Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2

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Playing at Resistance to Capitalism: BioShock as the Reification of Neoliberal Ideals / Thijs van den Berg

Abstract: In this paper I look at the failure of video games to effectively offer resistance to dominant neoliberal ideology. Working from the observation that contemporary culture is fascinated with narratives about the destruction of capitalism, I investigate why such fantasies consistently end up reiterating the beliefs and principles they set out to question. As one of the most prominent examples of resistance to capitalism, I look towards the video game BioShock to provide an answer to this question. On the one hand, BioShock resists the dominant neoliberal paradigm by citing the neoliberal utopian fiction of Ayn Rand to construct a dystopian capitalist fantasy. On the other hand, the game reuses much the ideology that informs late capitalism both in its gameplay and in its narrative denouement.

In this paper I propose that the inability of games such as BioShock to effectively resist dominant neoliberal ideology is the result of their use of destruction. Disaster, calamity and destruction, I will demonstrate, have been consistently used as justifications to spread Chicago-style economics and to out-source state-controlled services to the private sector. In this way, destruction has become strongly associated with market deregulation and the spread of neoliberal ideology. I will propose that, by applying physical, destructive forces to neoliberal constructs, narratives such as BioShock are unable to complete their fantasy of the destruction of capitalism. The use of destruction, I will argue, activates paradigms of market expansion before it can effectively resist neoliberal ideals.

Keywords: BioShock, dystopia, resistance, Ayn Rand, capitalism

<1> In The Seeds of Time, Fredric Jameson argues that “[i]t seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism” (Jameson xii). Indeed, if contemporary mass market media such as Hollywood film productions and computer games are any indication, the social, cultural and political practices and policies that neoliberalism entails have become embedded to such an extent that it no longer seems possible to imagine an end to this system. Consequently, films such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), 2012 (2009), The Book of Eli (2010), and computer games such as Half-Life 2 (2004) and BioShock (2007), to name but a few recent examples, imagine the end of the world as we know it, but never the end of free-market capitalism. Such “disaster porn” consistently projects global nuclear war, natural catastrophe and alien invasion against a backdrop of free-market trade and comfortable consumerism. These narratives, then, may, in their insistence and apparent delight in displaying disaster, be said to give subconscious expression to a desire to resist the neoliberal paradigm and see the laissez-faire capitalist market place destroyed. At the same time, they may also be said to lack the conviction or devices required to see this project through. Rather than effectively resist neoliberalism, these narratives continue to express a belief in the efficiency of private enterprise and liberalized trade as well as market driven economics and social policy, and transfer their destructive forces towards the visual spectacle of the destruction of buildings, cities, people and worlds. In doing so, such narratives help to protect what they set out to destroy and ensure success in the market they set out to subvert.

<2> Within this aesthetic of destruction, the video game BioShock takes up a prominent position. A curious mix of first-person shooter game mechanics, Art Deco styling and a dystopian, under-water city setting, BioShock’s innovation earned it both financial and critical acclaim,1 making the narrative one of the most successful and large-scale illustrations of contemporary destruction narrative. Moreover, the contradiction between the game’s fascination with the destruction of market places on the one hand and its continued reliance upon economies of play and capitalist discourse on the other, is indicative of the larger, cultural inability to imagine an end to free-market capitalism. BioShock, in short, is a prominent, failed attempt to offer resistance to neoliberal ideals.

<3> In this paper I want to elucidate how BioShock lays bare our restraints in thinking about capitalism. I will argue that the narrative demonstrates that, while we can imagine free-market capitalism as having disastrous results, we are unable to imagine how this disaster can ultimately lead to the end of capitalism. By providing a close reading of the game, I aim to show that this inability is intimately related to disaster economics and the cycles of boom and bust that are associated with late capitalist logic. By mixing capitalism and destruction, I will argue, narratives such as BioShock activate paradigms of free-market, economic expansion. In this way, the narrative is guided towards imagining economic renewal before it is able to show capitalism’s ultimate destruction, therefore failing to stage an effective rebellion against neoliberal ideals.

<4> I will begin my argument by briefly outlining how BioShock mounts its criticism of neoliberal idealism in the sections “Resistance through Intertextuality” and “Rand as Neoliberal Archetype.” I will then move on to show how BioShock’s resistance ultimately runs aground in the section “Failing to Resist.” Finally, I will propose that BioShock’s failure in this respect is intimately related to discourse that surrounds Chicago-style economics and market deregulation in “Economies of Destruction.”

