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Beyond the sea : Navigating Bioshock

by Felan Parker; Jessica Aldred;

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Deeply Insightful   (2019-10-20)

Very Good

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by ams200


Judging by the book’s index and the copious notes and references following essay this is clearly intended as an academic text. The ample detail in some of the essays about the plot, purpose and criticism of Bioshock will appeal to those who know the series well. But I am a philosopher, not a gamer. While philosophizing about gaming, I thought about how the various aspects of posthuman humanity have made themselves explicit in gaming and if these aspects of posthuman humanity concealed any philosophical unity behind their creations. (In general philosophical activity, in contrast to gaming activity, has purposes that are non-manipulative, and as such does not directly change the experienced world.) I suggest that the reader may want to keep in mind this “Player’s Creed” while assessing my review/critique of Beyond the Sea: Navigating Bioshock.

I make the gaming world. There is no overall system which determines what I make.
I choose what kind of world I want to make. My actions show what things I regard as valuable.
I create value and do not participate in value already given.

I make what order there is. I am not made by it. I am independent, not bound by any dependence more powerful than myself.

I am free because what happens in the world depends on me; not a providence beyond my control.

My fate is in my hands. I, and only I, create history.*

*Cf. Grant, George P. (1966:40) Philosophy in the Mass Age, Copp Clarke Publishing.

I cannot look back upon the gaming life as others of a certain age may be inclined to do as “anything other than exaggerated nostalgia or bemused dismissal” (Keogh). I read this collection of essays conscious that I have never played video games of any sort. I believe, however, that a philosophical inquiry into the games and their construction might yield some unifying factors concerning the notion of posthuman humanity that has developed within the games via Western technology. Thus, I put emphasis on the subjectivity, not the objectivity, of game interpretation as it developed in new directions. My review accepts the political and social themes of gaming in this particular set of games as representative of the themes of present gaming culture. I concentrate on those issues that impinge on the understanding of the human player engaging with the game. (Other reviewers will no doubt make other choices.) There are, to my mind, philosophical presumptions in the development of video games which are rooted in Hellenic philosophy, and I question their appropriateness for the posthuman player. Programming catering to an earlier consumer logic, has come of age and is “self-evidently worthy of study to those outside the field,” (Parker & Aldred) thus providing a much-needed renewal of critical perspectives involving interdisciplinary conversations – particularly with respect to what it means to be human. More than the game’s status in a hypercapitalist industry, the game’s conception of the human player invites philosophical discussion. As Parker and Aldred state: “Issues of power, identity, and representation relating to gender, race, secularity and class run through the book, and this by editorial design.” (Brown’s essay which appears later in this collection is of particular importance in laying out some pertinent philosophical perspectives that may be used to question the underlying presumptions and ideologies that characterize the notion of the human being.)

Part One: Unity and Metamorphosis: Making and Braking Family Bonds in Bioshock.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand, identified as “Objectivist philosophy,” is introduced into the collection describing “a capitalist society free of religious and government interference, where any citizen could achieve for their own gain, rather than for the altruistic fulfillment of the wants of others” (Strang). This resembles Marx’s understanding of the proletariat as accounted by Grant. “The proletariat consists of those who have no creative responsibility for the society through their work, because they do not own the means of production with which they have to work. They are employees serving the private interests of their employers” (George Grant, 1966:63, "Philosophy in the Mass Age.") Such an objectivist philosophy is rooted in Hellenic ideals that have been modernized and often without their limitations for the current context being recognized. Many theories constituting understanding the human being, including feminist psychoanalysis, continue this objectivist approach and may present a “deployment of a specific analytical instrument across a body of video games that reveal a cultural problematic unfolding across media” (Vanderhoef & Payne) at large ). Because of this objectivist philosophy the theme of “co-creation” is inadequately developed in development of posthuman gaming which continues to rely on a classical understanding of the person. In classical philosophy humans can be nothing but “creatures” of a transcendent creator-God, characteristic of the Judaic, Islamic and Christian tradition. There is much food for thought in preparation for the posthuman future of gaming as it tries to solve the tension that now exists “between wanting to constrain and protect the game experience for the player, versus opening up the experience to co-creation with the player” (Schrier). Co-creation, as an approach to game programming, cannot but result in novel interpretation, I suggest. The opening essay in Part Two in this collection has attempted a “queer” interpretation of game programming, where “queer” is in opposition to heteronormativity in sexual matters and “does not necessarily refer to a particular gender or sexuality, though it often does” (Mejeur).

Part Two: To Seduce the Ear and Delight the Spirit: Bioshock, Gender, and Sexuality.

Although some research into heteronormativity is occurring, “a reconsideration of the familiar is just what queer theory, particularly as applied to game studies, needs right now” (Mejeur). Game programming requires a philosophy that enlightens programmers who struggle in constructing games based on current social conventions to hold the illusion of gaming together. Lacking such a philosophy of creativity, “Bioshock proves itself unable to fully rupture the frames of both gametime and reproduction, leaving us bound once again to a repeatable, recognizable future” (Youngblood). Following the mind of the religious philosopher Leslie Dewart, I suggest that a recognizable future of gaming activity is to be expected because of the classical philosophy that underpins game programming remains operative. What goes unrecognized here is the static ideology of Hellenic (Platonic) philosophy that limits the options of true co-creativity in the gaming experience. These hidden Hellenic philosophical roots are forces that facilitate “the repeated inability of games to imagine plots outside the existing structures that have governed game design for years” (Youngblood). A critical philosophical interpretation may allow for radically and distinctively new endings for gaming’s posthuman experience. The highly relevant topic of violence as part of gaming is critiqued in one essay in the collection via “a subjectivity,” that is, another way of identifying the gamer. From the point of the view of the player and the programmer, violence manifests “the paranoia of political structures, the constant need to control all resources, to stop rebellions, to prompt fear about violence while mobilizing sanctioned institutions of violence” (Ante-Contreras). Given that gaming will most likely continue to be influential in understanding humanity it needs an adequate philosophy of interpretation of what humanity is to assess correctly the violence done to humans by paranoid humans in the posthuman age.

