Epic Life: The Big Break of BioShock, part 2: the Scholarship Game

I promised in my last post to discuss here three aspects of the humanism of the moment of potential ethical reflection embodied in what I have called the “Death-Disarm Sequence” of BioShock: 1) how the scholarly ruleset is merely a codification of the reflection enacted in these moments, when their potential is realized; 2) where we can find such moments in less manifestly and artistically self-referential practomimetic rulesets like A Song of Ice and Fire, Super Mario Bros., and HALO; 3) what happens when players of practomimetic rulesets just blow through these moments without noticing the manifest and artistic self-referentiality. As this post developed, though, I realized the first of those things needs its own post–that’s the one you’re reading now; for symmetry’s and clarity’s sakes, I’ll split up the others, too, and treat 3) in my next post and 2) in the post after that; together with this one, those posts will make an argument for a redefinition of “immersion,” which I’ll of course supply–three posts from now.

I’m going to suggest here, in this one, that BioShock can actually help us see that our usual understanding of the ruleset of humanism is flawed insofar as we see it as coextensive with what professors in the humanities do. The codification of the essentially humanistic analysis available to every player of BioShock into writing articles for scholarly journals in order to win promotion is a ruleset of its own, but I want to persuade you that if we mistake that ruleset for the essence of humanistic endeavor, the humanities really are doomed.

Consider this ruleset that affords the performance of writing a scholarly article on Moby Dick (or even on A Song of Ice and Fire [or even on HALO]) and then, if you’re forced to teach a course every once in a while, of lecturing to a room full of students on a watered down version of the arguments in the article. That ruleset of academic humanities constrains those who seek to perpetuate their employment in the academy to make choices in a range defined in relation to the materials of their fields. A scholar of American literature is constrained to elucidate American literature: this constraint of choice, as I’ve demonstrated in the Rules of the Text series, constitutes a ruleset, which we professional humanists impose on the foundational activity–that is, traditionally, reading.

Remember, though, that in The Rules of the Text, I showed that reading is itself a performance like the performances of the homeric bards, like the performance of a reader of an audiobook, like the performance of the player of BioShock.

Thus the preliminary activity upon which this elucidation is founded is the scholar’s own performance in reading works of American literature like Moby Dick. Again, that performance within the rules of the text is exactly analogous to a gamer’s performance of BioShock. It’s the next part–the scholarly elucidation–that seems so different, and undoubtedly gives pause when considering whether to buy my argument that gamers are humanists.

But this academic ruleset–especially the part about the journal articles–is the overlaying imposition of a separate game atop the basic practice of humanities. If you see doing humanities as writing journal articles and monographs, I’m not going to convince you that the player of BioShock or League of Legends is doing humanities. I want to suggest, though, that a rules-of-the-text reading of what that player is doing in relation to humanism might actually free us from an understanding of humanities as writing journal articles and monographs, and giving lectures that aren’t useful for helping students reach experiential learning-objectives that will perpetuate humanistic discourse.

The practice of the humanities as student or as scholar has from its origin comprised that first performance, whether we find the humanities’ origin in the Renaissance, or in the Renaissance humanists’ partly fantastic backward gaze at the classical world generally and Athens in particular. That first performance–reading, or participating in tragedy in the Theatre of Dionysus, or listening to Herodotus’ stories–, reflected in its sequelae, like philosophy and philology, eventually became what we think of as professional humanities. I would contend that such sequelae as walkthroughs and strategy guides are equally as valid as reflections of humanistic performances as term papers and articles in academic journals.

The ruleset of the academy is one possible codification of the ruleset of humanism, but if we want the humanities to survive as a going concern, it is imperative that we see that there are other equally valid codifications possible, and indeed that none of these codifications constitutes the essence of the humanities, which lies in the performance of practomimetic rulesets.

Consider this gloss on the metagame from a guide to generic builds in League of Legends, by a forum contributor named Tendresse:

Meta – Short for Metagame : The game outside the game. This is the set of conventions and strategies which establish the standards of your typical League of Legends game (although the concept applies to every video game). As wikipedia puts it : “In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.” The meta dictates where the champions should go, what their skillset should be, and what their general actions should be. Breaking the meta is doing something that is considered non-optimal, and is thus generally frowned upon because it is assumed that following the meta is the optimal way to play the game. Do not let that deter you from trying out unorthodox strategies if you think they may yield surprisingly good results (do not go overboard, after all the meta is simply the natural evolution of the game).

Consider this entry from a walkthrough to BioShock by Jason Nimer:

Andrew Ryan’s Office

Ryan will be playing golf (at a time like this?!) and he’ll reveal quite
a bit about you, Rapture and your past. When he is finished, he’ll turn
on the lights and open a door for you

Boss: Andrew Ryan

Ryan is quite possibly the easiest boss in the entire history of video games.
After revealing a bit more about you, the game will take over and the fight
will be done in a minute. No strategy, no weapons, no nothing; just the most
inventive use of a golf club in recent memory. Once he is dead, you’ll
grab a keycard off his body and you’ll need to place it in the self-
destruct override machine. Atlas will contact you and let you in on a few
shocking secrets before the door behind you opens. Follow the Little Sister
into the vent and the level will end.

This second passage, indeed, leads beautifully into my corollary point number three in the consideration of the Big Break of BioShock: the one about gamers not necessarily having Aha-Erlebnisse of philosophical reflection when playing the kind of games I’m suggesting invite such epiphanies. The writer of the walkthrough quoted above clearly does not agree that the moment he here describes–which is the same, crucial moment I call the Death-Disarm Sequence, the one that has the potential to break the chains of mental slavery–demands humanistic analysis. Still less would he appear to see it as a critique of mimetic interactivity itself (his silence on the subject cannot, I think, be taken as tacit agreement).

What then is the status of my claim that he is nevertheless perforce engaged in humanistic inquiry like that of the prisoner released from his chains in Plato’s cave? That’s my task next time, but I think the answer begins with this same passage, where Nimer says “Ryan is quite possibly the easiest boss in the entire history of video games.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.