Resistance through Intertextuality

<5> BioShock attempts to resist neoliberalism by engaging intertextually with the writings of philosopher and author Ayn Rand, and turning Rand’s utopian conception of free-market economics into a dystopian nightmare.

<6> Most notably, BioShock is strongly informed by Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. Rand’s novel details a fictional version of the United States where state control and collectivism have stifled private enterprise. The text idealizes individualism, especially in a free-market context, by choosing its heroes from a stock of “outstanding” entrepreneurs and industrialists. The novel details the common good as an obstacle for these heroes and their quest to maintain their business empires. In this way, Atlas Shrugged proposes that collectivism is a form of injustice which takes away the individual’s right to expect a reward for creativity, cunning and daring, and instead squanders this recompense on the hoi polloi. This sentiment is underlined by the novel’s title, which suggests that, rather than burden himself with the weight of the heavens, Atlas would have been justified to trouble himself with only his own concerns. Titanic struggle, Rand’s novel suggests, is only proper within the context of individualism, not within a collectivist framework. Through its juxtaposition of individualism and collectivism, then, Atlas Shrugged expresses confidence in the superiority of free-market economics and social policy, as well as a belief in the efficiency of private enterprise. Ultimately, these convictions take on the form of a utopian space where individuals are free to act according to market dynamics, without regard for others and without government interference.

<7> Essentially, Atlas Shrugged is the transparent, fictional puppeteering of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In her non-fiction writing, such as Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand outlines this (pseudo-)philosophical framework which informs her fiction. Briefly, Rand’s theory claims that reality exists independently from the subject, that this reality is knowable to the subject through a unique perspective of observation and reason that help to determine the subject’s chances of survival. This, in turn, claims Rand, allows us to conclude that the individual, within a social context, has an unalienable right to protect the products of his or her reason so as to maximize chances of survival:

The social recognition of man’s rational nature—or the connection between his survival and his use of reason—is the concept of individual rights. I shall remind you that “rights” are a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context, that they represent a necessary condition of his particular mode of survival. I shall remind you also that the right to life is the source of all rights, including the right to property. (Rand, 1967: 18)

In this way, Rand’s philosophy begins to connect metaphysics to the relationship between individual and collective. Arguing that a fundamental right to property is the logical outcome of man’s relationship to an objective “reality,” Rand proposes that the individual’s rights are best served by a formal, social system that foregrounds this tenet. For Rand, capitalism, pure capitalism, is the only system which completely respects this right to private property: “[i]t is the basic, metaphysical fact of man’s nature—the connection between his survival and his use of reason—that capitalism recognizes and protects” (Rand, 1967: 19). In this way, Rand combines metaphysics, ethics and economy to arrive at a philosophy that is characterized by the principle of “rational self-interest.” The right thing to do, the moral thing to do, claims this principle, is to be a selfish capitalist. It is this philosophical framework that resurfaces in Rand’s fiction to both denounce New Deal and Keynesian economics, and to construct a capitalist, utopian alternative.

<8> BioShock take these utopian concepts of laissez-faire capitalism and turns them into a dystopian space. In reference to Atlas Shrugged, BioShock is set in a fictional under-water construct called Rapture that was built by some of the greatest libertarian minds and industrialists of the 1930s who sought refuge from the rising tide of “socialism” in the United States. Unlike Rand’s fiction, however, BioShock imagines this capitalist experiment to turn dystopian. The game uses two strategies to turn the utopian vision of Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s philosophical writings into a dystopian nightmare.

<9> First, Rapture’s laissez-faire economy can be seen failing through a set of moral challenges. These test cases in essence revolve around the narrative’s projection of capitalism’s lack of government regulation of economy unto the more general, libertarian notion of minimal coercive authority over the individual. In this way, BioShock connects an economic framework proper with a larger set of questions about the relationship between individual and community. The game focuses particularly on the ethical side of this relationship. It sets up a number of situations where making the “right” economic choice—maximization and continuity of profit—entails an act of poor moral judgment by an individual towards the collective. For example, within the BioShock universe, there is no government body present that could express a collective concern about the moral side of modern technology, such as stem cell research. Instead, it leaves such decisions entirely up to the individual and his or her assessment of the technology’s potential for profitability. Subsequently, the BioShock universe is pervaded with over-the-counter “plasmids” and “tonics” that serve to alter the genetic makeup of Rapture’s inhabitants according to their wishes.

