This article contains major spoilers for BioShock.
I would also like to give a big thanks to my professor, Prof. Ellertson for helping me with this article. It wouldn’t exist without him.
Psychologist Norman R. F. Maier once conducted an experiment famously known as the “two-cord puzzle”. It went something like this:
Subjects were placed in a room with two cords dangling from the ceiling along with lots of other objects. Maier would ask subjects to tie the two cords together, but they were placed just far enough apart that while holding one, the other would be too far away to reach.
Maier was looking for subjects to tie the two together without using any of the other tools in the room. Any time a subject tied them together using one of the tools, he would enter the room and tell them to find another way to do it.
Once subjects had been stumped for a while, he would enter and gently brush one of the cords so it would start gently swinging. Within a minute of this, almost every subject would swing one cord, hold the other one, then catch the swinging one.
When asked how they came to the solution, subjects would say something like “It just dawned on me” – very few saw that they had been given an unintentional (yet actually completely planned) clue.
BioShock and Psychology
BioShock does this same thing to help players understand the systems of the game. For example, the first plasmid (a genetic enhancement that gives the player magical abilities) the player gets is the power to shoot lightning bolts. Right after they get it, they must open a door by shocking a sparking control panel next to it.
The sparking effect is Maier brushing the cord, cluing players into using their new ability on it to progress.
This is repeated throughout the game as players get new plasmids – the “Incinerate” plasmid is introduced when players must melt ice to proceed, the “Telekinesis” plasmid is accompanied by an enemy throwing grenades, which players must redirect to a blocked passage to clear it.
Not only does BioShock use psychology to help players through its gameplay, but also through its narrative and overarching criticism of Objectivism and capitalism (which I’ll get to later).
But before we get to that, I would like to introduce some more psychology tricks BioShock uses.
Thin slicing is a process of our subconscious instinctively making quick decisions, opinions, etc. based on a little bit of information. Our subconscious takes what little information we have – facial expressions, tone of voice, physical descriptors, etc. – and uses it to make snap judgments. This is how we are occasionally able to say things like, “That movie is going to flop” or “That person is about to trip” without any reasoning to believe so.
Hence, when asked how we knew the movie was going to flop or that the person was about to trip, we don’t know how to explain it and it often ends up as “I just had a feeling” when really our brains have enough experience with tripping and movies that we’re able to pick up on the subtle patterns that it’s going to happen. Yet since these calculations are all going on subconsciously, we can’t find logical reasoning to explain how we knew.
What BioShock is hoping we do is store what we experience in the game and when we thin slice in the future, subconsciously think back to it and persuade us to make the right decision.
Behavioral Influences from Grammar
John Bargh, a psychologist, devised an experiment with two colleagues from New York University, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows. The experiment would ask participants to form four word sentences from a list of five words roughly ten times. The unused words in these lists were different for each group – one had words like “bold”, “aggressive”, and “rude”. The other group had words like “polite”, “patient” and “respect”.
Once they were done forming the sentences, they would then walk down the hall to hand in their results to the researcher, who would always be in the middle of a conversation with someone blocking the doorway to the researcher’s office.
The people primed with rude words eventually interrupted, on average around five minutes, but the people primed with polite words only interrupted 18% of the time.
I should note, you can do this yourself without carefully planning how to prime someone. When you describe something, your word choice tends to naturally reflect how you think of it1.
If the subconscious mind, influenced by others trying to prime it with clever word choice, is making these decisions, it brings up an interesting question about free will. I think BioShock reflects this priming as having the mind control the protagonist is under be triggered by a phrase – the iconic, “Would you kindly”.
“Now, would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch?”Atlas
There is no way to know how much of your life is truly the outcome of your own choices. As these experiments2 have shown, your mind can easily be manipulated. The idea of having free choice gets clouded when you consider outside influences and how they’ve been ingrained into your subconscious.
In BioShock, we don’t know until we’re free of Atlas’s spell that we’ve been under the effects of mind control the entire time, so what’s to say we aren’t under some form of the same control now?
These psychology tricks are incredibly powerful. There are harmless uses, like video games introducing players to new gameplay mechanics, but they are also used to persuade you of an idea. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to be able to recognize (or at the very least know about) these techniques to help protect your potential to think independently.
These psychology tricks are incredibly interesting, as well as incredibly powerful. Most commonly, these tricks are most commonly used by businesses to persuade you to buy their product3, or by people who want you to think a specific way as a means to persuade4.
