Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sorry Sister. It’s just business

Like Psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism can seemingly critique a game by looking solely at a its fiction. However, both of these critical modes, in relation to videogames, achieve a deeper, more profound level of analysis when the elements of interactivity between the game and player are taken into consideration. Many Marxist critics of literature believe that film, literature, art, music, and other forms of entertainment such as videogames are the primary bearers of cultural ideologies. While we’re being entertaining by these medias, our defenses are lowered making us all the more susceptible to ideological programming. A Marxist critic of videogames looks for how a game supports or condems capitalist, imperialist, or classist values. Perhaps the best and most obvious place to look toward in games is the role and function of money. Some games represent money with actual U.S. dollars or some other form of real world currency. Others use fictional currency from bell, to gil, to star bits, or even points. What the player can purchase, how these items or services function, and how the money circulates within the game world all become important areas of analysis.

In BioShock, Andrew Ryan preaches the ideals he has infused into Rapture over several recordings. Building a city based on free enterprise, using the drug like plasmids to stimulate the market, and leading the lower classes to rise up against Ryan’s regime are all topics that have more than enough support for their own essays critiquing BioShock’s fiction in a Marxist mode. Rather than analyze BioShock’s fiction, I believe analyzing the role and function of money and other forms of currency in BioShock exposes the greater ideological work that is more subtle within the game system. Andrew Ryan set off against the odds to create Rapture like a true American. A true rugged individualist. And supporting his ideals is a game structure that transforms the player into a proponent of the American dream and capitalist values by encouraging consumerism and rugged individualist ideologies.

Before discussing how the function of money shapes the player, we must first identify the two types of currency in BioShock and how the player obtains each type. The most obvious type is the U.S. dollar; good old fashioned American greenbacks. Money can be found scattered in various locations throughout Rapture from overturned cash registers to hacked safes. Money can also be recovered from fallen enemies. Surviving a battle with a splicer easily transfers into monetary gain as felled foes often yield quick cash. Psychologically, the positive feeling from de-stressing after a battle becomes associated with the positive feeling one receives from monetary gain. The more time players spend in Rapture, the more they grow to feel that they need money to survive.

The other form of currency is Adam. Nearly everyone in Rapture seems to never be able to get enough of it. Unlike the dollar, Adam can only be obtained in three ways; as a gracious gift from Tennenbaum, from saving a Little Sister, or harvesting a Little Sister. The walking armored protective force known as Big Daddys protect the Little Sisters from greedy attackers. Because the only way to get to a little sister is through one of these lumbering beasts, taking on a Big Daddy is a risk that most of the remaining citizens of Rapture aren‘t willing to take. This risk is the core component of the ideology of rugged individualism, which is the cornerstone of the American dream. By putting your interests before the Big Daddy’s and possibly the Little Sisters (if you choose to harvest them), the player effectively participates in the oppressive ideology, which romanticizes the individual who ventures forth attempting goals that are risky or not easily achieved.

I assume that most players of BioShock go out of their way to defeat the Big Daddys to obtain Adam from the Little sisters. And by “go out of their way” I mean doing anything lies outside of the strict actions that are necessary to compete the objectives and beat the game. After all, the player doesn’t need any additional Adam to beat the game. All the plasmids the player needs to access areas and complete necessary mission objectives are provided by the game. The electrobolt, incinerate, frostblast, and telekinesis plasmids all come free of spending any Adam. And so we are brought to the essential question of this essay: Where does the drive to obtain money and Adam come from? Some might answer that they need money to buy ammunition and health so they can effectively do battle with the Bid Daddy’s for the moral purpose of liberating every Little Sister in the game. Others might say that they’re simply going for the achievements. However, for a Marxist critic our actions, subjectivity, and what we think are all products of the socioeconomic system we are a part of and the ideologies it supports. In this case, the player is hard wired into the system of Rapture, which is a product that stems directly from America (fiction-wise and videogame-wise). As a part of the system, the player wants more Adam because of the prevalent ideology of consumerism (“shop-till-you-drop-ism”) another cornerstone of the American dream. The player needs money and Adam because they must spend it to obtain plasmids, ammunition, and other desired items. In the same way consumerism says “you’re only as good as what you buy,” BioShock says, “you’re only as good as how many upgrades, ammo, and plasmids you have.” Such an ideology is present in American today, yet many gamers don’t have the luxury to purchase and obtain everything they want. But in Rapture, the player recognizes that they can buy everything they want as long as they have the cash and are willing to do anything to get it.