<10> BioShock problematizes individual gain in this instance by contrasting the gravity of changing genetic codes for profit, hedonistic pleasure or competitive advantage with a series of quirky, understated, 1950s-styled commercials (“Evolve Today!!!,” “Light Him up with a 1000 Volts!”). The friction between the significance of the technology and the flippant tone of its commercial appraisal begins to signal the narrative’s strategy of testing the promise of laissez-faire economy according to a set of moral guidelines. This type of “critique” is further amplified by the game’s melodramatic narrative on the origins of such genetic “plasmids.” These injections, the player is informed, are made possible through the use of a raw material (“ADAM”) which is harvested by girls from an orphanage (“the little sisters”) who are co-opted to obtain the material from corpses. This almost Dickensian device lays bare BioShock’s attempt to create a blatant contrast between personal, economic gain and the utility of the community. Obviously, BioShock is engaging here with Rand’s notion of “rational self-interest.” By setting up such transparent contradictions between personal gain and moral behavior, it questions the moral underpinnings behind Rand’s philosophy and fiction. Ultimately, Rapture’s economy is envisioned as failing to resolve this conflict, leading to class struggle and Rapture’s demise.

<11> The second method by which BioShock represents the breakdown of capitalist economy is through the breakdown of the city itself. As utopia begins to descend into dystopia, its structural integrity also begins to fail. This failure is primarily made visible by the pervasive presence of seawater that is seeping into Rapture’s submerged buildings. This sense of breakdown has been made acute as the water that is running into the city has not only been made to behave in a physically realistic manner and is aesthetically pleasing [2], but also forms a continuous presence in BioShock’s gameplay.

Figure 1

As such, water is persistently reminding the player of the fact that Rapture’s structure is failing. More than anything, Rapture’s physical breakdown seems to be indicative of the city’s inability to maintain the purity of its ideology. Especially since Rapture’s structural failure becomes visible primarily through water leaking inward, there is a clear sense that the ideological space has been breached and is subjected to ever more contamination from the outside. As such, the structural damage to Rapture’s buildings, utilities and monuments are not just the literal representation of city’s economic decline. It is also indicative of the utopian construct’s inability to uphold the integrity of its ideological premises and guard against external influence. BioShock, in short, presents a most spectacular failure of free-market capitalism, questioning the ethical underpinnings of “rational self-interest” and physically destroying the market space which represents this ideology.

Rand as Neoliberal Archetype

<12> The choice of the creators of BioShock to engage with Rand’s writing is significant for understanding the game as a form of activism. Rand has a canonical status in neoliberal discourse which marks any resistance to her ideas as indicative of larger subversive tendencies. Indeed, as Jeff Riggenbach has shown, Rand’s writing is the popular interpretation of Chicago-school economics not only because she “carefully observed many of the defining conventions of American popular fiction,” but also because of “the surprisingly widespread influence of Ayn Rand on American popular fiction” itself (Riggenbach 97, 94). Undermining Rand’s fiction and philosophy, in other words, appears to entail a critique not just of the ideas specific to Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness. Rather, resistance to Rand functions as resistance to a larger, cultural hegemony and the popular representation of neoliberal ideals.

<13> Perhaps the power of Rand’s work to act as the figurehead for neoliberalism may be most readily identified in the author’s personal relationships. As the central figure of the Objectivist movement, Rand functioned as the personal muse to neoliberal advocates and a number of highly influential policy makers. Most notably, Alan Greenspan has been a vocal supporter of Rand’s fiction as well as the Objectivist movement, and has even contributed to Rand’s work.3 In this way, Rand has gained much of her reputation and esteem through her contacts with such high profile economists and neoliberal advocates. As a result, Rand’s work has obtained an authoritative position in the libertarian canon as well as gained a powerful political presence.

<14> Indeed, Rand’s texts have been, and still are, core values for American libertarianism. And while Rand has never won wide critical acclaim, either with her fiction or with her philosophical writings, the impact of her work should not be underestimated. In 2009, The Economist featured an article entitled “The economic bust has caused a boom for at least one author” that illustrated the power of Ayn Rand’s influence. The article focused on Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and pointed out that the 1957 novel ranked as high as number thirty-three in Amazon’s bestseller list.4 What is more, the article suggested a correlation between financial news and sales of Atlas Shrugged:

Tellingly, the spikes in the novel’s sales coincide with the news […] The first jump, in September 2007, followed dramatic interest-rate cuts by central banks, and the Bank of England’s bail-out of Northern Rock, a troubled mortgage lender. The October 2007 rise happened two days after the Bush Administration announced an initiative to coax banks to assist subprime borrowers. A year later, sales of the book rose after America’s Treasury said that it would use a big chunk of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Programme to buy stakes in nine large banks. Debate over Mr Obama’s stimulus plan in January gave the book another lift. And sales leapt once again when the stimulus plan passed and Mr Obama announced a new mortgage-modification plan. (