Part Three: The Flesh Becomes Clay: Technology, Humanity, and Embodiment in Bioshock.

Posthumanism “takes the position that actions of both human and nonhuman entities affect situation outcomes, often in ways one might not expect,” (Henthorn). A concern for posthuman interpretation of the games’ outcomes, as I see it, is that “humanism” has not been adequately understood or explained from a philosophical point of view so as to act satisfactorily as a basis for posthuman understanding. That is, there is little in present philosophy to definitely specify (or achieve consensus) in what it means to be a human being outside the foundational thought of ancient Greek philosophy from which posthuman thought may draw. This leads Henthorn to observe that when “posthuman analysis does not accept the border between human and machine, and instead critiques the structures that maintain humanity in the face of a progressively posthuman world;” I question what concept of humanity is being maintained – one that is classical or one that is fictional? Or, in George Grant’s phraseology, what human concept discloses “the progressive incarnation of reason?” If indeed, reason specifies what it means to be human ("Philosophy in the Mass Age," 1966:vi). The philosophical ideas expressed in current gaming programming lead me to affirm that many gaming programmers continue to create architectural backdrops that extend “ideas pursued by a particular scientific paradigm effective during the first half of the twentieth century” (Schott). Thus, it follows that an alternative philosophical understanding has the potential to take game programming into new paradigms of postmodern experience — including what it means to be human without technological intervention, but merely in a context that is no longer classical, but techno-digital. However, it may be safely said that currently the status of humanity is in a quandary as it transitions from an enlightenment humanism to posthumanism. “The human in relation to Bioshock 2 is a decaying, undead thing that continues to act on the world despite it being no more important or powerful than anything else it is relating to” (Kunzelman). But this “human” product of science fiction need not remain the standard. A new conception of humanity, without technological addition, but rather interpreted through a dehellenized philosophy may afford a more positive set of optional endings to gaming. Naturally, this interpretation would require any philosophy of what it is “to be,” in the Western sense, to re-examine itself in light of the non-western cultural philosophies of the human experience.

Part Four: There’s Always a City: The Many Histories of Bioshock.

Gaming predominately incorporates the American political experience. “These failed utopias [Rapture and Columbia] were created during periods of social and political transition in America” (Zaidan). Hers is an historical interpretation which accounts for “how we got here,” through exploring player biases, not simply rehearsing a chronology of events. A challenge for the future presented by the essays in this collection might be how to explain an authentic human presence in a posthuman world that has not been altered by technology. What might then result is a game catering less to science fiction and more to philosophy and afford more of a “globalized” experience open to the player, since philosophical thinking is a habit natural to the human, not requiring a Western intellectual framework. This is not an impossibility since the game experience, “holds the potential to incite player reflection upon their role as citizens and about their own agency and choices of the doomed yet timeless worlds of Rapture and Columbia” (Zaidan). Game design need not confine itself to the inspiration that arises from Western technological philosophical interpretation. Rather, there is potential for a game programming theme to be presented as floating “in a quantum state, in which its definition remains simultaneously unclear and has the seeds of its failure as well as the seeds of its success inbuilt” (Fuchs). Quantum mechanics views the universe as a “wave” function which cannot be experienced at a quantum level, only macroscopically through choices made by the player. Quantum mechanics’ influence notwithstanding, however, current experience is that “the same economic and creative challenges that frustrate characters in [Bioshock and Aliens] are often at work on the very designers, programmers, and producers who bring those games to life” (Arnott).

Part Five: All That’s Left Is the Choosing: Rethinking Agency in Bioshock and Beyond.

Those who programme games differ from those who author books. The task of the authors of books is to make their readers subject to them and to the books’ plot in order to evoke a critical reflection from the plot, or simply to provide entertainment. In gaming, however, “the challenge for developers is to find a space for critical games in an industry that is driven by player demands” (Thorne). The “involved” choices on the part of the player ultimately result in “the ever-fluctuating definition of the human” (Brown) which often departs significantly from traditional Western understanding. “Humanity has been called an inherited deposit, and we only become "fully" human as we make that deposit our own” [my emphasis] (George Grant, 1966:2, "Philosophy in the Mass Age." Copp Clarke Publishing). While this perspective may be tenable in Modernity it is likely not to be so in the Posthuman age. The reason for this, I suggest, is that Modernity, and its variants, has not succeeded in satisfactorily specifying (identifying) what is to be human. Thus, some philosophical work remains to be done before Posthuman gaming can accept a specificity of the human as the foundation upon which to design its games. (Unless, perhaps, to be human means to lack such specificity.) From my point of view, as in the initial age of the computer in this age of gaming, “garbage in: garbage out” remains a force that cannot be ignored except to the players’ and game’s peril. Improvement (not progress) is required and is, in fact, built into the gaming experience. Improvement, being built-in to the experience, begs the moral question of a human definition. “The fact that players do not have consistent agency or control over the character or gameplay does not limit play or meaning – in fact, it defines them” (Wysocki & Brey). Hence the need for an appropriate interpretive philosophy of gaming as this collection of essays demonstrates.
[Savage, A:]

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