The video game Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) takes place in Rapture, an underwater utopian community modeled on the tenets of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. When the player-protagonist, Jack, arrives in Rapture, however, the city is near collapse after the introduction of biohacking technologies lead to an all-out civil war fought by genetically “enhanced” splicers. With this as its central conceit, Bioshock stages and disrupts self-determinist, laissez-faire ideology through and against posthumanism agency via the cyborg medium of video gaming.
The enfolding of these themes plays out through the player-protagonist’s opposition to Rapture’s founding father, Andrew Ryan, brought to its dramatic conclusion in the attached scene. Until this aptly titled level “All Is Revealed,” Jack believed himself to have come upon Rapture and become embroiled in the internal politics of the failed utopia by chance and necessity. What is revealed, however, is that Jack was born in Rapture, fathered by Ryan himself, and conscripted as an infant into biohacking experiments. Physically superior in every way, taking easily to a variety of super-powered body modifications, Jack was fitted with mind-control implants, which are triggered by the polite request, “Would you kindly?”
Video games often seduce their players with fantasies of agency and power, the chance to play as super-human heroes set against evil, injustice, and oppression. Yet, the one power gaming can never offer its player fully is self-determination. Despite overtures of customization, open-world environments, and all variety of choice, the gamer is always caught between gamic action and algorithmic control. In this scene, Bioshock violates the player’s implicit trust that the game will tell him how to inhabit the (virtual) world and then leave him to play. It strips away the illusion of choice--even as Ryan screams, “A man chooses, a slave obeys,” and commands the player-protagonist to kill him -- and, in doing so, enacts the “key antimony” of posthumanism, the irony that these technologies can serve both liberation and domination. Or in other words, “from all work to all play, a deadly game.”