Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bioshock and Ayn Rand

The Year 2008 saw an innovation in video gaming that, to the best of my knowledge, was a first. That was the year that the famous novelist, screenwriter and philosopher Ayn Rand made the jump into this immensely popular form of entertainment. And with no less than Bioshock, one of the most popular games of the year. From Wikipedia: "The game [designed by Ken Levine] received overwhelmingly positive reviews, and ranks as the thirteenth best video game on Game Rankings based on reviews from critics. It was particularly well-reviewed in the mainstream press where its "morality-based" storyline, immersive environment and Ayn Rand-inspired dystopic back-story were all singled out for praise."

Rand is known to many as the author upon whose work the classic film The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal was based. She is known to others as the author of the 1957 apocalyptic blockbuster Atlas Shrugged. And she is infamous for her pro-individualist and pro-capitalist philosophy, Objectivism, which rejects skepticism, relativism and mysticism, and advocates a heroic view of man and argues that your personal happiness is the proper goal of enlightened moral action.

Of course, Bioshock doesn't provide a clear or even fair picture of Rand's thinking. That isn't its goal. Its goal is to entertain, which it does. Bioshock's clearly Rand-like anti-hero, Andrew Ryan, points the way to the philosophy almost inadvertently. In the game, this character builds an utopia based on individuality and non-intervention which has turned into a dystopia. Obviously this is not a particularly flattering picture of her philosophy. One thing is crucial though, you can't present a dystopia without somehow showcasing the values that the society was trying to achieve.

For a member of a generation that never had contact with a living Ayn Rand, this is important. I was a child when she died, and there honestly isn't a push among the old guard Objectivists to reach out. Some of us who played, and loved, this game had eyes to see, ears to hear. Some of us put down our controllers for a moment and picked up Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. A smaller percentage found Rand's pro-freedom, pro-man, pro-happiness philosophy to truly resonate with us and began to pursue it with vigor – hopefully enough to bring it to a new generation. I haven't played Bioshock in months, although the announced sequel and movie may change that. But I find I apply some aspect of philosophy in my life every day. All from a game that used some compelling concepts as window dressing, and inadvertently pointed the way to something profound. For a video game, that is truly historic. – Ryan Keith Roper

For those who are interested in learning more about Bioshock, (at Wikipedia here) this is a helpful video from YouTube:

For those who want to learn about Ayn Rand, here is her classic film, The Fountainhead:

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