Anthropology of Social Behavior in BioShock

While playing BioShock, we are conducting an anthropological investigation that has a direct effect on how we interact with the narrative and the choices we make. Similar to Fallout 3, as discussed in Trevor’s post, we are given the chance to explore a world, make our interpretations about what it means, and directly apply these to the game. Just like the analysis of an archaeological site, BioShock is an unknown world which requires careful examination from multiple viewpoints. Since Trevor has already acknowledged that archaeology can be done on alternative history video games, I won’t discuss the way that the player will engage with the world to create their interpretation. Instead, I want to look at the different levels of narrative operating and how we can use an anthropological viewpoint to further analyze them and how they affect the player.

What makes anthropology so fascinating is that there are multiple levels at which people operate. These become apparent either in living populations by comparing behavior and folk explanations, or in the past through the artifacts, excavations, and texts. Bronislaw Malinowski noted when conducting an anthropological investigation of social behavior one must assess what people do, what they say they do, and the guiding laws and ideals. First, there are the actual behaviors of people. This means how they are acting and what they are doing, which can be measured by the use, disuse, creation, and movement of actual people or artifacts. Second, there is what people say they are doing. This is what people perceive their actions to be, whether it is an accurate reflection or not. This is measured by talking with people, or by reading diaries, inscriptions or firsthand accounts. Third, there are the written rules and ideals of the society. These ideals shape the way that people act, and the way that their reality is structured. These can be taken from the laws and religious texts of modern or past societies.

By comparing these three interpretative levels of the past, anthropologists can better grasp what is occurring in the present or past. When playing BioShock, the player engages with these three levels of behavior whether they are aware or not, and it effects the actual choices one makes. By looking closely at these levels, we can see the depth of the world created by 2k Boston, and why the story is so engaging.

Most obvious to the player is the first level, what people are actually doing. Splicers are trying to kill you, Atlas is trying to convince you to kill the Little Sisters, and Ryan is doing his best to sabotage you at every turn. Even when we aren’t actually engaging with Houdini splicers or Big Daddies, you can see the remains of past actions everywhere. Broken glass, bloody floors, various artifacts strewn across tables, the bodies of splicers and non-plasmid enhanced individuals found in corners, and the ever present vending machines all tell us about what people were doing. From these behaviors and remains we know that there has been extended turmoil in this world, regardless of our interactions with Atlas or Ryan. Much of the game play is at this level as we directly interact with people and things.

Second, the player actively engages with a number of personalities through a radio, including Atlas, Ryan, Brigid and Sander. Each has a distinct set of goals which they hope to achieve either by aiding or impeding Jack. These conflicting perspective are further complicated by the presence of diaries found scattered throughout the world. The conflict between words and actions can clearly be seen in the Medical Pavilion. Dr. Steinman’s tapes discuss his creativity, his desire to make people beautiful and perfect. However, we can see throughout the pavilion and in Steinman’s own actions to kill us that his desires and actions aren’t necessarily clear reflections of one another. Unlike the first level where the player must engage with behavior, the extent to which the player pays attention to the radio or diaries is their choice, and has a major effect on how much they get from the game.

Third, there is the ideal of the society: objectivism. We can see the ideal from a number of ways. The first is through Andrew Ryan, the creator of Rapture. Watching the introductory cut scene reveals Ryan’s reasons for creating Rapture, a city that espouses Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Rand’s objectivism is based on the idea that the individual is the central powerful force in the world, as opposed to being constrained by governments or supreme beings. As Ryan says during your introduction to Rapture, he sought a world where men weren’t bound to a government, to a god, or to each other, but a “city where the great are not constrained by the small, and by the sweat from your brow Rapture can become your city”. Throughout the game we can see how this idea permeates at all levels. The actions of the characters throughout this world reflect this self-focused individuality, their words reveal how they are both seeking to achieve this ideal, like Dr. Steinman, or how they are actively trying to oppose it, like Dr. Tenebaum. This is a level that the player may not directly engage in or notice, but may have an unconscious effect on game play. The developers hoped that the game would force players to make the decision to follow the objectivist philosophy or not, primarily played out in the decision to harvest or save little sisters. However, it plays out more in how the player interprets the actions of Ryan and others.

It is these levels of interaction which create such a complex world. Further, it directly affects the way that the player chooses to act. How we interpret these layers, how we deal with conflicting narratives, and what actions we choose to take are all intimately tied to one another. True, we could easily play through the game without actually noting the levels of interaction, but we would lose much of what makes this game so engaging.

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