While it is difficult not to be skeptical of this analysis—with the high frequency of financial crises the last couple of years it should not be too hard to link any sales spike of Atlas Shrugged (or, indeed, any other novel) with a “corresponding” news item—the very idea behind this investigation already indicates Rand’s importance to the advocacy of economic reform. That is, besides the obvious issue of Rand’s persistently good sales, the Economist’s project of proving that sales of Atlas Shrugged correspond directly with news of increased supervision of financial markets illustrates the extent to which Rand’s work is seen as central to the concept of libertarianism. Certainly, as The Economist attempts to prove that government interference with financial markets leads to the increased consumption of Rand’s capitalist manifestos, it gives expression to the idea that Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness form the backbone of the neoliberal canon.

<15> More recently, Rand gained further notoriety through the Tea Party movement. Brandishing signs that mention Atlas Shrugged and “John Galt”[5], Tea Party activists have increasingly looked towards the fiction of Rand in support of their ideas [6].

Figure 2


Although somewhat ironic in light of Rand’s—lack of—religious beliefs and her critical attitude towards all forms of collectivism, including that of the family unit, the author’s ideas on individualism and self-reliance appear to have struck a chord with Tea Party protesters and their increasing distrust of government “interference.” Indeed, Rand’s transparent fictional puppeteering of Objectivism’s “rational self-interest” principle seems to effectively articulate the Tea Party’s populist outcry against the—perceived—elitism of Washington policy makers and their insistence for more government control. As Torres and Kamhi have pointed out, Rand strongly believed that art had a “what” and a “how” component, where the “what” performs a cognitive function and the “how” is simply the style in which the “what” is presented (Torres and Kamhi 51-52). Certainly, Rand appears to have taken this dichotomization of “aesthetic” appeal to heart when she translated rather directly her concept of “rational self-interest” to the “what” of Atlas Shrugged. As a result, the novel is pervaded with a sense of authorial intent and by transparently invoking Rand’s own sense of hardy, commonsense, down-to-earth American entrepreneurialism, Atlas Shrugged quickly managed to find favor with some of the most severe and outspoken proponents of neoliberal ideals as well as market fundamentalists.

<16> In all, then, Rand stands at the forefront of pro-libertarian discourse. The ability of, especially, Rand’s fiction to portray and inspire self-reliance and small government manages to articulate dominant Republican and Tea Party neoliberal ideals in a heroic voice. And while Rand is arguably misappropriated by such generally conservative forces to an extent, her writing appears to have secured a significant readership as its logic and style manage to express a populist voice of dissent that responds to what is perceived as Democratic, socialist “elitism.”

<17> As such, BioShock appears to be taking on not just the writing of Ayn Rand, but engages with larger and more powerful hegemonic discourse as well. By quoting and criticizing Atlas Shrugged, BioShock not only subverts Rand’s specific utopian-capitalist fantasy, but also what it stands for. Because of Rand’s central position in the neoliberal canon, in others words, BioShock can be seen as resistance to neoliberalism in general and as site of considerable political contestation.

Failing to Resist

<18> BioShock’s critique of these core texts and notions of neoliberal ideology is problematic in two ways that are related to Jameson’s observation on the difficulty of imagining an end to capitalism. While BioShock clearly expresses an interest in destroying Rand’s extreme version of capitalist economy—by showing the moral bankruptcy of “rational self-interest,” the breakdown of its utopian environment, its decline into class struggle, etc.—the game simultaneously has trouble seeing its project through. Certainly, BioShock is capable of voicing critique on laissez-faire economics by rendering a dystopian version of Rand’s vision. However, the narrative seems to be constrained in this respect. It is unable to complete its destructive mission and, in spite of itself, continues to make use of the notions of private ownership and profit. Both the game’s continued reliance on economies of play and its narrative denouement express this limit to its imagination.

