Would You Kindly?: Bioshock and Posthuman Choice

Curator's Note

by Edmond Chang and Timothy Welsh
Department of English, University of Washington

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.”


Thanks, Ed and Tim, for your insighful post, and thank you for bringing this week's discussion around to the topic of video games.

You call video games a "cyborg medium," and I am inclined to agree with you (though I might state it somewhat differently).  For me, video games are objects that really embody posthumanist theory.  They require direct and physical interactivity, they emphasize reversibility and exchangability, and they rework processes of life and death.  In terms of being a "cyborg medium," video games also enact a kind of prosthetic interface, extending the player's intentionality into the gaming world.

Your topic of "choice" is also very fascinating.  It seems that there are two avenues (at least) to approach this topic.  The illusion of choice, which you discuss, is built into the mechanics of the game.  As you argue, players are both dominated and liberated by "choice" in video games.  Choice is limited to a few options, and though you might change the outcome of the game slightly, you're still traveling along a pre-defined path.  Even in games like Heavy Rain and the Mass Effect series, which emphasize player choice and include multiple endings, there is still a limit to what the player can do, and players will encounter one of limited number of outcomes.

The work of experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon provides an example of how players can begin to subvert the mechanics of the game world.  In his Grand Theft Auto series, Solomon actively fights against the mechanics of the game, choosing to remain static while the game prefers action.  In a way, Solomon is choosing not to choose.

Hi, I am about as fluent with Rand as I am with Bioshock (which is to say, not at all), but I am greatly intrigued by your suggestive position on posthuman agency. I have spent a little time investigating the term ‘agency’ in sociology, and one thing I’m wondering is, would it make sense to talk about the agency of a non-human player? In other words, with reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) (which suggests, rather controversially, that inanimate objects and computer networks can have ‘agency,’ too), are we working through and against posthuman agency in this game, or rather is it just that the new form of agency requires the active collaboration of the human with the machine? Is it truly a question of either relinquishing control to the game or defying it, or is the agency a matter of the cybernetic (cyborg?) imperative to play/finish/win?


What would Haraway think of this interpretation?  Haraway (1997) was not satisfied with Latour’s sociology, because it intensifies the “heroic action” of both the narrative of science and the science scholar. Furthermore, contemporary technoscience equivocates humans and information technology. This is part of an “Informatics of Domination,” a re-inscription of patriarchy into seemingly democratic information technologies. Haraway’s definition of posthuman agency would seem to involve a tentative creation of categories—to ”nervously work with a wordy chart” (218) and chronicle domination as it gets re-inscribed into information technology. Her guise is that of the cyborg, an in-betweener, to do this work.


Encountering Ryan in Bioshock reveals this tension within definitions of posthuman agency—just how much agency are we willing to ascribe to our machines? To what extent is our thinking based in Domination? In any event, and within the world of the Bioshock narrative, Ryan would appear to have ‘fatally’ miscalculated this networked ontology. In the particular act of patricide this Big Daddy truly is “exceedingly unfaithful” to his origin!

@DrewAyers :

Thanks for putting this together!

I am interested in the film you reference by Phil Solomon. It reminds me of two discussions. First, Alexander Galloway talks about gamic computer actions, the processes the computer goes through to present the narrative world regardless of the user input. For example, if you stand still in GTA, people walk by, talk, cars drive by, etc. Second, Lev Manovich says that when presented with the infinite customization featured by digital media -- like to change your desktop background, event sounds, etc. -- the only freeom from the standardization of personalization is to use the default settings. Both of these raise similar concerns regarding the location of non-action within the human-machine interaction. I'll have to think about it some more, thanks for bringing it up. 

@MarioRodriguez :

Really like where you took this conversation. I must say I haven't thought about this argument in relation to ANT or object-oriented ontology. Our primary interest in Bioshock was the way in which it seems to seize on core assumptions about possessive individualism common to some forumlations of both humanity+ and laisse faire capitalism.  Even so, I think your question hits on the central problematic: is post-human agency structured as a binary or as a network?

Had we more space, we would have argued that in the context of contemporary wired culture and the digital cyborg, Bioshock quite rightly answers that it is the latter. The structure of enmity in Bioshock is not oppositional but protocological. The player does not win by excercising agency against the bad guy and never comes to anything that looks like free-willed self-determination. Rather completion of the game, regardless of whether one harvests the Little Sisters or not, is much more, as you say, an "active collaboration" with and thus an expression of the Rapture network. For this reason, I would tend to follow Haraway, as you are framing her, toward concern/interest in how choice becomes woven into control and the role of technology in that exchange. 

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