Last summer I got a little bit bored. I know, that is hard to believe but it does happen. I had read somewhere that there was a game called “Bioshock” released a few years ago. It was hailed as “ground breaking” and won a few game of the year awards.
However, it was also labeled with the letters of doom, “F-P-S” which stand for “First Person Shooter.” This means all you see on screen is a gun and you advance by using the gun to shoot your way through a map.
I really don’t like those games but Bioshock was hailed as also having a compelling story, an RPG like quality and a moral choice component. On top of that the Wikipedia page for the game mentioned the game presented a strong critique against Ayn Rand Objectivism.
I waited until the game went on sale and picked it up for a few dollars. The game consists of a lone character wandering through an underwater city that has been ravaged by war. As you wander around, you find out that the city was created by a “Free Market Economist” who thought all government regulation was evil, which is the chief concept in Ayn Rand Objectivism.
Apparently what happened before the protagonist arrived was someone invented a steroid that made people incredibly powerful and gave them the ability to do things like throw fire out of their hands and move objects with their minds. Unfortunately, the steroid also made people go crazy over time. But who cares about losing your mind when you can throw fire out of your hands?
The city government refused to regulate the steroid because government regulation of drugs is evil according to Objectivism. So the city completely lost its order and descended into a bunch of zombie like wizards who were killing each other.
BioShock asked all the right questions about government regulation, the drug industry, Ayn Rand Objectivism, atheism and modern day economics. While asking these questions, the character was given a choice throughout the game to save the children affected by the drug or kill them and thus harvest their magic powers. This choice represents a larger issue in our lives, that is whether to give into the pull for power or whether to choose love, even in the midst of war. The ending of the game depended upon on how many children you saved.
In my last two posts I introduced video games as pieces of art and I talked to the broader concerns about how we critique and judge artwork. Yesterday I argued that despite our conscious concerns about truthfulness and agreeableness, we have to be ever mindful of the subconscious virtues and vices that are formed within us as we interact with art.
You see, the greatest thing about video games also presents to us their greatest threat. They are the most interactive form of art. Paintings engage the eyes. Music engages the ears. Movies and stage plays engage both but video games trump them all. They also engage our touch and allow to us to participate in the story.
This kind of art participation is unparalleled. Video games, more than anything else, open up a door to our subconscious, allowing all kinds of habits and worldviews to be formed within us. Therefore, when it comes to video games, we must think long and hard about our subconscious interactions and be careful about what is happening to us as we play through a game.
Put more simply, we must ask the questions about how a game makes us feel and what physical expressions does the game produce. Do we sweat? Do we forget to blink? Do we sit rigidly in our chair with our shoulders crunched against our necks? Does our heart beat quicker for a longer period of time? Do we laugh? Do we cry? Do we get angry and punch the table, or throw the computer? (I have come close a few times.)
More than that, what do we do or want to do upon turning the game off? Do we want to punch something? Do we want to hug a tree? Do we want to yell at our families? Do we feel victorious and want to solve more problems in the world or do we just want to hide in our dark basement and think negative thoughts?
These indicators might reveal something to us about whether we call a video game good or bad.
This conversation is most relevant when it comes to FPS’s. Don’t get me wrong, I am trying today to not dismiss the genre as a whole, though at times I want to. I can’t because BioShock works incredibly well on many levels.
If I were critiquing its “message” I would give it five stars. I am all about government regulation when it comes to drugs and steroids. Without it we will descend into chaos. And if I were critiquing BioShock’s “truthfulness” I would give it 4. All kinds of studies show that people make their decisions based off of short term benefits over long term consequences. This means if people were told, “This drug will make you super powerful today but kill you tomorrow,” most would take the drug without thinking and find a way to dismiss the study that proved it killed you tomorrow. “TIME Magazine says the drug only kills you tomorrow if you eat a banana tomorrow.” Yeah right.
More than that I love Bioshocks’ setting. The unsettling music and graphics drive the message home. The city’s former glory and beauty hide behind every wrecked sign, car, torn up vending machine and exploded wall. This was a city whose great idea made it beautiful and then destroyed it. (I think I see parallels between it and America!)
However, whatever the back story to BioShock, the game still consists of a lone person wandering around shooting people and zombies. In my mind, there is a fine line between a game that lets you have a gun while you solve problems and a game that gives you a gun to solve all your problems. BioShock falls in that latter category. There are almost no clever puzzles in the game and nothing to engage the character beyond a trigger finger (or button). The story is entirely back story, discovered through cassette tape recordings and what little story exists in the forefront is shallow.
More than that, as I played through the game, I became antsy, unsettled, a bit angry and hostile. The graphic violence in the game disgusted me but what disgusted me more was how quickly I was able to get over it.
When I beat the game, I found I was grateful to be done with it. As much as I vehemently disagree with Ayn Rand Objectivism and, in turn, agree with the central premises of the game, this was not an artwork I needed to spend any more time with.
This does not mean I would necessarily not recommend BioShock or call it a “bad” game. It does mean that as a Christ-follower, as someone who is trying to be more at peace and harmony with the world, I found this game worked against me, more than it worked for me.
With that said, tomorrow I will discuss the more practical issues concerning video games, like how much time and money we should spend playing them, how multi-player games figure into the mix and where they might fit into a church’s life. I will also briefly address issues relating to Christians who work in the video game industry.
Until then, relax your shoulders, take a deep breath and maybe take a walk. That villain will be waiting for you to destroy when you get back.