<19> In terms of gameplay, BioShock is characterized by standard video game schemes of ownership and exchange that the player must manage in order to successfully complete the game. Typically, first person shooter and action games such as BioShock require the player to obtain a skill set—running, shooting, path finding, etc—and to balance a budget of materials. BioShock, too, involves this mix of “physical” and economy skills. In the case of the latter, BioShock calls for players to manage ownership of an extensive list of materials which can significantly increase their chances of completing the game. Obtaining such materials is “paid for” by investing playing time and, often, by entering a part of the materials already owned by the player into the bargain. For example, players can carry a certain number of weapons and quantity of ammunition. Acquiring these involves finding enemy characters and killing them with the weapons and ammunition already in possession. Upon defeat, the items owned by the NPC (non-playable character) are transferred to the inventory of the player. However, the player does run the risk that these NPCs carry nothing of value and may represent a loss of playing time and material spent. Moreover, NPCs may prove difficult to defeat, so that the decision to take them on entails speculating both on the potential for gain and loss in such confrontations. Ultimately, losses may translate into the player losing their “lives” and having to replay significant parts of the game with fewer of the upgrades available. Playing BioShock, in short, involves investing and speculating on playing time in order to maximize in-game profit and private ownership of power-ups.

<20> As hinted at earlier, these choices of economy intersect with the ethical dilemmas that the game lays down. Provided the player has sufficient “ADAM” and “plasmids” in his or her inventory, NPCs can be fought with certain supernatural abilities. Frequently, choosing a special ability entails poor moral judgment. For example, players can choose to electrify or incinerate enemies at a fraction of the “cost” of more “traditional” weapons. This choice, then, puts the player in an awkward position. On the one hand, by considering the cost of “killing,” the player puts him- or herself on par with the logic behind Rapture’s ruthless capitalist economy. On the other hand, choosing to use special powers ensures more capital with which to complete the game and, perhaps just as importantly, grants the gamer the “pleasure” of watching the excessive visual spectacle and physics that Irrational Games designed into BioShock. More than anything, the tension between making the “right” choice and making the choice that makes sense from a gaming perspective allows BioShock’s contradictory signals in relation to economics and ethics to become visible. On the one hand the game suggests the immorality of capitalist logic, while on the other hand it promotes that same logic by offering gaming capital and aesthetic rewards.

<21> Perhaps the most visible expression of BioShock’s game economics is its use of money. Among the common items “traded” within the BioShock universe are coins. These coins can be used at vending machines (“Welcome to the Circus of Values!”) to obtain any other kind of item. Players can purchase ammunition, “health,” genetic modifications, “plasmids” and “tonics” with the coins they have found lying around, or taken from cash registers and NPCs. Again, BioShock’s dependence on currency as a means of value expression suggests the central importance of profit maximization and ownership to its game mechanics. And in light of its overt criticism of capitalist idealism, BioShock’s use of monetary currency—as opposed to gaming’s ubiquitous stars, mushrooms and crystals—seems indicative of the game’s difficulty to let go of the capitalist paradigm.

<22> Such economies of play, then, represent BioShock’s limited imagination in relation to capitalism’s end. While the game heavily invests in deconstructing the logic behind—Rand’s—capitalist idealism, it continues to rely on the same notions of private ownership and maximization of profit for egocentric interests in its game mechanics. Winning at BioShock entails balancing resources, transferring funds, and speculating on game time and potential losses for the benefit of the player only. As such, the game is both occupied with attacking “rational self-interest” and using it at the same time.

<23> The problem with BioShock’s representation of capitalism’s destruction is further compounded by the game’s denouement. BioShock has three different closing sequences. Which of the endings the player will experience depends upon the moral choices he or she makes during the game. In order to acquire new genetic abilities, the player must attain the mutagen ADAM from the “little sisters,” the orphanage girls who harvest the material from corpses. Each time the player does this, he or she is faced with a choice: either kill the girl and obtain a large amount of ADAM, or let the girl live and obtain a smaller amount. Choosing the latter has no obvious immediate advantage for play. While letting the “little sisters” live does grant some extras to the player throughout the game, these power-ups are overall outweighed by the loss of mutagen. Primarily, the choice to let the “little sisters” live is “rewarded” by offering a unique closing cinematic.

<24> BioShock contains three such cinematics. If the player killed all the “little sisters” in order to maximize his or her chances during the game, a cinematic shows the player’s avatar attacking the last of the girls and how the player takes control of a U.S. navy nuclear submarine. A voice-over narrates angrily how the player’s greed will extend beyond the city of Rapture and will envelop the world while the final image shows a nuclear missile. Alternate ending two occurs when the player harvested some of the “little sisters” but not all. This ending is largely the same as the first, although here the tone of the voice-over is sad rather than angry. The last ending comes about if the player killed none of the “little sisters.” Here, the tone of the voice-over is good-natured and the player’s avatar can be seen rescuing the five last girls and taking them to the surface. A series of shots suggest the girls growing to adulthood, graduating from college, getting married and having children under the guardianship of the player’s character. The voice-over ends the sequence by asking: “In the end, what was your reward? […] A family” (BioShock).