An Introduction to Ayn Rand and Objectivism
Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer and philosopher developed a philosophical system called Objectivism, describing it as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activist, and reason as his only absolute”.
This philosophy essentially prioritizes individuals acting to achieve their highest possible individual happiness. Rand also argued that for this to exist in its best form, unregulated laissez-faire Capitalism is required, with the government only acting to protect individual rights.
BioShock as a Criticism of Objectivism
Criticism Through World-Building
When players first ride the bathysphere, they are introduced to Andrew Ryan and his Objectivist philosophy with the following monologue:
I am Andrew Ryan, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? ‘No!’ says the man in Washington, ‘It belongs to the poor.’ ‘No!’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘It belongs to God.’ ‘No!’ says the man in Moscow, ‘It belongs to everyone.’ I rejected those answers; instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well.Andrew Ryan
On the surface (literally and metaphorically) these ideas seem great. The lighthouse is beautiful, Rapture looks gorgeous and seems to be flourishing. Only once the player is in Rapture, they see its current state.
The first hint of Rapture being an Objectivist’s dream is the lighthouse, featuring a giant statue of Ryan with a banner saying, “No Gods or Kings. Only Man” (something I find ironic considering the plasmids essentially grant users the powers of gods – even going as far as reflecting the powers of gods in most mythologies).
Rapture exists as the Objectivist’s dream: A laissez-faire capitalist society with few regulations to enterprise or behavior, where individuality is celebrated.
As players explore they see the emphasis on art and science that was placed during Rapture’s construction. They also see posters, banners, and ads promoting Objectivism and demonizing altruism.
The first and most obvious sign that BioShock is a criticism of this school of thought is the mere fact that Rapture is falling apart. To persuade the players further, the game also shows how this supposed utopia fell apart.
Andrew Ryan built Rapture for the elite – the artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists who wanted to reach their full potential. But he didn’t take into account all the menial labor that had to be done. In fact, an audio log from Fontaine showcases this, stating:
These sad saps. They come to Rapture thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry, but they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.Frank Fontaine, “Sad Saps” audio log
When players are introduced to Ryan’s philosophy, he mentions how the scientist wouldn’t be bound by “petty morality”. But when players reach the Medical Pavilion, they’re introduced to one of these scientists: the asymmetry-obsessed surgeon Dr. Steinman. If his mutilation and murder of people is to promote his own happiness and artistic dream, then Objectivism struggles to decide whether to support or condemn it5.
When Picasso became bored of painting people, he started representing them as cubes and other abstract forms. The world called him a genius! I’ve spent my entire surgical career creating the same tired shapes, over and over again: the upturned nose, the cleft chin, the ample bosom. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could do with a knife what that old Spaniard did with a brush?Dr. Steinman, “Surgery’s Picasso” audio log
Objectivism’s flawed moral basis is further amplified with what the elite of Rapture did following the discovery of ADAM (something I’ll get into later).
Ryan saw Fontaine’s rise to power as proof of what Rapture was built to promote – determined men bettering themselves. In reality, Fontaine sacrificed his morals, exploited and conned people. This is more than a narrative, but a further criticism of Objectivism’s relation to capitalism.
This is saying in a capitalist society, unless you exploit your morals and take advantage of others, you’re doomed to be exploited; exploit or be exploited.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy, when put in place is eventually destroyed by the irrationality of humans.
We can also see this with the civil war taking place in Rapture. Both sides are Objectivist with their top priority being winning, whatever cost necessary. Both sides think they’re making rational choices when ultimately they’re being forced to make irrational decisions. With this, I would like to bring up the concept of a dollar auction.
For those who are unfamiliar, a dollar auction is a non-zero-sum game created by economist Martin Shubik. It goes like this:
Someone auctions off a dollar bill. The dollar goes to whoever the highest bidder is, but the second-highest bidder also loses their bid. What happens is the first bidder bids less than a dollar, let’s say 10 cents. This would get them a 90-cent profit. The second bidder, also looking to make a profit bids 15 cents. Now the first bidder, at risk of losing 10 cents, bets 20 cents. The same thing happens over and over until the bid reaches a dollar. The first bidder bids a dollar, for no net loss or gain. But the second bidder is at risk of losing their bid, so they bid $1.05, so they only lose five cents. The rational decision at each bid is to increase it slightly higher than the other to decrease your loss, but each time the bid goes around you end up losing more and more money.
