Returning to Rapture Part 2: The Politics of ‘Bioshock’

With the arrival of Bioshock Infinite drawing near, Russell Jones chose to revisit the game that put the franchise on the map. How does it hold up to the praise and status that’s been heaped upon it in the six years since it release, and how will the depths of Rapture compare to the heights of Columbia? For the first part in this series, go here

On the outside, the settings for Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite appear to be nothing alike. Rapture is a dark, underwater dystopia; a combination of interactive museum and festering corpse populated only by the crazy, the trapped, and the damned. Columbia is almost blindingly bright by comparison, a vibrant city in the clouds full of people ready to fight for the ideals they hold dear.

The political underpinnings of those two cities, at first glance, also appear to be starkly different. Series creator Ken Levine based the story and setting for Bioshock off of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, which originated in the 1960s in her novel Atlas Shrugged. The philosophy and book advocated for the “great minds” of the world to withhold the benefits of their work and intellect from those who would profit off it without contributing themselves. That led to the character of Andrew Ryan, Rapture’s founder, who created his underwater civilization to provide a place where great minds could stay untouched by the “parasites” of the world.

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For Bioshock Infinite, Levine looked further back in history to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which has its roots in the Puritan settlement of America and later the American Revolution. It held that the American ideal was a shining example for the rest of the world to follow, leading to the idea of manifest destiny and periods of aggressive expansion by the United States. The floating city of Columbia was created with just that in mind; it can literally fly anywhere in the world, bringing democracy and the American ideal with it.

But these two philosophies have more in common than they first appear, according to Dr. Brian Stipelman, assistant professor of political science at Dowling College. Those similarities help further explain the conflicts seen in Bioshock Infinite‘s trailers and previews, and give hints about where the game’s story could go once it’s released to the masses on March 26th.

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Above the Law

While Objectivism and American Exceptionalism have different end goals, Stipelman says they have one very significant shared idea at their core.

“They’re both philosophies that deem, for different reasons, that the people who follow them aren’t bound by the same rules that everyone else is bound by,” he explains. “In the case of American Exceptionalism, it’s because you have this pipeline to the truth. In the case of Objectivism, truth is relative… It’s reducible to you and what you think is true to you, and you’re sort of free from any boundaries or considerations or limitations on your actions, within some very broad parameters, because it doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks; they don’t count.”

The stance that the people at the core of these philosophies, the U. S. in the case of American Exceptionalism, and individuals in the case of Objectivism, aren’t held back by the same rules as the rest of the world can make normally questionable actions seem like the right and justified thing to do. In Bioshock, Andrew Ryan’s insistence that there be no limits on what people could create or sell led to the discovery of ADAM and the growth of the plasmid trade. While incredible discoveries, they also had devastating effects on Rapture as a whole, leading to the creation of the Little Sisters, ADAM-addicted splicers, and the criminal kingpin at the center of Rapture’s downfall.

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In Bioshock Infinite, consequences of this kind of thinking are revealed to have happened before the game even begins. Early press revealed that Columbia was involved in a military incident during the Boxer Rebellion where they fired on Chinese civilians, the resulting fallout causing them to cut ties with the U. S. government and disappear. Later, a Pinkerton agent named Booker is assigned to find Columbia and retrieve a girl named Elizabeth hidden away with the city in the clouds.

“They’re all united in that conviction that… they know what’s right,” Stipelman says. “It’s very easy to ignore what other people think or act on that conviction because there’s no doubt. All of the constraints we put on our actions because we don’t know what’s right or wrong are gone.”

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Great Power, Greater Consequences

The consequences of that unrestrained action are spelled out clearly in the bodies that litter Rapture’s tubes and biodomes. Splicer gangs have replaced the population, hunting Little Sisters and working for those who can provide them with the ADAM they need to survive. The “great minds” have been reduced to two: Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder, and the mysterious Atlas, who incited the revolution against Ryan’s forces and is secretly the criminal mastermind Frank Fontaine.

