The narrative underlying Bioshock is set in the year 1960. After a plane crash the protagonist, Jack, descends into the utopian underwater world of Rapture, which was built in 1946 by the rich businessman Andrew Ryan. Ryan’s plan was to refute World War II ideologies and to construct a utopia in which both science and business could thrive unrestricted by politics and society’s ethics. But his anarcho-capitalist utopia turned into an ugly posthuman dystopia when scientific progress developed a transgenic bacterium out of a sea slug with which genetic enhancements could be inserted into human DNA, the so-called ADAM. The creation of ADAM effectively creates a scenario in the game that is similar to the one Lee Silver describes in his book Remaking Eden. Silver argues that genetic enhancements as a profitable commodity will result in a society of two classes. One class that could be “called the Gene-enriched or simply the GenRich” becoming more and more posthuman, while the gap to the other class “referred to as Naturals” widens drastically (4, italics in original). The same happened in the world of the game, when the market for genetic enhancement grew and science needed to find a solution for producing more ADAM. The game introduces the characters of the “Little Sisters” that have been genetically fused with the slugs in order for them to become reprocessing facilities of used ADAM found in dead bodies. When the social inequalities between “GenRich” and “Naturals” finally erupt in a war over power and control in Rapture, both sides use DNA enhanced fighters, recruiting among the unprivileged “Naturals” and enhancing them beyond the limits of safety. The excessive manipulation of the human DNA has severe side effects though – it mutates the body permanently, damaging both physiology and psyche. The resulting posthuman species of aptly named “splicers” are overly aggressive, fast acting and bloodthirsty. On the one hand their enhanced physical capabilities render them ideal fighters, soldiers with excessive strength, quick reflexes, and brutal resilience. But on the other hand, the mutation has also incapacitated them as regards reason, emotion, or communication. Thus, they represent the posthuman in the sense of the anti-human, having lost all properties that are commonly ascribed to the liberal humanist subject. With the splicers roaming Rapture the once utopian city is in ruins, and the posthuman has literally eaten up human society.
The game establishes a world with a horror scenario in which very few individuals still capable of agency, the most prominent of which is Jack, are contrasted with a mass of zombie-like creatures. They lack individuality and are reduced to instinctual human urges, which defines them as devoid of human nature and free will. The splicers are driven mainly by their urge to kill and their need for ADAM while the Little Sisters are genetically bound to harvest and reprocess ADAM from corpses. The other still human characters of the game act as either antagonists or helpers in the Proppian sense and thereby move the story along. It seems fairly within the genre conventions of the first-person-shooter that the opponents are represented with clone-like exchangeability, making each splicer no more than a faceless attacker in a row of hundreds.
This is the initial setting for the action of the game, in which the protagonist is placed within the city. In order to beat the game, the player now has to fulfill several goals on different levels. On the one hand he has to retrieve the history of Rapture from tape recordings strewn throughout the devastated city in order to make sense of his being in the city and in order to escape it. On the other hand he has to fight seemingly unlimited numbers of mutated splicers, for which he will need to gather ADAM from the Little Sisters. This situation of retrieving the ADAM from the Little Sisters is then played out in the game as an interactive choice, which will determine the outcome of the game.
In this interactive choice, in offering a game structure in which the ending is determined solely by the actions of the player, Bioshock deviates on a technical level from the most other first-person shooters which prototypically pursue a rather linear plot. The mechanics of this interactivity warrant a closer look that I will give later. But apart from the technical level, the game also deviates from other first-person shooters dealing with questions of the posthuman on the level of setting. While many shooters negotiate the posthuman, they prototypically do so in scenarios of future worlds and struggles with alien races. Bioshock though chooses to place the posthuman within an alternate history setting. These two deviations, especially in combination, open up the game for a very different reading of interactivity and agency in regard to the utopian imagination that is embedded in the posthuman discourse.
4. Alternate History
The first unusual aspect of Bioshock concerns its setting within an alternate history, by which the game places the posthuman society within a specific literary genre discourse. Alternate history is generally seen as a subgenre of science fiction (SF), which allows a discussion of a divergence from our reality in terms of historical development. Since it is part of the greater SF genre family, it functions as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (Suvin 7-8). The estrangement of the alternate history from our empirical environment is significant in terms of time rather than place, but even more in terms of circumstance. In The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Andy Duncan defines an alternate history as “a work of fiction in which history as we know it is changed for dramatic and often ironic effect. Often, an alternate history dramatizes the moment of divergence from the historical record, as well as the consequences of that divergence” (209). While Bioshock does not necessarily deal with questions like “What would the world be like if the Nazis won WWII?” as Philip K. Dick’s most famous example of the genre,The Man in the High Castle, does, the game still fits the category perfectly because in Duncan’s understanding alternate histories need not address only the main events of history but can be “more playful, focusing on quieter, sometimes puckish alterations” (212). However playful the alteration, nonetheless alternate histories posit an SF novum, as described by Suvin, that is “‘totalizing’ in the sense that it entails a change of the whole universe of the tale, or at least of crucially important aspects thereof (and that it is therefore a means by which the whole tale can be analytically grasped)” (64).
