So here’s where I make the connection between BioShock and gamification–or rather, try to show that as ways of doing education, the two are radically different. More, I try to show that they’re different in a way that’s inspired what my team is doing with practomimetic learning.
There’s a context for this argument that you can read about in lots of places; the context has to do with how BioShock, as a piece of educational technology, is different from games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and GTAIV (all of which I would argue can and should be read as pieces of educational technology). Since I’m working pretty heavily on BioWare games as epic right now, and have intentions of turning to do the same thing with Bethesda games when I get a break from more pedagogically-oriented pursuits, you can expect to see that context fleshed out some day.
For now, though, I want to lay out the big claim, and please be advised that this argument is necessarily chock-full of spoilers of the worst sort. It also assumes a certain level of familiarity with the plot and mechanics of BioShock. You may fill the gaping hole in your cultural formation here, should you lack that familiarity.
The big claim: the harvest/rescue dynamic of BioShock must be understood in association with the interruptions of interactivity that arise in what I call, as shorthand, the death-disarm sequence. Only when we understand them together can we grasp the critique of objectivism (and the various versions of it that undergird important parts of our culture) enacted by BioShock; more importantly, only then can we grasp the game’s affordances as a critique of what’s usually called gamification.
The harvest/rescue dynamic is the usual focus for criticism of the ludonarrative dissonance of the game. The central characteristic of the dynamic, as Clint Hocking pointed out, is the equality of effect on gameplay of doing the “bad” thing (“harvesting”—i.e. killing the Little Sisters) and of doing the “good” thing (rescuing them). Hocking argued that this equality of effect renders the ethical system of the game meaningless, and that it creates a dissonance between game and story that he found blameworthy.
The death-disarm sequence has attracted some critical attention as well, most cogently I think from Iroquois Pliskin, but perhaps not as much or as contentious as harvest/rescue. By the shorthand “death-disarm” I mean to refer to the entire sequence of the cutscene in which your character kills Andrew Ryan and the gameplay sequence that follows, in which the game will not progress unless you obey Atlas and disarm Ryan’s auto-destruct sequence.
At that point in the game—the disarm part of death-disarm—from the standpoint of the your world (your culture, really), you certainly have a choice of actions. You can do any number—an infinite number, really—of different things in the narrow space of Andrew Ryan’s office, like running around, jumping, and shooting at targets. You can also cease playing the game at that point, and turn off your PC or console. From the standpoint of the mimesis of BioShock (that is, from a Platonic perspective, with regard to its learning affordances as mimesis), however, you have only one choice: to disarm the self-destruct sequence, thus verifying and enacting Atlas’ control over you.
In death-disarm, that is, BioShock enacts a failed disruption of its closed ethical framework, which is exactly analogous to the failed disruption of the released prisoner in the cave.
For the thinking player of BioShock, the crushing ethical blows of frustration in being unable not to kill Andrew Ryan, and then of being unable not to disarm the self-destruct, serve to expose the ethical system of the game—and thus of all games—as being like Andrew Ryan’s objectivist dystopia: instead of a world where every man can be a king, Ryan created a world where that very notion made every man a slave. As he is accepting death at the player-character’s hands, Ryan repeats over and over “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” He, and BioShock, however, teach, just as Plato’s cave-culture-game teaches, that the dangerous illusion of choice presents the true ethical problem.
Here the harvest/rescue “choice” comes into its own. Precisely in that it is not a choice at all, in terms of the actual gameplay of Bioshock, it enacts through its ludonarrative dissonance itself the dangerous futility of choice. Choice, that is, is exactly analogous to the cave-culture game, to the ethical system of games like KOTOR, and to the motivational systems of the gamifiers. We must somehow find a way to make ethical choices that does not presume that those choices are freely made, that understands how determined by culture our “free” choices are.
So too badges and points, the hallmarks of gamification. Their fiction of interactivity is a system even more closed than Andrew Ryan’s apartment, and they provide no avenue for interruption, because interruption would threaten the motivation they exist to create. BioShock and Plato’s cave teach by forcing the player through the brittle illusion of interactivity; gamification attempts to reinforce that illusion so that it appears unbreakable, natural. Gamification is the cave-culture game with new, improved chains; Plato’s cave, BioShock, and–we hope–practomimetic curricula are the bolt-cutters.
The lesson of the cave-culture game and the lesson of BioShock are the same, paradoxical, frustrating precept: you can’t do it in the game you’ve got—it would break the game to try; find a new game. Republic has the benefit of containing the cave-culture-game within its over-arching, brilliant performance of Republic. The reader of Republic can take some comfort in knowing that the dialogue he or she is reading is at least Plato’s best attempt at the new game–or, to put it another way, the new educational technology. But Plato’s need to return to the ideal city in Laws, a work written at the end of his life, indicates very strongly that the perpetually dissatisfying lesson that realizing a better educational framework requires breaking the old one is as much a part of Republic as it is of BioShock. In my next post, I’ll discuss the way practomimetic courses accomplish this crucial interruption through a two-layer narrative framework in which students are forced to break the game over and over.