BioShock features many strict, linear objectives that don’t give the player much room for customization, personalization, or to revel in any emergent gameplay. After all, when the task is little more than go to room “x” and examine the glowing, golden item in order to “build a bomb,” all players walk up and hit the “A” button the same way. Dispensing of enemies would fall into the same result if the game didn’t feature a variety of weapons and plasmids for the player to “take their pick” and thus personalize their own style of combat. The player who desires to express their subjectivity, or selfhood in the world of Rapture, must secure a set of plasmids and abilities they can call his/her own. The game does a completely overt yet subtle job of advertising the variety of plasmids that are just out of reach from being obtained by the player by literally exposing the players to advertisements. The recorded testimonials and the pop art style1940s posters, on the surface, only seem to inform and entertain the player of the history and people of Rapture. However, as I’ve noted above, being entertained allows powerful ideologies to bypass our defenses and shape us more powerfully and quickly than we could ever imagine. Consumerism is an ideology that convinces us that we are only as good as what we buy. And with plasmids on sale that can physically alter our genetics to actually become more beautiful, or more powerful, the player is only as good as his plasmid arsenal. This internalized ideology efficiently transforms the player into someone who commodifys people, like the Little Sisters, by relating their lives or liberation to how much Adam can be obtained. Before the first “harvest or not to harvest” choice, Atlas informs the player of the Little Sister’s evils while Tenenbaum ensures us that they’re still innocent little girls inside that can be saved. However, both speak of the Little Sisters humanity in the same breath as how much Adam that can be obtained from them. Tenenbaum’s assurance that she’ll make it “worth [the player‘s] while” to save the Little Sisters only further develop how the player commodifies them. “Sorry (little) Sister. It’s just business.”

Rapture was built on the principles of free enterprise, and it is obvious that the entire game world revolves around money: “I should not need to remind each and every citizen of Rapture that free enterprise is the foundation upon which our society has been established”- Andrew Ryan. From the players subjectivity, to the maintenance of their health, to the “bribe the authorities” function of the Bot Shutdown Panel, all of these actions require money: “Money is used primarily to purchase items at Vending Machines, but it can also be used to automatically succeed at hacking, get health from Health Stations, and turn off Security Alarms at Security Shutdown Panels. There may be other uses for money as well.” To think otherwise is clearly a perversion of the mind according to Ryan: “On the surface, the Parasite expects the doctor to heal them for free, the farmer to feed them out of charity. How little they differ from the pervert.” It’s important to note that it is not necessary to buy anything to beat the game. Spending money is all optional, yet to the player who is a product of Rapture’s ideologies, spending money is a must. To encourage spending, several structures were put into BioShock. The player isn’t allowed to carry more than 500 dollars at any one time. During my play through, I found that I had to abandon lots of cash because I simply didn’t have room in my virtual wallet. At the next opportunity, I mindlessly bought anything I could to keep my wallet from reaching the limit too quickly again. To further encourage the player to spend is the proliferation of vending machines in Rapture. Everything in Rapture revolves around these vending machines, so much so that this fictional city puts to shame the streets of Tokyo. Rapture is a world where in order to swap out plasmids and gene tonics, an action similar to changing clothes, players have to visit a “Gene Bank.”

Of course the ideologies that make up the American dream and Capitalism aren’t foreign to many of us. Many of these ideologies are supported by the majority of Eastern and Western games. To think it’s only natural, however, for games or even the world to operate under such ideologies, is to fall into powers much greater than what can be found in this videogame. Don’t be mad. You haven’t been tricked. It’s just business.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is just downright boring.....

grats on spending time on meaningless "discourse".

Gabriel said...

There's much more to Marxist critique and its analysis of ideology than just the money and consumerism. These two only make sense in the context of the forces and relations of production. Perhaps you'll want to read Mike Wayne's 'Marxism and media studies' first before trying again. Or maybe even Marx's work itself, before becoming one of those people that seem to talk a lot about Marx's work but have never read it.

Peter Gault said...

@Gabriel

The point of a marxist critique is not to discuss marx, but to analyze how the game works. The question is how does the game support or reject these values, not what are the values themselves. Gabriel, simply put, this is a critique of BioShock's representation of wealth, and correspondingly power. All the of the comments are totally legit.

Peter Gault said...

Also I don't agree with your assertion of consumerism in relation to killing Big Daddys. Big Daddys, while materially valuable, also represent the largest challenge to the player in the game. The player's urge to kill the Big Daddy may not be so much material reward as it is the thrill of vanquishing a powerful foe. Furthermore, the ADAM, while enhancing characters, also represents new ways to play the game. As an explorer, I want more adam so I can try out different plasimds and experiment with styles of play.

KirbyKid said...

Peter Gault:

It is true that the Big Daddys are the most interesting challenge in the game, and players (who play any game) are typically looking for some king of challenge.

However, claiming that the player may only be looking for a challenge is akin to psychologically making an excuse about their actions. Sure, they're looking for a challenge, but that doesn't eliminate the fact that this challenge is 1)unnecessary to beat the game and 2) rewards the player with "money." In other words, both of views can exist at the same time. Obviously, writing from the Marxist angle focuses my attention on one more than the other.

And I think you proved my point with your follow up statement about enhancing the characters, achieving new ways to play, and exploring by using ADAM. Money has always been a means to new avenues/activities/ventures in the same way that ADAM affords the player in BioShock. So, if I decode your message a bit, it would say: "I want ADAM (money) so I have the luxury to experiment with different things and I'm willing to kill and put myself through high level challenges to get it, and that's what I hold to myself and the character I'm playing."

I didn't mean to completely twist things up, but I wanted to explain how easy it is to link desires from one area to the next.

Anonymous said...

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