“A Slave Obeys”: Capital Violence and Illusory Agency in BioShock


  • David Prihoda Ottawa University




Video games, Bioshock, violence, capitalism, agency


The video game BioShock, developed by 2K Boston, depicts a world in which a laissez-faire capitalist named Andrew Ryan creates an underwater utopia called Rapture that is devoid of institutionalized oversight and entitles all of its citizens to their own production. Despite this exceptional aspiration, the game opens to a metropolis in disrepair; it showcases the broken endgame of the objectivist paradise it critiques (Yeates, 2015). Kevin Roozen suggests, in his paper “Writing is Linked to Identity,” that finding ways to engage students in a way that promotes selfhood is the key to engaging them as a community (2016). The brand of selfhood with which modern students in western capitalistic societies are familiar is often leveraged via excessive competition, and this suggests BioShock has unique insight to offer as a pedagogical locus (Kasser and Lin, 2016). Analyzing the inter-class competition within Rapture that caused the state of dissonance between its utopian ideals and dystopian practice leads to insight into the game’s take on Randian Objectivism and class inequality, an especially salient and relevant context to consider within the context of western economies replete with increasing levels of economic disparity and unrest (“Politics of Poverty”, 2010). In this essay, I approach BioShock with a Marxist perspective, aiming to showcase the game’s depictions of the social consequences for Rapture’s proletariat and bourgeoisie as meaningful insight into real-world class warfare. An important distinction I propose the game makes is in its depictions of agency, violence, and capitalism as intrinsically interconnected—they cannot be separated and are dependent on one another, because the sociological ecosystem established by the game’s narrative insists that each element is required; in so doing, my contention is that the game should be considered not only as a pop culture artifact, but as a legitimate piece of academic criticism in the vein of Marx’s Manifesto. I conclude that, in the game’s philosophical space, to be a successful capitalist, one requires agency without restriction, and the only way to exact that agency is through violence. Through its articulation of these concepts, BioShock functions as a useful vehicle in the search for accessible introductions to various economic, philosophical, and epistemological lessons.