While Ryan is staunchly Objectivist in his ideals and practices at first, refusing to authorize action against Fontaine Futuristic’s fast-growing plasmid industry, he adopts heavy-handed methods to co-opt the situation to his advantage, including the fateful mental conditioning which led to BioShock‘s most iconic moment. Fontaine, on the other hand, ruthlessly takes advantage of Rapture’s political system to create his empire and run his long con.

Stipelman argues this is one of Objectivism’s weak points as a philosophy: it assumes that the freedom of the market was an absolute correcting element, able to keep society going as long as it wasn’t tampered with. He argues that the idea of a truly “free” market doesn’t exist.

“All there is is power relationships, and power relationships exist in the market as much as they do in politics, with the added disadvantage that there’s usually very little democracy to offset it,” he says. “So as soon as you have powerful people whose desires are going to come into opposition with other people’s, you need to have some sort of system of government in place to adjudicate those problems. If you just leave it all to the market… everything very quickly becomes reducible to who’s got the most power, and that’s not a civilization then, it’s a state of nature. If you’re the top dog, you’re in good shape; if you’re not, you’re screwed.”

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A similar power struggle is occurring in Columbia when Booker arrives in Bioshock Infinite. The man at the top is Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet leading the Founders, who view American ideals as holy edicts instead of just an inspiration for government. Opposing them is the Vox Populi, a rabidly communistic group led by the fiery Daisy Fitzroy; who is against both the Founders’ nationalistic aggression and the xenophobic attitudes that came out of it. During a recent press preview, Levine showed a scene where the player comes across a carnival and wins the chance to throw a baseball at an interracial pair, whose coupling is seen as a crime by the puristic Founders.

Stipelman notes that one of the chief differences between American Exceptionalism and Objectivism is their treatment of the individual: Objectivist philosophy puts the freedom of the individual at its center, while American Exceptionalism sets it aside for the greater communal good, even if it means the destruction of the individual.

“Who are these dissenters to get in the way of God’s plan? Who, in a lot of ways, are individuals to get in the way of God’s plan?” he says. “God’s plan doesn’t really make any sense if it’s just to allow you to do whatever it is you want to do. Once you’ve eliminated the collective element of this, you’re not really talking about a civilization anymore: you’re talking about maximizing freedom for individuals.

“And that might be a good thing, but the philosophy kind of falls apart when you’re forced to confront ‘Well, what about the people who are suffering? What about the people who can’t make it, through no fault of their own?’ That individualistic understanding of it can’t really answer that, and you’re left with a justification for violence, for power, where the image of the dream allows the people in charge to equate a kind of ‘holy charge’ to their own self-interest.”

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A Difficult Decision

Both American Exceptionalism and Objectivism create rich worlds for Bioshock players to examine as they explore Columbia and Rapture. The first Bioshock featured a dark setting where players discovered who they really were and how they were connected to Rapture and its downfall. Bioshock Infinite gives players a much more solid background, but leaves the fate of Elizabeth, the individual at the center of Columbia’s power struggles, in your hands.

Booker is tasked with delivering Elizabeth to the people who hold a massive gambling debt over his head. The Founders have Elizabeth locked away as they study her unique powers, the Vox want those powers to back their revolution, and all in Columbia have heard the prophecy surrounding her: “The seed of the Prophet shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man.”

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As I talked about in my last article, Bioshock asked players how much of a monster they were willing to be in order to survive. In Bioshock Infinite, I predicted we’d be asked a similar question about how to deal with Elizabeth: examining the philosophies at the heart of these games helps put the framework for that decision in a better perspective.

Who matters more: you as an individual, or the person next to you? The community as a whole, or a divine plan spouted by a prohpet? If Levine and the other designers at Irrational Games can ask the right question about Elizabeth after the laying the appropriate groundwork over the course of Bioshock Infinite, they’ll have done something just as important and thought-provoking as three simple words did in a city under the sea:

“Would you kindly?”

About Russell Jones

By day, Russell works in local TV news. By night, he plays and writes about video games for VGW and his personal blog, The Gentleman Gamer. An avid RPG fan, Russell can also be found plotting the demise of adventurers from behind a Dungeon Master's screen. He can be heard weekly on the "Geek In Review" podcast (GiRPodcast.podomatic.com).