<25> These closing cinematics form an additional obstacle to BioShock’s representation of capitalism. In essence, they form the conclusion to a set of ethical challenges that mirror the game’s narrative arc. That is, choosing how to deal with the “little sisters” allows the gamer to replay some of the moral test cases that the narrative constructs for its prototypical capitalist characters. Just as the game’s evil capitalist antagonists can be seen as having to choose between profit and their conscience, so the player must choose between self-enrichment at the cost of the common good and making the utilitarian choice at the cost of personal gain.

<26> The problem here is that the closing sequences, while they express a desire to reward players who make the utilitarian gesture, are unable to conceive of that reward in terms other than libertarian idealism. That is, the player’s reward for choosing the common good over personal advancement is to witness the reinstatement of traditional devices of the retainment of capital and means of production. In the “good” closing cinematic, college graduation, marriage and children quickly succeed each other, in this particular order, to suggest both having access to higher education and a level of conventionalism that insinuates careful partner selection and family extension.

Figure 3


Both of these features bespeak a strong interest in keeping the means to financial security and further financial gain if not linked to the individual, then at least within the confines of the family unit. Powerful visual cues (soft-tone, glimmering golden wedding bands, college degree rapped in red velvet, a circle of hands touching) underline this notion by suggesting a narrow framework of American capitalist idealism with strong undercurrents of religious wholesomeness and white picket fence suburbanism. For his or her subversion of Rapture’s capitalist economy, in other words, the player is rewarded with some of the most powerful reminders of bourgeoisie existence.

<27> As with BioShock’s problematic portrayal of the breakdown of Rapture’s economy, then, the game’s closing cinematics seem to indicate that while the narrative is capable of offering a critique of laissez-faire capitalism, it is never quite able to imagine its disappearance all together. With no real alternative in mind, the game is left with suggesting the existence of a different capitalist reality to replace the one it just subverted.

<28> Of course, one might make the argument that BioShock here is simply offering an effective critique of extreme forms of libertarianism and that it successfully argues in favor of more moderated implementations of capitalist economies. However, such a reading appears to be thwarted both by the game’s mechanics and its aesthetics. In terms of play mechanics, BioShock offers players powerful visual rewards for making their decisions along the lines of Rand’s “rational self-interest.” So, while the game on the surface appears to be challenging players to choose the “good” alternative, the real intent seems to be to drive players towards the visual spectacle that their immoral choices will grant. Certainly, the amount of effort involved in the creation of the spectacular display of destruction and death suggests a perverted attraction towards the extreme form of capitalism that BioShock at first appears to subvert. Moreover, while the aesthetics of the final cinematics fall short of the game’s extravagant subversion of Rand’s utopia, they do represent the ideology which Rand has come to symbolize. Full of deeply conventional symbolism, the “good” cinematic showcases precisely those conservative values to which Rand’s texts have been made complicit. Certainly, the closing cinematic reads as an exposition of conservative values in which free-market capitalism and small government are important factors. BioShock, in other words, attempts to challenge Rand’s capitalism with the visual short hand of contemporary libertarian ideology.

<29> As such, BioShock’s closing cinematics, as well as its gameplay, appear to confirm Jameson’s notion that the capitalist framework has become so accepted that it no longer seems possible to imagine an alternative and, therefore, its end. Indeed, the game’s immediate invocation of nuclear Armageddon in one of its closing cinematics is the perfect example of how it has become easier for us to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalist economy.

Economies of Destruction

<30> I want to suggest that BioShock’s inability to portray the end of capitalism is in part the result of the text’s imagination being guided by what Naomi Klein has referred to as “disaster capitalism”: the restructuring and rebuilding of economies according to laissez-faire capitalist models following large-scale disasters and crises. According to Klein, post World War II capitalism has been characterized by a continual decrease in state regulation. Capitalist economies, in other words, have steadily moved away from New Deal inspired Keynesian models towards purer forms of laissez-faire markets. This change, according Klein, has been made possible by the use of a number of crises and cases of physical destruction as catalysts for economic reform. While crises may initially appear to constitute a loss of capital and means of production, Klein shows that disasters have made possible the necessary changes in policy for Chicago School style economics to take effect. In this way, large-scale crises create the conditions under which citizens will accept large-scale economic reform, and so destruction is not just a loss of capital, but also an opportunity to rebuild markets, under the auspices of necessity, in a purer capitalist vein. Klein invokes economist Milton Friedman, foremost researcher of the Chicago School of Economics, to make her point:

It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” […] When the next crisis hit, Friedman was determined that it would be his Chicago Boys who would be the ones ready with their ideas and solutions. (Klein 140-41)

Putting Klein’s combative tone here aside, it does indeed seem clear that large-scale crises have been used by policy makers in order to deregulate national markets. The war in Iraq, for example, formed the foundation of the U.S. government’s large-scale outsourcing of various military and military support functions. In this way, war, catastrophe and destruction have increasingly become associated with deregulation, privatization and earnings.