This is exactly what is happening at Rapture. Each side is destroying Rapture and their opposition and keeps one-upping the other so that when the war is over, they come out victorious. But at the ultimate cost of a destroyed Rapture.
Both sides bet slightly more than the other until they’re both losing, but neither of them is going to let the other side win, even if it means destroying their environment, reflecting how the powerful exploit our environment and destroy the planet to get ahead of each other.
Little Sisters, Big Daddies, and ADAM
After the discovery of ADAM, Rapture did exactly what Objectivism supports – maximizing personal happiness. How did they do this? By conditioning little girls (usually orphans but eventually ones they kidnap) to harvest ADAM off the dead bodies around Rapture, creating the Little Sisters. To protect them, they created Big Daddies – men who were mutilated, stripped of their individuality and free choice, and placed into a suit.
If we look into this a bit, we can see the metaphor the game is trying to show us. Essentially stating the rich only care about protecting themselves and their investments and are willing to mutilate, exploit and strip the weak or poor of their individuality to protect it.
There is an interesting caveat about the Big Daddies though. Even though they are an investment from the rich, they become altruistic heroes as their sole focus is protecting the Little Sisters6. Ayn Rand dismissed the idea of an altruistic hero under Objectivism.
And at the end of the game (assuming the player has rescued the Little Sisters), the protagonist becomes the altruistic hero, entering the belly of the whale and being reborn as a better person7. They escape Rapture with a handful of Little Sisters and dedicate the rest of their life to giving them a good life.
When players encounter a Little Sister, they have three choices: to rescue the Little Sister (undoing the conditioning they’ve undergone for a little bit of ADAM), to harvest the Little Sister, killing her for lots of ADAM, or to ignore her and her Big Daddy.
If you harvest the Little Sister, you get more ADAM, but you’re killing a little girl. It forces players to draw a line between what they call a game choice and a moral choice. If players rescue them, they have to trust that not killing them is worth it, whether that be for rewards down the line or a clean conscious8.
Those who take an Objectivist approach like Ayn Rand would likely kill them. Since Objectivism promotes one’s individual happiness without consideration for others, the decision under Objectivism is to kill them – a choice very few people can call moral.
Speaking of morality, I would like to discuss that third option the players have: to ignore the Little Sister and her Big Daddy. More clearly, I would like to discuss whether or not it is a moral choice (something I’m still unsure of).
Under all of the programming Big Daddies have undergone, some humanity still remains intact. So what is more moral? Killing someone who has become a tool used by the rich but is ultimately altruistic to free another tool of capitalism from its clutches, or letting them both remain as slaves to the system? It walks that gray line of morality where very few people can make a decision one way or the other9.
One final note about Little Sisters and Big Daddies before I move on: The fact that Little Sisters and Big Daddies have immoral things done to them to produce ADAM10 also brings up an interesting question about ethical consumption under capitalism. How long a consumer can go in a capitalist society until their consumption promotes unethical behavior through the means that were taken by the business to produce a product? I don’t think consumers or businesses themselves can go very far until they are forced to act in a way that supports immoral practices.
Even after Ryan discovered the Little Sisters, he knew that to get an edge on Fontaine, he would have to sacrifice the remnants of his own morality and embrace the harvesting of them.
At the start of the game, players are essentially a tool of capitalism and a slave to the system (reflected in the chain tattoos on the protagonist’s wrists), all while being led to believe they have free will and agency over their actions. It’s up to the player what happens at the end. Do they stay in the system and become the hand that leads the chain, or do they break free and become altruistic (as a Big Daddy/father figure to the Little Sisters)?
If you harvest the Little Sisters, you get the “bad ending” – the protagonist taking the keys to the city and going mad, essentially showcasing what capitalism does. Those who exploit it and take advantage of others rise to the top and are consumed by greed. But those who act altruistically (only rescuing the Little Sisters), get a more modest but “good” ending – ultimately less power but with morals intact and dying happily.
If players rescue the Little Sisters, the protagonist returns to the surface with five Little Sisters and lives a modest life taking care of them11. He dies holding their hands on a heartwarming note. If you do the right things, you’re their father figure and die holding their hands (essentially dying alongside your family). The player has made the choice that their morals are more important to them than power.
BioShock criticizes Objectivism by using game theory and carefully researched psychology to turn Ayn Rand’s ideas on their head.
