Moral Problems of Free-Market Capitalism in “Bioshock”

The city of Rapture. It has become an iconic image in gaming. Its initial reveal in Bioshock may be one of the most memorable scenes in the medium. You enter a lighthouse, shoot down under the the ocean, and find this waiting for you:

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Who knew, huh?

As you soon find out, it’s a strange city that lies slowly drowning under the ocean, but maybe not quite as strange as you first think. Drugs, money, exploitation, corruption. It’s like an underwater episode of The Wire at times (you even spend a lot of time listening to recordings of people).

Founded by charismatic visionary Andrew Ryan and populated by the world’s best and brightest, Rapture was supposed to be paradise. It was supposed to be a playground for the talented and brilliant, unfettered by government or church. Spoiler: it isn’t.

If you’ve played Bioshock, and maybe read a little of the ever-lovable Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (before realizing it’s longer than the Bible and a hell of a lot more tedious, and then attempting to forcibly ram it down your toilet), you probably caught on that Bioshock is not real positive about free-market capitalism or “objectivism”, the school of philosophy founded by Rand.

Let’s get a couple short definitions out of the way. Free market capitalism (laissez -faire capitalism, sometimes) is basically just a system in which people are free to buy and sell without interference from government, so no laws or taxes or regulations relating to economic transactions. Objectivism is more complicated, but for the purpose of this article it’s essentially just a philosophy that says everyone should selfishly pursue their own happiness without regard for anyone or anything else, and this will make everyone as happy as they can possibly be.

Now let’s say that you built a city under the water and put these two theories into practice. Well, according to Bioshock, it’s not going to go too great. Society collapses. Lunatics wander the streets. A drug called ADAM has torn apart people’s bodies and minds and still they chase it.

Let’s take a look at Bioshock’s most important symbol: the little sister.

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Adorable, kinda creepy, and very important to Bioshock‘s criticism of capitalism. When you obtain a little sister by killing her big daddy protector, you’re given a choice: “harvest” (read: murder) her for the ADAM she carries, or set her free at your own expense. Taking the first choice nets you the most ADAM, your currency for upgrades. And all you have to do is strangle a little girl.

It’s a blunt metaphor, but effective. You harvest a little girl, a person, for currency. You treat her like she is a resource, something to be exploited for profit. Her life becomes a value in ADAM.

Or you let her go. You sacrifice ADAM (money, essentially) because… why? Because you don’t want to hurt little girls, I hope. But also because there are things more important than money. Kindness. Compassion. Conscience.

We as people are social beings, or political animals if you ask Aristotle, but the point is that our lives are defined by those we share our days with. What’s the point of a mansion that you sit in alone? A romantic dinner for one? A will and estate for nobody? I feel depressed just thinking about it. We need people, not dollars.

So what about ADAM?

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It’s pretty potent stuff, obviously. It destroys people and turns them into addicts. So why is it being sold? There is a parallel to the current debate about the legalization of drugs, but let’s just see ADAM as a product that 1) sells incredibly well and 2) is very unhealthy for people.

Let’s do a short thought experiment. Let’s say that Coca-Cola starts selling a heavily irradiated soft drink that people love (and yes, I am getting this from Fallout). People are drinking ten bottles a day. The bottles are flying off the shelves and people are dying by the score from radiation poisoning. People keep buying it.

Should the state outlaw the soft drink?

Under free-market capitalism, the state cannot outlaw the drink. By the principles of objectivism, the state should not outlaw the drink, because people should be allowed to do whatever they think will make them happy, even kill themselves by way of Nuka-Cola. Obviously, in Rapture, ADAM is sold to anyone who wants it. And we end up with anarchy.

What happened? Our narrator for most of the game, Frank Fontaine (or “Atlas”, wink wink nudge nudge) says about ADAM that “We couldn’t handle it”. People just could not deal with the addictive powers of ADAM. They were overcome by it. Without any sort of organized state opposition, ADAM just overran everything. It could not be outlawed by the state, most people saw no reason to resist it (“If it makes you happy, why think about anyone else?” objectivism tells us), and we end up with Rapture.

Incidentally, the name “Rapture” actually can refer to two different things: “rapture”, a feeling of intense pleasure; and “The Rapture”, the end of the world. It’s an ironic name choice and it pretty much sums up the city: people are still getting high on ADAM as their world tumbles down around them.

I think that Bioshock has two main points:

First, we as people need to treat both ourselves and others as more than dollar signs, even when there’s profit to be made. You are not a commodity. You are a complete person with thoughts and dreams and faults and silliness and goals. And so is everybody that you meet every day. Don’t let corporations and advertising campaigns and an hourly wage take your heart away or make you ignore others.

Second, an economy needs to be tempered with compassion for people. Don’t say “They should know better” when you hear of people being swindled or exploited or making bad decisions. Say “What could I do to help?”