<31> This association between crisis and private gain has grown strong over a long period of time. Indeed, while several powerful examples in the new millennium may suggest otherwise, economic reform in disaster’s wake is in fact a phenomenon with a longer history, as Klein, again, points out:

…the idea of exploiting crisis and disaster has been the modus operandi of Milton Friedman’s movement from the very beginning—this fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance. It was certainly the case that the facilitating disasters were getting bigger and more shocking, but what was happening in Iraq and New Orleans was not a new, post-September 11 invention. Rather, these bold experiments in crisis exploitation were the culmination of three decades of strict adherence to the shock doctrine. (Klein 9)

Kevin Rozario convincingly argues that disaster and opportunity have in fact been linked even longer than Klein suggests. Moreover, Rozario sees this relationship as containing an American nationalistic component:

How did Americans learn to view calamities as economic opportunities? The seeds of an answer can be found in the colonial period. In 1727, an earthquake ripped through New England. Most inhabitants were understandably upset by this fearsome “affliction,” but a surprising number were rhapsodic. The prominent Boston clergyman Cotton Mather, for example, gushed, “O Wonderful! O Wonderful! Our GOD instead of sending earthquakes to destroy us as He justly might, He sends them to fetch us home unto Himself, and to do us the greatest Good in the World!” What exactly was this good that God intended? As we have seen, the early settlers interpreted fires and storms and earthquakes as divine punishments for their sins and transgressions, but there was a twist in this theology that enabled ministers to recast calamities as blessings: the supposition that God sent disasters to recall his chosen people to the path of righteousness. (Rozario 77-78)

Rozario goes on to cite the New York Fire of 1835 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 as further examples in which disaster and destruction are recast as opportunities for reform. As Rozario shows, these earlier examples of disaster have also already provided a means of justification for political and economic reform as destruction appears to “simplify an otherwise intolerably complicated world” and excuse “the exercises of power in an era of supposed fiscal restraint and deregulation” (Rozario 8,9). Over time, then, crises and cycles of destruction and rebuilding have become intimately linked with the rise of laissez-faire capitalism, apparently especially from an American nationalist point of view. Certainly, as the outcome of economic disaster and physical destruction have paved the way for large-scale economic reform in the latter part of the Twentieth Century and in the new millennium, such crises have become intrinsically linked with the idea of free-market capitalism.

<32> Given this close association between destruction and laissez-faire economics, therefore, it seems plausible to suppose that narratives such as BioShock have problems to imagine beyond capitalism because their use of destruction activates paradigms of economic reform that point towards market deregulation, privatization and profit. Imagining an end to capitalism is therefore problematized as the forces that would lead to its destruction anticipate a resurgence of capitalism. In this way, narratives such as BioShock, while seemingly intent on destroying free-market fundamentalism, inadvertently also provide some of the most powerful pro-capitalist rhetoric. Certainly, besides the game’s obvious reliance on economies of play, BioShock’s reward for the “non-capitalist” player voices precisely those libertarian ideals that operate at the core of America’s contemporary version of a capitalist market system.

<33> Jameson follows up on his observation on the difficulty of imagining capitalism’s end by wondering if it is perhaps “due to some weakness in our imaginations” (Jameson xii). Placing Jameson’s inquiry in light of BioShock and its attempt to deconstruct utopian, Randian visions of capitalism begins to suggest some specific reasons for this lack of creativity. That is, BioShock’s continued dependence on notions of private ownership and its adherence to contemporary “disaster porn” aesthetics point towards a difficulty with disaster and physical destruction. As the game seems to indicate, we can attribute our limited imagination in this regard at least in part to the “contamination” of the notion of destruction with neoliberal ideology. This identifies the weakness in question not as an inherent—lack of—quality of the human mind, but somewhat more precisely as a factor in the discursive formation of neoliberal ideology. As such, successfully resisting libertarian market fundamentalism may require the disassociation of capitalism and destruction.