The theme of mind control by the powerful people of Rapture also makes an interesting connection to businesses using psychology to trap consumers in a specific mindset. They were making a comment about what’s happening in America. People are using psychology to use the subconscious of individuals to support their cause.
Ultimately, BioShock’s use of psychology was all to persuade the players of an idea. BioShock’s themes and the way it goes about showing them is incredibly sophisticated and carefully crafted. Because of this, the game was incredibly groundbreaking and stands out against the plethora of games that don’t12.
- If you really want to prime someone, it’s quite easy to add words without the reader noticing. Throwing a single adjective like “controversial”, “playful”, or “unique” can really impact how it is interpreted.
- If you’re interested in looking into these experiments, thin slicing, and more, check out the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s where I originally learned about them.
- Businesses strive to do what a free market incentivizes – make money. So, they utilize the most powerful tools they have – the exploitation of psychology to get the attention of consumers through advertising. Michael Goldhaber’s talk, The Attention Economy covers how attention is a scarce resource with tremendous power. Thus, those in power with lots of attention can manipulate and refocus the attention they have to support their ultimate goals. In fact, as shown in the documentary, The Persuaders, they often have entire teams dedicated to analyzing the psychology to best use the attention they have to lead to a sale. A single billboard in Times Square can range from $5,000 to $50,000 for a single day of advertising. Therefore, advertisers will do everything in their power to use psychology to manipulate potential customers into buying their products. Sometimes companies use tricks as simple as color theory to drive a profit. A clear example of this is the McDonald’s logo. The brain often associates yellow with happiness as well as increases visibility thus increasing the visual attention the logo receives. Red is stimulating, which can increase your heart rate, which in turn kickstarts your appetite. This is the perfect combination for McDonald’s. This doesn’t end at McDonald’s though, if you pay attention, most fast food logos utilize a similar color scheme. Attention could instead be focused on where it matters (social change, the environment, etc.) but since corporations can use it to make a profit or trap consumers in a cult-like following to make money and have loyal customers, they will instead focus their efforts on that. As advertising and getting people’s attention is so expensive, unfortunately, those trying to use attention to stir positive change simply don’t have the money, power, or resources that large businesses do. With this, I would like to say that some people are actively and knowingly trying to trap you in a capitalist cycle. Don’t fall into the trap by being 100% loyal to any brand – most don’t care about you; they care about the money you can give them.
- The BioShock series, especially BioShock Infinite, lean into showing the influence of ads and propaganda.
- Objectivist morality is very complicated, and while researching, I found this article and this article from the Atlas Society, which states that greatest moral goal is achieving one’s own personal happiness. Using this definition, Dr. Steinman is acting morally in pursuing personal happiness through his art, even if it is murdering and mutilating others. Even if someone can interpret it as immoral from an Objectivist’s position, an Objectivist society still allows these people to rise.
- The most popular Big Daddy model, the Bouncer, features a large sphere for its “head”. Circles are often symbolic of Carl Jung’s archetype of the self. This same symbol is repeated in other aspects of the game, such as the bathyspheres.
- I’m referencing the stage of the hero’s journey where the hero willingly undergoes a change to be reborn as a better person, popularly referenced to as The Belly of the Whale.
- This is one of the very few things I would change about the game. In the long run, rescuing Little Sisters is ultimately better by giving the player various abilities to make the late-game easier. So if players research beforehand, even if they take an Objectivist approach, they would know rescuing them helps them in the long run. I would prefer if rescuing them didn’t grant these gameplay advantages but kept the story changes, this way it becomes even more of a moral choice instead of a game choice.
- This is something I would have liked to see the game expand on a bit.
- I think ADAM can also be used as a metaphor for money. Those with more of it are more powerful, but take it from those who produce it. After all, if a man is entitled to the sweat of his own brow like Andrew Ryan says, shouldn’t the Little Sisters and Big Daddies be the ones who keep the ADAM? i.e. The rich and powerful reach a point where others are doing all the work but they still reap the benefits.
- When the protagonist kills Ryan, he’s hoping you break free, he hopes you can raise above being a tool and become a hero – which players ultimately do in this ending. At the point in the game with Ryan, the protagonist is still a slave to the system who still obeys it – “A man chooses, a slave obeys” as he says.
- I’m not saying games that don’t have complex themes or use psychology are any worse than games that do. There’s something to be said either way, and isn’t the sole determining factor on whether a game is good or not.