October 29th, 2007

I promise this will be my last post about Bioshock. At least, I promise it’ll be my last post for now.

What I want to talk about today isn’t sex, or gender, or even the reverberating scream of a plastic surgeon telling you you’re ugly (’cause that makes a first-person avatar feel so warm and fuzzy inside), it’s morals. Yes, perhaps a strange topic for Heroine Sheik, but all the same… Specifically, I want to talk about how morals–or the lack thereof–are built into Bioshock’s gameplay, how the game reflects on itself and its world by turning regular video game actions into immoral acts.

The obvious example of moral mechanics in Bioshock would be the much-discussed Little Sister dilemma. Kill them, or save them? Only you can decide! Thing is, that’s actually a bad example of what I’m trying to point out–since, as Zero Punctuation so enjoyable notes, the whole dynamic is a little like Mother Teresa vs. baby eating. What I’m talking about is this: Rapture is founded on the notion of abandoning “petty ethics.” Instead of morals, the capitalistic, “every man for himself” spirit has becomes the dystopian standard. This is true not only in the fiction of the game, in what it presents us–like its endless and oh-so-clever advertisements, reminding us that even as the world crumbles, at least we still have purchasing power–it’s also true of what we do in the game.

Potentially killing possessed little girls is hardly the only morally reprehensible thing players can do in Bioshock. We shake our fingers at the crazy surgeon turned pseudo-Nazi scientist, or at the power-hungry idealist. Meanwhile, we kill splicers (much more human than normal survival horror “zombies) with little to no explanation or justification–other than to prolong our own life. Unlike other FPSes, we follow as our hand, not our gun, leads us from challenge to challenge. Under this image–the manifestation of Andrew Ryan’s belief we that we deserve to reap the benefits of the work we’ve done with our own hands–we do things like steal supplies from the corpse of a woman in a wheelchair. Maybe we even knock her dead body onto the floor as we pass. What could be immoral?

Even the machines in Bioshock subscribe to the capitalist spirit. Hack them proper, or just buy them out. The result is the same. The fact of the matter is, everyone in Rapture, even the player, is in it for himself. But we might not expect is how the game reveals the selfishness of gameplay tactics we’ve come to accept as normal. Of course we shoot everything that moves. Of course we pick up supplies from the dead. Of course we do what we need to to up our stats and survive. It’s these choices we make in games without even thinking–these choices that aren’t even choices–that shine with real dystopian light in Bioshock.

Tags: bad Bonnie, business

6 Responses to “On the Immorality of Gameplay”

  1. Punning Pundit Says:

    One of the weirder moments in my gaming career came while playing KoTOR (2?). After killing tons of “Dark Jedi”, I came to the boss– and tried to turn him from the Dark side. It suddenly hit me that I only cared about the souls of the villians– not their death squads. This seemed really wrong. I mean, if killing is bad, and turning people from the dark side is good…

    But killing is a fun mechanic. So we’re left with 2 choices: Zombies or Nazis. Anything else is evil…

  2. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Sadism in general is a big part of gaming–even with it comes to puppies

  3. Jeremy Says:

    On Splicers vs Zombies: I actually find killing Zombies to be more morally queasy for the player than killing Splicers. Killing Splicers can be pretty much morally absolved by the need for self-defense (which I’m not sure anyone would argue against) and the capitalist-anarchist milieu. The fact that they are more humanized than the zombies would suggest that the Splicers have some sort of culpability in their homicidal tendencies—and from that, some sort of life forfeiture. It doesn’t so much cast judgment on the player that they so readily kill the Splicers as it casts judgment on the milieu that would necessitate such a thing.

    Zombies, to me, bring about all those messy issues of dehumanization—literally, in this case. That, if you extend the thinking further, does bring you face to face with questions such as, “At what point is does a human lose his humanity and therefore his right to life?”, the line between human and non-human, and when a person goes from being one of “us” to one of “them”. Zombies may seem like an easy, morally-neutral enemy on the face of it, but if that were truly so, those melodramatic scenes where characters try to figure out what to do when one of them has been bitten wouldn’t have any urgency. But then again, I’m a Romero fan. I just like zombies.

    Not that this hasn’t been suggested before and by many people, but I think “Shadow of the Colossus” is still the prime example of moral ambiguity in games, especially in how it shades your action by refusing to give context to the gameplay mechanics. It’s much more interesting than the “Good or EViL!!!” mechanics of games like KOTOR or the Little Sisters of Bioshock.

  4. Bonnie Ruberg Says:

    Hmm, I really need to go back to Shadow of the Colossus and check it out in that light…

  5. BioShock | Ludonarratology Says:

    […] be what we get from it, but when done this richly, how it feels.” Bonnie Ruberg feels that the gameplay is really there to expose the selfishness of gameplay tactics in general. I also felt that the near-equivalence (in economic terms) of the two choices was making a point […]

  6. You can’t put a price on your soul | Ludonarratology Says:

    […] has too little of an effect on one’s ultimate experience of the game. Leigh Alexander and Bonnie Ruberg, among others, have suggested that something more sophisticated is going on here, and in other […]

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