<34> The question then remains what purpose does the “disaster porn aesthetic” serves. That is, if narratives such as BioShock apply destructive forces to capitalism in order to imagine its destruction, but only end up repeating neoliberal idealism because of these destructive forces, do these narratives still serve a purpose? And is it even possible for a computer game to resist the neoliberal paradigm?

<35> Given the strong association between disaster and economic reform, resisting neoliberalism by using an aesthetic of destruction seems difficult. Even if games such as BioShock attempt to replace hard-line, utopian neoliberalism a la Rand with a more moderate approach to capitalism, the spectacle of physical destruction is too evocative of economic reform to provide a effective form of resistance. In this way, BioShock comes to the fore as a failed form of catharsis and a tragedy in which the villain always survives. However, given the game’s popular and financial success, as well as the success of other narratives of destruction, it seems reasonable to assume that the destruction aesthetic that underlies it still performs some kind of cultural work. The focus on the spectacle of destruction that informs these narratives suggests that this function may simply be to provide a momentary relief from repressed emotions of dissatisfaction and powerlessness. That is, disaster narratives such as BioShock provide a temporary escape from the mindless reification of one’s role as a consumer. Momentarily suspending the rules of society, BioShock allows players to assume a position of power in an apocalyptic setting in which the spectacle of destruction is a testimony to this new-found agency. Disaster porn, in other words, may still function as a cathartic narrative, though not by resisting the neoliberal paradigm. Rather, this aesthetic offers an accessible, temporary reprieve from neoliberalism by allowing players to act out power fantasies while never having to actually give up their role as consumer. Ironically, then, the disaster aesthetic appears to function as the commodification of resistance to neoliberalism.

<36> This is of course not to say that games are necessarily incapable of resisting neoliberalism. Although BioShock’s reliance on destruction and economies of plays has proven ineffective, other games seem to be making inroads into resisting of neoliberalism and “rational self-interest.” Recalling the humble origins of the computer game marketplace, independent game developers have started looking towards different models of distribution for their products. Using shareware and pay-what-you-want schemes, initiatives such as the “Humble Bundle” seem to offer an effective alternative to games like BioShock in a marketplace that is characterized by intellectual property laws and invasive digital rights management. Of course, such grassroots movements do not bypass the logic of late capitalism altogether, in the sense that games are still sold for private profit. However, these pay-what-you-want games and their drm-free distribution do begin to question the supremacy of private ownership that lies behind utopian visions of capitalism. Imaging an end to capitalism, in short, may not be a case of imaging its destruction. Rather, it would appear that imaging an alternative, and putting it into practice, may be far more effective. Certainly, as digital and Internet-native media, computer games could function as the vanguard of a movement that resists neoliberal idealism in this way.

Work Cited

BioShock (2K Boston, 2K Games, 2007). DVD-ROM.

Cummings, John. “Political Culture: A Liberal Reads Ayn Rand.”, Accessed 17 November, 2011. Web.

Jameson, Fredric. The Seeds of Time. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

---. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet, 1967. Print.

---. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet, 1994. Print.

Rozario, Kevin. The Culture of Calamity: Disaster and the Making of Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

“Take-Two Interactive Quaterly Earnings.”, Accessed 17 November, 2011. Web.

“The economic bust has caused a boom for at least one author.”, Accessed 17 November, 2011. Web.

Topf, Eric. “E3 06: BioShock Interview Transscript.”, Accessed 17 November, 2011. Web.

Torres, Louis and Michelle Marder Kamhi. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago: Open Court, 2000. Print.


[1] According to the financial reports of BioShock’s publisher Take-Two Interactive, the game has, as of the second quarter of 2010, earned over fifty game awards and sold more than 4 million copies. See

[2] See for example Greenspan’s articles “Gold and Economic Freedom” and “Antitrust” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

[3] See

[4] John Galt is a character in Atlas Shrugged. He is an industrialist who has gone into hiding in order to create a new capitalist state. He functions as a hero and mythological figure. Throughout the text, characters keep asking “Who is John Galt?” in affirmation of this mythological status and as a way of expressing their despair at the state of America’s bankrupt socialist economy. Some Tea Party activists have appropriated this phrase for their cause. See for example

[5] See for example

[6] Water formed a critical part of the game’s technical development. Although already using the Unreal Engine 3 and havok physics engine, Irrational Games deemed water to be of such key importance that they also hired a programmer and an artist just to deal with this element of the game: “…we want to make you feel like the ocean is about to drown you, it’s drowning Rapture and as you’ll see in the demo, water is just coming into this place so we’ve hired a water programmer and water artist, just for this game, and they’re kicking ass and you’ve never seen water like this” (Topf).



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