The assumption of a scientist utopia built in 1946, unknown to the rest of the world, seems exactly such a case of ‘what-if’ alternate history. The counter-factual divergence of the game, the novum in the Suvinian sense, is the creation of a utopian enclave within, but unknown to, the newly established world order after World War II. This utopian enclave, which is separated in time and space from the rest of the world, then develops independently into a posthuman dystopia. The game does not reveal the utopian moment of this alternate history except in the tape recordings when it is intradiegetically invoked. Discovering the utopian within the dystopian therefore functions for the player as an “object of meditation, analogous to the riddles […] of the various mystical traditions” (Jameson 11). The object of slowly gathering knowledge about the utopian moment before increases the awareness of the transition towards the dystopian. Because the game’s setting fatally collapses the utopian impulse into a posthuman dystopia and buries it in history, the player reconsiders, reflects and meditates on reasons, possibilities and choices that led to this dystopian turn.
Alternate history impacts on present of the reader, according to Paul Alkon who contends that an alternate past always reflects on a prospective future, based on the deviations of that narrated past. Thus, he argues, alternate histories can “be more or less explicitly intended as portraits of possible futures” (129). Viewed in this light, Karen Hellekson’s claim that alternate history speculates on the historical linking of past, present and future, and on the constructedness of history, has even more weight regarding a possible future (253). In her argument, constructing alternate timelines not only questions the nature of what we normally consider unchangeable facts of history and causality, but also disrupts the linearity of these concepts and makes “readers rethink their world and how it has become what it is” (254). On the effect of such narratives on the reader she concludes: “The psychological effects of reading the alternate history are important: it could have happened otherwise,” and in extension based on Alkon’s comment, it might happen otherwise, “save for a personal choice. The personal choice thus becomes the universal, and individuals find themselves making a difference in the context of historical movement” (254). In conclusion of her essay, Hellekson explicitly claims that alternate history psychologically and philosophically suggests to the reader (or in our case the player) the existence of “a universe in which we are capable of acting and in which our actions have significance” (255). It is the setting within an alternate history that allows the game to position the player as (inter-)acting figure directly within the discourse of individual agency in shaping the future, even though this action might still be limited by the rules that govern the game. The game, by choosing an alternate history as setting, thus strongly reverberates with a call for change and the played-out option to make a difference in history.
5. Game Mechanics
It is the option to actually play out certain moral choices that will determine the outcome of the game in total that can be seen as the other deviation that Bioshock presents with regard to prototypical elements of the first-person shooter genre. Therefore, it seems most appropriate to take a closer look at the game mechanics and possible ways to describe the aspects of narration in video games, since these are somewhat deviant from narrative structures in literature. Britta Neitzel has commented on the issue of applying narratological categories such as Gerard Genette’s focalization to video games and of appropriating the concepts in modified form. To that end, she proposes to use the concepts of “Point of View (PoV)” and “Point of Action (PoA)” (11) in analyzing video games. Both categories refer to a level of representation of the narration similar to representation within other narratives but with one very important difference: “Das Besondere an der Präsentationsebene im Computerspiel ist, dass die Handlungen der Spieler repräsentiert werden und zwar innerhalb einer Geschichte oder einer spielerischen Welt, die es in der Form, in der sie während des Spielens erscheint, vorher nicht gab” (11). Events within the game world take shape only while playing, the player’s participation is integral to their representation. With the categories of Point of View and Point of Action, Neitzel reappropriates Genette’s central questions that determine narration towards a reader: “Who speaks?” (voice) and “Who sees?” (perspective) and which do not necessarily refer to the same agent but rather to narrator and focalizer. Since video games do not use the concept of a voice that speaks Neitzel redefines this aspect as agency, changing “who speaks?” to “who acts?” Perspective in video games, she argues, is used to mean the literal point of view, leaving out Genette’s association of “who sees?” with the category of knowledge on the world (cf. Neitzel 14).