  1. Brad Aisa says:

    Dr. Stipelman claims,
    “In the case of Objectivism, truth is relative… It’s reducible to you and what you think is true to you, and you’re sort of free from any boundaries or considerations or limitations on your actions, within some very broad parameters, because it doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks; they don’t count.”

    WHERE in the world did he get this nonsense? Objectivism holds that truth is objective, meaning that a true statement is an assertion that bears a correspondence to the facts of reality from which it arises.

    Here is what Rand had to say about truth:

    “Truth is the product of the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality. Man identifies and integrates the facts of reality by means of concepts. He retains concepts in his mind by means of definitions. He organizes concepts into propositions—and the truth or falsehood of his propositions rests, not only on their relation to the facts he asserts, but also on the truth or falsehood of the definitions of the concepts he uses to assert them, which rests on the truth or falsehood of his designations of essential characteristics.” Introduction to Objectivist Epistomology, p 48

    And if one then asks, “But who decides what is true or false?” She had this to say (I will note that when intellectuals object to the idea that individuals have to decide what is true or false for themselves, since the only alternative is that OTHERS will decide (who??? intellectuals such as Dr. Stipelman ???)… well draw your own conclusions about their motives):

    “The concept of objectivity contains the reason why the question “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is wrong. Nobody “decides.” Nature does not decide—it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.” “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” The Objectivist Newsletter, Feb. 1965, 7

  2. I would recommend a different source for information on Objectivism. Your “expert” get’s the basics wrong in describing it. It’s called “Objectivism” for a reason: truth in the philosophy is not subjective or “reducible to you and what you think is true to you”, but objective. Facts are what they are, regardless of anyone’s opinions or desires.

    If you wanted a quick overview of Objectivism, you would have been much better served watching this series of YouTube videos: Introduction to Objectivism.

  3. Phil Oliver says:

    Ken Levine is a modern artistic Immanuel Kant, propagandist for preserving the altruist/collectivist morality. He’s recognized that Objectivism is the biggest threat to that morality and the Bioshock series is his mode of spreading that propaganda.

    Anyone who’s actually read and grasped Ayn Rand will recognize that Levine is using the technique of the Big Lie. Absolutely nothing that he puts forth as a purportedly logical consequence of Objectivism follows at all; nor, for that matter, is it a logical consequence of the founding principles of America. The rich irony is that It’s only to the degree that America has adopted Levine’s altruist/collectivist morality, has it devolved into a country that’s self-destructing and supporting the enemies of civilization.

    It’s easy to get first-hand information on Ayn Rand’s ideas. Visit http://www.AynRand.org, or pick up any of her books at Amazon.com or virtually any other source of books, and judge for yourself.

  4. Bioshock has nothing in common with Objectivism. I am an Objectivist and I play computer games on a daily basis with friends, once I found out bioshock was “influenced” by Ayn Rands philosophy I had to see how well it pulled it off.

    It didn’t. It was a misrepresentation of everything the philosophy is. On the side of the protagonist, you can “choose” to either be moral, or not. The extent which you are moral you are just a normal, non-Objectivist guy with a gun making decisions necessary for your survival. When you suck the life out of a child, you are a monster. That is the pathetic moral dilemma you are given in Bioshock…absolutely pathetic.

    The world which was supposed to be a “collapsed Objectivist Utopia” is nothing more than a total misrepresentation of how not just Objectivism but probably any liberty centric, limited government political system which enshrined freedom over restrictions could be ignorantly misrepresented.

    In it you are encouraged to buy drugs (dangerous augmentations?) and murder people. Those that lived there are now nothing by raving lunatics addicted to a drug and who followed some cultish religion loosely paraphrased out of Rands works…All of it adding up to one conclusion: “This is what we think Objectivism means. And its a cult.”

    You want something to write about? Write about why this IS NOT a proper understanding and a total misrepresentation of Rands philosophy. Don’t try selling a beautiful life affirming belief that man is worthy of happiness and joy through the pursuit of rationally determined values by allowing those who despise it to do so unopposed. But I doubt integrity was something you were concerned with when you called up that willfully ignorant professor to back up your claims.

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