Bioshock Infinite Themes and Social Reflection

I’m going to write pretty explicitly about some things in Bioshock Infinite for a moment, so consider yourself spoiler warned!

Much discussion has been made of the story in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s certainly a big part of why I love the game, but it’s the themes around the world of Columbia that caused me to think most on the experience after finishing the game. To be clear, I’m aware the game isn’t really about Columbia, but I still think it’s an interesting topic of discussion.

The society of Columbia draws many parallels with Rapture from the first Bioshock, but of course, it is clearly not an objectivist society. For one thing, it is mentioned that the people of Columbia pay huge tithes to the Prophet, and there appears to be a public service in place. However, while Columbia’s citizens didn’t fall into a spiral of abusing vigors, they did find themselves facing the same issues regarding the workforce. After all, nobody wants to do the dirty work, and if they do, they expect to be highly compensated for it. The solution in Columbia was to introduce an already downtrodden underclass, and keep them feeling helpless, but with enough of a promise of a better life that they’d want to come in the first place. It’s easy to look at all of this and say “yes, I know, racism is bad; sweatshop labor is bad,” but we can only say that with the perspective that being in another time grants us. At one time those things were considered the norm–that’s just how things were. How much, then, do we accept as the norm, now, that will be considered barbaric in 50 years time? How about 100 years time?

The way in which we work, or are expected to work, might be drawn into focus in the coming years. Workers might not be treated as badly now as they were at the turn of the century, we might disallow child labor, but I think there are much subtler issues still lining the way we treat work, and its relationship to our lives. Take, for example, the general trend of declining birth rate in economies that become better educated and are more innovation and intellectual property producing. Whether this is to be taken as negative is another matter–I’m interested in why this might be. It seems plausible that a better educated populace better knows the implications and responsibilities, both financially and otherwise, of having children, but also that career competition kills the desire to have children; if one is to remain competitive, flexible, and appear enthusiastic in the workplace, then there is little else one can do but to have few, if any ties to one’s personal and family life. Occasionally with age and experience, professional stock increases to a point where workplace flexibility may be demanded, but it’s not always the case. Indeed, the ruse of workplace flexibility might be easily shattered with the sentiment that if someone else is willing to work longer, for less pay, and do roughly an equivalent job, then why wouldn’t they be chosen? Something always suffers, a sacrifice is always made, between work, family, and life–something we’ve come to call work-life balance.

There are those who genuinely have a choice. At one time called aristocracy, at another called the 1%, but the constant is that it remains a small slice of society for whom survival plays no part in their decisions over work-life balance. It is through this that it becomes apparent survival is key to understanding the relationship to work for the majority of the populace, it is the means of continuing to live at one’s current living level. However, because of the emphasis on balancing a life toward work, we may well be sacrificing so much else of ourselves in the process. The subtle forces at work that make this the status-quo mean that it becomes perfectly acceptable for a parent to boast that they spend a “solid hour” with their child in the evening, while another demonstrates how dedicated they are by lamenting that they hardly even know their children. Furthermore, not every pursuit is productive in a way that is demanded by the market, but is no less good for the mind and body, or the collective culture; in many cases they are better. Would it be so bad for a parent to just be a parent? What a bout a 4 hour work day? Parkinson’s law might suggest that if we were only given 4 hours a day to get everything done, we’d probably still manage it. For now, though, presence remains the the most valuable aspect of an employee, and this will probably remain without increased social awareness.

I like to think we will see some improvement in these areas, and there has certainly been a sense of ground-swell, but for now I can only look forward to new thinking and hope it encourages others to consider another possibility, too.