Neitzel claims that perspective can be objective, semi-subjective or subjective. Bioshock employs the latter, a subjective point of view. Accordingly, the protagonist’s acting avatar is placed outside the frame of the player’s vision. This displacement has several consequences with regard to the construction of agency. The view of the avatar’s hand on screen insinuates that the body it belongs to is placed in front of the monitor, situating the PoV in front of the monitor as well – which is where the player is. A merging of this PoV with the position of the physical player suggests a connection of virtual and real space. There is no diegetic closure: the game world leaks into the real world. The player that lends her/his eyes to the imagined avatar experiences what Marie-Laure Ryan calls “at least a figural form of immersion, while by exercising remote control on this counterpart she plays an active role in the development of the narrative action” (308). The subjective impression of a player’s immersion and empowerment in the game’s world can be attested to by anyone who has played a first-person shooter with a threat scenario and begun to involuntarily turn her/his (real) head suspecting an attack from behind. Bob Rehak contends that the interconnection of avatar and player is what players are looking for when playing with a subjective PoV and that they seek “[…] continual response to their own actions—a reflection of personal agency made available onscreen” (111, italics in original). The reflection of a player’s actions is especially strong within subjective PoV because it minimizes the distance between player and game, creates immediate agency and allows for ‘actual’ participation in the represented world.
With regard to Neitzel’s second category, namely point of action, one could ask: “Wie werden diese Handlungen im Spiel situiert?” (24). She constructs three binary oppositions in order to approach point of action: Games can present an intra- or extradiegetic PoA, depending on whether there is a player figure or avatar within the game world, or a centralized or decentralized PoA, meaning that agency can be applied only via the avatar or everywhere within the game world, and lastly direct or indirect PoA, referring to the mediation a player action has within the world. For a first-person-shooter such as Bioshock the PoA is intradiegetic, centralized and direct, so that player actions are represented via an avatar that is part of the story told, manifest themselves only around that avatar within the game world, and result directly and unmediated in an action of that avatar. Again, the question of distance between game world and real word is central to these categories, resulting forBioshock in effectively dissolving the player-avatar boundary, which Rehak claims is “both a denial of one’s own material existence and a seductive generator of new perspectives: effectively a cyborg consciousness that identifies with the computer” (113).
Therefore, the game mechanics of Bioshock can be read as facilitating a strong feeling of player agency. In combination with the alternate history discourse and its potential in shaping the future, this agency ultimately introduces new ways of player-response. But in regard to the generic utilization of game mechanics Bioshockgoes one step further than other first-person-shooters. It is the part of player participation in the moral resolution of the game that is the key here.
Therefore it is important to remember that video games do not necessarily function as linear narratives but need to be described in terms more appropriate to the medium. I therefore propose to look at video games with regards to Gonzalo Frasca’s concept of simulation. Frasca argues that “to simulate is to model a (source) system through a different system which maintains (for somebody) some of the behaviors of the original system” (223) and he points out that narrative is a system that is pre-determined and offers no choice because it does not incorporate the behavior of the represented system. Simulation on the other hand allows for player choices because it models a behavior. In the case of the first-person shooter, the game (as system) simulates the behavior of the surroundings in reaction to the player’s behavior. Obviously the system that is being simulated does not have to have a referent in reality but can be culturally imagined, i.e. unreal. It can be fictional, but it is nonetheless invested with rules governing certain behaviors inherent to its agents. Normally the simulation of a first-person shooter will allow for decisions such as which way to go, whom to kill and how, and sometimes even go so far as to leave the choice of possible routes to solve a puzzle or even the game to the player, but most of the time, the path taken by the player will be rather linear. The participation and choice within the game is superficial, the story of such a game progresses with its narrative elements rather than its simulational ones.
Bioshock follows a different approach in that the player is confronted with more than operational choices (which route, which weapons, killing or stealth etc.). At certain points within the game, the player is presented with moral choice. In order to survive he needs to extract ADAM from the Little Sisters but is given two options in how to do this. The player confronts the Little Sisters and is given the choice to either defile or to heal the girl. If he chooses to defile the girls, he will violently rip out the ADAM, killing the girl in the process, and will be rewarded a big amount of ADAM. If he chooses to heal the girls, he will be much more careful with the extraction, resulting in a smaller amount of gained ADAM but also in smiling and thankful girls thus healed from being Little Sisters. If we consider the options, a player has several possible lines of action. The player can stay on the moral high ground by healing all of the Little Sisters, he can defile them all, or any range of choices in between sometimes healing, sometimes defiling. According to Frasca, this offers a typical situation in which ideology is represented within game structure. The simulation author (or simauthor) of the game determines several sets of simulational rules, and by setting those rules, he consciously decides how much of the outcome is handed over to the player (228-29).
In the case of Bioshock, there are three different outcomes, the key to which are the player’s actions towards the Little Sisters. The single goal of the game is to leave the city of Rapture and return to the surface, but the moral choice the player has to face differentiates the narration of the story ending dramatically. If he takes the option to defile the girls but once, a pessimistic ending sequence occurs, in which the player’s character is shown to return to the surface as ruler of Rapture with the splicers at his command, taking over the world, effectively spreading the posthuman dystopia under his leadership. If the player has defiled the girls most of the time, the narrative voice that sums up the events in this end sequence attacks him for his cruelty and greediness for power. If the player has defiled the girls only a few times, there is a slight change in the voice’s tone and less blame is being put on the player’s character – he is commented to be merely human, weak and easy to tempt. The outcome of posthumanity spreading over the world, though, remains the same Only if the player has chosen to heal all Little Sisters will the ending change radically into a positive view of a possible future. The posthuman society stays locked underwater, the player refuses the power, and he and the saved girls escape. After living a long and fulfilled life, protecting the girls, the player dies in peace, while the former “Little Sisters” attend his deathbed. Humanity is saved from the posthuman dystopian threat of Rapture.
The rules that govern the simulation of the dystopian world of Bioshock can thus be read as the simauthors’ method of ideological manipulation of the utopian impulse. The narrative content of the story, which is given in form of the tape recordings and through scripted sequences with other characters, reveals the objectivist utopian world that is the ideal of Rapture while on the other hand undermining the same principles of reason and the ethics of rational self-interest that guide it through individual greed and by striving for control over others. Especially the question of coercing the Little Sisters to produce ADAM is thus a central critique aimed at the utopia turned dystopia and the simauthor’s choice to employ an interactive element of the gameplay in connection with it shows the importance of personal ethics to the construction of Bioshock’s world. By making it excessively hard to get to the positive ending, by implementing rules like how much ADAM is gained via healing vs. via defiling, the simauthors make a statement about the likelihood of morally desirable behavior. The objectivist utopia is hard to reach because rational self-interest is problematic to maintain, the desired rational moral code in reality almost impossible to achieve. It is human, the game seems to suggest, to use and abuse power offered to you; to keep to a moral code is the most difficult path. In effect, Bioshock delivers the choice over the future, utopian or dystopian, into the hands of the player, and by implementing rules of simulation, judges the likelihood of those futures, but nevertheless rewards the players that made the hardest of all human choices against personal gain and power. Video games offer the possibility of exploring all choices by just re-running the simulation. The question “What would happen if …?” can be answered by simply taking the other route in another round of the game. Thus, in several turns of the simulation the game, as is inherent to the medium, discloses its own governing rules and also the ideological imperative that created them, making the potency of his agency transparent to the player.
Combining the arguments given above, Bioshock offers the unique opportunity to extend the limits that utopian literary or filmic representations are bound to. By placing the story into an alternate history setting, Bioshockpositions the player within a (re-)construction of history and opens the possibility of singular action as a basis for (re-)negotiating a possible future. By using a subjective point of view and direct point of action, the game then emphasizes the identification of player and character and thus eliminates the distance of the virtual and the experiential world. And in a last step, the game negotiates the chances of moral behavior in a dystopian world, simulating the outcomes and leaving the choice up to the player. Thus, the player is confronted with a highly complex simulation, in which his own actions reflect on the possibility of averting a posthuman dystopian society from becoming reality. Bioshock, through its use of simulation, the player’s involvement and alternate history as genre, positions the utopian moment within the agency of the player and thus strikingly offers more actual utopian impulse than a linear narrative ever could. Gonzalo Frasca’s words on simulation hold true even more for a game like Bioshock: “Simulation contests […] the boundaries that we are used to apply to works of art” (233).
Bioshock. Developed by 2K Games. Take 2 Interactive Software Inc., 2007.
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1 Juul uses the term computer games; I prefer video games but essentially both can be used synonymously and neither is exclusive of the other within the context of this paper.
2 The game can be read (and has been discussed in internet forums) to comment on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. There are several connections between the game and Rand’s writing, such as names, anagrams and the general structure of Ryan’s ideal which adheres to objectivist calls for no government and a rational selfishness. Further research into the implications of this connection is needed though and cannot be presented at this point.
Schmeink, Lars. “Dystopia, Alternate History and the Posthuman in BioShock.” COPAS – Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 10 (2009). 01.06.2009 <http://www-copas.uni-regensburg.de/articles/issue_10/10_05_text_schmeink.php>. Web.
LINK / COPAS >> Dystopia in BioShock